Monday, October 24, 2011

Nature Commentary on Decline of Violence

The latest issue of Nature has this interesting commentary on the decline of violence. A sample:

“The twentieth century was the bloodiest in history.” This frequently asserted claim is popular among the romantic, the religious, the nostalgic and the cynical. They use it to impugn a range of ideas that flourished in that century, including science, reason, secularism, Darwinism and the ideal of progress. But this historical factoid is rarely backed up by numbers, and it is almost certainly an illusion. We are prone to think that modern life is more violent because historical records from recent eras are more complete, and because the human mind overestimates the frequency of vivid, memorable events. We also care more about violence today. Ancient histories are filled with glorious conquests that today would be classified as genocide, and the leaders known to history as So-and-So the Great would today be prosecuted as war criminals.

Attempts to quantify the death tolls from earlier centuries suggest that many of the collapsing empires, conquering maniacs, horse-tribe invasions, slave trades and annihilations of native peoples had individual death tolls that, adjusted for population, are comparable to those of each of the two world wars. War before civilization was even bloodier. Forensic archaeology and ethnographic demography suggest that around 15% of people living in non-state societies died violently — five times the proportion of violent deaths in the twentieth century from war, genocide and man-made famines combined.