STEVEN PINKER is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of
Psychology at Harvard University. His most recent book is
The Blank Slate.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of
entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a
stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies,
"[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the
animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."
Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change i
sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most
underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline ove
long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most
peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin,
Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem
somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek
to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that
Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional histor
has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler
Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as
a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government,
genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as
routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of
opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the
spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form
of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of
human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less
common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and
widely condemned when they are brought to light.
At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of