Fortunately, thanks to the tools of modern science, we no longer have to divine it by conscience. We have data, comprehensively compiled by the Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker in his new book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011). The thesis sounds counterintuitive. Shortly after Reverend Parker penned his book, over 600,000 Americans died in a brutal civil war. Half a century later, millions more died in the Great War, and just over two decades later tens of millions more were murdered in the Second World War and the Holocaust, followed on by Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia’s killing fields, and the numerous genocides in Africa. With bodies stacked like cordwood and the ashes in the crematoria still cooling in living memory, how can anyone seriously argue that there has been a decline in violence?
The idea that we live in an exceptionally violent time is an illusion created by the media’s relentless coverage of violence, coupled to our brain’s evolved propensity to notice and remember recent and emotionally salient events, of which violence plays second fiddle to none. Pinker’s thesis is that violence of all kinds—from murder, rape, and genocide to the mistreatment of blacks, women, gays, and animals—has been in decline for centuries as a result of two forces: (1) a top-down rule of law created by Hobbes’ Leviathan state and an ensuing social contract, and (2) a bottom-up civilizing process brought about by trade, travel, and other social forces that have expanded the circle of our moral sentiments to include people beyond our kin and kind and clan.
Consider how far we’ve come since the violence of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Data from dozens of studies reveals the percentage of deaths in warfare from prehistoric times to the present. The contrast is striking: Prehistoric peoples and modern hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists are far more murderous than states, with the percentage of death by violence for the former ranging from 10 to 60 percent, and an average of 24.5 percent, compared to 5 percent and under for the latter. Even the bloody twentieth-century wars weren’t so bloody by comparison: About 40 million people died in battle deaths during the century in which around six billion people lived, which amounts to 0.7 percent battle deaths. What about noncombat deaths, such as all those citizens who became the collateral damage of war? “Even if we tripled or quadrupled the estimate to include indirect deaths from war-caused famine and disease, it would barely narrow the gap between state and nonstate societies,” Pinker explains. Even all those genocides and the Holocaust only bring the death toll up to 180 million deaths, which “still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths in the twentieth century.” And it’s been getting better ever since. In 2005, Pinker computes, a grand total of 0.008, or eight tenths of one percent of Americans died in two foreign wars and domestic homicides combined. In the world as a whole, the rate of violence from war, terrorism, genocide, and killings by warlords and militias was 0.0003 of the total population, or three hundredths of one percent.
Source: Francisco Capella.