10/24/11 - violence is declining

In today's excerpt - in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, author Stephen Pinker discusses the reasons for the decline in societal violence. He starts by demonstrating the precipitous decline in violent death rates after the introduction of states, and the continued decline into the 21st century:"

[Examining] the remains of hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas ... from 14,000 BCE to 1770 CE, in every case well before the emergence of state socie­ties or the first sustained contact with them, [shows that their violent] death rates range from 0 to 60 percent, with an average of 15 percent.

"Next [we examine] figures from eight contemporary or recent societies that make their living primarily from hunting and gathering. They come from the Americas, the Philippines, and Australia. The average of the rates of death by warfare is within a whisker of the average estimated from the bones: 14 percent, with a range from 4 percent to 30 percent.

"In the next cluster I've lumped pre-state societies that engage in some mixture of hunting, gathering, and horticulture. All are from New Guinea or the Amazon rain forest, except Europe's last tribal society, the Montenegrins, whose rate of violent death is close to the average for the group as a whole, 24.5 percent.

"Finally, we get to some figures for states. The earliest are from the cities and empires of pre-Columbian Mexico, in which 5 percent of the dead were killed by other people. That was undoubtedly a dangerous place, but it was a third to a fifth as violent as an average pre-state society. When it comes to modern states, we are faced with hundreds of political units, dozens of cen­turies, and many subcategories of violence to choose from (wars, homicides, genocides, and so on), so there is no single 'correct' estimate. But we can make the comparison as fair as possible by choosing the most violent countries and centuries, together with some estimates of violence in the world today. As we shall see in chapter 5, the two most violent centuries in the past half millennium of European history were the 17th, with its bloody Wars of Religion, and the 20th, with its two world wars. The historian Quincy Wright has estimated the rate of death in the wars of the 17th century at 2 percent, and the rate of death in war for the first half of the 20th at 3 percent. If one were to include the last four decades of the 20th century, the percentage would be even lower. One estimate, which includes American war deaths as well, comes in at less than 1 percent.

"Recently, the study of war has been made more precise by the release of two quantitative datasets, which I will explain in chapter 5. They conservatively list about 40 million battle deaths during the 20th century. ('Battle deaths' refer to soldiers and civilians who were directly killed in combat.) If we con­sider that a bit more than 6 billion people died during the 20th century, and put aside some demographic subtleties, we may estimate that around 0.7 per­cent of the world's population died in battles during that century. Even if we tripled or quadrupled the estimate to include indirect deaths from war-caused famine and disease, it would barely narrow the gap between state and nonstate societies. What if we added the deaths from genocides, purges, and other man-made disasters? Matthew White, the atrocitologist we met in chapter 1, estimates that around 180 million deaths can be blamed on all of these human causes put together. That still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths in the 20th century.

"Now let's turn to the present. According to the most recent edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2,448,017 Americans died in 2005. It was one of the country's worst years for war deaths in decades, with the armed forces embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together the two wars killed 945 Americans, amounting to 0.0004 (four-hundredths of a percent) of American deaths that year. Even if we throw in the 18,124 domestic homicides, the total rate of violent death adds up to 0.008, or eight-tenths of a percentage point. In other Western countries, the rates were even lower. And in the world as a whole, the Human Security Report Project counted 17,400 deaths that year that were directly caused by political violence (war, terrorism, genocide, and killings by warlords and militias), for a rate of 0.0003 (three-hundredths of a percent). It's a conservative estimate, comprising only identifiable deaths, but even if we generously multiplied it by twenty to estimate undocumented bat­tle deaths and indirect deaths from famine and disease, it would not reach the 1 percent mark."


Steven Pinker


The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined


Viking published by Penguin Group


Copyright 2011 by Steven Pinker


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