Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker explained the long-range decline in human violence at a lecture and signing for his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” which was recently released in paperback. Speaking to a packed room at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Wednesday evening, Pinker said that humans may currently be living in the “most peaceful era” of their entire species’ existence.
Pinker said that the “better angels” of humankind—which include self-control, empathy, moral sense, and reason—have deterred people from engaging in violent acts.
Despite this decrease in violence, human nature has neither changed nor lost its inclinations for violence.
“We continue to take a tremendous enjoyment in vicarious violence, such as murder mysteries, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean dramas, video games, hockey, and movies starring a certain ex-governor of California,” Pinker said.
Although the motives still exist, people are less likely to act on their feelings, according to Pinker.
“If the ends are infinitely good, arguably, you can be arbitrarily violent,” he said. “After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
The decline of violence prompts a reexamination of modernity, Pinker argued.
“Everyone acknowledges that modernity has bought us many gifts: longer and healthier lives, less ignorance and superstitions, and richer experiences,” Pinker said. “There’s always been a kind of nostalgia and romanticisms that has questioned the price.”
Despite the shfit to modernity, there are still examples of human violence.
“We have to live in the shadow of terrorism, genocide, and nuclear weapons,” Pinker said. Ultimately though, he believes that this long-term trend warrants gratitude for the society that made decreased, albeit not eliminated, violence possible.
While describing the history of violence, Pinker did not shy away from discussing brutal examples of violence and sharing gruesome facts.
Revealing statistics about homicidal fantasies, he said that one in three males and 15 percent of females frequently dream of killing a person they dislike, while 75 percent of men and 60 percent of women occasionally do.
“What does this say about human nature?” Pinker asked.
He quipped, “It says that 25 percent of men are liars.”