BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
The ubiquity of violent images in our society can lead to the impression that we live in an unusually violent era. Movies and video games depicting homicidal gangsters, news reports of wars and genocides, scandals regarding torture, and debates regarding legal executions all seem to convey a world in which death is tolerated if not glorified. But according to psychologist and Johnstone Family Professor Steven Pinker, these outward signs of violence obscure the real historical trend toward ever greater peaceful coexistence which has made the present day the safest time in human history.
On November 19th, Pinker spoke in Austin Hall to a group of burrito-eating law students about the data supporting the theory that the present day is the most peaceful in history. Although no formal records exist for more than a few centuries back, Pinker says that new research is revealing that the toll taken on human life by homicide and war was much greater in Medieval and Renaissance Europe than the present day. A study by Manuel Eisner indicates that homicide rates have fallen about 40 fold from 24 per 100,000 individuals in the 1200’s to less than 0.6 per 100,000 as of the 1960’s. And even within the past 200 years, the decline of conventional wars of attrition and interstate conflict in general has brought the number of individuals killed in armed conflict to less than 2,000 per year during the past decade, compared with 65,000 per year during the 1950s.
Pinker says that it is only natural that despite the decline in actual violence-related mortality we continue to perceive ourselves as violent. Not only is it difficult to forget the recent memory of wars in countries like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as genocides by the Nazis, Serbs, Rwandans, and in Darfur, but our own cultural values are a leading indicator of progress, always moving beyond our present behavior to cause us to reflect negatively on our shortcomings. But in retrospect, the attitudes toward violence have made tremendous progress in the past 400 years. The abandonment or abolition of practices like public mutilation of animals, public executions, torture, slavery, rape, and conquest of foreign people has produced a society that is generally less accustomed to and accepting of any and all forms of cruelty.
Although many scholars and public thinkers have in the past touted the “noble savage” idea of modern society having a corrupting influence, Pinker said that the current trend is to accept that Hobbes had it right and that primitive life was short and brutish. Studies of prehistoric skeletons have shown that a much higher percentage of the population perished as a result of inter-tribal violence than are killed in today’s conflicts, even though the absolute number of mortalities is higher due to the larger population today. The modern state, says Pinker, has provided law enforcement and education that have allowed Enlightenment era ideas of human dignity to become ingrained in our social and cultural norms. Religion, which once was a critical component of individuals’ concepts of violence, has faded into the background in peaceful, secular societies. And now as our sphere of empathy continues to expand beyond family and community to encompass both sexes and other races, even animals are becoming less likely to be subject to human violence.
Apart from the proliferation of more sophisticated sensibilities, Pinker said that the reduction in violence can be attributed in part to the simultaneous proliferation of modern weapons and economic development, for the combination of the two has made neighbors much more valuable alive than dead. First, from a strategic perspective, the idea of a credible retaliatory strike is a powerful deterrent to any military action. When a first strike from the other side would leave one disabled and weak, it increases the need to be prepared to conduct a first strike oneself. But since the end of the Cold War, economic opportunity has outpaced inter-state tensions, bringing nations together to gain by cooperation rather than military force.
Whatever the reasons for the decline in violence, Pinker presented an array of numbers that demonstrate that by almost any statistical measure humans have learned over time how to live in greater harmony with one another, and that the phenomenon is fractal across the whole of human history and within almost any period of time. As we continue seeking to live up to a higher standard, we can take some satisfaction in knowing that social progress has been shown to have empirical results and that abstract values and aspirations appear to have made a difference the history of our species.