In his new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature," author Steven Pinker examines the historical record from many angles, and across several species of violence: within families, between communities or tribes, and among states. He concludes that humans are much less likely to suffer violence or cruelty at the hands of others now than at any period in history or pre-history, for that matter.
Archaeological sites and more recent data collected on contemporary hunter/gatherers reveal a 15% chance of meeting your demise at the hand of a fellow homo sapiens; early farmers were even more likely to meet a similar untimely end. The Mongol conquests claimed roughly as many souls as World War 2, from a world population only 1/8 as large. Granted, it took them longer, and they worked with less gruesome efficiency.
The rise of nation states dropped that risk dramatically, with Aztecs at 5% and various European states at 3%, both measured over long periods of time. Perhaps government, at least in its most basic forms, is not always the enemy of progress?
Individual acts of fatal violence, as a component of the whole, have also declined dramatically in more organized societies modern murders are 1/10-to-1/50 as likely as they were midway through the last millennium, and the most peaceful 21st-century tribes have murder rates roughly equivalent to the contemporary US's worst frequencies (think "Detroit").
Pinker further argues that the post-World War 2 world is now enjoying "the long peace" 66 years in which major powers have avoided doing each other-in, in systematic ways. Cold War-era battles were mere skirmishes, as compared to world war-style carnage. It's also worth noting, in a macabre sort of way, that Viet Nam claimed 10 times more American lives than have been sacrificed so far in the War on Terror.
How to account for this improvement in the human condition? Is it genetics, or faith, the rule of law or the fact that folks can now vent their spleens, anonymously, into the Town Square Forum? The first above is unlikely, given that evolutionary progress is generally denominated in millions of years we're pretty much as well-equipped to cope with the world as were our most ancient identifiable forbearers.
Pinker posits that several factors contribute to the salutary trend: a "pacification process" wherein the state holds a near-monopoly on the best tools of violence; the spread of commerce, which creates interdependencies that make wars less effective and more costly than trade alternatives; and a humanitarian revolution with roots in The Enlightenment, when traditional notions of the world with its human slavery, cruelty to animals, torture and tyranny were called into question. I'm aware, from other sources, that the Abolitionist and animal welfare movements have common roots, so maybe he's onto something?
Finally, the author points to the more recent rise of concerns for the rights of formerly ill-treated groups: women and children, human minorities and animal majorities (except, of course for hidden-from-view food animals, whose lot is far worse today than even a generation ago). He believes that these formerly frequent victims are now hurt or killed with markedly lower frequency than in days gone by.
I'm guessing, too, that accountability has something to do with this human progress. The world's legal institutions as a whole are better able to bring wrongdoers to justice, and those ubiquitous media probe into nether precincts formerly shrouded in darkness. Of course, lest we become too confident in our progress, the annihilation button is still there and could reverse the entire process in a matter of minutes.
Whatever it is, as the world gropes its way into 2012, we might each lift a glass to our collective results, and resolve to consciously pursue more of the same in the New Year.