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‘The 20th century was most peaceful’

The cognitive scientist on how humans are getting less violent. Bhavya Dore writes.

books Updated: Jan 21, 2012 18:23 IST
Bhavya Dore, Hindustan Times

Statistics may be ‘the cousin of lies’, but for Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, statistics are actually a bastion of morality. In his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard professor and popular science writer argues through an array of data that violence has declined over time.

“Nothing can be more moral that paying attention to the statistics of violence,” said Pinker. He was responding to a question on how statistics belied the conditions and contexts in which violence was perpetrated. He pointed out that statistics are a way of understanding how to reduce violence. “If a death is wrong, then two deaths are twice as wrong, a hundred deaths are hundred times as wrong, and a million deaths are a million times as wrong.”

Pinker argued that despite two world wars, genocides, civil wars and the development of nuclear weapons, the 20th century has had the best record when it comes to violent deaths. But despite violence itself declining, the potential for violence has escalated in this century. “The amount of violence that had been perpetrated as a proportion of the violence that could be perpetrated is really at an all time low,” he said. “No doubt that the potential for violence is at an all time high and the decision of political leaders to develop nuclear weapons was a form of insanity that the human race blundered into.”

Pinker also pointed out the comparison between the use of violence and the use of non-violence in protest contexts. Non-violent protests have been more successful as compared to violent ones, according to statistical analyses mentioned in his book. “Non-violence is three times as effective as violence,” said Pinker, on a question on the efficacy of non-violence. “So Gandhi was right, at least statistically.”

One argument Pinker makes for why violence has declined is the escalation of reason and a greater capacity for empathy. But while as a species we have become more humane, a minority continues to have an impact on decision-making, pointed out moderator journalist Barkha Dutt. “A well functioning democracy will make sure that a minority will not get to impose its views on the majority population with lines that cannot be crossed,” replied Pinker.

At a later session with philosopher AC Grayling, Pinker referred to humans being capable of containing their desire for violence through a system. “If someone disagrees with me, I can feel the blood rush to my face,” joked Pinker. “In some other era if I had the power, I could have put them away for the intolerable affront for challenging my idea. But I step out of myself and realise that reaction is irrational. We are better off if we submit to a belief system that says that no matter how insulted you are when your ideas are challenged you can’t act on that.”

First Published: Jan 21, 2012 18:23 IST