CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night's TV: What Genghis needed to stop his ...

The Violence Paradox

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Brain scans show that, when we tuck into a Mars bar or nibble on a square of Fruit & Nut, a specific region of our grey matter lights up with joy — our pleasure centre.

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Curiously, exactly the same area of our brains is stimulated when we carry out an act of calculated vengeance.

‘The old saying, “Revenge is sweet”, is literally true,’ remarked psychologist Steven Pinker in his two-part study The Violence Paradox (BBC4).

With his greying rock-star curls and black leather jacket, Pinker looks like he’d sacrifice all the letters after his name if only he could be the lead guitarist in a Led Zeppelin tribute band.

Professor Steven Pinker from BBC4's The Violence Paradox argues the world is getting less violent

Professor Steven Pinker from BBC4's The Violence Paradox argues the world is getting less violent

He argues that the world is getting less violent — despite the chocolatey delight we get from tit-for-tat reprisals. In the Middle Ages, or so his figures show, the murder rate was 20 times higher than today.

And even though modern international conflicts — with megaton bombs and armies bristling with automatic weapons — are infinitely more destructive than the old methods of swords and spears, our ancestors were still much more likely to die in wars.

Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes in the 13th century worked really hard at mass slaughter. They didn’t have nuclear weapons but they still made sure that, when they laid waste to a city, not a single man, woman or child survived.

In fact, they wiped out about 10 per cent of the entire global population, Pinker said. Pol Pot was a peacenik by comparison.

It’s an intriguing idea, though it did feel like we were being bamboozled with statistics. The numbers were carefully lined up to create a misleading impression, one that fits the usual academic pattern of dewy-eyed optimism.

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