Do we really live in such a violent age?

This week, I had lunch with a longstanding friend and we found ourselves debating whether we were living in the worst of times (impending collapse of capitalism) or the best of times (record levels of longevity).

I mentioned the new work by Steven Pinker called “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes” (Allen Lane). The writer himself has summarised the book as follows:

“Believe it or not, violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence. The decline has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from world wars and genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

The fact that violence is so pervasive in history, but nonetheless can be brought down, tells us that human nature includes both inclinations toward violence and inclinations toward peace – what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” – and that historical changes have increasingly favoured our better angels. These changes include the development of government, commerce, literacy, and the mixing of ideas and peoples, all of which encourage people to inhibit their impulses, expand their empathy, extricate themselves from their parochial vantage points, and treat violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.”

This is an extract from an “Observer” newspaper piece which includes a fascinating table of death tolls for major violent occurrences in world history.


  • Ronnie Landau

    Some of Steven Pinker’s statistics, especially those dealing with comparative population sizes over the ages, are superficially persuasive. However, he has an over-idealised view of the impact of the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. He seems to regard this impact as wholly progressive and hence beneficial. However, he ignores the salient point that the Enlightenment, in effectively smashing the power of the Church (especially the Catholic Church) and ushering in the age of secularism, created the conditions that made possible state-sponsored genocide. For example, with the steady removal of the moral constraints of religion, a Holocaust – literally inconceivable as long as medieval Christianlty, for all its faults and its own bloody history, truly held sway in Europe – becomes feasible. I would also argue that both world wars (and most other conflicts of the past two centuries) are the historical products of both the Enlightenment and its offspring, the French Revolution.

  • grace

    Over the centuries there has always been a massive degree of violence, every generation will witness some form of it, this is becuase at the end of the day we are only animals and like all species we want our own way.

  • Roger Darlington

    Surely we are more than animals, Grace. We have reason which animals do not and we can make choices. We can choose to be less violent and more cooperative.

  • ava

    The reason we have such a problem with violence in society nowadays is that we have have too many do gooders, meaning that kids are getting away with living a sheltered and protected lifestyle, which basically teaches them nothing about how to act in life.

  • sophie

    I have to agree with the comment above, if there was more in the way of consequence we may not have the society we have nowadays, where there is no respect.

  • Roger Darlington

    Ava and Sophie, Pinker’s book is about non-natural deaths and not about civility or crime.


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