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By Tom Cushing

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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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Is Violence Falling Out of Fashion?

Uploaded: Dec 27, 2011
As the global village binds itself ever more closely, it's difficult to avoid media coverage of anything that "sells newspapers," in whatever form you actually now get your current events. Bad news does that, and dominates the airwaves, so it would be easy to conclude that man's-inhumanity-to-man is thriving -- that it has civilization on the run. I want to end this year on an up-note, however, so I'm pleased to report there's good evidence that the opposite is true.

In his new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature," author Steven Pinker examines the historical record from many angles, and across several species of violence: within families, between communities or tribes, and among states. He concludes that humans are much less likely to suffer violence or cruelty at the hands of others now than at any period in history – or pre-history, for that matter.

Archaeological sites and more recent data collected on contemporary hunter/gatherers reveal a 15% chance of meeting your demise at the hand of a fellow homo sapiens; early farmers were even more likely to meet a similar untimely end. The Mongol conquests claimed roughly as many souls as World War 2, from a world population only 1/8 as large. Granted, it took them longer, and they worked with less gruesome efficiency.

The rise of nation states dropped that risk dramatically, with Aztecs at 5% and various European states at 3%, both measured over long periods of time. Perhaps government, at least in its most basic forms, is not always the enemy of progress?

Individual acts of fatal violence, as a component of the whole, have also declined dramatically in more organized societies – modern murders are 1/10-to-1/50 as likely as they were midway through the last millennium, and the most peaceful 21st-century tribes have murder rates roughly equivalent to the contemporary US's worst frequencies (think "Detroit").

Pinker further argues that the post-World War 2 world is now enjoying "the long peace" – 66 years in which major powers have avoided doing each other-in, in systematic ways. Cold War-era battles were mere skirmishes, as compared to world war-style carnage. It's also worth noting, in a macabre sort of way, that Viet Nam claimed 10 times more American lives than have been sacrificed so far in the War on Terror.

How to account for this improvement in the human condition? Is it genetics, or faith, the rule of law or the fact that folks can now vent their spleens, anonymously, into the Town Square Forum? The first above is unlikely, given that evolutionary progress is generally denominated in millions of years – we're pretty much as well-equipped to cope with the world as were our most ancient identifiable forbearers.

Pinker posits that several factors contribute to the salutary trend: a "pacification process" wherein the state holds a near-monopoly on the best tools of violence; the spread of commerce, which creates interdependencies that make wars less effective and more costly than trade alternatives; and a humanitarian revolution with roots in The Enlightenment, when traditional notions of the world with its human slavery, cruelty to animals, torture and tyranny were called into question. I'm aware, from other sources, that the Abolitionist and animal welfare movements have common roots, so maybe he's onto something?

Finally, the author points to the more recent rise of concerns for the rights of formerly ill-treated groups: women and children, human minorities and animal majorities (except, of course for hidden-from-view food animals, whose lot is far worse today than even a generation ago). He believes that these formerly frequent victims are now hurt or killed with markedly lower frequency than in days gone by.

I'm guessing, too, that accountability has something to do with this human progress. The world's legal institutions as a whole are better able to bring wrongdoers to justice, and those ubiquitous media probe into nether precincts formerly shrouded in darkness. Of course, lest we become too confident in our progress, the annihilation button is still there and could reverse the entire process in a matter of minutes.

Whatever it is, as the world gropes its way into 2012, we might each lift a glass to our collective results, and resolve to consciously pursue more of the same in the New Year.

Comments

Posted by Wiscer, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 29, 2011 at 9:08 am

"How to account for this improvement in the human condition? Is it genetics, or faith, the rule of law or the fact that folks can now vent their spleens, anonymously, into the Town Square Forum?"

This illusionary improvement is a result in the dramatic improvements in emergency medical care that have saved lives which would formerly have been lost. Normalize out this factor, and the murder rates would be dramatically higher, reflecting the growth in violence in society that the statistics do not accurately reflect.


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 30, 2011 at 7:41 am

Interesting point! I'm guessing he may have corrected for that factor, but I'll look. Author also has a website, to which I conveyed your idea. I'll post any reply I get.


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 31, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Mr Pinker directed me to his website's Frequently Asked Qs about Better Angels: Web Link

Q -- If you measure violence in terms of homicides or war deaths, couldn't the decline of violence just be a by-product of advances in lifesaving medical care?

A -- Unlikely, for a number of reasons. First, before the late 19th and early 20th century, most medicine was quackery, and doctors killed as many patients as they saved, yet many of the declines I document occurred before that time.

Second, many forms of violent crime move up and down in tandem—for example, rapes and robberies went up in the 1960s and down in the 1990s, just like homicides—so it's unlikely that any of these trends simply consist in a constant amount of violence which has been reallocated from deaths to injuries thanks to quick-acting EMTs.

Third, while medical technologies have improved, so have weapon technologies.

Fourth, advances in medicine can only move the numbers around for the statistical sliver consisting of the victims of violence who are injured so severely that they would have died with even with the primitive medical care in the past, but not so severely that would have died even with the advanced medical care of the present. Yet many of the declines are from scorched-earth campaigns of violence in which no amount of medical care could have reduced the death tolls to current levels—Mongol invasions, deliberate sieges of cities (in which doctors, even if they were around, would not have been allowed in), over-the-top frontal assaults into machine-gun fire, Dresden, Hiroshima, carpet-bombings, the deliberate killing or starvation of prisoners of war.

But most important, the development and deployment of medical care to save the lives of soldiers is itself a part of the very phenomenon I'm exploring—that war leaders and battlefield commanders today treat the lives of their soldiers as far more precious than in the days when they were used as fodder. Not only have armed forces invested in lifesaving technologies at tremendous cost, but battlefield commanders have avoided the temptation to compensate for the advanced lifesaving care by putting more soldiers in riskier situations, keeping casualty rates constant.

With lifesaving technologies, as with lifetaking technologies (that is, weaponry), far more of the variance in deaths over time depends on how the technologies are applied—whether people want other people dead or alive—than on what they technologies can do. (See "Weaponry and disarmament" pp. 673–674.)


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