A World Less Violent?


Image by Rickydavid via Flickr

Although the Libyan and Iraq wars recently ended, the world still seems like a violent place. After all, the twenty four hour news cycles are awash with stories of crime, war, riots and other violent activities. However, Steven Pinker contends, in his The Better Angels of Our nature: Why Violence Has Declined that we are living in a time in which violence is at an all time low.

Pinker bases his claim on statistical data. For example, the records of 14th century Oxford reveal 110 homicides per 100,000 people while the middle of the 20th century saw London with a murder rate of less than 1 person per 100,000. As another example, even the 20th century (which saw two world wars and multitudes of lesser wars) killed .7% of the population (3% if all war connected deaths are counted).

Not surprisingly, people have pointed to the fact that modern wars have killed millions of people and that the number of people who die violently is fairly large. Pinker, not surprisingly, makes the obvious reply: the number of violent deaths is higher but the percentage is far lower-mainly because there are so many more people today relative to the past.

As the title suggests, Pinker attributes the change, in part, to people being better at impulse control, considering consequences, and also considering others. This view runs contrary to the idea that people today are not very good at such things-but perhaps people are generally better than people in the past. Pinker does also acknowledge that states have far more control now than in the past, which tends to reduce crime.

While Pinker makes a good case, it is also reasonable to consider other explanations that can be added to the mix.

In the case of war, improved medicines and improved weapons have reduced the number of deaths. Wounds that would have been fatal in the past can often be handled by battlefield medicine, thus lower the percentage of soldiers who die as the result of combat.  Weapon technology also has a significant impact. Improvements in defensive technology mean that a lower percentage of combatants are killed and improvements in weapon accuracy mean that less non-combatants are killed. The newer technology has also changed the nature of warfare in terms of civilian involvement. With some notable exceptions, siege warfare is largely a thing of the past because of the changes in technology. So, instead of starving a city into surrendering, soldiers now just take the city using combined arms.

The improved technology also means that modern soldiers are far more effective that soldiers in the past which reduces the percentage of the population that needs to be involved in combat, thus lowering the percentage of people killed.

There is also the fact that the nature of competition between human groups has changed. At one time the conflict was directly over land and resources and these conflicts were settled with violence. While this still occurs, we now have far broader avenues of competition, such as economics, sports, and so on. As such, people might be just as violently inclined as ever, only now we have far more avenues into which to channel that violence. So, for example, back in the day an ambitious man might have as his main option being a noble and achieving his ends by violence. Today a person with ambitions of conquest might start a business or waste away his life in computer games.

In the case of violent crime, people are more distracted, more medicated, and more separated than in the past. This would tend to reduce violent crimes, at least in terms of the percentages.

A rather interesting factor to consider is natural selection. Societies tend to respond to violent crimes with violence, often killing such criminals. Wars also tend to kill the violent. As such, centuries of war and violent crime might be performing natural selection on the human species-the more violent humans would tend to be killed, thus leaving those less prone to crime and violence to reproduce more. Crudely put, perhaps we are killing our way towards peace.

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  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I suspect that the curve of peacefulness is a bit like that of the stockmarket.

    Just when the pundits (in this case, Pinker) assure us that it is going up and up without stop,
    the crash occurs.

    I agree with you that better medical care and more exact weapons do diminish some of the effects of violence, but I would not extrapolate from the present curve of diminishing violence.

    Didn’t Europeans in the early 20th century believe that the bad old days of huge wars were over, just before World War I broke out?

  2. Interestingly, Pinker has addressed some of these issues.

    He does not claim that “peacefulness” “is going up and up without stop”. As he points out at the FAQ on his own site:

    As to whether violence might increase in the future: of course it might. My argument is not that an increase in violence in the future is impossible; it’s that a decrease in violence has taken place in the past (pp. 361–362, 377, 671). These are different claims.

    He also addresses the WWI point:

    Actually, Angell wrote only that war was economically counterproductive, not that it was obsolete—he worried, correctly, that leaders might blunder into war in their drive for national glory and other non-economic motives (see pp. 244–249). As for myself, I’m not predicting that large wars will never happen in the future, only that they haven’t taken place in the recent past—a phenomenon which needs to be explained (see pp. 251-255, 361–362, 377).

  3. I think Pinker is quite right. I think the real cause of the change is that “life has become less cheap” (i.e. it is perceived as being less cheap). What I mean by that is, with advancing technology over the centuries humans have acquired higher expectations for their children, and so have fewer of them, investing more in each one. This has made human parenting a more demanding, time-consuming business in which cruelty is frowned upon more, and care and consideration is approved of more.

    So I think evolutionary theory is the explanation of this very welcome drift, but I’m not sure I would say we are “killing our way towards peace”. That could work if peacefulness was reproductively rewarded in ways it hadn’t been before, but that could only happen if there were some independent “cultural” factor at work.

  4. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Thanks for the link.

    It’s impossible to predict the future about violence.

    There are too many variables involved: the economic situation, climate change, hypothetical or not so hypothetical dictators with nuclear weapons, possible fanatical
    religious movements, revolutions in major nations (imagine a fanatical, nationalistic and/or racist revolutionary or counter-revolutionary movement coming to power in China) etc, etc.

  5. I think the improved technology of weapons is not an explanatory variable for the question.

    It’s who’s holding the weapons that matters. Modern weapons make genocide in Darfur, East Timor, Chechnya, Congo, and Rwanda that much more efficient. If one group wants another dead, it’s easier that even. If one person wants Empire, they will fight.

    The West has developed political institutions to avoid war – namely, democracies. It’s said that democracies don’t go to war with each other. The development of the nuclear umbrella kept the democracies of Europe from war with the Soviet Union.

    The natural selection comments are typical “pop natural selection” – sounds clever, but without any data to support it. Natural selection works over long periods; we are too close to the bloodbath of the 20th century for natural selection to be acting upon the human species. Finally one might present a moral counterpoint: blood-lust is in every one of us; normally it is suppressed by cultural norms, political and governmental institutions (e.g., law enforcement). When those constraints break down, it comes out – for example, riots. Genocide in Rwanda. On August 19, 1934, the people of Germany voted 90% in favor of giving Hitler absolute power.

  6. s.wallerstein,

    Quite right. After the renaissance there was a Western dream of a rational and peaceful world. WWI itself was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” Clearly, as Plato said, only the dead have seen the end of war.

    Given that we are facing an every growing population and a growing “middle” class worldwide (=more consumption), there are some grounds to expect a possible return to old style warfare over land, water, and other such resources. As Hobbes noted, when people want the same stuff and they will not (or cannot share) it must go to the strongest-and this is settled by the sword.

  7. nice info..hope this information work me..

  8. I think we will see war of a sort over resources.

    In a book I have somewhere – a fantasy in which a queen agonizes over the inevitability of war ‘what is the point of Dead Heroes?’ the book finishes with the wry conclusion: “The point of dead heroes is that they are dead..

    This sort of leads to a rational conclusion about violence and death: It reflects the number of people in the world who have no better option.

    I fear that in the coming years, that will be more…

  9. The Stone Philosophy Links - NYTimes.com - pingback on December 28, 2011 at 12:41 pm
  10. Pinker also addresses the thesis that humans are evolving to be less violent. The dramatic decreases he documents have happened much too rapidly to be due to evolution.

  11. – OFF Topic –

    “waste away his life in computer games”

    Why is he “wasting away” his life?
    I mean, if he plays it, he likes it. And if he likes what he does, Isn’t he obviously enjoying his life?

    I’m just wondering…

  12. Good point, Rafael. “What makes a wasted life?” would be a great topic for discussion.

  13. I’m actually quite a fan of video games (I’m currently playing a Jedi Knight Guardian in SWTOR on the Republic side), so I don’t consider gaming itself to be a waste. After all, we have a need for play and recreation and a video game can be as good (or better) than other amusements. That said, some folks do get “consumed” by video games at the expense of having a properly well rounded life. Of course, this is not something unique to video games: people can waste away their lives in business, etc.

  14. I’ve often wondered about violence and natural selection, but I keep coming to the opposite conclusion: natural selection selects for the most violent by definition.

    When societies respond to violence with more violence, the violence of society trumps the violence of the criminal (as defined by that society). Those who survive are those who showed more violence not less.

    Same with wars. When two societies (nations, tribes, clans, ideologies, etc.) battle, the less violent/forceful tends to be killed while the more violent/forceful survive and reproduce.

    There is an ethical dimension to survival whereby the very act of persisting in existence comes at the cost of others non-existence. Survival means complicity with violence.

    I’m worried this all sounds to pessimistic or cynical which is not my intent.

  15. There is an extreme asymmetry in ability to efficiently perpetrate violence. Over in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, we have such far superior training, technology, coordination, logistics, and all other metrics of warfighting capacity that the insurgents cannot realistically hope to win their aims by means of actual warfare. They aim to inflict enough damage to annoy us and convince the locals that we and their elected governments cannot keep them safe, while mostly staying in the shadows and avoiding large-scale confrontations that would leave all of them and very few of us dead.

    This is much different from most wars in the past, all the way back to warring tribes raiding each other with battleaxes. The same dynamic holds in strong states, where many more people might want to perpetrate violence than actually do, but can’t realistically hope to do so while evading capture by the police. Back in the day, the nobility could do whatever they wanted, and even more recently, in relative frontier conditions, there was often no effective law enforcement. Not to mention people without recourse to a working criminal justice system tend to end up with a gangland style of vicious circle of violence where they answer killing and brutality with more of the same.

  16. Will have to read his book, but does he consider the effects of tactics such as economic sanctions, one-sided free trade and the various subsidies western governments give that lead to famines and other disasters in countries that are not directly violent but nonetheless cause deaths? Or the North Korean willful mismanagement that led to the deaths of millions? Or the complete disregard for life in, for example, China?

    If you’re going to use the title “Better Angels” you have to consider more than simply sticking a sword into someone.

  17. In the natural world there is remarkably little violence. In the sense of equal combat. Most predator deaths are as a result of totally unequal opportunity.

    Combat tends to be Territorial between more or less equals, and results in the death or driving off of one and occasionally both.

    So you can draw a general principle which i think is almost universally true – intra species conflict is always about territory of one sort or another.

    And the inference is that conflicts over territory happen when the species is in competition due to over population.

    Ergo part of the function of that violence is to reduce population, and hence pressure on the Territory.

    Violence per se is not the only successful strategy, either: Those who can negotiate away conflict survive better than those who must always be confrontational: the point of the dead heroes, is that they are dead

    I think what the book may be discovering is that within the boundaries of the West, more affluence and a stabilizing population means that there is less territorial conflict, and indeed we may simply be getting used to living this rather crowded socialized surburbanised way.

    Sales of Call of Duty two thousand and thirty three or whatever it is show the appetite for violence is still as strong…we just have other ways of expressing it, perhaps.

    Violence is always the last resort…do or die stuff – literally. Its frequency reflects the amount of death happening ANYWAY. Who wants to risk getting killed when they have a life to look forward to? Its only the people who have nothing left to lose who see it as a viable life game plan. Now they may be on the ascendency if the economic collapse continues, but I believe the general situation now, is that people have more to lose and so risk losing it, less.

  18. Thomas,

    Interesting and good points.
    It does seem worth considering that the selection might also favor the less violent and less aggressive. Victory in war does not always go to those most prone to violence or the most aggressive, but rather to those who can fight a war effectively. So, for example, the well disciplined and cooperative army might triumph over a force made up of those far more violently inclined. This is also often the case on the individual level: having been involved in the martial arts for years I have seen many cases of people coming in who are all about “beating people up” (that is to say, they are violent). They generally do not last and usually make poor fighters compared to people who are less violent. There are, of course, exceptions.

  19. Adam,

    Good points. It could be that one reason that wars now involve less death is the way they are fought. In the case of Iraq, as you noted, the US and allies rolled over the Iraqi army and broke it with fairly low casualties. We did not need to slaughter them-just to break their military machine. And, as you point out, in an insurgency the goal is not to exterminate the enemy but to break their will or annoy them enough to stop. We (Americans) did try the body count method in Vietnam and that proved ineffective.

    So, one reason that war is less deadly is the difference in the way wars are won (or lost).

  20. Keddaw,

    He does take into account the “side effects” of conflicts as well.

    You do raise some interesting points-would we still seem to be the better angels if we factor in the things you mention? Also, of course, is the question of how people treat each other-even if our kill percentages are down, are we any better in other ways?

  21. Leo,

    Like you, I would be inclined to say that the capacity for violence is still quite present in people. As you note, we have a different arena of conflict-at least now. People can satisfy their ambitions for gain on Wall Street and seem less inclined to do so on the field of battle.

    You do raise an interesting point: perhaps we have evolved into urban animals and this has impacted our behavior towards one another. Given that we consider the impact of selection on other species, this seems to be be something we should take into account in our own case (just as dogs are domesticated wolves, it would make sense that we are self-domesticating primates).

  22. Perhaps our current unwillingness to deal with climate change and over-population (a problem that ultimately resolves itself!) could be potentially more devestating in both absolute and percentage terms than anything that has ever happened in history, just that we haven’t felt the impact of it yet? Basically, not all violence is violent or even active.

  23. Keddaw,

    True-we could be killing a larger percentage of ourselves through other means. If the climate scientists are right, our actions are changing the climate in ways that are doing a lot of damage. This could be seen as a form of warfare or perhaps as a side effect of it.

  24. I still have a hunch that overpopulation will lead to more aggression.
    That’s why I just left 8-million-people-London for 400-thousand-people-Malta: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/leaving-london-moving-to-malta/

  25. Malta is indeed less densely populated than Greater London. It is however, by far, the most densely populated EU member state and one of the most densely populated nation states in the world. (This is despite a high percentage of the population leaving the island by assisted passage from the end of the Second World War until the mid-1970s.) There seem many good reasons to go to Malta, but avoiding overpopulation doesn’t appear to be one of them.

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