Pinker on violence

Pinker argues that there has over time, been a great decline in violence, mistaking progressivism for progress. “The better angels of our nature”

This is the doctrine that progressivism is niceness, is the better angels of our nature, and conservatism is nastiness.  The rise of the better angels of our nature is the rise of progressivism.

Pinker tells us that murders have declined. Googling around for such statistics, the first thing that I stumble upon, page 14, shows a substantial increase in the UK murder rate per thousand from 1900 to the present, and an extraordinary, gigantic, and astonishing rise in indictable offenses per thousand.

There are more real crimes committed, more people in jail, and vastly more actions that the state deems crimes – and if what the state deems a crime is not truly a crime, then that is state violence.

The staggering rise in indictable offenses represents an increase in private violence, or an increase in state violence, or both. I would guess it to be a moderate rise in private violence, and a gigantic, colossal, terrifying and horrifying rise in state violence against the subject.  It is often said of modern Britain that everything has been criminalized, except crime, which has been decriminalized.  The statistics on indictable offenses show that either that is true, or else there has been a gigantic explosion in criminal behavior.

In modern times, no one is drawn and quartered, but a lot more people are in jail than there used to be. But Pinker rather likes jail. Jail resembles the progressive utopia, with free housing, free food, free medical care, and a good deal less of all those  nasty freedoms that progressives rather dislike.  As legislation multiplies the number of crimes, and welfare increases, the difference between being in prison and out of it evaporates.  If the whole world resembles prison, Pinker will be ecstatic.

If less murderers are executed, that is, Pinker thinks, a diminution in violence. If more hard working middle class husbands are thrown out their homes for imaginary offenses and lose access to their children, that also, thinks Pinker, is a diminution in violence.

Pinker compares the genocides recorded in the bible, with modern times – but the bible covers thousands of years, while modern times are considerably shorter. Take any one century of biblical time, and typically there are no extraordinary crimes in that century, or at least none that directly affect the children of Israel, while there have been quite a few extraordinary crimes in our most recent century.

Pinker reminds us that war has diminished in recent times – meaning diminished since the development of nuclear weapons, and diminished further since the fall of communism, but that diminution is not necessarily because we are more peaceable, but because the risk of extraordinary violence has increased. Nuclear weapons promote peace by making war potentially more dreadful.

The fall of the Soviet Union promoted peace the same way the fall of Napoleon did. World Wars one and two were at least as dreadful as the Napoleonic wars, and arguably a good deal worse. No long term trend is apparent on that timescale.

The widespread peace following the fall of the evil empire resembles the widespread peace following the defeat of Napoleon. If the cold war was mild by historical standards it is largely because World War Three is likely to be a humdinger.

Pinker tells us:

In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

And the first half of the century?

The reason the second half of the century was more peaceful than the first half, was because the first half was unprecedentedly horrifying. A better comparison would be Europe following the fall of Napoleon, with world following the fall of the Soviet Union, by which measure we are not doing well, or Europe following the rise of Napoleon and nationalism, with the west following the rise of Germany and communism , by which measure we truly suck.

And what is happening outside “Western Europe and the Americas”? The end of colonialism caused a horrifying rise in violence. While India seems to be finally recovering from its abandonment by the British, some parts of Africa are still collapsing with no bottom in sight.

Pinker glibly glosses over this, because that is mostly progressive violence, for example the genocide of the Tutsi and the ethnic cleansing of the Ivory Coast, of which violence progressives rather approve, much as they approve of state violence against middle class husbands and the imprisonment of a large part of the population, therefore, to Pinker, that violence does not count.  Nothing happened in the Ivory Coast, as far as Pinker knows.

20 Responses to “Pinker on violence”

  1. Remnant says:

    Pinker feels guilty for revealing that he buys into “conservative” ideas in The Blank Slate. The new book is the bone he is throwing to liberals (and to his own conscience) to show that he still hasn’t “lost faith” in the progressive project. See: the world is getting so much better!!

    • jim says:

      And he is under attack for insufficient progressivism: Supposedly the dreadful horrors of colonialism constituted an increase in violence, which he failed to report – though I think that had he reported it, he would have then felt obligated to report what happened when the dreadful colonialists left, which would have really gotten him in trouble.

  2. Zach says:

    Since it is now Oct 10, I’m assuming you have read his new book Jim?

    In theory your response could have been crafted from an Amazon synopsis for his new book, and also, from the link provided.

    Interesting post.

  3. Red says:

    I’ve never gotten the idea that violence is a bad thing. Violence is the natural order of the world with every creature. It’s evil that we should oppose.

    As for his progressive reduction in violence: 40-50 years ago if 2 white guys had a problem with each they got into a fist fight. Today we don’t usually fist fight. On the other hand a guy who asked a women to stop talking on her phone during a movie was stabbed to death by her boy friend. We may have less violence but we have a lot more sudden evil violence going on. It’s violence without restraint that makes life so miserable in most places.

  4. Leonard says:

    I think Pinker is right about the long-term trend (that, over the last 1000 years). He’s wrong about the short term trend — the last century, of democracy triumphant.

    Murder stats are some of the best you can get, because murders tend to be reported. Even at that, there has been radical medical progress over the last century, so that the majority of criminal woundings that would have become murders in 1900 are now just aggravated assaults.

    this success [medical progress] has ironically masked the perception that America continues to face extraordinarily high levels of criminal violence. Compared to 1960, the year our analysis begins, we estimate that without these developments in medical technology there would have been between 45,000 and 70,000 homicides annually the past 5 years instead of an actual 15,000 to 20,000.

    The same medical progress explains why wars are less deadly, at least for Western nations. (Indeed, much of the medical progress in treating life-threatening wounds was made on battlefields.)

    • jim says:

      I think Pinker is right about the long-term trend (that, over the last 1000 years). He’s wrong about the short term trend — the last century, of democracy triumphant

      I am sure he is wrong about the last hundred years. As to whether he is right about the last thousand years: the amount of private violence has dramatically declined over the last thousand years, but state violence, both wars and repression, have increased. Hard to balance one against the other, since both are subject to large, but different, measurement errors.

  5. josh says:

    “a substantial increase in the UK murder rate per thousand from 1900 to the present”

    In 1874 2 people were arrainged for homicide in NYC. 1 was held for trial. This rose substantially in 1875. Six people were held for trial.

    • jim says:

      Until the red terror of the French Revolution it used to be that the Spanish inquisition, which typically murdered a few dozen per year, was the example of horrifying state repression.

      Queen Bloody Mary murdered 200 people, resulting in eight hundred refugees, and went down in British history as a horrifying bloody handed tyrant.

      Sihanouk murdered twelve thousand, and gets written up as a saint. Tito a few hundred thousand, and is viewed as the exemplar of tolerant and peaceable communism.

      So it looks to me that over the last thousand years we have seen a massive increase in repression, in violence of the state against its subjects. We no longer burn people at the stake, nor hang draw and quarter them, but we imprison huge and increasing numbers of people, reflecting both a horrifying increase in underclass violence during the democratic period, and an equally horrifying increase in state violence, for example drug law, family law, and hate crime law.

      • Alrenous says:

        “During more than fifty years of what the Icelanders themselves perceived as intolerably violent civil war, leading to the collapse of the traditional system, the average number of people killed or executed each year appears, on a per capita basis, to be roughly equal to the current rate of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter in the United States.”

        While there’s evidence that violence has been decreasing, the tolerance of violence by voters has been dramatically increasing. Ovinization?

        • Erik says:

          Possibly. But, I don’t remember seeing any manslaughter or murder last time I was in the United States. Much of the violence happens within black communities, so one alternative is that it’s not overall ovinization but an increase in the size of the already violence-tolerant communities of voters.

  6. Zach says:

    Let me repeat the question:

    Since it is now Oct 10, I’m assuming you have read his new book Jim?


    • jim says:

      No I have not read his book. Unlike the famous curate, I not need to eat all of an egg to know it is rotten. Every factoid that Pinker has presented on the web is untrue. The period from the Napoleonic wars to the twentieth century was marked more peaceable than the period from the twentieth century to the present, for individual small scale criminal violence, state repression against their subject populations, and wars between states. If there has been a long term trend to peaceableness in the last thousand years, which is far from clear, this reversed during the democratic era.

  7. Zach says:


    If you did read Pinker’s book, then I had a few questions about it. I haven’t read it. I wasn’t looking for a GOTCHA moment. I was simply curious.

    You linked to a post that is relatively old. Then you probably read a few blogs about his new book which aligns with yourself and is in accordance with your way of thinking – for good or bad. Then you parsed all selective information and spit out your own conclusion.

    That is all fine and dandy, but I guess I prefer to read something in totality and then deduce. You mention an apple, but think of the cherry picking that goes on in political fighting and quote choosing. As a matter of fact, I think this has happened to you a few million times 😉

    • jim says:

      You are making something very simple very complicated: His thesis is that violence is down. Yet over the democratic period, murder is up, a lot, indictable offenses are up a huge amount, political repression is up, imprisonment is up. War is debatable, since wars are bursty phenomenom. Your results depend on what you count and when you count it, but there is a reason why people call the early twentieth century wars “world” wars, and gave no similar title to earlier wars. Military spending as a proportion of GDP is way up during the twentieth century as compared to earlier centuries, so, at the very least, it is not obvious that war is down. You point to the massacre of Jerusalem, I raise you Dresden and Hiroshima.

      About two million Hindus were massacred for religious reasons in the partition of India, and hardly anyone remembers, that being fairly routine for the twentieth century, yet everyone recalls Queen Bloody Mary (killed a few hundred), the Spanish inquisition (killed a dozen or so per year) and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre (killed a few thousand). On the face of it, it looks like war and religion has become much bloodier. Egyptians murder a lot more than a dozen Christians per year, and everyone is impressed by how wonderfully democratic they are. Similarly for Sihanouk.

  8. You have a very interesting theory. I had not thought to include state-violence in the calculation.

    Pinker includes a graph in his TED talk, showing that native men not so long ago were 60% likely to die by murder. Today (at least in the first world), that is an unimaginable figure. I’d like to know what the world-rate for death by murder is; I suspect is isn’t close to 60%.

    If we are only examining murder, including state murder, how can we rationally conclude that human beings are today more violent than they were when living in primitive tribes?

    • jim says:

      Death rates by violence among primitives varied wildly – very high among Tasmanian aboriginals, very low among Australian mainland aboriginals. Very high in some parts of Papua New Guinea, very low in other parts of Papua New Guinea. Since death rates by state violence in modern societies also varied wildly from time to time and place to place among civilized peoples, the comparison is less easily made than Pinker claims. We know of at least one example of primitives abruptly transitioning from a very high violence society to a zero or near zero crime society due to endogenous political change.

      We can better make comparisons over more recent history, to ask whether Europeans have become more or less violent in the last few hundred years, because, for more recent history, we have more data than we have for primitives.

      Modern civilized war is a patch and bursty phenomenom, as is violence among primitives. Private crime and state repression is not nearly so patchy and bursty. Thus trends in private crime and state crime are more reliably estimated than trends in war.

      • Kiwiguy says:


        “Pinker’s characterization of homicide data is another example of his distortions on matters pertaining to race and violence. See my previous post on how Pinker flubbed his summary of the decades of research on the best understood violence gene, including his citation of a copy-and-paste error. Much of his data for New York City in the above graph, including all years of equal homicide rates, comes from American History by Randolph Roth, who plotted a similar graph shown below and made clear that the data plotted actually do not represent known intraracial homicide assailants, but just homicide victims.”

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