School of History, Classics & Archaeology

History of violence, factors for peace

On 29 May, at the University’s annual Gifford Lecture, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker challenged popular perceptions about violence and progress.

These included “the assertion that the 20th century was the most violent in history” and “the nostalgia and romanticism that has used violence to question the price of modernity”.

The lecture - based on Professor Pinker’s book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ - is now available via the University’s YouTube channel.


Arguing that, over the course of history, rates of violence have declined, Professor Pinker used statistical evidence from forensic archaeology and modern conflicts to show that the number of violent or war-related deaths (per 100,000 people, per year) has gone down.

With the exception of civil wars, which kill fewer people than inter-state conflicts, many forms of violence have been outlawed across the world and/or are in decline. Examples range from slavery, lynchings and witch hunts to capital punishment, murder and homophobia.

Factors for peace

Professor Pinker found evidence to support the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said peace was often built on democracy, trade and internationalism.

Common elements were the:

  • rise of states with judicial systems which have a monopoly on violence
  • increase in trade or “gentle commerce”
  • expansion of the human “circle of empathy”, from immediate family and friends to village, clan, tribe, nation and other races
  • escalation of reason and understanding, in which increases in travel, literacy/communication and education played a part.

“Instead of just lamenting, ‘Why is there war?’ perhaps a better question is, ‘Why is there peace?” suggested Professor Pinker.

Call for reassessment

After describing the current assessment of modernity as the erosion of family, tribe, tradition and religion in favour of individual rights, cosmopolitanism, reason and science, Professor Pinker concluded:

“Everyone has to acknowledge that modernity has brought us many gifts eg. longer and healthier lives, less ignorance and superstition, richer experiences… but there has always been a current of nostalgia and romanticism that has used violence to question the price. ‘Is it worth it if we have to live in the shadow of terrorism, genocide, world wars and nuclear weapons?’

“However if, despite impressions, the long-term trend (though halting and incomplete) is that violence of all kinds is decreasing, that calls for a rehabilitation of the ideals of modernity and progress and it’s a cause for gratitude for the institutions of civilisation and enlightenment that have made it possible”.