The stuff of thought, the myth of violence: Steven Pinker on

Posted by: Tedstaff

This week, Steven Pinker releases his latest book, The Stuff of Thought, about language as a window onto human nature. We present two TEDTalks from Steve Pinker: his 2005 talk at Oxford, in which he offers the TEDGlobal audience an exclusive preview of the book, and his most recent talk, at TED2007, where he previews his next topic: violence.

From TEDGlobal 2005: The stuff of thought. In an exclusive preview of his latest book, Steven Pinker looks at language as a window onto human nature. In both what we say and how we say it, we’re communicating much more than we realize. (Recorded July 2005 in Oxford, England. Duration: 17:41.)

From TED2007: A brief history of violence. In a preview of his next book, Steven Pinker takes on violence and the ways we perceive it. We live in violent times, an era of heightened warfare, genocide and senseless crime. Or so we’ve come to believe. Pinker charts a history of violence from Biblical times through the present, and says modern society has a little less to feel guilty about. (Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 19:27.)

Watch Steven Pinker’s talks on, where you can download them, rate them, comment and find other talks and performances.

Read more about Steven Pinker on

NEW: Read the transcripts >>

Transcript: Steven Pinker TEDGlobal 2005

Steven Pinker: The stuff of thought

TEDGlobal 2005, Oxford, UK

To watch this TEDTalk, download it or comment on it, and to view many more TEDTalks, visit

This is a picture of Maurice Druon, the honorary perpetual secretary of L’Académie Française, the French Academy. He is splendidly attired in his 68,000 dollar uniform, befitting the role of the French Academy as legislating the correct usage in French and perpetuating the language.

The French Academy has two main tasks: It compiles a dictionary of official French — they are now working on their 9th edition, which they began in 1930, and they’ve reached the letter ‘P’; they also legislate on correct usage, such as the proper term for what the French call email, which ought to be ‘courriel’, the world wide web, the French are told, ought to be referred to as “la toile d’araignée mondial,” the global spider web — recommendations that the French gaily ignore.

Now this is one model of how language comes to be. Mainly, it’s legislated by an academy. But anyone who looks at language realizes that this is a rather silly conceit, that language rather emerges from human minds interacting with one another, and this is visible from the unstoppable change in language, the fact that by the time the academy finishes their dictionary, it will already be well out of date.

(slide:”Language as a Window onto Human Nature
-Language emerges from human minds interacting with one another
-Visible in unstoppable change in language:
-slang & jargon, historical change, dialect divergence, language formation”)

We see it in the constant appearance of slang and jargon, of historical change in languages, in divergence of dialects, and the formation of new languages.

So, language is not so much a creator or shaper of human nature, so much as a window onto human nature. And in a book that I’m currently working on, I hope to use language to shed light on a number of aspects of human nature, including the cognitive machinery with which humans conceptualize the world, and the relationship types that govern human interaction. And I’m going to say a few words about each one this morning.

Let me start off with a technical problem in language that I worried about for quite some time, and you’ll indulge me in my passion for verbs and how they’re used. The problem is, which verbs go in which constructions? The verb is the chassis of the sentence. It’s the framework onto which the other parts are bolted. Let me give you a quick reminder of something that you’ve long forgotten — an intransitive verb, such as ‘dine’ for example, can’t take a direct object — you have to say Sam dined, not Sam dined the pizza. A transitive verb mandates that there has to be an object there — Sam devoured the pizza, you can’t just say Sam devoured. And there are dozens — or scores — of verbs of this type, each of which shapes its sentence. So a problem in explaining how children learn language, a problem in teaching language to adults so that they don’t make grammatical errors, a problem in programming computers to use language, is which verbs go in which constructions.

(slide:”Dative constructions
-Give a muffin to a mouse (prepositional)
Give a mouse a muffin (double — object)
-Promise anything to her
Promise her anything”)

For example, the dative construction in English — you can say “give a muffin to a mouse,” the prepositional dative; or “give a mouse a muffin,” the double object dative; “Promise anything to her,” “promise her anything,” and so on. Hundreds of verbs can go both ways, so attempting generalization, for a child, for an adult, for a computer, is that any verb that can appear in the construction “subject verb thing” to a “recipient,” can also be expressed as “subject verb recipient thing” — a handy thing to have, because language is infinite, you can’t just parrot back the sentences that you’ve heard, you’ve got to extract generalizations so you can produce and understand new sentences. This would be an example of how to do that.

Unfortunately, there appear to be idiosyncratic exceptions. You can say “Biff drove the car to Chicago,” but not “Biff drove Chicago the car.” You can say “Sal gave Jason a headache,” but it’s a little bit odd to say “Sal gave a headache to Jason.” The solution is that these constructions, despite initial appearance, are not synonymous — that when you crank up the microscope on human cognition, you see that there is a subtle difference in meaning between them. So, “give the x to the y” — that construction corresponds to the thought “cause x to go to y,” whereas “give the y the x” corresponds to the thought “cause y to have x.”

Now many events can be subject to either construal — kind of like the classic “figure ground reversal” illusions in which you can either pay attention to the particular object,

(slide: vase that, when you look at it, becomes two silhouetted profiles facing each other)

in which case the space around it recedes from attention, or you can see the faces in the empty space, in which case the object recedes out of consciousness. How are these construals reflected in language? Well, in both cases, the thing that is construed as being affected, is expressed as the direct object, the noun after the verb. So when you think of the event as causing the muffin to go somewhere, where you’re doing something to the muffin, you say “give the muffin to the mouse,” when you construe it as “cause the mouse to have something,” you’re doing something to the mouse, and therefore you express it as “give the mouse the muffin.”

So which verbs go in which construction, the problem with which I began, depends on whether the verb specifies a kind of motion or a kind of possession change.

(“Which verbs goes in which construction depends on whether they specify a kind of motion or a kind of possession — change
-give the book (cause to move AND cause to have)
-drive the car (ONLY cause to move)

To “give” something involves both causing something to go and causing someone to have. To drive the car only causes something to go, because Chicago is not the kind of thing that can possess something — only humans can possess things — and to “give someone a headache” causes them to have the headache, but it’s not as if you’re taking the headache out of your head and causing it to go to the other person and implanting it in them. You might just be, you know, loud or obnoxious or some other way of causing them to have the headache.

So that’s an example of the kind of thing that I do in my day job, so why should anyone care? Well, there’re a number of interesting conclusions, I think, from this and many similar kinds of analyses of hundreds of English verbs. First there’s a level of fine-grained conceptual structure, which we automatically and unconsciously compute every time we produce or utter a sentence, that governs our use of language.

You can think of this as the language of thought, or “mental-ese”. It seems to be based on a thick set of concepts which governs dozens of constructions of thousands of verbs, not only in English, but in all other languages. Fundamental concepts such as space, time, causation, and human intention, such as what is a means, and what is the ends — these are reminiscent of the kinds of categories that Immanuel Kant argued are the basic framework for human thought, and it’s interesting that our unconscious use of language seems to reflect these Kantian categories — doesn’t care about perceptual qualities, such as color, texture, weight, and speed, which virtually never differentiate the use of verbs in different constructions.

An additional twist is
that all of the constructions in English are used not only literally, but in a quasi-metaphorical way.

(“An Additional Twist
-Constructions are used metaphorically
-transfer of things OR ‘transfer’ of ideas
-She told a story to me/ told me a story
-Max taught Spanish to the students/ taught the students Spanish”)

For example, this construction, the dative, is used not only to transfer things, but also for the metaphorical transfer of ideas, as when we say “she told a story to me” or “told me a story,” “Max taught Spanish to the students” or “taught the students Spanish.” Exactly the same construction, but no muffins, no mice, nothing moving at all.

It invokes the container metaphor of communication, in which we conceive of ideas as objects, sentences as containers, and communication as a kind of sending. It’s when we say we gather our ideas to put them into words, and if our words aren’t empty or hollow, we might get these ideas across to a listener — who can unpack our words to extract their content. And indeed this kind of verbiage is not the exception, but the rule — it’s very hard to find any example of abstract language that is not based on some concrete metaphor. For example, you can use the verb “go” and the prepositions “to” and “from” in a literal spatial sense — “The messenger went from Paris to Istanbul” —

(“More Generally:
-Use of space as metaphor
-The messenger went from Paris to Istanbul (space)
-Biff went from sick to well (state)
-The meeting went from 3:00 to 4:00 (time)
-Use of force as metaphore
-Rose forced the door to open (physical force)
-Rose forced Sadie to go (interpersonal force)
-Rose forced herself to go (intrapersonal force)”)

You can also say “Biff went from sick to well” — he needn’t go anywhere, he could have been in bed the whole time, but it’s as if his health is a point in “state-space” that you conceptualize as moving, or “the meeting went from three to four,” in which we conceive of time as stretched along a line. Likewise, we use force to indicate not only physical force, as in “Rose forced the door to open,” but also interpersonal force, as in “Rose forced Sadie to go,” not necessarily by manhandling her, but by issuing a threat, or “Rose forced herself to go,” as if there were two entities inside Rose’s head, engaged in the tug of war.

Second conclusion is that the ability to conceive of a given event in two different ways, such as cause something to go to someone, and causing someone to have something, I think is a fundamental feature of human thought, and it’s the basis for much human argumentation, in which people don’t differ so much on the facts, it’s on how they ought to be construed. Just to give you a few examples: “Ending a pregnancy” versus “killing a fetus,” “a ball of cells” versus “an unborn child,” “invading Iraq” versus “liberating Iraq,” “redistributing wealth” versus “confiscating earnings.”

I think the biggest picture of all would take seriously the fact that so much of our verbiage about abstract events is based on a concrete metaphor, and see human intelligence itself as consisting of a repertoire of concepts,

(“The Bigger Picture
-Human intelligence consists of:
-A repertoire of concepts (objects, space, time, causation, intention) useful in a social, knowledge-intensive species
-A process of metaphorical abstraction: conceptual structure bleached of its content, applied to new, abstract domains”)

such as objects, space, time, causation, and intention, which are useful in a social, knowledge-intensive species — whose evolution you can well imagine — and a process of metaphorical abstraction that allows us to bleach these concepts of their original conceptual content — space, time, and force — and apply them to new, abstract domains, therefore allowing a species that evolved to deal with rocks and tools and animals to conceptualize mathematics, physics, law, and other abstract domains.

I said I’d talk about two windows on human nature: the cognitive machinery with which we conceptualize the world, now I’m going to say a few words about the relationship types that govern human social interaction. Again, as reflected in language. And I’ll start it with a puzzle — the puzzle of indirect speech acts.

Now I’m sure most of you have seen the movie Fargo. You might remember the scene in which the kidnapper is pulled over by a police officer, is asked to show his driver’s license, and holds his wallet out with a 50 dollar bill extending at a slight angle out of the wallet, and he says “I was just thinking that maybe we could take care of it here in Fargo.” Which everyone, including the audience, interprets as a failed bribe.

(slide:”A Puzzle: Indirect Speech Acts
-I was just thinking that maybe we could take care of it here in Fargo.
-If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.
-Would you like to come up and see my etchings?
-Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.”)

And this kind of indirect speech is rampant in language. For example, in polite requests — If someone says “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.” We know exactly what he means, even though that that’s a rather bizarre concept being expressed. “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” I think most people understand the intent behind that. And likewise, if someone says “Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.” We understand that as a veiled threat, rather than as a musing of hypothetical possibilities.

So the puzzle is, why are bribes, polite requests, solicitations, and threats so often veiled, when no one’s fooled — both parties know exactly what the speaker means, and the speaker knows that the listener knows that the speaker knows that the listener knows, etcetera, etcetera. So what’s going on? The key idea is that language is a way of negotiating relationships. Human relationships fall into a number of types. There’s an influential taxonomy by the anthropologist Alan Fiske — which relationships can be categorized more or less into communality, which works on the principle “what’s mine is thine, what’s thine is mine,” the kind of mindset that operates within a family, for example; dominance, whose principle is “don’t mess with me;” and reciprocity, “you scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours;” and sexuality — in the immortal words of Cole Porter, “let’s do it.”

Now relationships types can be negotiated. Even though there are default situations, in which one of these mindsets can be applied, they could be stretched and extended. For example, communality applies most naturally within family or friends, but it can be used to try to transfer the mentality of sharing to groups that ordinarily would not be disposed to exercise it. For example, in brotherhoods, fraternal organizations, sororities, locutions like “the family of man,” you try to get people who are not related to use the relationship type that would ordinarily be appropriate to close kin.

Now, mismatches — when one person assumes one relationship type, and another assumes a different one — can be awkward. If you went over and you helped yourself to a shrimp off your boss’s plate, for example, that would be an awkward situation. Or if a dinner guest, after the meal, pulled out his wallet and offered to pay you for the meal, that would be rather awkward as well. In less blatant cases, there’s still a kind of negotiation that often goes on — in the workplace, for example, there’s often a tension over whether an employee can socialize with a boss, or refer to him or her on a first name basis. If two friends have a reciprocal transaction, like selling a car, it’s well known that this can be a source of tension or awkwardness. In dating, the transition from friendship to sex lead to — notorious
ly — to various forms of awkwardness. And as can sex in the workplace, which we call the conflict between dominance — a dominant in a sexual relationship, sexual harassment.

Well, what does this have to do with language? Well, language, as a social interaction, has to satisfy two conditions. You have to convey the actual content — here we get back to the container metaphor. You want to express the bribe, the command, the promise, the solicitation and so on — but you also have to negotiate and maintain the kind of relationship you have with the other person.

And the solution, I think, is that we use language on two levels. The literal form signals the safest relationship with the listener, whereas the implicated content, the reading between the lines that we count on the listener to perform, allows the listener to derive the interpretation which is most relevant in context, which possibly initiates a changed relationship. The simplest example of this is in the polite request. If you express your request as a conditional — “if you could open the window that would be great” — even though the content is an imperative, the fact that you’re not using the imperative voice means that you’re not acting as if you’re in a relationship of dominance, where you could presuppose the compliance of the other person. On the other hand, you want the damn guacamole. By expressing it as an “if-then” statement, you can get the message across without appearing to boss another person around.

And in a more subtle way, I think this works for all of the failed speech acts involving plausible deniability — the bribes, threats, propositions, solicitations, and so on. One way of thinking about it is to imagine what it would be like if language could only be used literally. And you can think of it in terms of a game theoretic payoff matrix. Put yourself in the position of the kidnapper wanting to bribe the officer. There’s a high stakes in the two possibilities of having a dishonest officer or honest officer.

(“If Language were Literal:
Bribe: (dishonest officer) — Go free (reciprocity/ reciprocity); (honest officer) — Arrest for bribery(reciprocity/ dominance)
Don’t Bribe: (dishonest officer) — Traffic ticket (dominance/ reciprocity); (honest officer) — Traffic ticket (dominance/ reciprocity)”)

If you don’t bribe the officer, then you will get a traffic ticket, or, as in the case of Fargo, worse, whether the officer is honest or dishonest — nothing ventured, nothing gained. In that case, the consequences are rather severe. On the other hand, if you extend the bribe, if the officer is dishonest, you get a huge payoff of going free. If the officer is honest, you get a huge penalty of being arrested for bribery. So this is a rather fraught situation.

On the other hand, with indirect language,

(“With Indirect Language:
Veiled Bribe: dishonest officer — go free (reciprocity/ reciprocity); Honest officer — traffic ticket (dominance/ dominance)
Bribe: dishonest officer — go free; honest officer — arrest for bribery
Don’t Bribe: dishonest officer — traffic ticket; honest officer — traffic ticket”)

if you issue a failed bribe, then the dishonest officer could interpret it as a bribe, in which case you get the payoff of going free. The honest officer can’t hold you to it as being a bribe, and therefore you get the nuisance of the traffic ticket, so you get the best of both worlds. And a similar analysis, I think, can apply to the potential awkwardness of a sexual solicitation, and other cases where plausible deniability is an asset. I think this affirms something that’s long been known by diplomats, namely that the vagueness of language, far from being a bug or an imperfection, actually might be a feature of language, one that we use to our advantage in social interactions.

So, to sum up, language is a collective human creation, reflecting human nature, how we conceptualize reality, how we relate to one another, and then, by analyzing the various quirks and complexities of language, I think we can get a window onto what makes us tick. Thank you very much.

[Transcription by Robert Thomas Carter]

Transcript: Steven Pinker TED2007

Steven Pinker: A Brief History of Violence

TED2007, Monterey, CA

To watch this TEDTalk, download it or comment on it, and to view many more TEDTalks, visit

(slide: cart full of bodies at Auschwitz)

Images like this, from the Auschwitz concentration camp, have been seared into our consciousness during the 20th century, and have given us a new understanding of who we are, where we’ve come from, and the times we live in. During the 20th century, we witnessed the atrocities of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Rwanda, and other genocides, and even though the 21st century is only seven years old, we have already witnessed an ongoing genocide in Darfur, and the daily horrors of Iraq.

This has led to a common understanding of our situation — namely, that modernity has brought us terrible violence, and perhaps that native peoples lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from, to our peril. Here is an example, from an op ed on Thanksgiving, in the Boston Globe a couple of years ago,

(slide showing copy of article)

where the writer wrote “the Indian life was a difficult one, but there was (sic) no employment problems, community harmony was strong, substance abuse unknown, crime nearly nonexistent; what warfare there was between tribes was largely ritualistic, and seldom resulted in indiscriminate or wholesale slaughter.” Now, you’re all familiar with this treacle. We teach it to our children, we hear it on television and in storybooks.

Now, the original title of this session was “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” and I’m going to present evidence that this particular part of our common understanding is wrong. That, in fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are, that violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. Now in the decade of Darfur and Iraq, a statement like that might seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene, but I’m going to try and convince you that that is the correct picture.

The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades, and over years,

(slide: “The Decline of Violence
-A fractal phenomenon:
-Over millennia, centuries, decades, years
-(But with a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the Sixteenth Century)”)

although there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the 16th century. One sees it all over the world, although not homogeneously, it’s especially evident in the west, beginning with England and Holland, around the time of the Enlightenment.

Let me take you on a journey from several powers of ten, from the millennium scale to the year scale, to try to persuade you of this. Until 10,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, without permanent settlements or government, and this is the state that’s commonly thought to be one of primordial harmony. But the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, looking at casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers, namely — which is our best source of evidence of this way of life — has shown a rather different conclusion.

Here is a graph that he put together showing the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in a number of foraging or hunting and gathering societies.

(graph: “Percentage of male deaths due to warfare” showing % of male deaths related to society, and to modern society, showing also whether or not there is a state structure in the society.)

The red bars correspond to the likelihood that a man will die at the hands of another man, as opposed to passing away of natural causes, in a variety of foraging societies in the New Guinea highlands and the Amazon rain forest. And they range from a rate of almost a 60% chance that a man will die at the hands of another man, to, in the case of the Gebusi, only a 15% chance. The tiny little blue bar in the lower left hand corner plots the corresponding statistic from the United States and Europe in the 20th century, and it includes all the deaths of both World Wars. If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century, there would have been 2 billion deaths rather than 100 million.

Also on the millennium scale, we can look at the way of life of early civilizations, such as the ones described in the Bible. And in this supposed source of our moral values, one can read descriptions of what was expected in warfare, such as the following from Numbers 31: “And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew all the males. And Moses said unto them, have you saved all the women alive? Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that have known men by lying with them, but all the women children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” In other words, kill the men, kill the children, if you see any virgins, then you can keep them alive so that you can rape them. And you can find four or five passages in the Bible of this ilk. Also in the Bible, one sees that the death penalty was the accepted punishment for crimes such as homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

Well, let’s click the zoom lens down one order of magnitude and look at the century scale. Now, although we don’t have statistics for warfare throughout the Middle Ages to modern times, we know just from conventional history that there — the evidence was under our nose all along, that there has been a reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence, for example, any social history will reveal that mutilation and torture were routine forms of criminal punishment. The kind of infraction today that would give you a fine in those days would result in your tongue being cut out, your ears being cut off, you being blinded, a hand being chopped off, and so on. There were numerous ingenious forms of sadistic capital punishment: burning at the stake, disemboweling, breaking on the wheel, being pulled apart by horses, and so on.

(slide: “II: The Century Scale
-Common in European Middle ages & early modern times, rare or absent today:
-Mutilation & torture as routine criminal punishment
-Sadistic capital punishment
-burning at the stake, disemboweling, breaking on the wheel, etc.
-Death penalty for a long list of nonviolent crimes
-Cruelty as entertainment”)

The death penalty was sanctioned for a long list of nonviolent crimes: criticizing the king, stealing a loaf of bread. Slavery, of course, was the preferred labor-saving device, and cruelty was a popular form of entertainment, perhaps the most vivid example was the practice of cat burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage, lowered in a sling into a fire, and the spectators shrieked in laughter as the cat, howling in pain,was burned to death.

What about one on one murder? Well there, there are good statistics, because many municipalities recorded the cause of death, and the criminologist Manuel Eisner

(“Century scale, cont.
-What about one-on-one murder?
-Manuel Eisner: homicide rates from the Middle Ages to the present”)

scoured all of the historical records across Europe for homicide rates in any village, hamlet, town, county that he could find; and then he supplemented them with national data when nations started keeping statistics. He plotted on a logarithmic scale from a hundred — going from a hundred deaths per 100 thousand people per year, which was approximately the rate of homicide in the Middle Ages, and the figure plummets down to less than one homicide per 100 thousand people per year in 7 or 8 European countries. Then there is a slight uptick in
the 1960′s, the people who said that rock and roll would lead to the decline of moral values actually had a grain of truth to that. But there was a decline from at least two orders of magnitude in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present, and the elbow occurred in the early 16th century.

Well, let’s click down now to the decade scale.

(“III: The Decade Scale
-Since 1945
-In Europe & Americas, a steep decline in:
-Interstate wars
-Deadly ethnic riots (pogroms)
-Military coups
-Worldwide, a steep decline in deaths in interstate wars”)

According to non-governmental organizations that keep such statistics, since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, there’s been a steep decline in interstate wars, in deadly ethnic riots or pogroms, and in military coups, even in South America; worldwide, there’s been a steep decline in deaths in interstate wars.

(“Figure 1.4 Average Number of Battle Deaths per State-based Armed Conflict, per Year, 1950-2005″-”Interstate wars, though relatively few in number, are by far the deadliest form of conflict.” graph plots relationship quoted below)

The yellow bars here show the number of deaths per war per year from 1950 to the present. And as you can see, the number of deaths goes down from 65,000 deaths per conflict per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 deaths per conflict per year in this decade, as horrific as it is.

Even in the year scale, one can see a decline in violence. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been fewer civil wars,

(“IV: The Year Scale
-Since the end of the Cold War:
-Fewer civil wars
-Fewer genocides (90% reduction)
-Reversal of the 1960s uptick in homicide, violent crime”)

fewer genocides, indeed a 90% reduction since post World War Two highs, and even a reversal of the 1960s uptick in homicide and violent crime.

(graph: “Homicide victimization, 1950-2004; Rate per 100,000 population”, showing stiff drop after 1990)

This is from the FBI uniform crime statistics. You can see that there’s a fairly low rate of violence in the 50′s and the 60′s, then it soared upward for several decades, and began a precipitous decline starting in the 1990′s, so that it went back — almost back — to the level that was last enjoyed in 1960. President Clinton, if you’re here, thank you.

So (the) question is, why are so many people so wrong about something so important? I think there are a number of reasons. One of them is we have better reporting. The Associated Press is a better chronicler of wars over the surface of the Earth than 16th century monks were. There’s a cognitive illusion. We — cognitive psychologists know that the more — that the easier it is to recall specific instances of something, the higher the probability that you assign to it. Things that we read about in the paper, with gory footage, burn into memory more than reports of a lot more people dying in their beds of old age. There are dynamics in the opinion and advocacy markets. No one ever attracted observers — advocates and donors — by saying things just seem to be getting better and better. There’s guilt about our treatment of native peoples, in modern intellectual life, and an unwillingness to acknowledge there could be anything good about Western culture. And of course, our change in standards can outpace the change in behavior. One of the reasons violence went down is that people got sick of the carnage and cruelty in their time.

That’s a process that seems to be continuing, but if it outstrips behavior, by the standards of the day, things always look more barbaric than they would have been by historic standards. So today, we get exercised, and rightly so, if a handful of murderers get executed by lethal injection in Texas after a 15 year appeal process. We don’t consider that a couple of hundred years ago, they may have been burned at the stake for criticizing the king after a trial that lasted 10 minutes, and indeed that would’ve been repeated over and over again. Today we look at capital punishment as evidence of how low our behavior can sink, rather than how high our standards have risen.

Well, why has violence declined? No one really knows, but I have read four explanations, all of which, I think, have some grain of plausibility.

(slide: painting of Hobbes;
1. Hobbes got it right”)

The first is, maybe Thomas Hobbes got it right. He was the one who said that life in a state of nature was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short — not because, he argued, humans have some primordial thirst for blood, or aggressive instinct, or territorial imperative, but because of the logic of anarchy. In a state of anarchy, there’s a constant temptation to invade your neighbors pre-emptively, before they invade you. More recently, Thomas Schelling gives the analogy of a homeowner who hears a rustling in the basement. Being a good American, he has a pistol in the night stand, pulls out his gun, walks down the stairs, and what does he see but a burglar with a gun in his hand. Now each one of them is thinking: I don’t really want to kill that guy, but he’s about to kill me — maybe I had better shoot before — shoot him before he shoots me, especially since, even if he doesn’t want to kill me, he’s probably worrying right now that I might kill him before he kills me, and so on. Hunter-gatherer peoples explicitly go through this train of thought, and will often raid their neighbors out of fear of being raided first.

Now, one way of dealing with this problem is by deterrence. You don’t strike first, but you have a publicly announced policy that you will retaliate savagely if you are invaded. The only thing is that it’s likely — liable to having its bluff called, and therefore can only work if it’s credible. To make it credible, you must avenge all insults, and settle all scores, which leads to the cycles of bloody vendetta. Life becomes an episode of The Sopranos. Hobbes’ solution, the Leviathan, was that if authority for the legitimate use of violence was vested in a single democratic agency, a leviathan, then such a state can reduce the temptation of attack, because any kind of aggression will be punished, leaving its profitability as zero. That would remove the temptation to invade preemptively out of fear of them attacking you first, it removes the need for a hair-trigger for retaliation to make your deterrent threat credible, and therefore it would lead to a state of peace. Eisner, the man who plotted the homicide rates that you failed to see in the earlier slide, argued that the timing of the decline of homicide in Europe coincided with the rise of centralized states — so that’s a bit of a support for the leviathan theory — also supporting it is the fact that we today see eruptions of violence in zones of anarchy — in failed states, collapsed empires, frontier regions, mafias, street gangs, and so on.

The second explanation is that in many times and places there is a widespread sentiment that “life is cheap.”

(“Explanation #2: “Life is cheap”
-When suffering & early death are common in one’s own life, one has fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others
-As technology and economic efficiency make life longer and more pleasant, one puts a higher value on life in general”)

In earlier times, when suffering and early death were common in one’s own life, one has fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. And as technology and economic efficiency make life longer and more pleasant, one puts a higher value on life in general. This was an argument from the political scientist James Payne.

A third explanation invokes the concept of a “non-zero sum game,” and was worked out in the book Non Zero by the journalist Robert Wright. Wright points out that in certain circumstances, cooperation or non-violence can benefit both parties in an interaction, such as gains in trade, when two parties tra
de their surpluses and both come out ahead, or when two parties lay down their arms and split the so-called “peace dividend” that results in them not having to fight the whole time. Wright argues that technology has increased the number of positive sum gains that humans tend to be embroiled in; by allowing the trade of goods, services, and ideas; over longer distances, and among larger groups of people. The result is that other people become more valuable alive than dead, and violence declines for selfish reasons. As Wright put it, among the many reasons that I think that we should not bomb the Japanese, is that they built my minivan.

The fourth explanation is captured in the title of a book called The Expanding Circle, by the philosopher Peter Singer, who argues that evolution bequeathed humans with a sense of empathy, an ability to treat other people’s interests as comparable to one’s own. Unfortunately, by default, we apply it only to a very narrow circle of friends and family. People outside that circle are treated as subhuman, and can be exploited with impunity. But over history, the circle has expanded.

(“Explanation #4: ‘The Expanding Circle’ (Peter Singer)
-Evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy
-By default, we apply it only to friends & family
-Over history, the circle has expanded:
-village->clan->tribe->nation->other races->both sexes->other species?”)

One can see, in historical record, it expanding from the village, to the clan, to the tribe, to the nation, to other races, to both sexes, and in Singer’s own argument, something that we should extend to other sentient species.

So, this — the question is, if this has happened, what has powered that expansion, and there are a number of possibilities, such as increasing circles of reciprocity, in the sense that Robert Wright argues for, the logic of the golden rule: The more you think about and interact with other people, the more you realize that it is untenable to privilege your interests over theirs, at least not if you want them to listen to you. You can’t say that my interests are special compared to yours, any more than you can say that the particular spot that I’m standing on is a unique part of the universe because I happen to be standing on it that very minute. It may also be powered by cosmopolitanism. By histories, journalism, and memoirs, and realistic fiction, and travel, and literacy; which allows you to project yourself into the lives of other people that formerly you may have treated as subhuman. And also, to realize the accidental contingency of your own station in life, (in) the sense that “there, but for fortune, go I.”

Well, the — Whatever its causes, the decline of violence, I think, has profound implications. It should force us to ask, not just “why is there war,” but also “why is there peace?” Not just “what are we doing wrong,” but also, “what have we been doing right?” Because we have been doing something right, and it sure would be good to find out what it is.

Thank you very much.

(Chris Anderson walks on stage)

CA: Now just a moment — I love that talk. I think a lot of people, here in the room, would say that that expansion of — that you were talking about, that Peter Singer talks about — is also driven by — just by technology, by greater visibility of the other, and the sense that the world is therefore getting smaller. I mean, is that also a grain of truth?

SP: …Very much. It would fit both in Wright’s theory, that it allows us to enjoy the benefits of cooperation, over larger and larger circles, but also I think it helps us imagine what it’s like to be someone else. I think when you read of these horrific tortures that were common in the Middle Ages, you think, how could they possibly have done it? How could they have not have empathized with the person that they’re disemboweling? But clearly, they — as far as they’re concerned, this is just an alien being that does not have feelings akin to their own. Anything, I think, that makes it easier to imagine trading places with someone else means that it increases your moral consideration to that other person.

CA: Well Steve, I would love every news media owner to hear that talk at some point in the next year. I think it’s really important. Thank you so much.

SP: My pleasure.

[Transcription by Robert Thomas Carter]

Comments (1)