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Pinker Delivers First Contemporary Thought Lecture

Harvard professor argues violence is declining due to humanity’s “better angels”

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February 22, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley
Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker declared the "better angels" of human nature have led to a steady decline in violence.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Renowned Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker delivered the inaugural Northwestern University Contemporary Thought lecture Feb. 20 and declared that the “better angels” of human nature have led steadily to a global decline in violence over the centuries.

 “Believe it or not, we may be living in one of the least violent times in the history of our species,” Pinker told a crowd of nearly 600 that packed the Ryan Family Auditorium of the Technological Institute, including President Morton Schapiro, students, faculty, deans and guests.

 Pinker’s lecture kicked off a large-scale speakers series conceived by undergraduate students and designed to revive a Northwestern tradition from nearly a century ago focused on bringing high-profile intellectuals to campus to share their knowledge and wisdom.

 Students intend the Contemporary Thought lectures to annually bring contemporary intellectuals from a variety of fields to campus to address subjects that will unite the Northwestern community in conversation that transcends schools, disciplines and majors.

 Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard College, is the best-selling author of numerous books, including, most recently, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” and “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature.”

 Pinker’s lecture drew on research and data chronicling the history of violence through the ages, using statistics, archeological records and historical analysis. He concluded that the rise of nation states, democracy, trade and international community all contributed to the slow pacification process of human nature.

 He cited the statistically higher death rates as a percentage of population in chaotic, early, non-state societies and the high homicide rates in Medieval European culture and how they gradually gave way to the moderating forces of modernity.

 For example, the judicial retribution practices of torture and capital punishment and the practice of slavery helped fuel the higher rates of violence in the past. But as societies moved toward greater literacy, more democratic government, efforts for abolition and civil rights and the age of Enlightenment, knowledge slowly replaced superstition and lower rates of violence ensued.

 The natural inclinations of human beings toward violence ultimately were mitigated by society’s counterbalancing factors encouraging self-control, empathy, a sense of morals and reason, Pinker argued.

 Critics point to the horrendous killing of millions in world wars, massacres and genocide during the last century, including tens of millions during World War II and the Holocaust.  But Pinker insisted that as a percentage of the overall population, these proportions were less severe than those of previous centuries.

 In a lengthy question-and-answer session at the end of his lecture, Pinker noted that a few individual leaders in the last century — such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao — were responsible for most of the death, damage and destruction.

 He also singled out religion as a factor that has fueled violence in ages past and today, noting, “some of the worst atrocities in world history have been religiously motivated.” He cited the Crusades and the religious wars in Europe as examples.

 “The notion of human rights, that every individual has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Pinker observed, “has helped push the human race toward gradually turning away from war.

 “Not until the 20th century, and possibly the second half of the 20th century, did many people say or feel there was anything wrong with war,” he concluded. “This is a change in the intellectual mindset of humanity, and it is a contributing factor.”

 Jonathan Green, the student who helped lead the student effort to bring the Contemporary Thought lecture to campus, welcomed Pinker on behalf of the University. In opening remarks, Green noted that Pinker was the first speaker in a new series designed to carry on a tradition of lectures started long ago at Northwestern.

 The series revives a Contemporary Thought speakers tradition going back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Northwestern Professor Baker Brownell taught a course on that topic and brought noted speakers to campus -- ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams and Harriet Monroe to Carl Sandburg, Bertrand Russell, Henry Wallace and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Dan McAdams, professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department, introduced Pinker and warmly recalled their time together as students at Harvard, noting that even then, his classmates could tell he was “the smartest person in the room.”