Is this the most peaceful period in history?

By Rebecca Davis 4 October 2011

Stephen Pinker thinks so. The Harvard psychologist has just released his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, in which he makes his claim that the 21st century has been the least violent era in human history. By REBECCA DAVIS.

The idea may strike you as absurd. But Pinker holds firm in his claim premised on two ideas. The first is that the 21st and 20th centuries seem the most violent to us because they are the periods with which we are the most familiar. It also seems to us that violence is never-ending because, in a 24-hour news cycle, we are constantly bombarded with images of destruction, which lead us to believe that the society is violence-soaked.

But Pinker’s other point is a reminder of just how violent humanity’s past ages were. He claims that in hunter-gatherer societies, a man’s chance of being killed by another man was as high as 60% in some places, which already makes that period 50% more dangerous than the 20th century (even including the two world wars). Pinker also lists some of the forgotten horrors of the past. Admittedly, torture forms like waterboarding still exist today, but at least they’re not generally practised for comedic effect. Pinker reminds us that in medieval Europe people were roasted to death in a hollow brass cow, whose mouth was left open so that the victims’ screams would sound like the cow was mooing – causing untold hilarity among onlookers.

He believes the key changes to human society came when we moved from nomadic hunter-gatherer groups to settled communities, which allowed our “better angels” the chance to surface. Pinker says forces like a strong centralised government, international trade and the empowerment of women all make violence less likely – and that’s really why we should protect them. DM

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