Samuel Brittan

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes by Stephen Pinker

It has become a cliché that the great increase in material wealth over the centuries has not been accompanied by any corresponding moral advance. Human nature, it is said, remains the same — with the implication that much of it is pretty nasty. Here, however, comes a leading evolutionary biologist, Stephen Pinker, to claim that human violence has decreased over the millennia and centuries.

He is in a good position to make that claim, having previously got into trouble with the Left by showing that we are ‘hard wired’ for much of our behaviour and that it is not all due to environmental influences. In this 800-page book, which encompasses everything from anthropology and ancient history to brain scanning and empirical psychology, he has a fine shot at making good his claim.

How can this be true after two world wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the rise of  religion-backed terrorism, not to speak of the lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and many other horrors? The big mistake made by the fashionable pessimists is their failure to treat deaths and other results of violence as a proportion of the relevant population.  Another factor is media distortion: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’

The death-toll in the second world war is estimated at over 50 million, but adjusted for population ranks only ninth in the scale of violence. Easily the first is the Alushan civil war in eighth-century China, which resulted in the loss of two thirds of the empire’s population and a sixth of the world’s population.

The annihilation of native Americans comes seventh and the Atlantic slave trade eighth. The modern European record is more debatable. A bloodbath during the 17th-century wars of religion was followed by a bumpy decline and then a more moderate peak during the Napoleonic Wars.

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