Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature defends Norbert Elias’s “civilization thesis”: the idea that violence has declined gradually in human societies over the millennia. As history, however, Pinker’s defense is flawed. First, the data gathered by historians do not show long-term declines in individual or collective violence. Second, the historical forces that Pinker believes have suppressed violence can also increase violence, depending on historical conditions. And third, neurology, endocrinology, and primatology may contribute more in the long run than evolutionary psychology to the understanding of the history of human aggression.
Randolph Roth is Professor of History and Sociology at Ohio State University. He is the author of the award-winning American Homicide (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009). He is currently completing a history of homicides of or by children in the United States from colonial times to the present.