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Aiken Lecture: Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence

Steven Pinker
"A large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit there is anything good about civilization, modernity and Western society," experimental psychologist Steven Pinker writes. But a decline in violence may be one of them. Pinker will give the annual Aiken Lecture, Oct. 10, at Ira Allen Chapel. (Photo courtesy of Steven Pinker)

What is the most important thing that has ever happened in human history? Syria, Hiroshima, Pol Pot, and Stalin notwithstanding — Steven Pinker makes the case that it’s the ongoing decline in violence.

“Believe it or not — and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time,” he writes in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, “and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

Pinker will make the case for this startling view — and the evidence for it — in the 2013 Aiken Lecture, “War and Peace: A History of Violence,” at the University of Vermont’s Ira Allen Chapel, 5 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 10.

 The event is free and open to the public.

 Wither violence?

One of the world’s most popular, profound and provocative scientists, Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, a New York Times bestselling author, and has written extensively on the biological roots and essence of human nature.

In his lecture at UVM, he’ll explore a range of perhaps surprising facts and observations about violence, such as these excerpted from his new book:

  • Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the twentieth century.
  • The murder rate of medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today.
  • Slavery, sadistic punishments and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition.
  • Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago.
  • Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals — all substantially down.

Pinker acknowledges that the twentieth century was bloodied by ferocious violence, including genocide and the staggering casualties of two world wars. But — on a per capita basis — there’s strong evidence of long-term decline of violence — a decline which has accelerated since the closing of the Second World War.

Cognitive blinders

How can this be true? “Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword ‘If it bleeds, it leads,'” he writes. “The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our houses and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.”

In other words, our impressions of violence are easily detached from the actual data about violence.

If this is true, then what “led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment?” Pinker asks. The key, Pinker argues, is to understand "the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away."

With the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, he argues, we are more likely to “control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies,” his website notes, “and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.”

More information

A native of Montreal, Pinker is an experimental psychologist and neurobiologist at Harvard University and has also taught at Stanford and at MIT. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has won a number of teaching prizes, and was named among Newsweek’s “100 Americans for the Next Century.” His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has received numerous awards, including the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences.

His books include The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, which garnered a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year award, The Blank Slate and How The Mind Works, both bestsellers, and both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. His acclaimed “language” series includes The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

This year’s edition of the George D. Aiken Lecture Series is hosted by the University of Vermont’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Public parking for the lecture will be available in UVM’s Gutterson Garage after 3:30 p.m.