But from the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Many conventional histories reveal that mutilation and torture were routine forms of punishment for infractions that today would result in a fine. In Europe before the Enlightenment, crimes like shoplifting or blocking the king’s driveway with your oxcart might have resulted in your tongue being cut out, your hands being chopped off, and so on. Many of these punishments were administered publicly, and cruelty was a popular form of entertainment.
We also have very good statistics for the history of one-on-one murder, because for centuries many European municipalities have recorded causes of death. When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.
Pinker concludes: “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.”
For starters, I dislike hearing the first person plural and the present tense when neither is intended. By ‘we’, Steve Pinker seems to mean the European world. And by ‘modern times’ and ‘modern Europe’ he seems to mean the postwar era—not London, Paris, and Amsterdam as they exist today. Beyond this singularity in space and time, ‘we’ enter another world where people—usually young males—still turn violent for reasons ‘we’ find strange, even pathological.
This point is, in fact, raised by Pinker:
… Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.
In addition to the emergence of central authority, Pinker considers other explanations: the increasing value placed on human life; the rise of the market economy and the interdependency it creates; and the ‘expanding moral circle’—“The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over theirs.”
These other explanations are actually related effects. The market economy has expanded because we’ve behaved in ways that make expansion possible. For instance, we no longer see violence as a legitimate way to settle disputes. We no longer use theft and intimidation as means of self-aggrandizement. And we no longer look up to violent charismatic ‘big men’ as role models.
And yes, we value human life more for the same sort of reason that we’ve become less violent. Ditto for our expanding moral circle.
Oops, that ‘we’ again. For most humans, little has changed since time immemorial. ‘They’ trust only close kin and long-time friends. ‘They’ kill over questions of honor and loss of face. And ‘they’ admire men whom we consider to be thugs.
But there has been change in some regions, like the European world, East Asia, and parts of South Asia. For the historical economist Gregory Clark, the ultimate reason is the rise of the State and its monopoly on the use of violence. This monopoly created a new set of selection pressures. What had once been rewarded in the struggle for existence was now penalized. And vice versa.
Clark points out that aggressive males are rewarded with reproductive success in simple clan-based societies. Among the Yanomamö, a horticulturalist people of Amazonia, significantly more children are fathered by men who have committed homicide than by those who have not. Among the Ache, a hunter-gatherer people of Paraguay, ‘homicidal’ men do not have more offspring but more of their offspring survive.
In contrast, aggressive males are penalized in settled societies with central authority, either through lower reproductive success or through removal from the population, e.g., through imprisonment, execution, and banishment. Such societies have much lower rates of violent death for all causes, including war.
Clark documents this secular decline in violence with respect to England. In the centuries after imposition of central authority, male homicide fell steadily from 1150 to 1800, there being a parallel decline in blood sports and other violent practices (cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, public executions) that were nonetheless legal throughout almost the whole period. Clark ascribes this behavioral change to the reproductive success of upper- and middle-class individuals whose heritable characteristics differed statistically from those of the general population, particularly with respect to male violence. Although initially a small minority in medieval England, these individuals grew in number and their descendants gradually replaced the lower classes through downward mobility. By 1800, such lineages accounted for most of the English population (Clark, 2007, pp. 124-129, 182-183; Clark, 2009).
This pacification of society did not occur uniformly throughout England. Endemic violence persisted until the 18th century in the northern border regions, where any encounter with non-kin, however innocent, could lead to violence. “In a world of treachery and danger, blood relationships became highly important. Families grew into clans, and kinsmen placed fidelity to family above loyalty to the crown itself.” Disputes were settled through payment of blood money or turned into long-running feuds (Fisher, 1989, p. 628).
Clark has been criticized for failing to explain why the market economy spread so easily from England to other parts of Europe and then to the whole world. The answer is that many of these other regions had undergone the same behavioral evolution for the same reason: the emergence of strong states that monopolize the use of violence. Elsewhere, where this evolution has begun more recently, or not at all, the market economy has been less successful. It works only when strong-armed regimes ensure respect for life and property.
This is something that economic libertarians fail to grasp. Yes, the market economy is generally associated with peaceful and respectful human relations. But the line of causality doesn’t run in the direction they think it does.
Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2007.
Clark, G. (2009). The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England,
Fischer, D.H. (1989). Albion’s Seed. Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1989, pp. 621-632.
Pinker, S. (2009). Why is there peace? Greater Good Magazine, April.