Invited to write an essay on the theme “What Are You Optimistic About?” Harvard professor of evolutionary psychology Steven Pinker answered: “The decline of violence.” Response to the essay was surprising. “I started hearing from scholars saying, ‘There’s much more evidence on this trend than you were aware of,” said Pinker in a recent New York Times article. “I realized there was a book to be written.”
The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined makes an encouraging point: “Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Here are the kinds of examples he cites:
- The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008
- The number of people killed in battle has dropped 1,000 fold over the centuries as civilizations evolved. Before countries were organized, battles killed more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. Now battle field deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.
- Murder in European countries has steadily fallen from near 100 per 100,000 people in the 14th and 15th centuries to about 1 per 100,000 now
There are multiple reasons for the decline in violence. Before the rise of the state, revenge was in the hands of individuals and clans and caused much bloodshed. With the rise of civilization, the ground rules of society changed. Most countries now are organized around concepts of justice and include safeguards against violence. The invention of movable type stimulated the generation and circulation of new ideas that could be debated and changed into ways of operating society more smoothly.
New ideas of equality gave rise to the empowerment of women who took more public roles. “Women are statistically more dovish than men,” says Dr. Pinker. The rise of democracy also produces more peaceful societies. According to Pinker, there were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. The number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to 25 now.
According to Joshua Goldstein in Winning the War on War, the patient work of peacekeepers has reduced war. This is corroborated by Andrew Mack’s Human Security Report 2009/2010 that attributes peaceful trends to the work of the thousands of non-governmental organizations dedicated to peace.
“Peace on Earth, Good Will to All” were words attributed to angels in the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth. Let’s jump on board with the scholars and share the good news that more peaceful living is happening around the world now than ever before.
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