Much 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, child labor, 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, peonage and animal abuse. Pinker noted in an extensive 2014 article that these patterns have continued. 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.
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 by the late 2000s had fallen by half of what it was in the early 1990s. This included 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. (In 2015-2016, Chicago returned to the middle and low end of 1980s levels but the national rate barely rose comparatively.) 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%).
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.
This dramatic change in the ways that humans treat each other can also be illustrated with a discussion of reduced child labor. Until the late 1800s, very few individuals spoke out or took action against the common practice of child labor. Consider this historical account from an article in Psychology Today:
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
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.”
“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.”
“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:
Both liberals and conservatives, for different reasons, often reject or minimize these changes. Regarding liberals, Pinker gave a talk called, “Why Do Progressives Hate Progress?” He illustrated how much the world has improved in recent centuries and decades in so many major categories and yet a large number of liberals (often conservatives too) refuse to accept this reality. These dramatic changes in positive directions include poverty rates, geographic and commercial expansion of environmental protection, and life expectancy.