The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Master Class: In this video, Pinker lectures in depth about his theory (one hour twenty-six minutes with Q&A)

Is the human race more violent now than at any other time in our history? Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker lays out the counterintuitive claim that we humans are actually less likely to kill one another than we’ve ever been. Combing through 5,000 years of evidence, from archaeologists’ studies of ancient grave sites to contemporary law-enforcement statistics, Pinker charts a slow but sure decline in violence going back to Neolithic times. In the early stages of the 21st century, he concludes, our “better angels” are actually besting our inner demons.

Pinker’s theory appears tested by some when faced with the 20th century where two world wars and other mass killings took 130 million lives. However, in Pinker’s view what matters is the number killed relative to the era’s total population. One comparison states that the Mongol conquests of the 1300s killed some 40 million—a number that is equivalent to 278 million today. As for why we might have become less violence-prone, Pinker cites a long “civilizing process” dating from when people began living in large groups. As communities grew, people came to accept codes governing everything from table manners to moral conduct, and then sanctioned states to enforce the most significant rules. As these systems became more refined, so did we.

Pinker strongly credits the Enlightenment with shaping the principles that have brought us to our long peace. “Reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality,” one rooted in the understanding that “we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably”: We want others to treat us well, and we agree that in exchange we will not treat them badly. Though, Pinker doesn’t declare our capacity for cruelty defeated, his book does put forward an optimism that bodes well for our ability to establish even more peaceful societies in the generations ahead.

Image of Daisaku Ikeda

Steven Pinker is a Harvard College Professor and Johnstone
Family Professor of Psychology; Harvard University.
Author, The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and
The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined