The decline of violence

This is an extended version of a piece I wrote for the University Observer, which is available in print and online.


There is a sense that violence is an increasing problem and that past was generally a more harmonious era, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is that we live in the most peaceful era since civilisation began, with violence in decline in almost every domain. This reduction in violence, alongside improvements in medicine, has led to the global average human lifespan growing at the rate of five hours per day for the past fifty years.

The illusion

Today, many people feel as though the world is more dangerous than the past and there are several reasons for this. Here’s a taster:

  • Journalists report disasters, not incremental progress, because that’s what sells. Millions of Planes Land Safely Last Year is a less common headline than Plane crashes into Hillside. The tabloid motto encapsulates more succinctly captures this sentiment: If it bleeds, it leads.
  • Horrific, gory events tend to stay with us, lingering in our memory. This leads us to overestimate the likelihood of these events.
  • Our change in standards is outpacing our change in behaviour. For example, UNICEF are justifiably concerned about the child mortality rate in Eritrea today, than the fact that it has plummeted five-fold since 1974.
  • There is a reporting bias with respect to the past. The historical record tends not to mention genocide and war crimes too often, not because they didn’t occur, but because they were unremarkable. Today, the press much more diligently documents atrocities.

We’ll have a look at the numbers to see how violent the world is these days, and not base our conclusion on a hunch.

War

Today’s advanced military arsenals might suggest war is more dangerous than ever but the annual global death rate from war is receding. During World War II, 300 per 100,000 people died from war each year. This dropped to 22 in the 1950s, 5 in the ’80s, and just 0.2 in the ’00s. Furthermore, there hasn’t been a war between developed countries for seventy years — this is the aptly-named Long Peace. There has also been a 90% reduction in genocides since post-World War II highs. Civil wars do not follow this trend. Although they continue, typically they are less destructive than interstate wars. The Syrian civil war is particularly harrowing but even this has only pushed the global war death rate back to what it was in the year 2000.

Nuclear weapons

We live with the constant threat of nuclear war but despite apocalyptic prophecies, no nuclear weapons have been used in combat since Nagasaki. Since then, the Cold War ended without destruction and 16 nations abandoned nuclear weapons programs. The number of nuclear weapons being maintained has been reduced by 80% and a global agreement has locked down the remaining nuclear weapons, with the phased elimination of all nuclear weapons having been endorsed in principle by major world leaders. (As an aside, some people actually credit the Long Peace to the advancement of nuclear arsenals.)

number-of-nuclear-warheads-in-the-inventory-of-the-nuclear-powers
This shows the number of nuclear warheads in the inventory of the nuclear powers. Source: Our World in Data

Terrorism

Terrorism fears have been on the rise since the turn of the millennium but the truth is that terrorist attacks are incredibly rare on the grand scale. This is, of course, the point of terrorism — even a small attack can incite mass terror. However, the fact remains that each year since 2002, more people in America were killed by lightning, deer, peanut allergies, bee stings, and nightwear catching fire than by terrorist attacks. The number is so small that even efforts to mitigate attacks can go awry. For example, psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer found that number of Americans in the year after the 9/11 attacks who chose to drive rather than fly, out of fear of their plane being hijacked, led to an additional 1,500 road deaths.

Murder

The homicide rate in much of modern-day Europe has dropped below one per 100,000 people per year, a hundred times less than it was in the Middle Ages. In the rest of the world, violent crime rates are predicted to continue dropping, with criminologists expecting the global homicide rate to be halved within 30 years.

violence-over-time
This plot contains ethnographic evidence on violence. It shows what fraction of deaths in different societies over time were caused by violence from other people. Source: Our World in Data

Children

The rate of infanticide in the Western world today is less than a thousandth of what it was during the Medieval Period. Additionally, we have global campaigns targeting child labour, trafficking, and capital punishment. This contrasts the statement from a British coroner in 1862, in which he stated that police thought no more of finding a dead child on the side of the road than that of a dead dog. (Here’s an excerpt, for those interested.)

Child abduction by a stranger is a common today fear but it’s an extremely rare occurrence: If you wanted your child to be kidnapped, you would have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years, Warwick Cairns calculated.

Even modern-day children’s entertainment is mellower. 17th century nursery rhymes resort to violence 10.8 times more frequently than television programs of today. To paraphrase Steven Pinker — Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. He incurred a severe brain injury and her condition is unknown.

Perhaps a measure of the climate today is that dodgeball, once a staple of the physical education curriculum, has been banned in some American schools due to its violent nature.

Women

First, the low-hanging fruit — between the 15th and 18th centuries, 100,000 women were burned at the stake for witchcraft. Not only have we outgrown this, but violence of all kinds against women, including female genital mutilation and human trafficking, are in decline. Although work is by no means done, women are being educated better, paid more, marrying later, and are in more influential positions than ever. This is good not only for women but for society in general. Several ethnographic surveys of traditional cultures have found that the better a society treats its women, the less it embraces war.

Minorities

The rate of racially motivated attacks has been in decline throughout much of the world in the past hundred years. What seems obvious today, that slavery and torture are wrong, would have been seen as ethical and fair game in the past. Universal human rights was practically an incoherent concept. Slavery is still an issue in parts of the world but it is now condemned by countless treaties, conventions and declarations.

Globally, minorities are less suppressed in general (e.g. there is an increase in the decriminalisation of homosexuality) and the number of countries that discriminate against ethnic minorities is at an all-time low.

Animals

The concept of animal rights was once farcical. In the 1800s, cat burning (which is exactly what it sounds like) was a legitimate form of entertainment. People “shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, the Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media rightly safeguards animals against acts which would have been considered incredibly benign, such as forceful rain simulation (to take one example).

The factory farming practices of today are unacceptable but the truth is that agriculture was no more humane in the past. Some 17th century housewives cut the legs off living fowl in the belief that it made their flesh more tender. In recent decades, the number of people adhering to meatless diets is on the rise, at least.

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that the Nazis instituted the strongest laws for the protection of animals that Europe had ever seen (e.g. the humane treatment of animals in farms, movie sets, and restaurants, where fish had to be anesthetized and lobsters killed swiftly before they were cooked), all the while conducting unspeakable experiments on living humans. It is astonishing the extent to which the human mind can compartmentalise their morals.

Democracy & literacy

In 2015, there was a record number of people living in free and open societies. The global democracy index fluctuates annually but it has been increasing with each passing decade. As of 2015, more than 60% of the world’s population lived in open societies and this was the highest percentage ever.

In the past, criticising the king or following the wrong religion could get you executed one of a hundred different ways. The Church, with more than a millennium of systematic torture in Europe under its belt, weren’t keen on loving thy neighbour. The Medieval thirst for torture knew no bounds and the English monarchy used to revel in beheading both friend and foe. Currently there is a movement to nominate the Queen Elizabeth II for the Nobel Peace Prize – how about that for a stark juxtaposition.

But why?

Why has violence of all forms declined? There is no need for blind faith in some teleological pull towards harmony. The development of modern societies has caused violence statistics to plummet for a number of reasons. Here are two causes but there are many.

  • Nation states have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If someone is the victim of a crime, they generally have faith in the state to punish the perpetrator accordingly and rarely resort to vigilantism.
  • Advancements in commerce mean that everyone can win through trade, instead of going to war with a neighbouring state to plunder their resources. In this way, people become more valuable alive than dead. In fact, the most valuable resource in many areas is fast becoming their educated workforce. For example, if China were to invade Silicon Valley, one of the highest wealth-producing places in the world, they would find no resources to take, as real value is sitting between the ears of the people working there, not buried underground.

More generally, over time we’ve been able to navigate to less violent habits through our ability to empathise, reason, and exercise self-control. Increasingly, violence is viewed as a failure in communication, rather than a valiant endeavour.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that we will ever outgrow war and violence entirely — homo sapiens is nothing but a great ape and, in fact, both war and violence are justified at times — but modern society has lost its appetite for it. I’ll leave you with this. In total, 500,000 people were killed in front of packed crowds at the Colosseum in the name of Roman entertainment. Contrastingly, last year, Nissan rebranded its Micra model, accompanying it with a No More Nice Car marketing campaign. It was a cinematic advert showing a girl learning martial arts and standing up for her brother in the face of a bully. This ad was subsequently deemed too violent for Irish eyes and was banned from the big screen. Advertisements containing violence such as this often cause controversy and commentators bemoan how far our standards have fallen. In truth, it is a measure of how high our standards have come.


PS — Most of the information for this post was sourced from Steven Pinker, particularly his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He goes into a lot more detail in the book, leaving no stone unturned over the course of seven-hundred-and-something-pages. Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’s ever read. Pinker’s newest book, Enlightenment Now, follows the same line of thinking as The Better Angels of Our Nature. He also has a TED talk on the topic, if that is more your style.