Not To Worry

As I’ve mentioned recently, there is always something at Edge.org to engage the curious mind. One of the more interesting features of the website is the annual World Question project, which consists of asking a diverse collection of thinkers some simple but provocative question, and presenting their responses.

This year’s question is “What Are You Optimistic About?”, and the respondents include, among many others:

Maybe things aren’t so bad after all. For example, Steven Pinker’s essay — The Decline of Violence — points out that despite the ongoing mayhem in various corners of the world, mankind seems gradually to be losing its taste for violence (a point that was also made just yesterday, as it happens, in this post by Dennis Mangan). Pinker writes:

In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, “the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.”

As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under-appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur. …

This really is a fascinating project; you can read all of this year’s responses here, and find the questions from previous years here.

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