Evolution of Violence in Human History

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Benjamin Ziemann:

"The vast amount of evidence marshalled and plotted in a large number of graphs only serves to drive home the key point: a number of historical factors and evolutionary advances have worked together to tame and control the human impulse for violence, and to usher in a world which has managed to reduce violence to such low levels that there is reason to take pride in the achievements of Western modernity.

Among the key factors and processes Pinker identifies as drivers of this fundamental change, a few are worth explaining in some detail. There is first the notion of a ‘civilizing process’, derived from the book with the same title by German sociologist Norbert Elias, first published in 1939. According to the questionable Freudian underpinnings of this argument, the spreading of new codes of civilised behaviour allowed individuals ‘to keep their biological impulses … in check’ (p. 73), in a process that gathered momentum since the 16th century. As chains of interdependence within society expanded and prolonged, individuals learned to control themselves, a process which not only led to vastly improved table manners, but also to declining homicide rates across Europe. While Pinker’s remarks about declining rates of homicide are corroborated by Robert Muchembled in his book A History of Violence (which should bear the title A History of Homicide, as it is about that and nothing else), Muchembled actually sees other historical factors at work. Based on decades of empirical work mostly on regional evidence from northern France in the early modern period, Muchembled puts the difficult situation of young males in rural and urban settings centre stage. Before they settled through marriage and the establishing of a family, small bands of young men roamed the streets of and between villages, regularly engaging in quarrels or duels which could quickly lead to fighting and ultimately murder. Only from the 17th century on, when the adult males in towns and villages found ways of ‘”fabricating” a docile youth’ (p. 122) – whatever that may have meant in practice – and managed to keep tabs on their violent impulses, did the homicide rate drop significantly. Muchembled’s preference for the uncontrolled group dynamics of young males and their rites of passage to adulthood as the key explanatory factor, however, is not fully borne out even by his own evidence for the Artois, which he has studied in-depth. During the period from 1400 to 1660, 59 per cent of those in the Artois who stood in the dock for homicide were young men. This does suggest that this age cohort was significantly overrepresented. Nevertheless, 41 per cent of the defendants were married, and it is not entirely clear whether and to what extent adult perpetrators took part in the historical decline of homicide rates. Another weakness of Muchembled’s account is its geographical limitation. Apart from France and England, only the Low Countries are covered in some detail. The Holy Roman Empire is virtually absent from Muchembled’s map of Western Europe, as is Switzerland. Thus, the reader can only guess whether the process of confessionalization with its concomitant drive for a tightening of moral control (not only in the Calvinist practice of ‘Sittenzucht’) had had any impact on the long-term decline in murder rates in Western Europe.

Returning to Steven Pinker, the second key factor for the decline of violence he identifies is the ‘humanitarian revolution’ of the 17th and 18th centuries, that is, the Enlightenment culture with its focus on empathy and respect for human life, as exemplified in the abolition of witchraft persecution, torture and cruel punishments. Pinker identifies one crucial ‘exogenous’ factor that was driving this change, the 18th–century reading revolution with increasing rates of literacy and mass circulation of books. The reading of novels, Pinker argues, allowed people to take on the perspective of other human beings and to develop insights into their plight and suffering, thus supporting attempts to abolish slavery and increasing awareness of the human cost of war. But if that were the case, why did one contemporary reviewer of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which features in Pinker’s list of high-profile titles which allegedly ‘raised public awareness of the suffering of people’ in war (p. 177) and is usually considered to be the most successful anti-war book of the 20th century, describe the novel as ‘pacifist war propaganda’? What he meant was that Remarque described the war as an enticing adventure, rather than inviting readers to develop empathy with the victims of war. And as a matter of fact, Remarque reiterated many tropes which portrayed war as a positive and meaningful experience of adventure and male bonding, one reason why his book was almost compulsory reading among the Wehrmacht soldiers who trampled over Europe from September 1939. This is only one example of the ways in which Pinker presents an often mechanical, one-directional argument which is almost systematically devoid of historical context and, even more importantly, lacks a sense of the inherent ambivalence of historical processes and indeed of the very notion of ‘progress’ itself. The limitations of Pinker’s intellectual approach – and of his actual engagement with key texts on the history and theory of violence – are nowhere more obvious than in a footnote on p. 735, which informs the reader that among those incurable Lefties who are allegedly ‘blaming [!] the Enlightenment for the Holocaust’ are not only the usual suspects such as Michel Foucault or Zygmunt Bauman, but also Theodor W. Adorno. Reading this footnote made me wince, not only for the fact that Max Horkheimer, the co-author of the 1944 text on the Dialectics of Enlightenment is simply obliterated, but more so for the lack of curiosity on the side of Pinker in the argument the two emigré thinkers develop in the book.

The extended argument in chapter five, which charts the decreasing magnitude of wars throughout the 20th century apart from the two World Wars, also invites criticism. Pinker describes the post-war period as a ‘long peace’, thus employing the highly contested term first suggested by John Lewis Gaddis in 1986 as a pertinent label for the Cold War as a whole. Yet many historians of the Cold War tend to disagree with this label, and would certainly not be ready to dismiss nuclear deterrence as quickly as a factor for the non-occurrence of a major war between the two superpowers as Pinker is inclined to do, mainly relying on the rather dubious arguments brought forward by John Mueller (p. 268ff.). Equally unconvincing is Pinker’s decision to reformulate the notion of ‘democratic’ or ‘liberal’ peace rather quickly as ‘capitalist peace’. This argument is based on a set of correlations in a multiple-regression analysis of quantifiable indicators, a calculation which apparently identified ‘gentle commerce’ as a pacifying factor (p. 287).

To be fair, there is a lot more pertinent quantitative evidence presented in the first six chapters of Pinker’s book than can be reviewed here in a few paragraphs. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why Pinker’s book can at best be only a starting point for a much more thorough, nuanced and historically-informed investigation into the long-term decline of violence over the past five millenia."


More information

The above text is a review of:

  • The Better Angels of our Nature. The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes

Steven Pinker London, Allen Lane, 2011, ISBN: 9781846140938; 832pp.; Price: £30.00

  • A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present

Robert Muchembled London, Polity Press, 2011,

See also:

  • Brian Ferguson, ‘Review of Lawrence Keeley, war before civilization. The myth of the peaceful savage’, American Anthropologist, 99 (1997),