Tag Archives: Why violence has declined

Ranking Historic Atrocities: Pinker’s “Better Angels.”

I have been swamped recently, but regardless of how busy I get, I try to make time for reading of one type or another. In this case I have recently started to reexamine Steven Pinker’s much debated book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Viking, 2011). For those unfamiliar with the book, Pinker argues that, in contrast to modern assumptions that the modern age (World War I, World War II, etc…) has been more violent than the past, violence has actually declined in the modern era in comparison to past centuries.

Various aspects of Pinker’s many arguments related to his thesis have been praised or criticized by scholars in a variety of fields and disciplines. I do not intend to add to either those praises or criticisms here. First, so much has already been written about Pinker’s book that I am very late to the party. I also do not have the time, at this busy point in the semester, to offer any substantive analysis.

But regardless of where one falls in their estimate of Pinker’s arguments, his book contains a lot of interesting information that can provide useful fodder for classroom discussions on the topic of historical violence in human societies, particularly (perhaps) in a world history survey course. One example is the chart (borrowed from Matthew White- who has since updated his figures and rankings) laid out on page 195, which ranks the 21 greatest causes of death (related to violence in one form or another) in human history.

Pinker notes: “’The twentieth-century was the bloodiest in history” is a cliché that has been used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender. But is it true?” (page 193)

Pinker then cites the above mentioned chart, which lists seven of the ten greatest death tolls in history as taking place Continue reading