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Is Violence Declining? APS Fellow Steven Pinker Says “Yes”

Violence is as an inherent part of human society. So if you looked at the number of violent deaths from prehistory to the present day, you would expect to see a pretty steady trend, right?

Not so, says APS Fellow Steven Pinker.

“Violence has been in decline for thousands of years,” he says. “We may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.”

Pinker, who is a psychological scientist from Harvard University, collected his research on the subject in a new book called The Better Angels of Our Nature. He discussed the book in a recent lecture at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington DC.

To reach his conclusions, Pinker says he estimated the frequency of violence and violent deaths relative to the human population from prehistory up to the present day. His estimates are supported by ethnographies, archeological research, law enforcement records, victimization surveys, and statistics recording casualties in armed conflicts. From these records, Pinker determined that up to 15 percent of prehistoric deaths were violent. In contrast, only 0.3 percent of human deaths in 2005 were violent.

Pinker attributes this decline in violence to multiple factors. One is government. Governments hold individuals accountable for their actions, and in turn, social movements make governments accountable to their citizens. Another factor is the co-dependence between groups that has been created by increased trade. More empathy from increased literacy and education might also be contributing to the decrease.

Well, you might think, if violence is going down, then why is it on the news all the time? Pinker pointed out that “Media programmers know that just as people enjoy violent entertainment, they enjoy violent news. We’re better and better at finding violence [because] anyone on the planet with a cell phone can feed video footage of violence all over the world.” But media attention to violence, Pinker said, doesn’t mean that rates of violence are rising.

You can learn more about Steven Pinker’s research on violence by watching this interview with Steven Colbert or Pinker’s talk at the TED Conference. Further coverage is available from Time and the New York Times.

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