Are we living through the least violent moment in human history? Has there ever been an age, during the past 10,000 years, with fewer wars or mass killings or chances of being murdered?
The answer seems, to me, almost self-evident. There are terrible wars today, but they are extremely scarce, not very intense and do not affect the lives of many people. If we assume that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Somalia are all “at war” today and all their people are affected, that means that just over 2 per cent of the world’s people know war. If you add simmering events like the Western Sahara conflict, the Middle East showdown and the Mexican drug wars, you might, at a stretch, get up to 4 per cent.
Never before has this been the case. Forty years ago, at least a tenth of the world appeared to be in conflict; 70 years ago, more than half the world was. Earlier, it was no better: Pre-modern history (before 1500) was exceedingly murderous and violent, followed by half a millennium when near-total war was more norm than exception. Violent crime has become a rarity, rather than a part of daily life, almost everywhere. Not only violence, but the attitudes that glorify violence, are now rare exceptions rather than cultural norms.
I realize this. Yet I am also guilty of helping create the opposite perception. I have reported on dozens of murders, more than one mass slaying, and I have done much reporting from Afghanistan, Libya, Bosnia, Kosovo and other places stricken with violence. I offer no apology: We need to know about these things. But the totality of all these front pages does create a false perception of the state of the world.
To help me atone for this, the Canadian evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has done a great service by pulling together all the data on violence and war from the past 15,000 years.
“Violence,” he concluded in a lecture in Napa, Calif., in advance of a forthcoming book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”
His evidence is overwhelming. If you look at the odds that a death will occur by violence, paleontological investigations show that in prehistoric and pre-modern times it ranged from 5 per cent to 60 per cent, but averaged around 15 per cent – that is, more than one in six deaths were violent. In modern times, this figure peaked at around 3 per cent worldwide in the 20th century (including all wars, genocides and famines); today it is about three one-hundredths of 1 per cent.
Homicide rates have seen a 50-fold decline from the Middle Ages to the present, with a slight uptick in the second half of the 20th century (which raised them back to early 20th-century levels) and then a further drop after 1990.
Dr. Pinker finds the same sharp, near-constant declines in every category he examines: Judicial torture, capital punishment, slavery, rape, lynching, hate crime, racial hostility, spouse-murder, domestic violence, child abuse – everything that can be measured has seen a marked and almost constant downward slant.
But the most important attention that Dr. Pinker devotes is to the past hundred years. For although wars became far less frequent in the 20th century, they obviously became more deadly. The Second World War, the Nazi and Soviet genocides and famines were the deadliest individual events in human history (even if the odds of dying by violence were still higher in earlier centuries).
In the six decades since the Second World War, though, wars have stopped being the major concerns of the world. Deaths from war peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s at about 300 deaths per 100,000 people. They then fell below five deaths per 100,000. Since about 1990 – even including the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, which together killed more than 125,000 civilians – these decades have seen immeasurably little war death, far below one person per 100,000.
What has caused this dramatic shift away from war and violence? Steven Pinker argues that Thomas Hobbes was right: The creation of a “Leviathan” of governments and laws has reduced the incentives for violence; in short, it has civilized us. And the pacifying effects of global commerce have reduced the incentives for violence between states. To this, he adds the “expanding circle” of empathy caused by modern transportation and communications, and the “escalator of reason” caused by fast-expanding education and literacy. If you wanted to sum all these theories up, you could say that violence simply stopped making sense.
It is more than just popular misunderstanding and newspaper headlines that lead us to believe that the world has become more, not less, violent. This is built a long tradition of human thought, rooted in Christian notions of original sin. A great many Enlightenment thinkers, chief among them John Locke, believed that the Hobbesian “state of nature” was actually an idyll of natural law and cooperation, only to be soiled by the damaging effects of civilization. This idea was picked up by Karl Marx, who saw precapitalist society as inherently peaceful and cooperative, and amplified by some anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins, who in his book Stone Age Economics argued that prehistoric humans were peaceful and cooperative. But a wider anthropological perspective shows that primitive humans are likely highly organized and cooperative, but are also highly reliant on violence as a means of survival.
But there is one thing that neither Dr. Pinker nor I can answer: Is this sharp twenty-first century decline in violence permanent? Or are we living in a trough between two terrible peaks, a calm before another global storm? On this, we can only hope.