Sunday, 6 November 2011

Violence in decline?

Recently published is a book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of our Nature in which he states that life has got steadily better over hundreds of thousands of years. He systematically examines data and quantifies violence in relation to the population size at the time it took place and concludes that over the millenia the chances of an individual being a victim of violent attack, enforced starvation or human sacrifice has fallen.

Looking at the world as a whole I agree. On top of the painfully slow move towards a more peaceful world we have developed increasingly powerful means of destruction to the point where we could wipe out the whole human race many times over by nuclear or possibly biological warfare. Yet today, with a population of 7 billion, only a tiny fraction of individuals are engaged in killing each other.

The most violent episodes by far originated in China and Mongolia. Around 15% of the world population were wiped out in each of two vicious conflicts. (See table.)
  • The Al Lishan rebellion, a civil war in 8th century China, in which 35 million died.
  • The Mongol and Tatar invasions over 1207-1472 AD, resulting in some 50 million dead.
15% of today’s world population would amount to 1 billion fatalities. Torture, enforced starvation, massacres, ethnic cleansing, large scale human sacrifice, cultivated cannibalism and random acts of robbery have all  greatly subsided.

Pinker points out in an interview in the New Scientist (Oct 15) that, according to Lawrence Keeley’s book War before civilisation (1996), modern states at their worst (France in the nineteenth century and Germany in the twentieth ) ‘had rates of death that were dwarfed by those of hunter-gather and hunter-horticultural societies.’ Evidence includes bashed-in skulls, arrowheads embedded in bones and fortifications. The romantic idea of the noble savage seems to be in retreat.

In Europe, despite the two mechanised world wars of the 20th century, life has become in the main prosperous and peaceful. Even in Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mexico, while parts seem like hell on earth to most westerners, the carnage and brutality do not compare with previous eras.

Pinker lists the reasons (the italics are mine):
  • Governments, with police and courts having a monopoly on the use of force and incarceration (but what made people start wanting to form governments?)
  • Expansion and consolidation of kingdoms (could this not have been a consequence of less violence, rather than a cause?)
  • Commerce, trade and exchange made people more valuable alive than dead through reciprocal altruism (but was this not the case for previous societies?)
  • Expansion of literacy, journalism, history and science (could not any of these have caused a rise in violence?)
Pinker says the changes in human behaviour were environmental rather than genetic (he believes genetic evolution has not occurred since homo sapiens appeared, in defiance of modern epigenetic findings). But is this valid? The social environment is surely the result of human behaviour. So what caused human behaviour to change? Here I believe Pinker and other materialist psychologists who think we are neurologically hard wired are stuck. The only way a materialist can attempt to explain the improving morality is by continuing genetic evolution. And why do our genetics change?

 It is my own belief that our nature, with its awareness of good and evil, is evolving spiritually over the ages and that Christian influence itself, where it is not forbidden or distorted for power purposes, has evolved and continues to evolve, with ups and downs, in dialogue with our Creator.

Whatever the reasons for the world being a better place I thank Steven Pinker for the good news.  But there are dangers to be aware of.

In the twentieth century there have been signs of a reverse. Wherever societies have been without a belief in a transcendental deity a human one has sprung up in its place in times of hardship: Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) in China, Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Russia. These three people were collectively responsible for around 100 million deaths and perhaps ten times that number of ruined lives. Russia even today is suffering a profound identity crisis after 70 years of enforced atheism, with Putin being turned into a god as faith in the real one continues to be undermined.

The socio-economic system in Europe and America is built on sand, a giant Tower of Babel. I leave to your imagination what might happen if it collapses and a significant proportion of people do not even pay lip service to human decency. Hopefully the financial system can be restructured before it is broken down by debt.

We also have to be aware that while most of us are more humane, the future of humanity could be at the mercy of violent, power-seeking minorities should the wrong technology get into their hands.  

This is a central theme of my book.

Author, 2077 AD