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Harvard prof talks human nature, violence

Psychology professor Steven Pinker noted the decline in human violence over millenia

In a talk that combined hard neuroscience with historical analysis, Steven Pinker, Harvard professor of psychology, discussed the nature of human violence and its decline over time.

Pinker addressed an audience of several hundred community members in Salomon Hall Tuesday night as part of a lecture series presented by the Rhode Island Medical Society.

“We may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence,” Pinker opened.

With a title drawn from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” — Pinker’s latest book and the title of his talk — traces the decline of violence across human history. Aided by multiple charts and graphics, Pinker outlined five phases of this decline and related them to historical, social and neurobiological contexts.

Roughly 6,000 years ago, humans existed in an anarchic state of nature, Pinker said. Fifteen percent of prehistoric remains show evidence of violent death — compared to 0.03 percent today.

Pinker’s “pacification process” accompanied the prehistoric era. As empires and states attempted to assert their hegemony, they sought to bring natives under state control, thereby decreasing feudal and raid-based violence, Pinker said.

By the end of the subsequent “civilizing process” ­— which lasted from the years 1200 to 2000 — English citizens were 35 times less likely  to be murdered compared to its start. In the evolution from the Middle Ages to modernity, kingdoms were consolidated. These kingdoms produced institutionalized criminal justice and financial instruments, resulting in “positive-sum trade,” Pinker said.

The “humanitarian revolution” saw an abolition of torture, execution and corporal punishment. The decline in capital punishment even preceded its legal abolition by approximately 50 years, Pinker added.

Pinker said he attributed these developments to the rise of literacy and printed publications. Literacy contributed to the intermingling of people and ideas that marked cosmopolitanism. “Knowledge began to replace superstition and ignorance,” he said.

Pinker noted that while the 20th century was marred by World War II, no wars have occurred between developed countries since 1946. Pinker said he attributed these decreases to “hypothetical pacifying forces” drawn from Immanuel Kant — democracy, trade and international communities.

The final “rights revolutions” stage decreased violence on a more human level, Pinker said. The rise of women’s rights, for instance, resulted in an 80 percent decline in rapes, he said.

Pinker presented a multitude of reasons for this steady but sporadic decline in violence. Among violence’s sources are rage, desire for dominance and “pernicious cost-benefit analysis” of utopian ideologies such as Nazism.

Pinker also outlined neural regions that may contribute to each of these motivations.

In contrast, Pinker’s “better angels” that pull humans away from violence include self-control, empathy, morality and reason, which similarly have recorded neurological foundations.

Human nature and innate violent tendencies have not necessarily changed, Pinker said, but the social context in which people find themselves makes violence less beneficial.

“Every baby born is a potential homicidal maniac,” Pinker said during the question and answer period following the talk.

History, science and social analyses blend together in Pinker’s argument to describe the forces that have allowed the “better angels” to triumph over the motivations for violence. Justice systems circumvent self-serving violence — “you’re outsourcing your revenge to a third party,” he said.

Improved technology has accompanied trade and travel links, increasing interconnectedness among humans and augmenting empathy.

Intelligence quotient  increased three points per decade throughout the 20th century, Pinker said. More educated and literate societies commit fewer violent crimes, are more liberal and more receptive to democracy, he added.

Pinker concluded the talk with a call to turn society’s focus from the question of why there is war to why there is peace — a jump from pessimism to optimism, to demand “what have we been doing right?”


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