The good news of history: it’s a story of less violence & better societies

Summary:  Most of the content on the FM website concerns bad news and exhortations to action. Both are anti-clickbait. Today we have good news about humanity, on the largest possible scale. The trend of history shows a large decline in violence from the state of nature to now. Assuming we don’t nuke the world, this seems likely to produce a better world for our descendents.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“…the life of solitary man {is} poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
— Hobbs in Leviathan (1651).

“.. nothing is more gentle than man in his primitive state, as he is placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and the fatal ingenuity of civilised man.”
— Jean Jacques Rousseau in A Discourse on Inequality (1755). He was wrong.

"The Better Angels of our Nature" by Steven Pinker
Available at Amazon.

To understand events we need perspective on things large and small. We have wonderful tools with which to see the details of the present and past. The news media feeds us a banquet of details daily; we can find more from the effectively unlimited sources available on the internet.

We have fewer tools to see the more important large scale trends that shape the world. Some things we see well, such as near-abolition of slavery and the improved lot of women (somewhat masked by presentism in fictional accounts (putting present-day ideas and behaviors into accounts of the past, as with leading women being feminists).

Other major trends are less know, and people tend to have wrong — backwards — impressions about two of the most important, both awesome good news: falling pollution and falling rates of violence. Later this week we’ll discuss the former; this post examines the latter.

The Civilizing Process

In 1939 German sociologist Norbert Elias published The Civilizing Process, describing how society evolved from 800 AD to 1900 AD in ways to reduce the level of violence (two volumes: The History of Manners and Power & Civility). It was one of the most important works of 20thC sociology, and often described as the first rigorous analysis of civilization’s evolution (so naturally it was ignored for decades).

Steven Pinker (Prof Psychology, Harvard) took this insight, deepened it with extensive research and extended it to full breath of human history in his seminal book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), one of the rare books that will change your view of humanity.  For an introduction to his work see this video and transcript of his July 2011 Edge lecture. Here are a few excerpts. Click to enlarge the graphs.

The Good News

Believe it or not —and I know most people do not — violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it’s a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

I’m going to present six major historical declines of violence; in each case, cite their immediate causes in terms of what historians have told us are the likely historical antecedents in that era; and then speculate on their ultimate causes, in terms of general historical forces acting on human nature.

The “Pacification Process”

This shows the percent of deaths in warfare in prehistoric societies. The blue bar is the 20thC world.
Steven Pinker's Edge Lecture: slide 011

The Civilizing Process

It’s best illustrated by looking at homicide statistics, which go back in many parts of Europe to the 13th century. The historical criminologist Manual Eisner has assembled every estimate that he could find of homicide rates from records in England going back to about 1200. I’ve plotted them here on a logarithmic scale, so that the scale goes from 100 homicides per 100,000 per year, to ten, to one, to a tenth of a homicide. And as you can see, there’s an almost two order-of-magnitude decline in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present.

Compare life today to that in accounts from the pre-modern world (e.g., The Three Musketeers). We live in conditions of safety unimaginable to most of our ancestors. Plus we benefit from the near-abolition of judicial torture, the death penalty, and slavery.

Steven Pinker's Edge Lecture: Slide 018

“The Long Peace”

… take, for comparison, the so-called peaceful 19th century. That “peaceful”  century had the Napoleonic wars, with four million deaths, one of the worst in history; the Taiping Rebellion in China, by far the worst civil war in history, with 20 million deaths; the worst war in American history, the Civil War; the reign of Shaka Zulu in southern Africa, resulting in one to two million deaths; the war of the Triple Alliance, which is probably the most destructive interstate war in history in terms of percentage of the population killed, namely 60 percent of Paraguay; the African slave raiding wars (no one has any idea what the death toll was); and of course, imperial wars in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.

… Here is a graph that I’ve adapted from a forthcoming book by Matthew White entitled The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities. … Here we see 2500 years of human history, with White’s top 100 atrocities, which I have scaled by the estimated size of the world population at the time. As you can see, World War II just barely makes the top ten. There are many events more deadly than World War I. And events which killed from a tenth of one percent of the population of the world to ten percent were pretty much evenly sprinkled over 2500 years of history.

Steven Pinker's Edge lecture: lide 039a

Nietzsche predicted the 20th century would see terrible wars, the last of the great tribal wars. We got WWI and WWII. Martin van Creveld predicts that they were the last of the great conventional State vs. State wars, made obsolete by nukes. What’s the trend in war since WWII?

Steven Pinker's Edge lecture: Slide 052

“The Rights Revolutions”

This is the reduction of systemic violence at smaller scales against vulnerable populations such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals.

He provides a blizzard of graphs showing a fantastic drop in a broad array of intra-society violence. I’ll give one example (note this does not adjust for the increased willingness to report and record rape by women and police).

Steven Pinker's Edge lecture: Slide 072

What’s caused this good news?

His lecture concludes with thought-provoking speculation about the changes in societies around the world responsible for this good news. I recommend reading it. But whatever the causes, conditions are improving — I see believe this will continue.

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9 thoughts on “The good news of history: it’s a story of less violence & better societies”

  1. Meanwhile, absurd American movies and TV shows bombard the population with images of constant non-stop imminent destruction. The American population runs around panicking in a frenzy about the “rise of violence” while violence has actually plummeted — rape is down, murder is down, assault is down, domestic violence is down. So the American people clamor for riot-armored cops to “get tough” and “use more force” even as crime collapses to levels lower than 1967.


  2. and flying in the face of this trend – more “law enforcement” and “enhanced” police presence. Another interesting read, thanks Fabius !

    1. Mark,

      This shows why we are ill informed about good trends: we don’t read them. My posts about good news get very low traffic. This one has great graphics about an important trends that few know of — got 1/3 of usual hits by this time.

      The news we want is incendiary slander about people we don’t like, or exciting stories about doom real soon. The news biz gives us what we want, which is entertainment for the outer party (managers and professionals: educated, apathetic, wanting the feeling of being engaged).

  3. Maybe the lack of readers is due to the presentation of the article, meaning the title. The title is very accurate, but likely doesn’t get people’s attention. It is “just informative” and the title is basically already a complete summary of the article.

    Perhaps if you changed it into: “Irrefutable proof why we are more awesome than you think!” — intentionally not clarifying the ‘we’. Or “Top 3 reasons why doomsters are wrong!” The number is just an example.

    It might make the site look a lot more tacky though. I am not suggestion you should do this by the way. Just wondering about what would attract more traffic. Perhaps find some solution between the two extremes.

    1. Saifkatana,

      I agree fully about the importance of titles. Common advice to writers is to spend half your time on the text, and half on the title (and half promoting it on social media). And, as you note, I’m terrible at titles.

      Thanks for the suggestions; they’re creative. I’ll give them a try!

      Note however that my posts about good news all get low traffic, and I doubt their titles are worse than for other posts here.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That was sloppy writing on my part. It should have said “would be the last of the ” – a prediction (I’ve changed the text). Keith Preston gave a good summary.

      “Nietzsche presciently suggested that the 20th century would be a time of great wars between the rising ideological mass movements of his own time, and that it would be the 21st century before the existential crisis for civilization is fully recognized.

      “Nietzsche’s prophecy that the 20th century would be a time of war on an unprecedented scale between polarized ideological forces found its realization in the Great War and then the Second World War, and the destructiveness of the latter surpassed even the shocking brutality of the former. The suffering and death generated by the two world wars, and the invention of weapons technology with the capacity to destroy all of mankind demolished the 19th century faith in progress and pushed postwar intellectuals towards a confrontation with the nihilistic implications of modern science and philosophy of the kind Nietzsche had previously written about. “

      Putting Nietzsche’s thoughts into a coherent system is more art than science. But the usual view is that N believed that after the great wars would come the collapse of all values – followed by new values. He intended to write “The Revaluation of All Values”. This is sometimes called the “transvaluation of new values.”

      It looks like he got the wars and collapse parts right.

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