Recently, I did an informal poll of Facebook asking my friends whether they had the impression that violence had increased or declined throughout human history. Most thought it had remained about the same. A few felt it had increased. Several, who had read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, got the answer right, which is that the incidence of violence has exponentially fallen for as far back as we have records.
It is a little bit of a trick question. The total violence in the world has generally trended up, but at a much lower rate than the population has increased. Hence, the number of violent incidents on a per capita basis has declined dramatically throughout history, but especially since the Enlightenment Era. But since WWII, the total violence is also down even more dramatically, making the incidence of violence on a per capita basis a tiny fraction of what it has been historically. In fact, the decline is so steep that Pinker has to resort to graphs with exponential axes.
When considering Pinker’s thesis, you must keep in mind that he is talking about the broadest possible sweep of history. When we see an uptick in crime, as Houston and most other American cities have experienced over the last year or so, that is statistically insignificant in a dataset covering 10,000 years. Also, we have to keep in mind that while violence has declined, the media coverage of it has increased. As a result, even though the homicide rate in the US has been steadily falling for decades, polling shows anxiety about crime has actually increased.
One of Pinker’s more fascinating charts is one he borrowed from sociologist Matthew White, in which White lists the twenty worst conflagrations and atrocities in the human history in terms of the number of people killed. White’s chart, which is sorted by the number of total deaths, shows that WWII was the bloodiest in history. But Pinker then reorders the list, adjusting for the world population at the time of each event. After the adjustment, WWII drops to ninth on the list.
I don’t necessarily agree with White’s groupings or Pinker’s population adjustment math on this chart, but I did find two things remarkable about the list. First, I had never heard of about a quarter of the events and second, how many of events had taken place in Russia and China.
The first demonstrates something Pinker calls historical myopia. Historical myopia is essentially the phenomenon of how quickly we forget what has happened in the past. And the farther back we go, the more myopic we become.
The second demonstrates the degree to which our view, that is the average American’s view, of history is dominated by western history. We do not learn a lot of Russian or Chinese history in school, notwithstanding that Chinese was the dominate culture in the world for much of human history. Also, I think seeing how many of the events affected the Russia and Chinese helps explain their obsession with order and why they may not value personal freedom to the degree we do.
Pinker’s book is basically divided into two halves. The first half is devoted to an exhaustive, and I do mean exhaustive, case proving that violence of all types has dramatically declined. He delves into all sorts of violent acts, including some that would never even cross our minds today. For example, he shows that infanticide was actually quite common throughout most of human history while we view it as the result of mental illness today.
The second half of the book is devoted to his attempt to explain why violence has declined. Pinker examines many possible explanations. The most persuasive in terms of historical correlation is the emergence of the nation state, or as Thomas Hobbs dubbed it, the Leviathan. But Pinker also does a deep dive into the psychology of groupinteraction and game theory to help explain the decline.
What perhaps is most stunning about the data is how extraordinarily peaceful things have been since WWII, something sociologists and historians have come to refer to as the “Long Peace.” It may not seem that way today, watching horrific images coming from the Syrian civil war. But as a statistical matter, the roughly 400,000 who have died in that war pales in comparison to the horrors of our past. That is in no way to suggest that we should be insensitive to violent death of even one person. But if we are to see the world around us as it really is and fashion policies for the future we cannot allow individual tragedies to blind us to the broader historical trends.
At nearly 800 pages, many thick with statistical analysis and psychological theory, The Better Angels of Our Nature is a heavy lift. And some of my friends of faith will find Pinker’s antipathy for religion to be offensive. But it is probably one of the more consequential books I have ever read. It gave me a better, and more optimistic historical perspective on how far we have really come in perhaps realizing a day when men will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning shears, and learn of war no more.