Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Liberia, Ferguson: Summer 2014 has been full of terrible news. NPR's Arun Rath talks to Harvard's Steven Pinker to try to answer the question: Is the world getting more messy?
ARUN RATH, HOST:
All recent news about wars, not just in Syria and Iraq, but in Ukraine, Gaza and elsewhere probably has you wondering are things as bad as they seem? Have they ever been this bad? Steven Pinker is a psychologist who spent a lot of time and energy researching the history of human violence, quantifying our rates of killing each other over the millennia. He laid out his findings in a nearly 800-page book, "The Better Angels Of Our Nature" and to skip right to the end, he says we're living in the most peaceful time in human history, but that book came out three years ago.
I asked Pinker, given the more recent situations worldwide, if anything about his findings had changed.
STEVEN PINKER: The major trends of violence have continued to decline, not to reverse. Homicide is down world-wide and its important to remember that homicide kills about five times as many people as wars. More countries and states have abolished capital punishment. Rates of child abuse are down, rates of rape are down, rates of domestic violence are down and when I say down I mean down now compared to four years ago - let alone the preceding decades which saw even greater declines.
Now there's only one category in which the rate of violence has gone up and that's rate of deaths in war, which has crept up a bit because of Syria. But remember that since news is about the stuff that happens, it's not about the stuff that doesn't happen, you don't hear about all the parts in the world where civil wars have fizzled out and have not restarted and that's why even with the horrors of Syria the death rate in war has not gone up by very much. If I could just mention some numbers - during World War II, for example, the rate of death in war was about 300 per 100,000 per year, during the Korean War it was in the twenties, during the Vietnam war in the teens, during the '80s and '90s it was in single digits. In the 2000s, it fell to less than one. Now it's crept up to a tiny bit more than one. That means that its still a 300th of the rate during World War II and a 25th of the rate during the Korean War.
RATH: Steven, do you have faith that violence will continue on this downward trend or what is there to prevent humanity from falling back into a cycle of violence?
PINKER: Well, how likely is it that we're going to start throwing virgins into volcanoes to get good weather or that you're going to have a return of slave markets to New Orleans? I think pretty unlikely. So I don't have faith, but in any of these trends, but I think that there are a number of them that are very likely to continue. I don't think the country is going to put up with the high rates of violence that were tolerated in the '60s and '70s. We now know how to bring it down and we're not going to backslide. I don't think there's going to be a return of great power war. I mean, a lot of what you're seeing in Ukraine as the result of the fact that not even the most hawkish of American hawks are proposing that we fight Russia on the battlefield like great powers did prior to World War I.
On the other hand, there are certain categories of violence that are quite unpredictable and here I would not be willing to predict that the trends would necessarily continue. Civil wars are a lot harder to control than wars between countries. There are only about 200 countries in the world and that's a small number of actors to decide that war is a stupid way to resolve disputes. On the other hand, in a world of seven billion people there's no end to the number of popular liberation fonts that could pop up, get their hands on lots of semi-automatic weapons and create mayhem in some local part of the world. Likewise I don't think that terrorism is going to vanish because again in a world of seven billion people it's very easy for some disaffected, 25-year-old men to decide to raise hell and get a lot of attention to this or that cause, so very much depends on the category of violence.
RATH: That's Steven Pinker, author and professor of psychology at Harvard. Steven, thank you so much.