Has Violence Really Decreased Since Ancient Times?

I have been reading Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, a 2011 book in which he proposes that, modern warfare and violence notwithstanding, violence by individuals and nation states has markedly decreased since ancient times. Pinker garners a vast armada of historical records and statistics to prove his case, and he is convincing, as far as it goes. It’s heavy going at times to read Pinker’s vivid descriptions of the horrible tortures, mass killings, slavery, and punishments that were common in the Roman Empire and earlier, through the Middle Ages, and even into the 20th century.
Massacre and torture was normal in those times; so were the worst forms of slavery, rape, and atrocity. Pinker acknowledges what we already know, that this violence was largely perpetrated by men. So from that point of view Pinker’s thesis holds up—especially because he uses statistical measures. For example, in 16th century Europe a nobleman had a 25% percent chance of dying through duels, vendettas, and other conflicts based on “honor”—while in the 20th century, even though tens of millions were massacred by Hitler and Stalin, because the global population was so much greater, a person had only a 1% chance of dying during that time, on average.
But even if we accept Pinker’s argument that we live in a less violent, and more humanistic world, his book is 12 years old. I think we now need to take into account new forms of violence, maybe not as obvious and horrific as being broken on the rack, but violence nonetheless. Some of these new forms of violence are planet-wide in their scope and will affect everybody who lives. Pinker’s statistical model will not do well if everybody dies, and the chance of dying through violence approaches 100% or even 50%. Climate change, for example, could kill hundreds of millions in the next decades simply through life-threatening heat and famine. If you live in any equatorial region, or in low-lying country like most of Pakistan, you and untold millions of others have a good chance of being completely wiped out as more and more of the planet becomes uninhabitable.
Maybe we need to update Pinker’s thesis and say that while the curve of violence has been going down for centuries, it may poised to go up again, perhaps a lot more steeply than it went down. I hardly need to mention nuclear holocaust, which could wipe us all out. Iyou believe the doomsday clock, which atomic scientists have been updating since the 1950s, it now sits at 90 seconds before midnight—the closest we have ever been to annihilation.
There are other, even more sinister innovations in murderous technology that we now have to worry about. Watching are seeing today in the Ukraine war how much armed drones have now become regular and lethal part of warfare. It is not require a great leap of the imagination to imagine that before long robotic killing machines will be preprogrammed using AI to seek out and destroy perceived enemies independent of human control. That was the thesis of the Terminator movies—that in the future humanity would overtaken by such killer robots. But what was science fiction twenty years ago when Terminator was made is virtually science fact today.
Propaganda, racist or otherwise, is violent too, and its violence is not just metaphorical. Violent propaganda leads to violent action. Goebbels, Hitler’s master propagandist, realized early on the power of radio and newspaper to spread lies and prepare the populace for war. His motto was, “If you repeat something often enough, people will believe anything.” He encouraged the German people to call Jews “cockroaches,” and as George Steiner noted in a famous New Yorker essay, once Jews could be named as cockroaches, getting people to exterminate them was relatively easy. Today, social media and other influencing tools have an even more powerful effect on blurring the boundary between truth and lies. We can see all too clearly how social media propaganda leads to violent action.
Goebbel’s technology was primitive compared to today. The tools of propaganday and social control today are much more sophisticated. The worst nightmare in my view—one that I don’t think receives enough attention—is the possibility of mind-control brain implants. Brain implants for medical reasons—for instance to treat Parkinson’s and paralysis—are already a reality. An article in Healthline reports that “the company Neurolink is developing devices known as brain-computer interfaces, or BCI’s, that translate the brain’s electrical activity into commands that can be relayed to an output device such as a computer screen, smartphone or robotic limb.” It does not take much imagination to foresee such commands going the other way, and implants being used for social control, or to cause agonizing pain in people who are perceived enemies of the powers that be. Once again science fiction has already imagined this possibility; in the Matrix series of films, a robot-controlled world keeps almost all of humanity in its thrall using brain implants.
I have long believed that if there is any possibility that an invention or new technology can be used as a weapon, it will be. That’s just how it is. Brain implants could just be the latest new example. Pinker quotes Abraham Lincoln in his title “the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln was an optimist, and I am too, mostly, but optimism has to be tempered by constant vigilance.
As Bob Dylan sang, “Senor, senor, can you tell us where we’re headin’, Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?” Perhaps Dylan understood that “Lincoln” means optimism, and Armageddon means—well, we all know what it means.



One thought on “Has Violence Really Decreased Since Ancient Times?

  1. Lew,

    This is another powerful essay that speaks to truths many people would rather ignore. But as you note, the clock continues to tick and though there are things we can look at and say, “things are definitely better now than in the past,” I think we would do well to accept what the experts are saying and our intuitive mind knows is true, we are still engaged in practices that are bringing humanity every closer to destruction–if not in an Armageddon event that would end our human experiment quickly, but in a slower, but still deadly death where our technologies contribute to increasing distrust, anger, hopelessness, and helplessness where we commit mass suicide. Pretending that we are moving in a positive direction and we should trust that things are getting better and better is a fools journey.

    And I think there are a lot of wise people who are willing to see the optimism, hope, and the call to action that your essay suggests.

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