Today’s Talk Topic: “The World Is Not Falling Apart”


Image via Slate

Beheadings. The savagery of the Islamic State. Rape as a tactic of war. Suicide bombings. Children massacred by lone gunmen. Schoolgirls kidnapped and sold as sex slaves. Tribal violence, sectarian violence, escalating wars, ruthlessly suppressed rebellions . . .

It’s hard not to see our world as extraordinarily dangerous; hard not to be apprehensive about where the intensifying violence will lead. That’s why it is so bracing to read an analysis in Slate, by two social scientists, that argues, persuasively, that the world is not falling apart. 

The authors, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, have the credentials, the broad knowledge of human history, and the statistics to make a trustworthy judgment. Pinker is Johnstone Family professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Andrew Mack is a fellow at the One Earth Future Foundation and director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University.

First they calm us down by explaining the role of hyperbolic journalists, randomness, and our lack of attention to “orders of magnitude” (our tendency to forget that disease, famine, and accidents kill for more people than terrorist attacks) in making us so apprehensive about our world.

“The only sound way to appraise the state of the world,” they write, “is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down?”

The answer, in many crucial categories, is down. The authors deploy graphs to make their case.

  • Homicide, worldwide. Rates down, even taking into account “the horrific rates of killing, particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa . . . and the gory drug-fueled killings in parts of Mexico.”
  • Violence against women. Rates down in the U.S.: “Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past.” Though “few other countries have comparable data . . . there is reason to believe that similar trends would be found elsewhere.”
  • Violence against children. Rates down.Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past.”
  • Genocide and other mass killings of civilians. Rates down. “By any standard, the world is nowhere near as genocidal as it was during its peak in the 1940s, when Nazi, Soviet, and Japanese mass murders, together with the targeting of civilians by all sides in World War II, resulted in a civilian death rate in the vicinity of 350 per 100,000 per year.”

And so it goes—downward trends in other categories of horror: victimization of children and battle deaths in armed conflict.

Pinker and Mack acknowledge “less benign” trends: an increase in civil wars and an increase in “religious hostilities.” They analyze the violence in Syria/Iraq, Ukraine, and Israel and Palestine—but with a historical perspective that is reassuring.

To get a realistic grip on the state of the world, read the article. It’ll make your day.


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