Predictions of perpetual peace are the highlight of any history of hubris. Chamberlain is classic and quotable. The various Paxes (from Austrialana in New Guinea to Romana in Europe) are inevitably followed by a decline and fall. Francis Fukuyama famously prophesized the end of history and the triumph of a pacific liberalism – only for his tower to topple with the return of ideological violence in the form of 9/11.
Steven Pinker, however, is clever than that. The Harvard professor – psycholinguist by training, public intellectual by trade – is careful to avoid playing the futurist. The Better Angels Of Our Nature finds it surprises in the past instead, with Pinker working hard to prove to us that violence has in fact declined, using some three score graphs and hundreds of pages of analysis. Marshalling together the datasets of obscure criminologists and military historians, he ably demonstrates that homicide rates, battle casualty rates, execution rates, abuse rates and hate crime rates have all fallen over the last millennium.
Pinker believes we have been conditioned to believe that these are indeed the worst of times – school history consists of little more than World War Two and the Holocaust; TV shows like Law & Order meet rapists and serial killers every week; and the news media obsesses over civil wars and psychopaths. But was the 20th century really the most violent in history? The absolute figures speak of 50 million deaths in WW2, including six million victims of Nazi genocide. Nonetheless for Pinker – a secular Jew – this body count is too simplistic an analysis. The numbers may horrify but what do they really say about how violent the century was?
The thesis of the book depends on using proportions rather than plain figures. For instance, archaeology and anthropology have revealed that pre-state societies often kill up to 15% of their people in war, while the figure for the entire 20th century is just 3%! The decline is very real: for homicide, we have up to 300 deaths per 100,000 in pastoral tribes, then 50 per 100,000 in medieval England, and 8 per 100,000 for the planet today, which to falls to just 1 per 100,000 in Europe. By using rates instead of absolute numbers we get a nice figure for how likely it is a particular person will die a violent death in a given society.
Yet from a God’s eye perspective six million deaths is clearly worse than six. It seems crass and offensive, for example, to suggest the Holocaust is a lesser tragedy than a raid in New Guinea. But compare six million murders in a population of one billion to six in a population of a hundred. From my perspective, I’m ten times as likely to die in the second society – I’d have a better chance of surviving the genocide than the raid!