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Is a rise in reason causing a fall in violence?

And why is violence on the wane? Because, for the most part, humans are becoming more reasonable.
REUTERS/Anthony Bolante
And why is violence on the wane? Because, for the most part, humans are becoming more reasonable.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has just published a new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” which is getting some excellent reviews. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but I did read an excerpt that appeared last week in the journal Nature.

Pinker appears to have an optimistic view of our future, at least in terms of violence. The world is becoming a more peaceful place, he argues, and it’s all because we humans are becoming more reasonable and, thus, smarter.

Contrary to popular belief, Pinker explains in the opening to the Nature excerpt, the 20th century was not the bloodiest in history. Take one aspect of human violence: war. “War before civilization was even bloodier,” he argues. “Forensic archeology and ethnographic demography suggest that around 15% of people living in non-state societies died violently — five times the proportion of violent deaths in the twentieth century from war, genocide, and man-made famines combined.”

Homicide rates have also plummeted. “European homicide rates have dropped at least 30-fold since the Middle Ages, from about 40 per 100,000 people per year in the fourteenth century to 1.3 at the end of the twentieth,” Pinker says. “Barbaric customs that were unexceptional for millennia, such as human sacrifice, the persecution of witches and heretics, chattel slavery, blood sports, punitive torture and mutilation, sadistic executions (burning, breaking, crucifixion, disemboweling, impalement) and execution for victimless crimes have been abolished in most of the world.”

The rise of reason
And why is violence on the wane? Because, says Pinker, humans are becoming more reasonable (as in “being more capable of rational thinking”). Reason, he explains, debunks the “hogwash” (“beliefs that gods demand sacrifices, heretics go to hell, Jews poison wells, animals are insensate, Africans are brutish and kings rule by divine right”) that have all too often in the past led to violence.  

“For all their foolishness, modern societies have been getting smarter, and all things being equal, a smarter world is a less violent one,” Pinker says.

To support his premise that humans are getting smarter, Pinker points to research (the “Flynn effect”) that has suggested that over the past 100 years succeeding generations have scored higher on IQ tests (which is why the tests have to be “renormalized” every few years). Writes Pinker:

An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1910, would have had an IQ of 130, and a typical person of 1910, if time-transported forward to the present, would have a mean IQ of 70.
The increase is not in general intelligence, the heritable factor underlying all the components of intelligence (such as vocabulary, arithmetic and knowledge). It is concentrated in abstract reasoning, such as noting similarities (“What do a pound and an inch have in common?”) and analogies (“BIRD is to EGG as TREE is to what?”). The most likely causes are increases in the duration and quality of schooling, the spread of symbol-manipulation into work and leisure, and the trickling down of scientific and analytical reasoning into everyday life.

Reasoning and the brain
Further evidence that the rise of reason is making us less violent, says Pinker, can be found in cognitive neuroscience research.

Cognitive neuroscience suggests that morality is driven not just by the limbic circuits underlying emotion but also by parts of the prefrontal cortex that underlie abstract thought. And the historical record shows that many humane advances were initiated in the realm of ideas. Philosophers prepared careful briefs against slavery, despotism, torture, religious persecution, cruelty to animals, harshness to children, violence against women and frivolous wars. These arguments were disseminated in pamphlets and bestsellers and debated in salons and pubs, and then in conventions and legislatures that implemented reforms.

But there are more direct links between reason and nonviolence, says Pinker.

On average, and holding all else constant, people with greater reasoning abilities commit fewer violent crimes, are more likely to cooperate in experimental games, and have more classically liberal attitudes, such as opposition to racism and sexism. And on average, holding all else constant, societies with higher levels of educational and intellectual achievement are more receptive to democracy, and have lower rates of civil war.

Not Pollyannaish
Pinker’s message about the rise of reason and the fall of violence may be optimistic, but it doesn’t seem Pollyannaish.

“The forces of reason have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about utopia,” he writes. “But reason has done more than enhance our health, experience and knowledge — it has, quantifiably, made the world a less violent place.”

Although this excerpt from “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is behind a paywall on the Nature website, it can be downloaded through Pinker’s own website. He’s also recently written about the topic for the Wall Street Journal.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 10/24/2011 - 10:50 am.

    I’m about halfway through the book, and saw him give an overview last weekend at the Minneapolis Book Fair. Fascinating stuff. He ascribes a lot of the effect to increasing literacy, as well — the fact that reading someone else’s thoughts (especially in fiction) increases empathy and makes it harder to dehumanize the other.

    It’s an interesting contrast with Jonah Lehrer’s take on recent brain research showing we are nowhere near as rational as we think we are. As he said this morning on MPR’s Midmorning, we are not so much rational beings as we are rationalizers.

  2. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 10/24/2011 - 04:38 pm.

    Pat Thompson: thanks for sharing your respnses to what you’ve learned from your reading, the overview, and MPR’s Midmorning! I will go to the MPR website to hear the whole show. Especially liked the “rationalizer” explanation as to our supposed improved rationality.

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