The Decline of Violence in Human Society

A recent and provocative opinion piece in the Washington Post by Ali Wyne is titled, “The World is Getting Better. Why Don’t We Believe It?” Indeed, it can be difficult when the evening news seems to be dominated by IS beheading videos and warnings about impending epidemics to believe that, on average, things are actually improving for most people around the world. Wyne cites a number of development indicators that suggest things are looking up for human civilization: the rate of extreme poverty fell from 37 % to 10% from 1990-2015; life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women between 1990 and 2013. Yes, there are several armed conflicts raging around the world and we may be in the midst of a long period of transition among the world’s most powerful states, but for most people in most places, life has actually been getting better since the end of the Cold War.

Wyne does not discuss a related argument (and one that is more relevant to the focus of this blog): that the world has become a much, much less violent place for the vast majority of humanity over the last thousand years (or more). Steven Pinker makes this argument in his tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin, 2011). This book has been out for a few years, but I finally got around to reading it last summer and it has stuck with me since then.

In Better Angels, Pinker marshals an impressive body of evidence to document the decline of dozens of types of violence in human society—from homicide, to deaths from war and privation, to slavery, to domestic violence and infanticide. Many of the descriptions in the book are stomach-churning (medieval torture, sadism), but I think this is what makes the book effective: yes, we have isolated acts of violence in contemporary society and there are some places around the world where shocking violence still occurs, but the “average” human of today faces a much lower risk of violence from both what we might call “spectacular” causes (interstate war) and the more “everyday” (child abuse).

I don’t think Pinker succeeds in his attempt to develop a general theory to explain this decline in human violence, but he does present a mountain of empirical evidence to document these trends, most of it very convincing. I think he could have done more to explore what we might call structural or institutionalized violence, e.g., the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States, nor do I think he gives adequate treatment to structural violence directed against women in contemporary society.

I do think it is important, however, to document and acknowledge long-term trends like these, especially when we (quite naturally) focus on rare, shocking, discrete episodes of violence we see on the evening news. This does not mean that there is not still work to be done or that these trends will never be reversed, but Pinker is correct to highlight one of the most important trends in the decline of human violence in recent history: the absence of war between the most powerful states in the system. There are a few competing theories in international relations about why this is the case (why the United States, China and Russia are not constantly at war one another today, as major powers often were in prehistory or the middle ages in Europe), but I won’t get into them here. It is important to keep in mind that, as frightening as terrorist attacks may be, the human devastation they cause is a mere fraction of the violence that would have been unleashed in a nuclear confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, or even in a conventional war between China and Russia today. In this election season, we can and should demand that both our current and prospective decision makers keep things in perspective rather than opt for fear as a motivator.