Jet in Carina WFC3 IR [Courtesy NASA] Stone pseudo-magic square on exterior of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

In spite of all its scientific and technological progress, isn't society becoming more and more violent?

David H. Bailey
05 Oct 2014 (c) 2014

Introduction

It is widely believed that modern society, in spite of all its technological and scientific progress, is morally deficient, compared with past generations. One of the most widely cited failings, mentioned by both the atheist left and the religious right, is that society is becoming more and more violent. For example, the 20th century is often mentioned as easily the most horrifying century in all of history, with two devastating world wars, the Jewish holocaust, the Chinese cultural revolution and the Rawanda massacres. And even since the close of the 20th century, we have incidents such as the September 11 attacks, countless suicide bombings, and more.

On the local and national levels, many in society decry the increasing violence seen on streets. Mass shootings, not to mention everyday robberies and burglaries, are lamented by neighborhood groups as well as politicians.

Religious fundamentalists generally blame modern science, especially evolution, for our increasingly violent culture. For instance, at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio), one display, warning of the consequences of a scientific worldview, features photos of a nuclear explosion, a collection of skulls from the holocaust, and what may be a photo of a woman undergoing an abortion. Another exhibit in the museum, named "Graffiti Alley," displays news clips about birth control, abortion, divorce, mass murder, stem cells and war. Jerry Bergman of Answers in Genesis, which operates the Creation Museum, specifically blames Darwin's theory of evolution for the Jewish holocaust [Bergman1999]:

Of the many factors that produced the Nazi holocaust and World War II, one of the most important was Darwin's notion that evolutionary progress occurs mainly as a result of the elimination of the weak in the struggle for survival. Although it is no easy task to assess the conflicting motives of Hitler and his supporters, Darwinism-inspired eugenics clearly played a critical role. Darwinism justified and encouraged the Nazi views on both race and war. If the Nazi party had fully embraced and consistently acted on the belief that all humans were descendants of Adam and Eve and equal before the creator God, as taught in both the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures, the holocaust would never have occurred.

On the other side of the spectrum, atheist scholars blame religion for modern violence. Christopher Hitchens writes that religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children" [Hitchens2007, pg. 56]. Hitchens and other atheist writers emphasize the many religious wars through history as evidence for these claims. In particular, they connect the intolerance of the Inquisition and similar persecutions by Protestants to the the September 11 attacks. For additional details, see Atheists.

So what are the facts here, and who is really to blame?

Is violence really increasing?

The remarkable fact in this debate is that the fundamental premise of both sides is utterly mistaken -- violence is not careening out of control. Quite to the contrary, it is actually on the decline, both within the U.S. and worldwide. As a single example, violent crime in the U.S. has declined precipitously in recent years, from 757.7 violent crimes per 100,000 persons in 1992 to 386.3 per 100,000 persons in 2011. Crime rates even declined during two recent severe recessions, from 2001 to 2003 and from 2008 to 2012, confounding predictions by sociologists and law enforcement officials that these downturns would send crime rates soaring [Fisher2013].

As of the present date, the most detailed and comprehensive analysis of this phenomenon is a 2011 book by noted Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker, entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He begins his book as follows [Pinker2011b, pg. xxi]:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not -- and I know that most people do not -- violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

Pinker is hardly a devout religious believer -- his review of biblical violence, for instance, is openly irreverent. But from another point of view, Pinker's book is deeply inspiring: it is a stunning confirmation of the fundamental good in human nature, a chronicle of how the "better angels of our nature" are slowly overcoming the bad. His work also constitutes a striking refutation of those writers, both from the academic left and the religious right, who have decried our time as irredeemably fallen from the "good old days" (years, decades, centuries or millennia ago) when the human race was presumably more gentle and civilized.

Pinker's book is not an easy read. He meticulously documents his claims with extensive charts, graphs and footnotes. He invokes relatively sophisticated concepts such as "power-law distributions" with aplomb. He does not bat an eyelash while describing the revolting instruments of torture and execution used in medieval "Christian" Europe. He documents the violent practices of many native peoples. But he has a clear purpose in all of this: to demonstrate in no uncertain terms the fact that the human society is slowing become more averse to violence. He also attempts to understand this phenomenon, so that we can hasten its progress, although it is clear that he does not have all the answers.

Highlights from Pinker's book

Here are some brief highlights from Pinker's book:
  1. Ancient primitive societies were hardly the Edenic paradises that they are often pictured to be. Careful analyses of skeletons from archaeological sites have confirmed that roughly 15% of these individuals died a violent death. Among more modern pre-state societies, similar analyses show 25% violent death. By contrast, even in medieval Europe, with the bloody wars of religion in the 17th century, the rate of death was only 2%, and this rate fell to less than 1 percent in the 20th (yes, even counting WWI and WWII) [Pinker2011b, pg. 48-50].

  2. In a list of the 21 "Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other," which ranks the wars and massacres with the highest death tolls, the 20th century indeed is well-represented: WWII tops the list, following closely by the Chinese cultural revolution. But when these episodes are normalized by world population at the time, then WWII drops to #9. Number 1 on the normalized list is the little-known 8th century An Lushan Revolt, which resulted in the loss of approximately 2/3 of the Chinese empire's population, or, in other words, of approximately 1/6 of the world's population at the time [Pinker2011b, pg. 195].

  3. The "long peace" among major powers since WWII has confounded the predictions of many that large-scale war is inevitable in our time. Pinker emphasizes that perhaps the most interesting post-WWII statistic of all is zero: Zero is the number of times that nuclear weapons have been used in combat; zero is the number of times that the two Cold War superpowers fought each other on the battlefield; zero is the number of times that any of the top 40 great powers have fought each other (since 1953); zero is the number of wars fought between any European nation (prior to this there were an average of two armed conflicts per year going back to at least 1400); zero is the number of developed countries that have expanded their territory by conquering another country; and zero is the number of internationally recognized states that have gone out of existence through conquest [Pinker2011b, pg. 249-251].

  4. While the modern world, especially in the West, agonizes over even remote chances of harm to today's children, for much of human history little ones faced a much greater risk: infanticide. Anthropologist Laila Williamson found until very recently, between 10 and 15 percent of all babies were killed shortly after birth. By contrast, in 2007 just 221 infants were killed in the U.S. out of 4.3 million births, which is a reduction from the historical average by a factor of 2000 to 3000 [Pinker2011b, pg. 415-422].

  5. As noted briefly above, the U.S. crime rate rose during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s until about 1992, but has declined since then. By 2010, the homicide rate had fallen to just 4.8 per 100,000 residents, down by more than a factor of two from its peak. Other measures of violent crime, and even property crime, have followed in unison. In the wake of the 2008-2011 recession, with millions out of work, losing homes and in desperate economic straits, crime rates have fallen even further, confounding criminologists who had predicted sharp increases [Pinker2011b, pg. 116].

  6. Pinker points out that by today's standards, even great statesmen of recent history would be considered hopelessly bigoted and violence-happy. Theodore Roosevelt excused the decimation of Native Americans as necessary to prevent the continent from becoming a "game preserve for squalid savages." Woodrow Wilson blocked black students from Princeton, praised the Ku Klux Klan, and declared that any hyphenated American "carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic." Franklin Roosevelt jailed 100,000 U.S. citizens in a concentration camp because they were of the Japanese race. And Winston Churchill declared that the Aryan stock "is bound to triumph," and that India is "a beastly people with a beastly religion" [Pinker2011b, pg. 658].

Other research

Pinker is not the only scholar to conclude that violence has declined, both in earlier centuries and even in the 20th century. For instance, historian Tim Hitchcock of the University of Sussex, UK, and physicist Simon DeDeo at the University of Indiana used mathematical-statistical techniques to analyze the way courtroom language for violence changed in the transcripts of 200,000 trials recorded in the archives of the British Old Bailey. They found that at the end of the 18th century, talk of blood or knives was as likely in a trial for a stolen pocket watch as it was in a trial for murder. But by the early 1900s, the words "blood" or "knife" were far more likely to appear in a trial for a violent crime than for a petty theft trial, indicating a growing aversion for brutality in 19th century London [Heaven2014].

With regards to warfare, a 2010 Canadian study confirms that since 2000, military conflict has killed 90 per cent fewer people each year than in the 1950s, and since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago there has been a 70 per cent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts [Reuters2010]. Similarly, a 2009 study by Ohio State University researcher John Mueller found that the number of ongoing wars (defined as conflicts resulting in at least 1000 deaths per year) declined from 26 in 1991 to 5 in 2007 [Mueller2009].

Explanations remain elusive

What factors are behind these changes? According to Pinker, one major factor over the past few centuries is the rise of large, effective systems of democratic government, which Pinker terms the "Leviathan" effect, named after the title of a book by 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Others include the "civilizing effect" and the "pacifying effect," wherein people have begun to see other societies as cooperating partners capable of trade and mutual enrichment, instead of loathsome aliens that must be eliminated. It also seems that society as a whole, perhaps through improved education, is better able to see the world from the eyes of others.

The decline in violent crime during the past two decades in the U.S. is particularly perplexing, and has puzzled criminologists, law enforcement officials, sociologists and demographers alike. A recent article in the Washington Post reviews numerous proposed explanations: improved policing, increased incarceration of violent criminals, demographic changes, economic changes, the decline of cocaine usage, gentrification of cities, the legalization of abortion, and even changes in gun ownership. But every one of these explanations has flaws, and the consensus of researchers is that none of these can explain more than a few percent of the decline [Fisher2013].

Summary

Whatever the explanations, these declines are certainly a blessed development, one that we should be deeply grateful for. The conclusion of Pinker's book resonates with both hope and gratitude [Pinker2011b, pg. 658]:
For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.

For additional discussion, see Decline, Morality and Progress.

References

[See Bibliography].