Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Decline of Human Violence

History and the Decline of Human Violence - Scientific American 10/4/11

Really great Q and A with Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard and author. I always thought it was curious when people would claim we live in such a violent world, but all of the things I have studied about our human history shows that we were far more barbaric towards each other in the past than we are now and there is simply no comparison. You hear this a lot from the religious groups because this helps them sort out the "end times" prophecies in their heads, but they neglect how awful we actually used to be to each other. As Pinker states, "the statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceable time in our species' existence". Perhaps as the world gets smaller and people get more inter-connected with the rest of the planet, it appears more violent because we are actually exposed to everything at once, but the over-all effect on an individual is far better than it has ever been. We see it in the streets down in lower Manhattan, and we see it in the Arab spring, popular uprisings of non-violence like we've never seen before. People don't want to kill each other, they want to be free to do as they wish to make a better life and we are willing to work with others to make it good for all.

accounts of daily life in medieval and early modern Europe reveal a society soaked in blood and gore. Medieval knights—whom today we would call warlords—fought their numerous private wars with a single strategy: kill as many of the opposing knight’s peasants as possible. Religious instruction included prurient descriptions of how the saints of both sexes were tortured and mutilated in ingenious ways. Corpses broken on the wheel, hanging from gibbets, or rotting in iron cages where the sinner had been left to die of exposure and starvation were a common part of the landscape. For entertainment, one could nail a cat to a post and try to head-butt it to death, or watch a political prisoner get drawn and quartered, which is to say partly strangled, disemboweled, and castrated before being decapitated. So many people had their noses cut off in private disputes that medical textbooks had procedures that were alleged to grow them back.

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