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October 10, 2011

Peter Singer's review of Steven Pinker's new book

The always readable Steven Pinker has a new book out titled THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined arguing that there has been a steady drop in violence over time. The equally readable Peter Singer has a very positive review of the book, of which the following is an excerpt.

Against the background of Europe's relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Since 1945, we have seen a new phenomenon known as the "long peace": for 66 years now, the great powers, and developed nations in general, have not fought wars against one another. More recently, since the end of the cold war, a broader "new peace" appears to have taken hold. It is not, of course, an absolute peace, but there has been a decline in all kinds of organized conflicts, including civil wars, genocides, repression and terrorism. Pinker admits that followers of our news media will have particular difficulty in believing this, but as always, he produces statistics to back up his assertions.

The final trend Pinker discusses is the "rights revolution," the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this "the worst thing I have ever done." In 1975 it wasn't uncommon.)

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