A History of Violence

As it happened, on the day of the shooting rampage in Connecticut, I attended a lunch talk by Steven Pinker, the Harvard University experimental psychologist whose most recent book is The Better Angels of Out Nature: Why Violence Has Declined  Pinker swiftly reprised the book. Despite the various horrors that regularly punctuate the news, we are probably living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species, he told us.  I was persuaded.  I still am.

I bought the book on Saturday and skimmed its 800 pages. The narrative is well-ordered:  a quick tour of violence in prehistory (CSI Neolithic, featuring the corpse of that famous Iceman in the Tyrolean Alps), Homeric Greece, the Hebrew Bible, the Roman Empire and early Christianity, medieval knights:  enough to make your hair stand on end.

Then six transformations and the underlying logic of why each led to more peaceful ways: from hunting and gathering to agriculture and cities; from small feudal territories to large kingdoms with centralized authority; from sadistic punishment and slavery to the beginnings in the Enlightenment to their abolition; the Long Peace among major nations that began after World War II; a rights revolution, symbolized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948; and the decline in civil wars, genocides, repressions and terrorist attacks that Pinker calls the New Peace, since the end of the Cold War, in 1989.  There are data to support all his argument, even the last – murder rates coming down, the frequency of wars diminishing, civilian massacres declining, deaths in battle fewer, executions more rare.  There are two more lengthy chapters on what we think we know about our inner demons, on the one hand, and our better angels, on the other, reporting results from many corners of brain science, evolutionary psychology and population genetics; and finally a concluding chapter of reflections. It is a stupendous book. A page of reviews is here, including an especially good one by Peter Singer, of Princeton University.

The news of the killings hadn’t reached us.  We didn’t have a chance to talk about the roots and incidence of copy-cat behavior.  I’d begun that day hearing news on NPR of a stabbing spree in a Chinese elementary school.  Had the Newtown killer heard it, too?  I wondered if we would ever know. I wanted to know more about the psychology of the urge to murder children.

We went our separate ways.  But I found great comfort later in Pinker’s argument.

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Today is Mary Schapiro’s last day as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  I don’t get to Washington, DC, often these days and so don’t have first-hand knowledge. But friends who do tell me that the SEC economists and lawyers are now energized thanks to her tenure – a far cry from the battered and thoroughly demoralized agency she took over in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal.

Schapiro didn’t succeed in roping the money market funds into the system of banking regulation, thanks to their intense lobbying. But because she tried to actually fix a dangerous part of the financial system, instead of referring the problem to other authorities down the road, she is likely to be remembered as a regulator at least as long as Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, and probably longer.

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