We're getting nicer every day
Author: By Steven Pinker, Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor at Harvard University.
Who says life is cheap? It appears the human race values it more than ever before.
IN 16TH-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 carbonised." 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.
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.
Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanour and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution - all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they occur and condemned when they are brought to light.
At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of notions such as progress and civilisation and man's rise from savagery and barbarism. Recently, however, those ideas have come to sound corny, even dangerous. They seem to demonise people in other times and places, license colonial conquest and other foreign adventures and conceal the crimes of our own societies. The doctrine of the noble savage - the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions - pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals such as Jose Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), the late Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species") and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood").
But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.
To be sure, any attempt to document changes in violence must be soaked in uncertainty. Even for events in the historical record, statistics are spotty until recent periods. Long-term trends can be discerned only by smoothing out zigzags and spikes of horrific bloodletting. And the choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 per cent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 per cent in a population of 1 billion.
Yet, despite these caveats, a picture is taking shape. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the ill-treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early 17th century.
At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separates us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts - such as the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men - suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. Although raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater and the rates of death per battle are higher.
If the wars of the 20th century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been 2 billion deaths, not 100 million.
At the century scale, it is hard to find quantitative studies of deaths in warfare spanning medieval and modern times. Several historians have suggested there has been an increase in the number of recorded wars across the centuries to the present but, as political scientist James Payne has noted, this may show only that "the Associated Press is a more comprehensive source of information about battles around the world than were 16th-century monks".
Social histories of the West provide evidence of many barbaric practices that became obsolete in the past five centuries, such as slavery, amputation, blinding, branding, flaying, disembowelment, burning at the stake and so on. Meanwhile, for another kind of violence - homicide - the data are abundant and striking. The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analysed, murder rates declined steeply - for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the 14th century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.
On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the 20th century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 a year in the 1950s to less than 2000 a year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.
Zooming in by a further power of 10 exposes yet another reduction. After the Cold War, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 per cent.
The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it's because of a cognitive illusion: we estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it's an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilisation and Western society. Partly, it's the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: no one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.
And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behaviour has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behaviour can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.
The other major challenge posed by the decline of violence is how to explain it. A force that pushes in the same direction across many epochs, continents and scales of social organisation mocks our standard tools of causal explanation. The usual suspects - guns, drugs, the press, American culture - aren't up to the job. Nor could it be explained by evolution. Besides, human nature has not changed so much as to have lost its taste for violence. Social psychologists find that at least 80 per cent of people have fantasised about killing someone they don't like. And modern humans still take pleasure in viewing violence, if we are to judge by the popularity of Mel Gibson movies, Shakespearean dramas and video games.
What has changed, of course, is people's willingness to act on these fantasies. The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that European modernity accelerated a "civilising process" marked by increases in self-control, long-term planning and sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. These are precisely the functions that today's cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex.
But this only raises the question of why humans have increasingly exercised that part of their brains. No one knows why our behaviour has come under the control of the better angels of our nature but there are four plausible suggestions.
The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbours to steal their resources. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression.
Indeed, Eisner and Elias attribute the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralised governments of early modernity. And, today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires and contested territories.
Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.
A third theory, championed by Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they co-operate, such as trading goods, dividing up labour or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms.
Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply within only a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, a la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: the more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs.
Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a licence for complacency - we enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it - and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.
But the phenomenon forces us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralisation. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?"
From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. It would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Edited, Jan 4th 2012 3:54pm by Aripyanfar