Monday, July 09, 2007

The Decline of Violence

My wife and I have just moved a delightful little village in the middle of Kent. While we were settling in, some of the neighbours came around to check us out. Surprisingly, none of them tried to kill us. They didn’t even form a posse to run us out of town.

In the context of human history, it is deeply strange that a new family could settle down with a different territory without fear of reprisals from the residents. You might think this is a triumph for private property, but it goes deeper than that. Even if we had moved into their back garden, they would have called the police rather than shot at us.

Given the carnage of the twentieth century, it is counter-intuitive but still true that the chances of being killed by violence have been falling, if irregularly and with upward blips, throughout history. In response to my recent post on mythical noble savages, a correspondent on my yahoo group recommended the book War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley. His description of all-out prehistoric war can be compared to the brutal but rule-bound prosecution of medieval warfare, as I discussed last month. Steven Pinker, in a recent essay, carries the story to the present day and notes that the casualty rate for the First and Second World Wars was nothing like as great as in earlier struggles even if the absolute figures were very high.

The question, if we accept the fact that human violence has decreased, is why did it? Pinker offers some thoughts in his article, correctly noting that we have not had time to evolve into more peaceful creatures. None of the three suggestions he makes quite add up, but the one with most mileage is, I think, Peter Singer’s. That is quite surprising given Singer is a pretty unpleasant piece of work in many respects, but he does seem to be groping towards a solution to the problem of the decline of violence.

Basically, he suggests that evolution gave us the ability to survive peacefully in small groups, the in-group. Many animals live in packs of a few families and defend their territory against all comers. Our closest relatives, the chimps, live in a pack, raid their neighbours, murder intruders and generally behave like real savages. Human beings, however, have figured out how to live in bigger groups and not resort to violence at the first instance. Somehow, we have accepted larger and larger in-groups who are to be initially trusted and treated as part of the tribe. This has had the inevitable effect that we use violence less often and the casualty figures drop.

The question neither Pinker nor Singer answer is why we have allowed our in-groups to increase in size. I suspect they would find the most likely solution disagreeable to their prejudices...

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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