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Humans are getting less violent!

I’ve read a couple of articles lately about a new book by Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker, who’s done research showing that, contrary to what a lot of people and a lot of dystopian science fiction tends to assume, human society has actually become less violent over time.  Here are some excerpts from an article in New Scientist:

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.

How do you explain the decline in violence?
I don’t think there is a single answer. One cause is government, that is, third-party dispute resolution: courts and police with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Everywhere you look for comparisons of life under anarchy and life under government, life under government is less violent. The evidence includes transitions such as the European homicide decline since the Middle Ages, which coincided with the expansion and consolidation of kingdoms; the transition from tribal anarchy to the first states. Watching the movie in reverse, in today’s failed states violence goes through the roof.

Do you think commerce helps too?
Commerce, trade and exchange make other people more valuable alive than dead, and mean that people try to anticipate what the other guy needs and wants. It engages the mechanisms of reciprocal altruism, as the evolutionary biologists call it, as opposed to raw dominance.

What else has contributed to the decline?
The expansion of literacy, journalism, history, science – all of the ways in which we see the world from the other guy’s point of view. Feminisation is another reason for the decline. As women are empowered, violence can come down, for a number of reasons.

I’m not entirely sure about all his points.  I’ve gathered that pre-agrarian, hunter-gatherer societies tend to be fairly peaceful on the whole, the idea being that it’s when we settle down and don’t need to hunt for food as much that our predatory instincts go unfulfilled and get misdirected into war, conquest, oppression, rape, etc.  Also I wonder if he’s reading too much into percentages — the percentage of the population touched by violence may be declining simply because there are so many more people around.

Still, I think there’s a lot of merit to his position, at least with regard to the period since civilization began.  I’ve had the same impression myself for a long time: that states and societies in the past were far more prone to resort to killing, torture, and the like, and that these things are a lot less acceptable now as we’ve developed better alternatives, more ethical justice systems and bodies of law.  When people in the past would resolve disputes with duels to the death, today they’d resolve them with litigation or smearing their opponents in the media.  Either of which can get ugly, but it’s better than the alternative.

What’s nice about this model is that it’s nonpartisan.  It says government helps reduce violence, which should make lefties happy, but it also says commerce and business do the same, which should satisfy those on the right.  Which fits what I believe, that it’s a healthy balance between the two institutions, government and business cooperating and curbing each other’s excesses, that works the best.   Both can certainly be abused and mishandled, but both have the potential to do great good with the right approach.

So why does it seem to us that the world is so much more violent?  Pinker says that as violence becomes more uncommon, those acts of violence that do occur stand out more and are more shocking.  They don’t blend into the noise the way they once would have.

Pinker says the changes are more likely social/environmental than evolutionary, which makes sense, since it’s only been a few thousand years since civilization began, hardly a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.  Still, it seems to me that if a society has come to see violence as unacceptable, then that could influence evolution, because people more prone to violent behavior could come to be seen as less desirable mates.  Not to mention that people leading more violent lives might be more likely to get themselves killed off, or locked away without access to prospective mates, and thus would make less of a contribution to the gene pool.  So it might not be a factor now, but if civilization continues along these lines for long enough, then it could affect our evolution over the next few millennia or so.  (Which also says something about alien civilizations in science fiction.  If they’ve been civilized for tens or hundreds of millennia, they could also have evolved to be less aggressive.)

This is heartening for me to read about, since it reinforces what I’ve always believed about humanity’s potential to improve.  It makes the optimistic future seen in Star Trek, and the one I seek to depict in my original fiction, more credible.  Maybe it will persuade other SF writers to explore more optimistic futures as well, or at least not be so quick to default to dystopias.  And who knows?  Maybe if people in general can recognize that civilization is heading in a positive direction, it will inspire them to work for further improvement.

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  1. Tim Webb
    November 4, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Christopher, I guess that this is proof that we are all slaves to the myths we want to believe. I used to share your enthusiasm about people improving, until I started to study history. A strong (unassailable?) case can be made that the 20th century was the most barbarous and violent in human history. There are still people alive who survived the Nazi death camps… you know, the death camps that were the fruit of the remarkable precision and efficiency that characterizes “German engineering”.

    (Regarding the article, I’d have to read the whole thing and try to understand how he expands homicide rates in British towns over the last 8 centuries to make the leap to cover all of human society (or better, societies)… not to mention how much data he has, and how accurate it is, and if it is only limited to Britain. Maybe the snippet doesn’t do justice to the whole thing; dunno. I just don’t have time for it right now.)

    Certainly humans have the “potential” to improve, but in my opinion for that potential to motivate someone to have an attitude of “optimism” about the future is purely blind faith in light of even recent history. Note that I _don’t_ mean that as some sort of put down, I’m just trying to be clear, which can be hard in an electronic medium.

    Thanks, Tim

    • November 4, 2011 at 11:24 am

      Pinker commented on that in one of the articles I read, saying that WWII was an outlier, an exceptional event that went against the overall trends of history. Of course nobody’s denying that exceptionally violent events still sometimes happen, but the general statistical trend is that violence is less routine, that a smaller percentage of the overall human population is affected by it. Part of why it seems to us that violence is more pervasive today is that we’re less accustomed to it, so when it does happen, it stands out more, shocks us more. So our perception that modern times are more violent is an artifact of the decrease in violence. It’s like the way we pay more attention to plane crashes than we do to car crashes even though car crashes are hundreds of times more common and more likely to kill you. When it’s routine, it just blends into the background. But when it’s rare, it stands out in our attention and seems like a bigger threat. Just one of the ways in which our perceptions and “common sense” can mislead us.

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