Now – The Most Peaceful Time In World History

gun-flower-peace-2Much of the information below comes from Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. From a long-term viewpoint, terrible things like the following are in radical decline (or in some cases have been eliminated): warfare, rape, murder, judicial torture, child abuse, legal and illegal slavery, use of the death penalty, robbery, infanticide, bullying, lynchings, corporal punishment, misogyny, theft, domestic abuse, racism, blood sports, religious persecution, burglary, debtors’ prisons, sexism, abortion, dueling, property crime, witch hunts and animal abuse.  This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and afterward.  By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior.

Deadliness of Wars, 1950s-2000s

Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving.  That’s just not the case when it comes to acts of violence.  There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it’s far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585.  Through a very large range of historical narratives, statistics and archaeological evidence, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks.  On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.  For example, total homicides per year dropped by approximately 70% in LA and 80% in NYC. FBI data show that between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common.  From 1993-2012, rates of illegal activity went down in categories of violent crime (48.2%), forcible rape (34.5%), robbery (55.9%), murder and nonnegligent manslaughter (50.5%), aggravated assault (50%), burglary (39.1%), motor vehicle theft (62.1%), larceny/theft (35.4%) and property crime (39.7%).

reported-violent-crime-rate-in-the-united-states-from-1990-to-2015

When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don’t top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th.  Archaeological studies from 21 prehistoric sites of eras as far back as 16,000 years ago show on average a very high 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. Examinations of 8 hunter-gatherer societies demonstrated a level of about 13%, whereas in 10 studies of hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal peoples the rate was almost 30%. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The first half of 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%, when counting lives lost in war, genocide and human-caused famine.  That number drops significantly if one includes the second half of the century, where none of the top 44 nations in GDP entered into warfare with each other. European powers had been starting two armed conflicts each year since 1400 and this totally ceased. Further shocking the typical political patterns of world history, no nation added new territory by force and the colonial powers of Europe actually gave up the bulk of their conquered lands.  The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%.  That’s 500 times less than typical prehistoric levels of brutality and nearly 1000 times below the average rate for hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups.  Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of American Wild West towns in the second half of the 1800s, where the percentages ranged between 5% and 20%.  20th century England’s murder rate, for another example, was 19 times lower than in the 14th century.  In the late 2000s, it was 35 times less.

Pinker noted in an extensive 2014 article that these patterns have continued.

See the charts below – click to enlarge:

was-wwii-the-bloodiest-battle-in-history

Violent Deaths in Pre-historic Societies
Frequency of Wars Involving a Great Power 1500-2000
Crime Rates in the U.S., 1960-2010

rape-and-homicide-rates-1970-2010

Duration of Wars Involving a Great Power 1500-2000

u-s-violent-crime-number-of-offenses-2009-2013

Historic Death Toll Comparison

Percentage of Death in Warfare

Abolition of Death Penalty in Europe

Abolition of Judicial Torture

Deaths in Wars Involving a Great Power 1500-2000

Deadliness of Wars Involving a Great Power 1500-2000

Pinker suggests five “historical forces” that have emphasized “our peaceable motives” and “have driven the multiple declines in violence”:

The Leviathan – As a state and judiciary with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, this can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties believe they are on the side of the angels.

Commerce – A positive-sum game in which everybody can win; as technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead, and they are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization.

Feminization – The process in which cultures have increasingly respected the interests and values of women. Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men.

Cosmopolitanism – Literacy, mobility, and mass media can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

The Escalator of Reason – An intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.

Source: Pages XXV-XXVI in Preface

Homicide victimization rates, 1900-2013

u-s-forcible-rape-rate-1972-2015

Abolition of Death Penality for Nonlethal Crimes

Abolition of Slavery

A great web site that can be used as a reference to double-check this data is Necrometrics, where typically a half dozen or more historians contribute their estimate on the death toll for each significant historical event.  As far as I have been able to study, Pinker many (if not most) times chose one of the conservative numbers in the ranges.

Abortions in the world, 1980-2003

American Executions for Crimes other than Murder, 1650-2002

homicide-rates-in-major-u-s-cities-1985-2015

American Executions

20 Deadliest Events In Human History

There are many interesting video summary presentations and interviews online by and with Pinker regarding this book.
 Average number of battle deaths per state-based armed conflict, per year 1950-2005Anti-Gay Attitudes US 1973-2010

Crime Rates in the U.S., 1993 and 2012 Comparison

Deaths in War 1900-2005

Data on the Native American Holocaust, 1500-1900

Equal rights language in English language books

Homicide In England

Literacy rates, 1475-2003
New England European American Adult Homicide Rate, 1630-1800

Homicide In Europe Compared To Nonstate societies

 

Domestic Violence in England and Wales, 1995-2009

Other Abolitions after the Enlightenment Neonaticide Rates in England 1550-1800

US Firearm homicides, 1993-2011

Homicide In Europe

Lynching

Percentage of male deaths caused by warfare

The Long Peace

Time line for the abolition of judical torture

U.S Victimization Rates 1993-2011

u-s-executions-1976-2016

US Crime Rates 2001-2010

US Homicide Rates 1950-2010

US States With Corporal Punishment 1954-2010

Violence Against Children 1990-2006

War deaths per 100000 people per year

Rate of Firearm Homicide Deaths, by Age, 1993, 2010

World Wide Battle Deaths, 1940s-2000s

Homicide in Western Europe, 1300-1930

Pinker points to a very influential theory from sociologist Nobert Elias (1897-1990), The Civilizing Process, that may help to explain the long term global decline of violence:

“Now let’s consider the implications of the centuries-long decline in homicide in Europe. Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer. And that brings us back to the ideas of Norbert Elias, the only theory left standing….Elias developed the theory of the Civilizing Process not by poring over numbers, which weren’t available in his day, but by examining the texture of everyday life in medieval Europe. He examined, for instance, a series of drawings from the 15th-century German manuscript The Medieval Housebook, a depiction of daily life as seen through the eyes of a knight. In the detail shown in figure 3–5, a peasant disembowels a horse as a pig sniffs his exposed buttocks….In a nearby cave a man and a woman sit in the stocks. Above them a man is being led to the gallows, where a corpse is already hanging, and next to it is a man who has been broken on the wheel, his shattered body pecked by a crow. The wheel and gibbet are not the focal point of the drawing, but a part of the landscape, like the trees and hills.”

The Civilizing Process

“Figure 3–6 contains a detail from a second drawing, in which knights are attacking a village. In the lower left a peasant is stabbed by a soldier; above him, another peasant is restrained by his shirttail while a woman, hands in the air, cries out. At the lower right, a peasant is being stabbed in a chapel while his possessions are plundered, and nearby another peasant in fetters is cudgeled by a knight. Above them a group of horsemen are setting fire to a farmhouse, while one of them drives off the farmer’s cattle and strikes at his wife…The knights of feudal Europe were what today we would call warlords.”

The Civilizing Process - 2

“States were ineffectual, and the king was merely the most prominent of the noblemen, with no permanent army and little control over the country. Governance was outsourced to the barons, knights, and other noblemen who controlled fiefs of various sizes, exacting crops and military service from the peasants who lived in them. The knights raided one another’s territories in a Hobbesian dynamic of conquest, preemptive attack, and vengeance, and as the Housebook illustrations suggest, they did not restrict their killing to other knights. In A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, the historian Barbara Tuchman describes the way they made a living: ‘These private wars were fought by the knights with furious gusto and a single strategy, which consisted in trying to ruin the enemy by killing and maiming as many of his peasants and destroying as many crops, vineyards, tools, barns, and other possessions as possible, thereby reducing his sources of revenue. As a result, the chief victim of the belligerents was their respective peasantry.'”

In examining the habits of pre-modern peoples, Pinker further describes them:

“The people of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross. A number of the advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia: Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets, or wall hangings with urine or other filth. • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers. • Don’t slide back and forth on your chair as if you’re trying to pass gas. • Don’t touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands. • Don’t greet someone while they are urinating or defecating. • Don’t make noise when you pass gas. • Don’t undo your clothes in front of other people in preparation for defecating, or do them up afterwards. • When you share a bed with someone in an inn, don’t lie so close to him that you touch him, and don’t put your legs between his. • If you come across something disgusting in the sheet, don’t turn to your companion and point it out to him, or hold up the stinking thing for the other to smell and say ‘I should like to know how much that stinks.'”
I can’t avoid the conclusion that it’s far better to be alive today.  For all of the contemporary world’s faults, it’s certainly and dramatically more civilized and humane.
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25 comments

    • Hi Bruce,

      Thanks for your comment. Pinker and many other academics who have analyzed the data and trends point to the large and unprecedented size and range of cultural shift and behavior patterns over millennia and especially the last few centuries. Though we have become more and more capable of destroying ourselves, physical violence has continued to drop in every major category. It could certainly reverse at any point, but the statistical probability of a complete reversal or radical shift is very unlikely.

      Consider the widely publicized increase in murders in Chicago during the past two years as an example. It’s very troubling to me how little context we’ve been given in the news and by political pundits. Yes, the number of murders in 2015 for that city made it more dangerous than 3 years ago. But, not more so than 4 or 8 years ago. All of the 1990s and first few years of the 2000s were more violent. Just like the national trend, it’s still about half as violent as during most of the high crime years there from the late 1960s through the early 1990s. Here are some charts just for Chicago:

      Chicago Murders, 1957-2015

      Chicago Crime Rate, 1993-2013

      Chicago Murders, 1991-2011

      Not only the absolute numbers of murders went down, so did the rate. The population of the City of Chicago hasn’t risen significantly since the beginning of the crime decline in the early 1990s:

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Yes, there is hope! Maybe even some spiritual maturity happening in human evolution? I pray it is so. Thanks for all your extensive research! Do you ever wonder why these facts and charts don’t show up in the major media channels?

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    • Pinker doesn’t argue that human nature has changed. It’s the particular ways we structure our societies, what we emphasize, laws we enact and values we develop that make the difference.

      I think the media is a group of business entities that think they must focus on the negative to get ratings.

      Many people in the press seem to be either unaware of the data that I’ve discovered from mainstream sources and write about or they simply choose to focus on other information. For example, I watched Newt Gingrich say to a CNN reporter at the 2016 Republican National Convention that crime was not down in the major cities and he received no correction.

      I wrote in one of my articles titled, “15 Key Foundations Of Trump’s Political Viewpoint That Are Radically False”:

      “The U.S. violent crime rate is half of what it was in the early 1990s (after a high crime wave begun in the late 1960s). This includes cities notorious for elevated levels of illegal activity like Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Diego, New York City, Los Angeles and New Orleans.”a, San Diego, New York City, Los Angeles and New Orleans.”

      What we can do to improve the level of understanding is spread the word on details that we think are important for people to know. We can encourage other people to read widely, from conservative and liberal sources and in-between.

      Unfortunately, America is a very anti-intellectual country. The people here are intelligent, but heavily emphasize practical knowledge over abstract thought, complex investigation, free inquiry and rigorous skepticism of established norms/beliefs.

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    • I first read Pinker’s book noted above about 4 years ago. Then, in 2014, I saw a short essay by him on the same topic printed on a Chipotle bag! It was part of a public relations campaign by this restaurant chain that highlighted influential contemporary thinkers and ideas. He noted there that in fact the unusual nature of extremely negative events is why the media calls it “news”:

      ——————————————————-

      “A Two-Minute Case for Optimism”

      It’s easy to get discouraged by the ceaseless news of violence, poverty, and disease. But the news presents a distorted view of the world. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. You never see a TV crew reporting that a country isn’t at war, or that a city hasn’t had a mass shooting that day, or that millions of 80-year-olds are alive and well.

      The only way to appreciate that state of the world is to count. How many incidents of violence, or starvation, or disease are there as a proportion of the number of people in the world? And the only way to know whether things are getting better or worse is to compare those numbers at different times: over the centuries and decades, do the trend lines go up or down?

      As it happens, the numbers tell a surprisingly happy story. Violent crime has fallen by half since 1992, and fiftyfold since the Middle Ages. Over the past 60 years the number of wars and number of people killed in wars have plummeted. Worldwide, fewer babies die, more children go to school, more people live in democracies, more can afford simple luxuries, fewer get sick, and more live to old age.

      “Better” does not mean “perfect.” Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress we’ve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.

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  2. I don’t agree with this opinion that the world is more peaceful but it was interesting to try and understand why someone believes in it. Yes, crimes such as theft etc are lower but I feel larger and more powerful things are happening that is creating an uncertain future for us all. Syria, brexit, USA vs Russia etc 🙂

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  3. We face three threats to our existence on this planet. First, a nuclear holocaust; though nuclear weapons have not been directly used since 1945, the danger of their use is very great now (the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is set and 2 1/2 minutes to midnight). Second is environmental destruction that continues apace globally; it has intensified as a feature of the industrial revolution. Global warming is but one of its forms. Third is authoritarian or non-democratic government, the source of both the first two threats. Unless we humans control these threats, our existence will end in a blast of violence unlike anything in our prior history.

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  4. First, thanks for following Good Golly Miss Molly, my own forum for rants, humor and questions about one thing and another. Your post makes pretty clear the role of the media in keeping us all on edge in the 21st century with the continuing blast furnace of bad bad news without context or thoughtful expression. Clearly, some of what happens is truly bad for the person or people involved, but when reported without context the threats of mayhem become part of every day life for the millions who will never meet a mugger, a psychopath, a hit-and-run driver or any other perpetrator of such mayhem. So thanks, too, for posting these charts and stats (with the help of Steven Pinker)…God know we need context. We also need to attend to any role we each DO play in the possible scenarios regarding the Great Ending.

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