A brief history of violence

Given the possibly unhealthy concentration in my writing on the more negative aspects of foreign affairs and security concerns, one might accuse me of living in a dystopian world in which we are fast going to hell in a handbasket. I do, however, have some sense of perspective, and it is with pleasure that I recommend to you an essay on the history of violence by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker.

Pinker’s essay challenges the notion of the noble savage, or the idea that human beings are peacable by nature and corrupted by modernity:

“…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.”

The essay is presented as an example of how ideas arising from the empirical and biological study of human beings is gaining ground over those that rely on studying society culture independent of its biological foundation.

In his article, Pinker charts in broad historical outline our species’ rise from savagery and barbarism to something vaguely approaching civilisation.

Of course, we have to be careful in our attempts to quantify historical violence:

“Long-term trends can be discerned only by smoothing out zigzags and spikes of horrific bloodletting,” writes Pinker. “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.”

But a picture is emerging of the decline of violence as a fractal phenomenon, visible on scales of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. While it is true that the wars of old resulted in a tiny fraction of the casualties of contemporary military conflict, battles were more frequent, the proportion of the male population engaged in combat greater, and the death rates per battle higher than they are now.

Pinker states that if the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that died in the wars of ancient tribal societies, there would have been billions of deaths, not 100 million.

Pinker is of course open to criticism from those who take an interest in current affairs, and on a daily basis absorb news of death and destruction on a global scale. So is Pinker not paying close enough attention to the world around him? Actually, I think he is.

If looking at the world around us means filtering reality through the mass media, then there is a danger that we develop a distorted picture of said reality. Pinker looks at the question of violence on different historical scales, and sees in the data a trend toward more civilised behaviour. It is an argument I find entirely convincing.