Human violence has declined significantly. During the last 150 years, the world has warmed by almost 1 degree C. The number of lynchings in the US went from 150 in the 1880s (when they were conducted in a carnival atmosphere) to zero today.
At last, some good news. In his utterly convincing book, Steven Pinker, a professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard, argues that human violence has declined. People do not kill, maim or bash each other as much as they used to. His argument is supported by the absence of a world war for more than half a century. It is also bolstered by the fact that lynchings in the United States, which persisted until the middle of the past century, disappeared with the civil rights movement. Capital punishment has also gone out of favour in many countries.
Convincing and well argued, Pinker’s book is not for anyone with an aversion to gore. There are many illustrations of torture – burning at the stake, impalement, breaking on the wheel. He draws liberally on the detailed accounts of disembowelling, flogging and slaughter of the newborn. In medieval Europe, an accepted act of vengeance was to cut off the enemy’s nose.
Pinker, the author of the bestselling The Language Instinct (1994), understands the importance of statistics, graphs and tables. Many of his graphs show a single line, plunging down, from top right to lower left. The rates of rape and murder in the US fell by three quarters from 1973 to 2008.
The strength of opposition to interracial marriage plummeted from nearly 100 per cent in 1955 to just over 25 per cent by the end of the century. Countries with policies that discriminate against ethnic minorities dropped from 44 per cent in 1950 to just over 15 per cent after 2000.
Most dramatically, the number of lynchings in the US went from 150 in the 1880s (when they were conducted in a carnival atmosphere) to zero by the Sixties. And approval of a husband slapping his wife dropped from 25 per cent in 1965 to just over 10 per cent in the Nineties. (Women’s approval fell from 17 per cent to five per cent over the same period.)
Why has violence declined? Pinker does not need numbers for his answer. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialised and secular, it got safer. Perhaps as important is the increasing respect for women – “violence is a problem not just of too many males but of too many young males”.