08 October 2011

Stephen Pinker Thinks We are Growing Less Violent

Cognitive psychologist and linguist Stephen Pinker's latest book details what he sees as "a historical decline in human violence." Pinker provides a large amount of documentation for his point of view, but a lot of people are not convinced. Political philosopher John Gray thinks that Pinker's argument is more an exercise of faith than a scientific theory. Journalist Ron Rosenbaum does not address Pinker specifically, but he backhandedly scolds cognitive scientists who think they can define away "evil" using scientific theories in the manner of an exorcism.

Pinker appears to have more or less identified a historical trend of decreased violence in advanced societies. His idea is worth a look:
Images via Steven Pinker Edge.org
Pinker's recent Edge.org article describes how human violence has subsided in recent years, providing a glimpse into his newest book.

As seen above, deaths from warfare in the UK have come down significantly from historical times. The chart below illustrates the reduction in European homicides since the year 1200. The bottom graph demonstrates the large peak in genocides in the middle of the 20th century, with subsequent decline. More from Pinker:
Believe it or not—and I know most people do not—violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it's a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

...The extraordinary 65-year stretch since the end of the Second World War has been called the "Long Peace", and has perhaps the most striking statistics of all, zero. There were zero wars between the United States and the Soviet Union (the two superpowers of the era), contrary to every expert prediction. No nuclear weapon has been used in war since Nagasaki, again, confounding everyone's expectations. There have been no wars between any subset of the great powers since the end of the Korean War in 1953. There have been zero wars between Western European countries. The extraordinary thing about this fact is how un-extraordinary it sounds. If I say I'm going to predict that in my lifetime France and Germany will not go to war, everyone will say, "Yeah, yeah; of course they won't go to war." But that is an extraordinary statement when you consider that before 1945, Western European countries initiated two new wars per year for more than 600 years. That number has now stood at zero for 65 years.

And there have been zero wars between developed countries at all. We take it for granted nowadays that war is something that happens only in poor, primitive countries. That, too, is an extraordinary development; war used to be something that rich countries did, too. Europe, which traditionally has been the part of the world with the biggest military might, is no longer picking on countries in other parts of the world, or hurling artillery shells at one other with the rest of the world suffering collateral damage. This change has been extraordinary. _Edge.org

It is worth at least skimming the entire piece, paying particular attention to the graphic images. Civilisation seems to be growing less violent in most of the ways that can be measured -- at least on a historical scale.

But can we expect this drop in violence to continue? To answer that question, one must look at demographic trends. The populations which are growing are those that exhibit higher rates of violence, and those that are shrinking are the ones which exhibit lower rates of violence -- as a rule. For example, populations within Africa, Asia, and South America which exhibit the world's highest rates of violence are also generally showing the highest birthrates. Even within advanced nations, the subpopulations which show the highest rates of violence also exhibit the highest birthrates.

If these demographic trends continue, the shrinking, less violent populations, are apt to either die off, or be killed off. The violent and prolific populations may just inherit the world.

In modern politically correct cultures, violence is often condemned outright, without qualification, as if violence itself were evil. But violence in defence of one's life, family, and property is the hallmark of civilisations which survive. Without the threat of defensive violence, the weak and passive become prey to any violent person who comes upon them.

Law enforcement cannot be everywhere, protecting everyone. Any society which forbids individuals from using violence to protect themselves or their property is a society in decay. The law is meant to be taken into the hands of citizens. Otherwise the law will serve only a corrupt oligarchy.

So while advanced societies may seem to be experiencing lower rates of violence overall at this time, demographic changes suggest that this trend toward less violence is only an ephemeral one.

Modern civilisations that do not look to their own survival are likely to fall to primitive civilisations that are merely following the growth imperative. The ongoing popularity of the doom cults in the west: carbon catastrophe doom, peak oil doom, resource scarcity doom, etc. speak to the undertow of defeatism eating at the foundations of the culture.

Violence is an integral part of the human condition, as long as humans live in the world within the universe. The modern west may turn its back on violence, imagining itself to have grown morally superior to the old, brutal ways. But having your back turned simply means that you will not see the violence that inevitably seeks you out and finds you, unprepared.

Parts of this article are adopted from an earlier posting on Al Fin, the Next Level

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Blogger neil craig said...

"The populations which are growing are those that exhibit higher rates of violence, and those that are shrinking are the ones which exhibit lower rates of violence"

growing populations are, by definition, going to have more young people and they are the ones who sngage in violence. Thus the relative violence, and even in such countries it seems low by historic standards, is effect rather than cause.

Saturday, 08 October, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

You are partly right and partly wrong, Neil.

Youth and male sex are highly significant correlates of violence, to be sure.

But rather than trying to prove a grand historical trend, one should know that violence typically rises and falls cyclically according to larger trends taking place. Ongoing factors of demographics, war, economics, technological change, urbanisation, change of governance and policing, etc.

Here are some other important correlates of violence:

Low population average IQ (at least 50% heritable) Forcing modernisation and democracy on the third world will not change this.

Low impulse control (low frontal lobe executive function, probably greater than 70% heritable). Laws and governance must take this factor into account, and allow society to compensate for it.

A violent culture (like the gangsta culture of inner cities or the clan cultures of much of the tribal third world)

Single parent homes

Drug use, drug culture

Unmarried status, childless, unemployed


Multicultural juxtaposition

Feuds, simmering grievances


Saturday, 08 October, 2011  
Blogger J said...

Something is changing for sure. Once human sacrifice was widespread among all races and religions, then even animal sacrifice went out of fashion. Now killing animals for food is becoming controversial.

Sunday, 09 October, 2011  
Blogger Ugh said...

"If these demographic trends continue, the shrinking, less violent populations, are apt to either die off, or be killed off. The violent and prolific populations may just inherit the world."

Say what you will about Michael Savage of talk radio fame, but his tagline "only a more savage nation will survive" sounds like it was plucked right from this article. I think he means that in the modern PC world where we won't defend ourselves from the invading hordes we as a nation or Western Civ itself will not survive...

Monday, 10 October, 2011  

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