"I can't really remember when I last had any hope. And I certainly can't remember when anyone else did, either."
-- Theo Faron, protagonist of Children of Men (P.D. James)
It is a time of war and rumors of war. The 20th century was the deadliest in human history, as we converted our supposedly wonderful technology into machines of murder and slaughtered each other on a scale never before known in history. It is an era of shame. The masses of humanity call out for us to return to a simpler time where perhaps we didn't have television and computers, but at least we lived with simple peace and common humanity and brotherhood.
We are killing ourselves to death.
So it seems. So goes the zeitgeist many of us grew up with. A gnawing sense of just how evil modern society is, and how corrupted we are for being a part of it. We've become a ruthless world, barely worth living in, as perhaps best expressed in the brilliant book-turned-movie Children of Men:
This is the way we feel. This is the way we want to feel, and perhaps the way we are programmed to feel. There is a visceral pleasure in saying, "I won't bring a child into this awful world."
This may be the reality we create in our minds and our media and our fiction, but it is largely a reality of our own construction, not reflective of what is actually happening out there, especially in relation to any time in the past. In reality, so many things in the world are better than ever before for more people than ever before. It's an encouraging and, really, irrefutable message, but one that, oddly, we tend not to want to hear, and to outright reject. Yet we need to understand what is actually getting better if we are to improve those things still wrong with the world.
I've covered some of this in talking about the question of how to handle global warming. Over time I'll delve into other factors that fall into this. Today, watching a video of a talk by Steven Pinker from a few years ago, I was struck by a chart he showed which I'll get to in a bit. First, here is his overall shocking, and perhaps unacceptable, thesis:
"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."
-- Steven Pinker, "A History of Violence"
An insane and irresponsible statement, clearly, particularly in a time of the Iraq war and genocides like Rwanda and Darfur, and a few decades after the holocaust and the horrors of starvation in Stalin's Soviet Union. Or is it? Here is Pinker discussing the subject in a 2007 talk at TED:
To give context for the idea that violence has decreased significantly and for his assertion that primitive societies do not hold some moral high ground when it comes to man's treatment of man, Pinker created this chart based on data gathered by Lawrence Keeley, author of War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage:
The chart shows the percentage of males killed by violence in various societies around the world. This is just a partial picture and can't be trusted on its own to represent the state of the world; yet what I found striking is that the statistic for the U.S. and Europe combined includes the first and second world wars.
Consider the implications of that. As Pinker says, if men in the U.S. and Europe were killing each other at the rate seen in non-state societies, instead of 100 million people killed in recent history, we'd have something approaching two billion.
So much for the noble savage, and the peaceful harmony of a simpler time.
Perhaps technological and other forms of human progress having something going for them after all.
In his article for the New Republic, Pinker provides further detail:
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 labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors 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 do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.
At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of notions like progress, civilization, and man's rise from savagery and barbarism. Recently, however, those ideas have come to sound corny, even dangerous. They seem to demonize 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 like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), 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.
...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 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 seventeenth century.
...Several historians have suggested that 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 sixteenth-century monks."
...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 analyzed, murder rates declined steeply--for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth 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 twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per 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 ten 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 do 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 percent.
These are shocking, heartening statements and statistics. They do not deny flaws in the world or in humans, but they show that not only are we capable of making things better, we have done a remarkable job of making things better. I recommend reading the entire article for more interesting insights and a discussion of why people find these statements hard to believe.
And many do want to reject any story of good news and the improving state of mankind both because they don't believe it and because believing it might lead to complacency and a passive acceptance of man's cruelty to man.
But we cannot progress by ignoring reality. We cannot choose smartly where to apply our resources by ignoring the data.
The world has gotten better, and we can make it better still. But only if we open our eyes to reality, even the reality of good news.