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If you think our species has stopped evolving, I invite you to watch a few episodes of Mad Men. In some ways the inhabitants of the New York advertising world of the 1960s seem more backward than a tribe of cannibals. Sexism and homophobia were rampant. Women, who all faced rampant discrimination, were sexual prey. Everybody drank and smoked all the time. People thought nothing of driving drunk. One of the most shocking scenes showed Don and Betty Draper and their kids going on a picnic – and leaving their garbage strewn all over the grass.

Social norms have changed a lot since then. The past 50 years have been a watershed for attitudes toward everything from sexism and human rights to littering (now almost a capital offence). By almost any measure you can find, people across the developed world today are the least violent, most law-abiding, hardest-working and most tolerant generation who ever lived.

The biggest measurable change is in violent crime. After peaking in the 1990s, crime rates have plummeted across the developed world, even in the famously violent United States. In Canada, crime rates are now back to where they were in the 1960s. Although theories abound, nobody really knows why. What's clear is that Northern European countries now have the lowest homicide rates in all of recorded history. Homicide has become a lower-class phenomenon, and a middle-class citizen's chance of dying violently is virtually zilch. Even places that used to be hotbeds of crime are now peaceful. The murder rate in Medellin, Colombia – once a nest of violent drug lords – has fallen 80 per cent since 2000. Today, Medellin is a popular destination for northern retirees.

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Public disorder of the nuisance variety is also at an all-time low. Spitting, littering, queue-jumping, smoking, urinating and picking your nose in public are all regarded as disgusting, lower-class behaviours. Even "manspreading" is now frowned upon.

It's also awfully hard to complain about kids today. Most are conscientious and well-behaved. They don't rebel the way the boomers did. They get along with their parents and other adults. They do their homework. They play organized sports and build orphanages in poor parts of the world. They practise safe sex, and seldom get pregnant. Alcohol and cigarette use among adolescents has generally declined. So has binge drinking. The motto of kids today could be Born to be Mild.

Consider how we've raised the bar on other standards of behaviour. It is now unacceptable (even illegal in places) to hit your kids, even with a gentle swat on the bum in the supermarket. The problem of schoolyard (and now online) bullying gets massive, nationwide attention. Our children are safer than they've ever been, yet we're so concerned about protecting them that we've demolished the old playgrounds, equipped the kids with helmets, and made sure they are never out of sight. Leave your kid alone for five minutes in the car, and someone is likely to report you.

But perhaps the biggest changes have come in the workplace. The culture and values of work life have been heavily feminized. Garden-variety sexual harassment has all but disappeared (along with heavy drinking connected to work events). Human resource departments are busily promoting the values of empathy, empowerment, teamwork, listening, and employee engagement. Macho businesses such as Goldman Sachs distribute mindful meditation lessons to their employees. Even in the most masculine industries, the stereotype of the corporate bully has all but disappeared. Today, any boss who abuses his position – or other people – will quickly find himself out of a job.

Of course, if you believe the media, our world is full of mayhem – especially if you're a woman. According to the most reliable crime statistics, rates of rape and sexual assault, along with other violent crimes, have plunged dramatically over the past few decades. So why is there so much uproar about sexual assault in the military and on campus? One reason is that expectations for male conduct are higher than they've ever been. Lapses that were once regarded as relatively minor – crude jokes made in private by male dental students come to mind – are now serious enough to trigger widespread alarm and sweeping inquiries. Male behaviour has changed almost beyond recognition, but our demands for male self-restraint have changed even more quickly.

What explains this remarkable progress in conduct and morality? Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker argues that they are simply the continuation of a long-term evolution in behaviour that began centuries ago. Since medieval times, Northern Europeans have gradually grown less cruel, less violent, and more self-restrained. As society became more complex, it rewarded people who were more diligent, prudent and mild-mannered, and punished people with poor impulse control. (His book on this subject, The Better Angels of Our Nature is essential reading.) He reminds us that only a few hundred years ago, people tortured animals for fun, disemboweled criminals in the public square, and displayed the heads of their enemies on spikes. Murder rates were 10 to 50 times higher than they are today.

This evolution hasn't stopped. As Simon Kuper suggested in the Financial Times this week, modern society increasingly rewards restraint. Discipline, self-control, compliance and the ability to get along with others are more important than they've ever been. Parents increasingly seek to instill those values in their children. They know there's no frontier to escape to any more. They know that if their kid can't manage to sit still and behave himself in school for a minimum of 12 to 14 years, that kid will be a loser.

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Has natural selection bred the most co-operative, most fair-minded, most law-abiding generation in history? Do nice guys and girls actually finish first? It's probably too soon to tell. But we've come a long way from the world of Mad Men. And I doubt that we are going back.

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