Would you agree that the 20th Century was the most violent and bloody in human history? Well according to renowned Harvard psychologist Professor Steven Pinker, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Pinker is best known for his work in cognitive science and the psychology of language. He has written a number of popular books on these subjects, has been awarded numerous awards and honorary doctorates for his research, and has been named as one of Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines’ 100 top public intellectuals, and as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential scientists and thinkers in the world.

Pinker’s latest offering The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes sees him tackling head-on the idea that the modern era is mired in deadly violence, both criminal and martial. He argues instead that the development of modern civilisation has seen a clearly observable decline in violence and death that defies the pessimism of modernity’s many critics.

Celebrated philosopher Peter Singer has called it “a supremely important book.” A review in The Guardian urged that “everyone should read this astonishing book”, and other reviews have echoed its status as “a remarkable scholarly achievement”, and “a monumental book on a massive topic… which is sure to be the focal point of future discussions and debates on human violence for generations to come.”  

What makes The Better Angels of Our Nature so special is that Pinker reportedly draws on extensive historical research to show that the rate of violence relative to population size has decreased dramatically over time, such that, in the words of one reviewer:

“The second world war was the worst episode in human history in terms of absolute numbers killed on the battlefield and indirect deaths of non-combatants. But when adjusted for population size, the death toll of 55m makes it only the ninth most deadly event over the past 1,200 years.”

As counter-intuitive as it might seem to view World War II as evidence of a decline in violence, Pinker’s approach has its merits:

“In his statistical argument Pinker rightly focuses on the rate of violence relative to the size of population, rather than the number of violent acts. What matters to an individual living at a particular time and place is their risk of becoming a victim of violence. In moral terms too, Pinker believes the experience of those who enjoy full lives should be included in any reckoning.”

Pinker’s argument makes a great deal of sense whether we are considering the individual’s risk of violent death, or the impact of deaths on the greater population. In the First World War, Australia lost nearly 62,000 men, while our American Allies lost nearly double that number, more than 116,000. Yet the Australian losses amounted to 1.38 percent of our total population, whereas the American losses were only 0.13 percent of theirs. Australia lost fewer men, but it had fewer to lose in the first place. It is important to recognise the significance of these figures.

But it would be abhorrent to claim on the basis of these proportional death rates that Australia lost more men than America in the First World War; that the First World War was less “deadly” to America than to Australia; or that America suffered less violence than Australia in that war. Yet this is how Pinker reportedly reinterprets the death toll of World War Two, and with it, the level of death and violence in the 20th Century as a whole.

Pinker’s aim is to rehabilitate the 20th Century and the whole modern era, “to debunk conventional wisdom about the 20th century being the bloodiest of all time–a notion rooted above all in the horrific, mechanized mass killings of World War II and the Holocaust. In absolute terms, Pinker says, the war was undoubtedly the deadliest event in human history. But to see it as representative of modernity is a mistake.”

Seeing Pinker present his thesis, it is worth noting his antipathy toward the “noble savage” myth of harmonious and peaceful tribal societies, which he derides as “this treacle…we teach it to our children, we hear it on television, and in story books.” Those of us who put no store in the myth of the noble savage are unlikely to be shocked by Pinker’s revelation that primitive societies were potentially more brutal and violent than daily life today. We are not the primary target audience for Pinker’s historical scholarship.

But in his zeal to defend modernism against the myth of a “primordial harmony”, Pinker edges toward a morally repugnant attitude to human life. Why do we care that so many people were killed during the Second World War? Is it because of the “relative risk of dying”? Is it because of the proportional impact on the broader society? Or is it just a morbid fascination for big numbers?

“When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it’s statistics.” The quotation attributed to Stalin belies the self-evident truth that if we regard one death as a tragedy, we will regard a thousand deaths as a thousand tragedies. Though we cannot imagine such numbers in human detail, we respond appropriately to the multiplication of tragedies. Pinker may argue that the Second World War was proportionately only the ninth greatest tragedy in 1,200 years, but this is little more than statistical legerdemain in light of the true value of human life.

We may safely infer from Pinker’s claims that eight other violent atrocities do indeed outrank World War Two in terms of the death toll relative to total population; but this has nothing to do with the value of human life, which cannot be relativised or expressed proportionately. The value of a human life is always one, not one divided by total population. That is why we hold the Second World War in sombre regard as the most deadly war in human history for the sheer number of individual lives lost. It may well be true that Pinker’s big eight: the Atlantic Slave Trade, the American Indian wars, the conquests of Tamerlane, the fall of Rome, the fall of China’s Ming dynasty, the Arab Slave trade, the Mongol conquests, and China’s An Lushan Revolt, were proportionately more devastating on the populations in question. Nonetheless, the first thing we look for are the absolute numbers involved.

As we approach a population of 7 billion, Pinker’s “decline of violence in history” would suggest that the same death toll from the Second World War – the death of some 55 million people – would represent a decline in violence purely because the total population is much greater than it was in 1939. Though statistically valid, it is a terrible piece of “good news” to promote in defence of modern life.

We’ve all heard our elders lament that “a hundred dollars was a lot of money in those days”. Pinker’s conclusion unwittingly reduces human life to the same relative value as human currency, and for this we should abhor it. Despite the broader merits of Pinker’s research – of which I am sure there are many – there must be better ways to attack the myth of the noble savage, or defend the advances of the modern world, without trying to subvert our respect for human life amidst the terrible toll of warfare. It is a utilitarian conceit to think that the absolute value of human life expressed in absolute numbers should be ignored in favour of a shifting ratio.  

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia. 

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...