In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker makes an argument that doesn’t appear to be correct at face value. He argues that humanity has become less violent over time and that our societies are following a progression toward less violence as we work toward specific societal goals. While it may feel like our society is constantly on the verge of a meltdown and while we may hear about violent murders, robberies, and attacks in the media, the reality is that humans and our society have become less violent. This is true if you take a long view of human history, going back thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands of years, and it is also true if you take a more modern look at society, looking back a century or even a couple decades. There are fluctuations year over year, but the general trend is downward.
In his book Pinker writes, “across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.” Pinker acknowledges that each of these correlations are complex. It is hard to say that being less violent made a society richer, or that being better governed reduced a society’s levels of violence. None of these variables is easy to separate from the other. But it is clear that less violence is correlated with everything the areas Pinker highlights.
What is important to note is that these correlations reflect a better society that is more favorable to live within. If populations are mobile enough, you would expect people to move toward the more peaceable societies because they want to live in a richer, safer, healthier, and better governed society. Societies which lean into violence, or perhaps that have other negative qualities that cause greater levels of violence, will be less successful and worse off. Populations will want to leave those societies. They will not want to live within and support them. Cultural evolution doesn’t follow a specific path or goal, but we can expect people to want to live in places with the correlates from Pinker’s quote, and we can expect people to try to move toward those better societies. The feedback mechanisms are complex, so we can’t simply say that societies should be less violent for all these positive things to follow, but it does give us an insight into what matters and what societies should strive toward if they want to be successful relative to other societies.