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I like what Steven Pinker’s been saying: that we live during one of the least violent periods in human history. It seems counter-intuitive to make that claim, with the 20th Century’s wars not so long ago and one conflict or other being a near daily news event. Pinker brings some perspective to that in his book The Better Angels Of Our Nature. Although many will disagree with his thesis it feels about right to me. Based on my threadbare knowledge of the horrors of history I’d say that our era has a lot to recommend it compared to almost everything that went before.

Also, consider the stability of the western societies in contrast to other parts of the world currently and the outlook is more encouraging still. Liberal democracies in general have a good record when it comes to not warring with each other. When Francis Fukuyama points out that since the 1970s there has been a 300% increase in the number of countries embracing democracy then perhaps the prognosis for peace isn’t some hippy dream after all but actually quite a promising prospect. Premises like these are at the base of Pinker’s argument and the sense that everything is on a sliding slope to hell only a media shock story.

There are questions however. I wondered how he managed to have the wars of last century with their terrible carnage not weaken his reasoning at all. Tens of millions of people killed with unimaginable levels of violence and destruction hardly makes the case for a humanity at peace. Pinker’s simple answer is numbers, statistical percentages in particular. Over the past few generations the number of people killed by violence as a percentage of world population is remarkably low even allowing for the big wars.

I still did wonder though if percentages weren’t misleading. If a shooting breaks out in a room of 20 people and 5 are killed, that’s 25% dead. If it was 100 people with 10 killed, that’s 10% dead. Which is the more violent? The one with higher numbers dead surely, yet with the lower percentage. I was able to put the point to Pinker via a Guardian journalist who was conducting an interview with him and asked if absolute numbers could also have been factored into the book’s argument. He was rather dismissive saying that percentages were the only useful measure and that it didn’t make sense to use absolute numbers. I wasn’t convinced.

Still, that doesn’t stop me being sympathetic to the eminent psychologist’s perspective and well disposed to the overall message in Better Angels. It’s good to be reminded that modern societies generally don’t torture people for retribution and are kinder to minorities; that slavery has been abolished the world over; that people are better educated than ever and better educated people are less violent; that your chances of dying a violent death today are very small compared to any other time in history. Pinker thinks we should celebrate these facts more than we do and I agree with him.

people killed by violence as a percentage

of world population is remarkably low



commentary • 20.08.12