The Null Device
While it may seem that we live in an age of unprecedented violence and atrocity, according to Steven Pinker, violence has been steadily declining over the past few centuries, and we are now living at the most peaceful time in the history of humanity so far.
The decline of violence, he tells us, is a fractal phenomenon - we see it over the centuries, the decades and the years. That said, we see a tipping point in the 16th century - the age of reason - particularly in England and Holland.
One on one death has plummeted through the middle ages, with an "elbow" of the curve in the 16th century. Despite a slight uptick in the 1960s - "perhaps those who thought that rock and roll would lead to a decline in moral values had it right" we've seen two orders of magnitude fall in one on one violence from the middle ages to today. State sponsored violence has also fallen sharply - we've seen a 90% reduction in genocide since the end of the cold war. State on state conflicts are dropping every decade.Pinker then calls bullshit on the Rousseauvian "noble savage" myth that, in some state of long-lost primordial innocence, our distant ancestors lived in blessed harmony with one another, and that ills such as warfare and violence are the result of the noxious effects of language/capitalism/agriculture/urbanisation.
Until 10,000 years ago, all humans were hunter gatherers. This is the group that some believe lived in primordial harmony - there's no evidence of this. Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary - from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two world wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare.
The Middle Ages were filled with mutilation and torture as routine punishments for trangressions we'd punish with fines today. This was merely another charming feature of a time that featured pastimes like "cat burning", dropping cats into a fire for entertainment purposes. Some of the most creative inventions of the Middle Ages were fantastically cruel forms of corporal punishment.Pinker offers several reasons for the illusion that violence is increasing and the past was more idyllic: improved communications (we have more awareness of acts of violence, petty and enormous, than people had in earlier centuries), the cognitive illusion that makes memorable events (which include acts of spectacular brutality) seem more common, and the fact that popular standards of what's acceptable are changing faster than behaviour actually is. He also offers four explanations for why violence is becoming less common: the Hobbesian hypothesis (that states with monopolies on violence reduce it), a decline in the belief that life is cheap, the rise of more non-zero-sum games such as international trade, which make potential rivals more valuable alive than dead, and the hypothesis of the "expanding circle":
By default, we empathize with a small group of people, our friends and family. Everyone else is subhuman. But over time, we've seen this circle expand, from village to clan to tribe to nation to other races, both sexes and eventually other species. As we learn to expand our circles wider and wider, perhaps violence becomes increasingly unacceptable.