This one’s for you if you don’t believe that violence has decreased, or if you wonder why it has.

Above all else, this is a book of optimism. A book that shows the staggering progress that humankind can make, in one generation, in a decade, in a century and over hundreds of years. The news headlines of today make us feel that we live in terribly dangerous times, and with only our lifetime’s experience to judge against, we do. But reading this deep exploration of the history of violence teaches you to appreciate the relative peace we enjoy, and the relative abundance of human rights that exist today. That is not to say there is no need to progress further. In fact it reminds me of one of my favourite quotes: “Be proud of your progress but never satisfied.”

The fact that we can wonder through life so ignorant of our luck, so oblivious to the progress that has been made, leaves you questioning the way we report and receive the news. Since the dawn of Facebook, Twitter, FaceTime and other means of modern communication, there has been a thirst for instant updates. So how are we to discover and appreciate news of the past, or of research examining stretches of time we can barely imagine? And then there are a whole lot of biases of the news that we DO get- the tendency to emphasises deaths due to terrorism over other causes, with serious consequences for government and military action. And whether or not you agree Paul Slovic’s research into psychological biases confirmed Stalin’s observation that “one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. People cannot wrap their minds around large (or even small) numbers of people in peril, but will readily mobilize to save the life of a single person with a name and a face.” (p685) All of this emphasises the appreciation that science is “a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge- not the particular methods or institutions of science but it’s value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.” p218

Steven Pinker takes you on a journey through human history, describing life and its accompanying violence from biblical times to the present day. It is truly a fascinating journey. Then begins his quest to analyse why violence has decreased? Without rereading 840 pages, and without dismissing the complexity of the answer, three important factors appear to be governance, education and trade. It is incredible to think that as early as 1795 Kant mentioned democracy and openness to global trade in his essay Perpetual Peace. The invention of the printing press coincided with a period of reduced violence, and Pinker discusses at length how reading about other cultures and countries increases sympathy and understanding. Interestingly research by Hakemulder found that novels increase sympathy more than reading non fiction P712.

The quote at the top of this blog encapsulates my love of learning. Pinker’s book teaches you a lot about a lot, covering topics as wide ranging as psychology, the philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, Descartes and Kant to name a few, ethics, criminology, neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology. Plus he uses some incredible words that I had never come across before- tendenciously, eschatological, synechdote, ecumenical to name a few.

I don’t have space to tell you everything that interested me about this book but here are a couple of bullet points I thought were worth mentioning:
The Flynn effect- intelligence scores substantially increase with time. The difference between successive generations is incredible.
Violence does not increase following economic downturn- criminologist David Kennedy.
Fearon and Laitin 1945-1999 found that income inequality did not correlate with increased civil wars.
Baumeister and colleagues found that self control is like a muscle- after practising self control for weeks, students did better on a test of their self control, but had reduced smoking, drinking and junk food consumption without thinking about it.

“we enjoy the peace find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time.” xxv

Time of the Old Testament “The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind…Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.” p14

Hobbes in Leviathan 1651, on the reasons for violence: “So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh man invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation.” p39 Interesting accidental gender bias which links to evolutionary biology- men act to maximise offspring, thus fighting over limited resource of mates while women invests in each child to maximise survival.

America “The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.” p127

“This common knowledge, as economists and logicians call it, gave rise to a horizontal web of solidarity that cut across the vertical ties to parents and authorities that had formerly isolated young people from one another and forced them to kowtow to their elders.” p130

James Madison “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external not internal controls on government would be necessary.” p193

“The point is not that killing ten civilians is O.K, but rather that in any previous war, even a few years ago, this kind of civilian death would barely have caused a ripple of attention.” p321

Violent practices pass “from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable to not-thought-about during the Humanitarian Revolution.” p351

In light of bankers in the modern day “Merchants and other middlemen, who skim off a profit as they pass goods along without causing new stuff to come into being, are seen as parasites, despite the value they create by enabling transactions between producers and consumers who are unacquainted or separated by distance. Moneylenders, who loan out a sum and then demand additional money in return, are held in even greater contempt, despite the service they render by providing people with money at times in their lives when it can be put to the best use.” p397

Blackwell and Sugiyama “found that when a terrorist blows himself up, the financial payoff can buy enough brides for his brothers to make his sacrifice reproductively worthwhile.” p430 based on analysis in Gaza/West Bank of families ability to pay for brides, number of children in an average family, number of women available.

Cosmopolitanism playing part in humanitarian revolution. Contrast “The Ottoman heirs to classical Islamic civilisation resisted the adoption of mechanical clocks, standardised weights and measures, experimental science, modern philosophy, translations of poetry and fiction, the financial instruments of capitalism, and perhaps most importantly, the printing press.” p440

“Insofar as violence is immoral, the Rights Revolutions show that a moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct, culture, religion, and standard practice. In their place is an ethics that is inspired by empathy and reason and stated in the language of rights.” p572/3

“Testosterone rises in adolescence and young adulthood, and declines in middle age. It also declines when men get married, have children, and spend time with their children.” p625 It follows that “to the extent that violence is a problem of young, unmarried, lawless men competing for dominance…then violence really is a problem of there being too much testosterone in the world.” p626

Why democracy/governance works to reduce violence “the government’s monopoly on force prevents the loser doing anything about it, and gives him less reason to WANT to do something about it, because he is not conceding weakness to his adversary and has less incentive to carry on the fight to restore his honor.” p649

“The psychology of forgiveness, recall, works best when perpetrator and victim are already bound by kinship, friendship, alliance, or mutual dependence.” p657

How little some things change!! George Orwell 1946 Politics and the English Language “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…This political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” p683 speaking of atomic bomb, British rule in India, Russian purges.

“Children’s IQ at the age of ten predicted their endorsement of antiracist, socially liberal, and pro-working women attitudes at the age of thirty, holding constant their education, their social class, and their parents’ social class.” p801 Along with a study which found “Education and intellectual abilities in the past indeed predicted democracy and rule of law (together with prosperity) in the recent present, holding all else constant”, wealth did not have the same effect p804.

“Though gentle commerce does not eliminate the disaster of being defeated in an attack, it eliminates the adversary’s incentive to attack (since he benefits from peaceful exchange too) and so takes that way off the table.” p825