The Better Angels of Our Nature

People often lament the fact that our technological progress outstrips our moral progress. I know I have felt that way, and have said that in the past. One look at the headline news – school shootings in America, gang rapes in India, laws against homosexuals in Uganda, children drafted to fight in civil wars in Africa – and it’s easy to conclude that the things are getting worse, and the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

It turns out that sentiment is dead wrong. Believe it or not, as a species we are making enormous moral progress. We just don’t notice it, because statistics don’t make for as exciting news as stories of violence. But as Steven Pinker says “The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”

I decided to read Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angel of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined” because Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he ever read. Bill Gates and I share the same birthday (same day, same year). I was curious as to what the world’s richest man gets/appreciates for birthday presents. The answer is books, and this book was one of his favorites. So I decided that was a good enough recommendation to read the book. I may not be as famous as Bill Gates, but perhaps my recommendation will convince a few other people that it’s an important book and worth reading.

For me the most startling thing in the book is the simple fact that violence has declined DRAMATICALLY. Forensic study of remains allows scientists to determine the rate of violent death in the past, including the distant past. Prehistoric sites show that typically 10% or more of the population died violent deaths, mostly from warring with neighboring tribes. Today the percentage of the population dying violent deaths is negligible.

The advent of the state greatly reduced the rate of death in warfare. Non-state societies typically had rates of death from warfare in the hundreds of deaths per 100,000 population per year. Today, on a global basis, the number of deaths per 100,000 population per year is negligible. Obviously there are huge differences based on geography. Even at the height of the Iraq war, the number of Americans killed in battle barely nudged the overall statistic of an American’s overall chances of dying in a war. For someone living in Syria today, obviously the odds are much worse. But on a global basis, the odds any individual has of dying because of war have shrunk to the smallest numbers ever seen.

The rate of homicide has fallen right along with it. The average for nonstate societies 800 years ago was around 800 homicides per 100,000 population per year. As the state made its appearance in Western Europe, rates of homicide started declining dramatically: by 1600 it was down to 10 homicides per 100,000 population per year, and now it is less than one. Considering that Western Europeans also have extremely low rates of battle death – they don’t contribute a lot of soldiers to places like Iraq and Afghanistan – a resident of Western Europe has a negligible chance of dying a violent death. This is truly revolutionary.

As is well known, the homicide rate in America is much higher than in Europe. Today it’s about 6 per 100,000 population. Over the last hundred years it has fluctuated between a low of 4 and a high of 10, while England has consistently remained around 1 –but that’s still a VAST improvement from earlier times. When America was first colonized, rates were over 50 per 100,000 population per year.

Even the 20th century – with two world wars – was better than the 17th century. There are those who challenge Pinker’s data by saying it’s wrong to look at percentages, one should look at total number deaths by violence. But that critique is blatantly wrong. It’s obvious, for example, that ten murders in a town of 100 people is a much bigger deal than ten murders in a city of ten million. What matters to an individual is “what are my chances of dying a violent death?” And the answer to that question is today they are lower than they have ever been before, and the trend is continuing downward.

Pinker attributes the dramatic decline to five factors:

  1. Leviathan – the power of the state. When King Henry I redefined homicide as a crime against the state instead of a crime against a person it dramatically changed the dynamics of personal violence. It helped stop the cycle of revenge murders. “The Leviathan state that uses a monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer that we’ve encountered…” That’s also why we see the most violence today in places where the state has failed. As Pinker notes, “A Leviathan can civilize a society only when the citizens feel that its laws, law enforcement, and other social arrangements are legitimate, so that they don’t fall back on their worst impulses as soon as Leviathan’s back is turned.”
  2. Gentle Commerce. The increase of trade was also an enormously important factor. War over resources is a zero-sum game at best. Either I own something or you own something. War in fact can make it negative-sum, with both sides worse off than before. Trade changes the math. With trade, both sides can come out ahead, and you can remove the incentive for war. There’s no point in having the costs of war – financial and in lives – to get a resource you can get through trade. If peace is better for the economy you have removed one of the great incentives for war. Trade is, or can be, a positive-sum game.
  3. Feminization. Pinker points out that “the one great universal in the study of violence is that most of it is committed by fifteen- to thirty-year-old men.” As values associated with feminism – including giving women the right to vote – take hold, violence declines. Naturally violence against women dramatically declines when women are seen as persons in their own right, and not the property of a father or husband.
  4. Expanding empathy. Empathy used to be limited to very small groups – the family, the tribe. Over time the circle of people we can feel empathic to has expanded. Living in a cosmopolitan society, where we are in regular contact with people who are different than ourselves, results in our being better able to take their point of view. This results in less violence directed at people who are “other.” For example as more gays come out of the closet, it’s harder to keep up with prejudices against gays. Gays can no longer be categorized as some kind of “pervert” if gays are people you know, or people in your family – people that you know to be good people.
  5. The “Escalator of Reason.” The better people are at abstract reasoning, the better they are able to figure out the downsides to violence. And we have been getting much better at abstract reasoning. IQ tests that measure abstract reasoning periodically have to be readjusted because by definition the average IQ needs to be 100, and we keep getting better at it. The evidence suggests that this change is due to environmental effects – we do much better at teaching abstract reasoning today – than any genetic changes. The changes have been far too dramatic to be explained genetically. A person with average skills at abstract reasoning today would have been considered a genius a hundred years ago. And an average person from a hundred years ago would be considered an idiot today.

Another key sign is the “long peace” in Europe. No major European states have gone to war against each other in 70 years. This is unprecedented. Prior to the end of WWII, major European powers were continually going to war, and some of them were just as bloody on a percentage of population basis as World War II. In fact since the end of WWII none of the major states in the world have gone to war against each other. Military historians are puzzled, because, again, this is completely unprecedented. Things really have changed since the end of WWII. Wars are not fought by the major powers against each other. They are fought by countries that are on the margins, sometimes with support from major powers. Wars break out in places where government does not function: “Inept governance turns out to be among the biggest risk factors for civil war, and is perhaps the principle asset that distinguishes the violence-torn developing world from the more peaceful developed world.”

We no longer worry so much about the “doomsday clock” that we are destined for nuclear annihilation. The US and Russia may have political differences of opinion, but all out nuclear war is not something anyone is losing sleep over – the idea now seems far-fetched. Fifty years ago, when Americans were busy building bomb shelters, it was a different story.

Pinker also brings anecdotal evidence. The social acceptability of violence has been declining for hundreds of years. During the Inquisition torture was widely used, and widely accepted. Entertainment in 16th century England included public shows of torturing animals. Slavery was legal in America into the 19th century. Great poets and writers praised the glory and honor of war in World War I – people in “civilized” countries no longer do that. War is viewed with horror, not as an opportunity for glory.

I disagree with some of what Pinker had to say about religion – other than the Quakers, he finds religion has been a force that has propelled people toward violence, a force that had to be countered by “reason.” He claims religions have changed their tune and become more empathic toward others in response to changes in society brought about by reason. And overall, he may be right, but there are certainly trends within Judaism (which he lumps in with other “Abrahamic” religions) that countered violence 2,000 years ago. The rabbis more or less did away with capital punishment. War for the sake of conquering territory was discouraged. Violence against other people was not condoned, and was punished. Jews didn’t have inquisitions or start pogroms.

We still have a long ways to go. But it’s reassuring to know that we actually have been making great progress morally, at least as measured by reducing violence. There are no guarantees, but there is a pretty good chance that if we can keep the trends going we won’t blow ourselves off the face of the planet and we will be able to bring peace and prosperity to all.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

One thought on “The Better Angels of Our Nature

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep me up to date, sign me up for the newsletter!