I have been reviewing a number of apocalyptically themed books for some time now. One question that would naturally arise from these readings is “Just how violent will it be?”. Most estimations seem to revolve around situational issues. But there is a far more complexity to the issue than at first meets the eye.
Steven Pinker has a new book out (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined; Illustrated. 802 pp. Viking. $40) that has been heavily reviewed. There is an interesting interview of the author at bloggingheads.tv (Science Saturday: War and Peace Science Saturday, Bloggingheads.tv, 3 October 2011).
The thesis itself should not be all that controversial. Since prehistoric times, there has been an extremely powerful reduction in human violence.
One point to get out of the way quickly. He is socaily relatively conservative, he annoys many liberal acedemics by touting the advantages of Western culture.
But politically, he is a liberal. His ground breaking essay that started him on the track to writing this book was published in the New Republic after all. Or at least a Democrat. In noting his preference for John Kerry over George Bush on reviewer noted in an otherwise positive review:
James Q. Wilson, Wall Street Journal, 1 October 2011
Mr. Pinker dislikes Mr. Bush because he is "unintellectual." In fact, Mr. Bush never took an IQ test, but he did take the SAT and the armed-forces qualification test. Converting those scores to IQ, Mr. Bush turns out to be brighter than Mr. Kerry, whom Mr. Pinker admires though he got lower grades in college than did Mr. Bush.
I am not a big fan of George W., but he is likely one of the better read presidents in modern times. On the other hand, he does defend the West and it institutions. When asking the question of why we don’t see the advantages over the modern Western world, and the aborigines they replaced he notes:
Steven Pinker, New Republic, 20 March 2007 via his personal publications list.
At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of notions like progress, civilization, and man's rise from savagery and barbarism. Recently, however, those ideas have come to sound corny, even dangerous. They seem to demonize people in other times and places, license colonial conquest and other foreign adventures, and conceal the crimes of our own societies…
Partly, it's an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society.
Visions of our pastoral ancestors living a peaceful, quiet life do not hold with regards to violence or violent death.
And the trend is continuous. Life is even more brutish amongst the modern hunder gatherers, and archeological evidence indicates that it has always been so.
|Hunter Gatherer Deaths compared to Western 20th Century on a percentage basis|
Peter Singer, New York Times, 6 October 2011
Some studies are based on skeletons found at archaeological sites; averaging their results suggests that 15 percent of prehistoric humans met a violent death at the hands of another person. Research into contemporary or recent hunter-gatherer societies yields a remarkably similarly average, while another cluster of studies of pre-state societies that include some horticulture has an even higher rate of violent death.
In contrast, among state societies, the most violent appears to have been Aztec Mexico, in which 5 percent of people were killed by others. In Europe, even during the bloodiest periods — the 17th century and the first half of the 20th — deaths in war were around 3 percent.
The violence did not just extend to warfare. It was included in public life as well.
Steven Pinker, New Republic, 20 March 2007 via his personal publications list.
In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.
Pinkerton notes a number of reasons why we fail to see that we are living in a much less violent society today. In my opinion the strongest one is:
Steven Pinker, Ted TV, March 2007
There's a cognitive illusion: we cognitive psychologists know that the easier it is to recall specific instances of something, the higher the probability that you assign to it. Things that we read about in the paper with gory footage burn into memory more than reports of a lot more people dying in their beds of old age.
I would add to this the propensity of people to benchmark their current situation to the near past, or even present. Just as our level of happiness is benchmarked as a comparative value against our recent past, and our neighbors
Past research on money and happiness has also found that it's not absolute wealth that's linked with happiness, but relative wealth or status — that is, how much more money you have than your neighbors Time (Belinda Luscombe, Do We Need $75,000 a Year to be Happy?, Time Magazine, 6 September 2010).
To some extent, we also benchmark our levels of violence against our expectations. In our modern risk averse culture, we accept only the very lowest levels of violence.
I see a number of important reasons to be interested in the historical levels of violence, and also the reason that it has gradually declined.
One is that it is important to remember that what we think of as abhorrently violent may not be actually be unusual. The Soviet-Nazi conflict on the Eastern Front was certainly a vicious affair. But by historical standards it would fit comfortably within the norm.
If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million (Ted TV – see above).
[An example from the bible:] Numbers 31: "And they warred against the Midianites as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew all the males. And Moses said unto them, 'Have you saved all the women alive? Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him, but all the women children that have not know a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.'" In other words, kill the men, kill the children, if you see any virgins then you can keep them alive so that you can rape them. You can find four or five passages in the Bible of this ilk (ibid).
The Mongol conquests of the 13th century, begun by Genghis Khan and his followers, took an estimated 40 million lives. But that number, when adjusted for the size of the target area's population, is the equivalent of 278 million killed in the middle of the 20th century—more than double the real total [killed in the time period including both world wars]. The annihilation of American Indians by war and disease is said to have claimed 20 million lives, but if you adjust the loss to a 20th-century base, it amounts to 92 million dead (Wall Street Journal- see above).
So not only does, the death totals from the Eastern Front, on a percentage basis, not stack up to some of the great holocausts, it doesn’t even stack up when you add in the rest of World War 2 and World War 1 combined.
Which leads us to a second point, would we fall back to the levels of violence seen in earlier times. Are we going to find dog fighting to be too tame, and go back to cat burning? Are we going to give up lethal injection and go back to tying someone to a large wagon wheel (or maybe the tire of a tractor trailer) and smash their extended arms and legs with a mallet: And not as abhorrent behavior, but as an accepted societal norm.
To answer that question we would have to look closely at the causes of the decrease in violence, and to try and determine their fragility.
We will pick up that discussion in part two.