Our TV screens may be full of news about war and crime, but this masks a fall in historical terms in the number of violent deaths that’s nothing short of astonishing, says the psychologist. He tells us how and why this happened.
From The Browser:
You are most well-known as a psychologist of language – what got you interested in ideas around violence?
It was an obsession with human nature and its implications. In previous books such as How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought, I argued that evolution endowed us with a rich human nature – an intricate anatomy of emotions and ways of knowing. But the very idea of human nature raises, in many people’s minds, fears of fatalism, pessimism and nihilism. Does human nature doom us to perpetual violence, racism and oppression? I have always argued that it does not.
Human nature is a complex system of many parts. And though it may have components that push us towards violence, it also has components that pull us away from violence. What can change over time is which of these components prevails. In How the Mind Works I briefly pointed out that rates of violence have changed significantly over history. Hunter-gatherer societies were far more dangerous than settled states. Rates of homicide have plummeted since the Middle Ages. Democracies have become more numerous. Forms of institutionalised violence such as slavery, harems and torture-executions – like burning at the stake or breaking on the wheel – have been abolished in most of the world.
All these happy changes, I noted, represented the influence of components of human nature such as empathy, reason and the moral sense. Through a set of accidents, I came to expand those two or three paragraphs into a book of its own, The Better Angels of Our Nature.