The following sentence might send the parts of your brain that hold the rein on your cognitive dissonance on a flurry but I will say it in any case. Humanity is living its most peaceful time. Ever. The chances that you will be a victim of a violent crime or casualty of a conflict are lower than ever.
It is true that humans have got better and more efficient at killing each other over the history but it is also true that we have come better at restraining ourselves from committing our aggressive impulses.
In this post I will examine the reasons for such developments.
The main content for this entry comes from a book that I have been reading on and off for a year and finally finished last week – Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature. He argues the world has never experienced as peaceful times as these (relatively speaking). According to Pinker, there are several factors behind this wildly positive development but I will focus on three themes. But let us start with the numbers first.
A thousand-fold decrease in violence.
It is of course difficult to estimate how violent human societies have been in different times and the reason we might consider today’s atrocities frequent or unprecedented is because genocides and mass murders of the past weren’t considered anything much out of the ordinary and for example, the 16th century monks (pretty much the only literate people back then) weren’t quite as accurate in their descriptions as contemporary reporters are. One can however look at signs such as marks of violence on human remains, such as bones, and make extrapolations on the frequency of violent acts.
According to the studies Pinker quotes, the decrease in violence has been close to thousand-fold compared to the Neolithic age and about a hundred fold compared to Medieval Europe (see the graph). At worst times as many as one third of people died a violent death far outdoing even the most dangerous warzones today.
But what explains this trend?
Enter the Leviathan
Thomas Hobbes argued that human societies that lack a central authority, a Leviathan, are in a constant state of nature – a war of all against all. While his views on the motives that drive humanity forward are rather stark, the evidence available does suggest that his assumptions were correct in terms of rate of experienced violence. The less organized a society is the higher the rate of violence.
In the past 400 years (since the 1648 treaty of Westphalia) the world has experienced a sort of consolidation from a mixture of rather random political units of semi-autonomous counties, municipalities and quasi-states into the modern nation state. According to Max Weber, the state is nothing but a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”. That monopoly on the other hand is used to guarantee (peace) and especially security that we all have exchanged to limitations to our liberties. Most of us don’t really think about this tradeoff in these terms and its pros and cons can certainly be debated but the fact is that the birth of strong central governments and authorities has had a very pacifying impact on our societies.
In other words, belligerence has been intimidated into submission among rational actors as the possible gain from any violent act would is far outweighed by the risks involved with dealing with the authorities afterwards.
The Gentle Commerce
For some reason we tend to dislike salesmen, traders and moneylenders. I would argue that we shouldn’t. Regardless of the stereotypical character traits, trade has been another hugely important factor in building bridges between individuals and societies.
Since most trade transactions are positive sum games – both parties involved are better off – it kind of makes sense to keep the other party alive and healthy for possible future engagements. Moreover, in order to make the future deal even better you would start anticipating what the customer wants the next time. Therefore “a market puts a premium on empathy”, a prerequisite for passing on civil manners to the surrounding society and next generations.
In a way trade and commerce have succeeded where superpowers and world governments haven’t – they have, to an extent, pacified the arena of international relations that has lacked a similar source of security as the Leviathans in individual states. Ties of trade create close links of interdependency that further facilitate exchange of ideas and values that in turn make it increasingly difficult for countries to contemplate military aggression towards each other. Not only because the idea off attacking your trading partner becomes less and less tenable but because the tradeoff from the positive sum games of trade to the zero sum games of warfare start looking increasingly detrimental, if not catastrophic.
Remember this the next time you scorn the hollowness of businesspeople. In fact the business people should be given a Nobel Award for Peace, if not two!
Apparently, the Wild West (which wasn’t historically very violent by the way) wasn’t settled by gun slinging sheriffs but women. During its wildest times, the American West was “overpopulated” by men. Not just by men but by young men. Without women and families to keep them home the men tended to go drinking and gambling (well, who could blame them) causing disorder and random acts of violence. With time and the stream of new inhabitants the freshly married men were in turn forced into submission of the family life.
In a way the declining rate of population growth will likely have a pacifying effect on societies that now have somewhat twisted population pyramid with a bulging youth population. Some have suggested that the Arab Spring for example is a manifestation of the youth bulge phenomenon (too many unemployed young men with too much time and too little to do).*
I understand that any sort of dichotomy of character traits to “masculine” and “feminine” is crude at best and the grounds for their existence can surely be debated. It is, however, an undeniable fact that women tend to commit far fewer violent crimes and generally favor less belligerent policies (and politicians) than men. Pinker argues that the reduction in levels of violence is partly due to the “feminization” of values. This view is supported by the fact that cultures that empower women tend to be less violent than those which still favor a more traditional patriarchal pecking order.
The long tail of peace
The most horrifying aspect of looking at the history of blood and gore is to understand how all-encompassing and indistinguishable the nature of violence was from everyday life. Torture, mutilations, public executions and domestic violence used to be casual occurrences.
While there are of course countless of other reasons why the rates of violence have declined over time, I admit I feel a newfound appreciation for the relative peace and quiet of the 21st century – the least violent time in human history.
*It will be very interesting to see what the impact will be in China in the coming decades as the one child policy has led to a very distorted male to female ratio in the country.