Another great essay by Stephen Pinker.   - Dallas

 

Why Is There Peace?

Over the past century, violent images from World War II concentration camps, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, and many other times and places have been seared into our collective consciousness. These images have led to a common belief that technology, centralized nation-states, and modern values have brought about unprecedented violence.

Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like, for example, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that “war is not an instinct but an invention.”

But now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.

A history of violence

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, that statement might seem hallucinatory or even obscene. But if we consider the evidence, we find that the decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon: We can see the decline over millennia, centuries, decades, and years. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers—which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago—he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. If the death rate of tribal warfare had prevailed in the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million, horrible as that is.

Ancient texts reveal a stunning lack of regard for human life. In the Bible, the supposed source of all our moral values, the Hebrews are urged by God to slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. “Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites,” reads a typical passage in the book of Samuel. “Make war on them until you have wiped them out.” The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one’s parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Hebrews, of course, were no more murderous than other tribes; one also finds frequent boasts of torture and genocide in the early histories of the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Chinese.

Read the rest here. Here is a video that came out a year or so before this article.

 

Tags: history, homicide, human nature, torture, violence

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Thanks. It's always nice to hear the "good old days" rubbish getting debunked.

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