A History of Violence — we're getting nicer every day


Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth. In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion. — Steven Pinker, 2007

So wrote Steven Pinker, 21-year MIT expat and Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. The above quote is from the introduction to Pinker’s 2007 essay for The New Republic [PDF]. While I had heard of Pinker’s not-politically-correct research into the long-term trends of wars and violence, the full impact didn’t arrive until we reviewed his TED 2007 lecture, a compact 20 minute video, including the Q&A.

From the TNR essay, the following excerpt will give you a bit of the flavor of Pinker’s TED presentation:

…At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of notions like progress, civilization, and man’s rise from savagery and barbarism. Recently, however, those ideas have come to sound corny, even dangerous. They seem to demonize people in other times and places, license colonial conquest and other foreign adventures, and conceal the crimes of our own societies. The doctrine of the noble savage–the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions–pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals… But,

now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.

To be sure, any attempt to document changes in violence must be soaked in uncertainty. In much of the world, the distant past was a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, and, even for events in the historical record, statistics are spotty until recent periods. Long-term trends can be discerned only by smoothing out zigzags and spikes of horrific bloodletting. And the choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion.

Yet, despite these caveats, a picture is taking shape. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.

At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts–such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men–suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

That the decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon may be supported by the 2005 Human Security Report [which I noted in this March, 2007 post].

…the number of armed conflicts has declined by more than 40 percent since 1992… Over the past dozen years, the global security climate has changed in dramatic, positive, but largely unheralded ways. Civil wars, genocides and international crises have all declined sharply. International wars, now only a small minority of all conflicts, have been in steady decline for a much longer period, as have military coups and the average number of people killed per conflict per year. — Human Security Report, 2005

From the Overview:

The wars that dominated the headlines of the 1990s were real—and brutal—enough. But the global media have largely ignored the 100-odd conflicts that have quietly ended since 1988. During this period, more wars stopped than started.

…There has been a great deal of research on the causes of war, but very little on the causes of peace. Since the end of the colonial era there have been fewer and fewer international wars, while the last 15 years have seen a dramatic decline in civil wars.

The Human Security Report contains extensive source data and useful charts — such as the above-left graphic for recent armed conflicts, for 1816 – 2002 international wars, and 1816 – 2002 civil wars. The reports attempts to identify contributing factors — the credible ones include the rise of democratization, the dramatic decline in global poverty, the demise of colonialism, the end of the Cold War, and a not very well supported hypothesis crediting UN peacekeeping operations.