Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Bloody Good Old Days

Are we devolving into a maelstrom of chaos and violence? Can we look to the past for lesson on how to live together peacably? No, says Steven Pinker, we are becoming less violent all the time:
In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: 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.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. 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.
...
At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

Political correctness from the other end of the ideological spectrum has also distorted many people's conception of violence in early civilizations—namely, those featured in the Bible. This supposed source of moral values contains many celebrations of genocide, in which the Hebrews, egged on by God, slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one's parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Hebrews, of course, were no more murderous than other tribes; one also finds frequent boasts of torture and genocide in the early histories of the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Chinese.

At the century scale, it is hard to find quantitative studies of deaths in warfare spanning medieval and modern times. 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." Social histories of the West provide evidence of numerous barbaric practices that became obsolete in the last five centuries, such as slavery, amputation, blinding, branding, flaying, disembowelment, burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, and so on. Meanwhile, for another kind of violence—homicide—the data are abundant and striking. 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.

I'm not sure if nobility has anything to do with it. If I were to cite some factors that might explain the decrease, they would be:

* The consolidation of small tribes and kingdoms into larger states and empires over time, along with the professionalization of the warrior/soldier class. In tribal society every man is warrior. In large states and empires this is impractical and unnecessary. A small military elite supported by a large peasantry or workforce has the time and resources to perfect the art and science of warfare. Thus less lives are put at risk in war.

* The rising status of women and the breakdown of honor cultures based on the control of female sexuality and family status. Honor codes ensure that almost every slight and impropriety, no matter how minor in modern eyes, had the potential to escalate into familial and tribal warfare. Allied with this is the breakdown of the extended patriarchal family and the rise of the nuclear family, marriage by individual consent, and that form of individualism that those nostalgic for the imagined past decry as "atomization".

Stanley Kurtz writes about the Pakistani tradition of cousin marriage and how that practice has slowed the assimilation of Pakistani immigrants to Britain. It is precisely this kind of familial-based honor tradition that has prolonged a culture of violence in Pakistan, and the loss of among Western nations has allowed for the assimilation and coexistence of diverse ethnic and cultural groups.
Pinker's essay gives me some hope to believe that the arrow of progress does exist. As pleasant as it might be to imagine the past as a stable, safe and peaceful time, the facts just don't support it. It's time to give the present its due.

2 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Some time back, I pointed out the steady decline in fortification of housing as an index of increasing peace and security.

You don't need anthropologists to tell this story. One of those bus tours of the English countryside will do the job.

March 31, 2007 10:11 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

I had thought of that post when I read these on The Belmont Club:

Your Identification, Please
Your Identification, Please 2

It's very likely the case that the English countryside is not as dangerous as it used to be.

March 31, 2007 1:38 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home