What got you interested in the history of violence?
I was struck by a graph I saw of homicide rates in British towns and cities going back to the 14th century. The rates had plummeted by between 30 and 100-fold. That stuck with me, because you tend to have an image of medieval times with happy peasants coexisting in close-knit communities, whereas we think of the present as filled with school shootings and mugging and terrorist attacks.
Then in Lawrence Keeley’s 1996 book War Before Civilization I read that modern states at their worst, such as Germany in the 20th century or France in the 19th century, had rates of death in warfare that were dwarfed by those of hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticultural societies. That too, is of profound significance in terms of our understanding of the costs and benefits of civilisation.
Isn’t this topic a departure for you? Your earlier books focus on how the mind and brain work…
Two of my earlier books, How The Mind Works and The Blank Slate, were not about language or even cognition, narrowly, but about human nature. In them I talked about violence, for example, the abolition of barbaric customs such as torturing people to death for religious heresy, to reinforce the point that human nature comprises many components, some of which incline us toward violence, some of which pull us away from it. The fact that violence has declined and what this implied for human nature were spelled out in both books, but I decided that those paragraphs deserved to be expanded into a book of their own.