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Around the Columns

That’s evolution for you

Steven Pinker

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker spoke at MU about his research findings that the human race has grown kinder. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Goldstein

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, author and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, visited campus March 19 to speak at MU’s annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium. His talk foreshadowed the question at the center of his forthcoming book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Are humans becoming more humane?

With war, torture, terrorism, murder and all manner of cruelty dominating headlines, Pinker’s answer may surprise some people. His research crossing disciplines, oceans and centuries finds that, despite all the bad news, the human race is becoming kinder and gentler.

This can be counterintuitive. For instance, by the numbers, World War II was far and away history’s most violent conflict. But by the percentages of people who died, it ranks behind the fall of Rome, the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the Mongol conquests under Genghis Kahn.

During his research, Pinker scoured a range of data sources to learn about rates of violent death in many cultures and time periods. He discovered that relatively modern developments such as literacy, education, commerce and centralized legal systems have led to large declines in the percentage of people who die violently. Centralized legal systems reduce the number of people who act on impulse for revenge. Commerce binds what might otherwise be unfriendly groups in mutually beneficial relations. For instance, Pinker jokes that the United States and China won’t go to war because “they make all our stuff,” and “we owe them too much money.”

Widespread education and literacy also play a big role. Although evolution has bequeathed humans with “a fairly puny sense of empathy,” Pinker says, consuming “media of vicarious experience” such as history, novels and journalism can improve matters. “If you have people read first-person narratives, they tend to become more altruistic toward the voice in that narrative and that category of people.

“The expansion of literacy, education and public discourse leads people to realize the futility of cycles of violence and makes it harder to privilege their own interests over others. And it encourages them to replace tribalism, authoritarianism and puritanism, all of which can encourage violence, with a morality based on fairness and universal rules, such as human rights. It encourages people to see violence as a problem to be solved, rather than as a contest to be won — all developments we tend to call enlightenment.”