Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Atrociology: Are We Becoming Less Violent?

Elizabeth Kolbert provides an interesting article in The New Yorker that discusses the thesis of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker that the long-term perspective of history indicates that the propensity for violent action is on the decline.

Pinker’s contentions are to be found in his book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Kolbert uses the term atrociology to cover the types of studies that would attempt to tally violent deaths throughout history. There are, in fact, data to support Pinker’s thesis.

Prehistoric tallies of violent deaths come mostly from examining remains found in prehistorical burial grounds. Kolbert mentions examples of studies that indicate violent death rates of 10-50%. A more firm set of data comes from records that survive for cities going back to medieval times. Kolbert quotes results from a number of European cities for the period extending from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries that indicate a murder rate of about 50-100 per 100,000 of population. The homicide rate in the same cities today is about 1-2 per 100,000.

Clearly, fewer murders are being committed now than in the past, and there is a definite downward trend. Pinker strives to explain this decline.

"Pinker doesn’t just want to prove that rates of violence have fallen; he wants to explain why. By his own reckoning his theory features ‘six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces’."

Kolbert tries her best to give a short summary of what Pinker is proposing. The major elements changing mankind’s behavior are associated with the processes of socializing the human animal into organizational structures that by force, or by peer pressure, can constrain individual behavior. This is the standard story of social evolution from small groups to tribes, to cities, and to states. Pinker seems to believe this process of socialization will generate fundamental changes in the nature of human response. He is quoted as saying:

"One would expect that as collective rationality is honed over the ages, it will progressively whittle away at the shortsighted and hot-blooded impulses toward violence, and force us to treat a greater number of rational agents as we would have them treat us."

Pinker provides a service by collecting and presenting interesting data, but there is nothing new in the declaration that violence has decreased over the years. That is obvious. To justify a 700 page book he has to convince the reader that "the better angels" are really more in control of mankind now than they were in the past.

Kolbert easily discredits Pinker’s assertion that mankind has already changed, or is in the process of fundamentally changing its nature. She points out that while Europeans were learning how to behave at home, they were quite willing to go to their colonies and visit murder and mayhem on the local populations. She also suggests that World Wars I and II were not to be explained away as historical bumps in the road, generated by a few reckless individuals.

While it is true that socialization can constrain behavior, it is unlikely that a few generations of socialization can so easily suppress genetically wired impulses produced by thousands of generations of evolution. A more correct view of the lessons of World War I and II would be that war forces men to commit violent acts, but by removing the constraints of society, it also allows them to be violent. The chaotic situation in Eastern Europe after the outbreak of the Second World War could be described as primeval tribal warfare as the various ethnic groups tried to kill each other off while organized armies marched back and forth. This ethnic violence only stopped after the war when the Allies marched people back behind their national boundaries and reestablished the control of society. This was behavior that is not indicative of any great fundamental progress on the part of humanity.

To take an example closer to home, consider the findings of Joshua Phillips in his book, None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture. Phillips concluded that well-behaved, well-trained, and well-intentioned young men—when released from the normal societal constraints—can and did resort to violence in dealing with citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. He showed that abuse and torture were wide-spread and not associated with any personal threat to the soldiers, nor to any direct orders. Giving men absolute power over other men will generate spontaneous acts of violence that can be triggered by mere boredom or frustration. Having the opportunity—with no threat of consequences—seems to be all it takes. This does not make our soldiers evil, but it does indicate that they are human beings—animals that need to be constrained.

The benefits of modern society in creating a safe environment for its citizens should be appreciated, but beware the day when society falters.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged