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Steven Pinker

“The one great universal in the study of violence is that most of it is committed by fifteen-to-thirty-year-old men. Not only are males the more competitive sex in most mammalian species, but with Homo sapiens a man’s position in the pecking order is secured by reputation, an investment with a lifelong payout that must be started early in adulthood.

The violence of men, though, is modulated by a slider: they can allocate their energy along a continuum from competing with other men for access to women to wooing the women themselves and investing in their children, a continuum that biologists sometimes call ‘cads versus dads.’ […]

The West was eventually tamed not just by flinty-eyed marshals and hanging judges but by an influx of women. The Hollywood westerns’ ‘prim pretty schoolteacher[s] arriving in Roaring Gulch’ captures a historical reality. Nature abhors a lopsided sex ratio, and women in eastern cities and farms eventually flowed westward along the sexual concentration gradient. Widows, spinsters, and young single women sought their fortunes in the marriage market, encouraged by the lonely men themselves and by municipal and commercial officials who became increasingly exasperated by the degeneracy of their western hellholes. As the women arrived, they used their bargaining position to transform the West into an environment better suited to their interests. They insisted that the men abandon their brawling and boozing for marriage and family life, encouraged the building of schools and churches, and shut down saloons, brothels, gambling dens, and other rivals for the men’s attention. Churches, with their coed membership, Sunday morning discipline, and glorification of norms on temperance, added institutional muscle to the women’s civilizing offensive. Today we guffaw at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (with its ax-wielding tavern terrorist Carrie Nation) and at the Salvation Army, whose anthem, according to the satire, includes the lines ‘We never eat cookies ‘cause cookies have yeast / And one little bite turns a man to a beast.’ But the early feminists of the temperance movement were responding to the very real catastrophe of alcohol-fueled bloodbaths in male-dominated enclaves.

The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology. A famous study that tracked a thousand low-income Boston teenagers for forty-five years discovered that two factors predicted whether a delinquent would go on to avoid a life of crime: getting a stable job, and marrying a woman he cared about and supporting her and her children. The effect of marriage was substantial: three-quarters of the bachelors, but only a third of the husbands, went on to commit more crimes. This difference alone cannot tell us whether marriage keeps men away from crime or career criminals are less likely to get married, but the sociologists Robert Sampson, John Laub, and Christopher Wimer have shown that marriage really does seem to be a pacifying cause. When they held constant all the factors that typically push men into marriage, they found that actually getting married made a man less likely to commit crimes immediately thereafter. The causal pathway has been pithily explained by Johnny Cash: Because you’re mine, I walk the line.”


Excerpted from Steven Pinker’s monumental study of human violence The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Wrapping up this chapter, titled “Violence in These United States,” Pinker frames America’s long path to pacification within the lingering differences in how North and South, Liberals and Conservatives regard violence. He writes,

An appreciation of the Civilizing Process in the American West and rural South helps to make sense of the American political landscape today. Many northern and coastal intellectuals are puzzled by the culture of their red state compatriots, with their embrace of guns, capital punishment, small government, evangelical Christianity, ‘family values,’ and sexual propriety. Their opposite numbers are just as baffled by the blue staters’ timidity toward criminals and foreign enemies, their trust in government, their intellectualized secularism, and their tolerance of licentiousness. This so-called culture war, I suspect, is the product of a history in which white America took two different paths to civilization. The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance.

Pinker runs through the well documented findings of this book — which I can recommend with a confident tilt of the head to almost anyone — in his 2013 talk at the University of Edinburgh:

And continue reading: