Steven Pinker on violence

by on October 11, 2011 at 7:19 am in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

It is an important and thoughtful book, and I can recommend it to all readers of intelligent non-fiction, reviews are here  But I’m not convinced by the main thesis.

Might we run an econometrics test on regime changes?  The 17th century was much more violent than the preceding times, as was the early 19th century, albeit to a lesser extent.  Perhaps the distribution is well-described by “long periods of increasing peace, punctuated by large upward leaps of violence”, as was suggested by Lewis Richardson in his 1960 book on the statistics of violent conflict?  Imagine a warfare correlate to the Minsky Moment.  In the meantime, there will be evidence of various “great moderations,” though each ends with a bang.

Pinker does discuss these ideas in detail in chapter five, but at the end of that section I am not sure why I should embrace his account rather than that of Richardson.  I am reminded of the literature on the peso problem in finance.

Another hypothesis is to see modern violence as lower, especially in the private sphere, because the state is much more powerful.  Could this book have been titled The Nationalization of Violence?  But nationalization does not mean that violence goes away, especially at the most macro levels.  In a variant on my point above, one way of describing the observed trend is “less frequent violent outbursts, but more deadlier outbursts when they come.”  Both greater wealth (weapons are more destructive, and thus used less often, and there is a desire to preserve wealth) and the nationalization of violence point toward that pattern.  That would help explain why the two World Wars, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and the Holocaust, all came not so long ago, despite a (supposed) trend toward greater peacefulness.  Those are hard data points for Pinker to get around, no matter how he tries.

We now have a long period between major violent outbursts, but perhaps the next one will be a doozy.

How would this book sound if it were written in 1944?  Maybe there is a regime break at 1945 or so, with nuclear weapons deserving the credit for a relative extreme of postwar peace.  Pinker’s discussion of the nuclear question starts at p.268, but he underrates the power of nuclear weapons to reach the enemy leaders themselves and thus he does not convince me to dismiss the nuclear issue as central to the observed improvement, throw in Pax Americana if you like.

In one of the most original sections of the book (e.g., p.656), Pinker postulates the greater reach of reason, and the Flynn effect, working together, as moving people toward more peaceful attitudes.  He postulates a kind of moral Flynn effect, whereby our increasing ability to abstract ourselves from particulars, and think scientifically, helps us increasingly identify with the point of view of others, leading to a boost in applied empathy.  On p.661 there is an excellent mention of the wisdom of Garett Jones.  Pinker’s thesis implies the novel conclusion that those skilled on the Ravens test have an especially easy time thinking about ethics in the properly cosmopolitan terms; I toy with such an idea in my own Create Your Own Economy.

What is the alternative hypothesis to this moral Flynn Effect?  Given that the private returns to supporting violence are rare — most of the time — and violence has been nationalized, people will have incentives to invest in greater empathy and to build their self-images around such empathy.  This empathy will be real rather than feigned, but it also will be fragile rather than based in a real shift in cognitive and emotive faculties; see 1990s Mostar and Sarajevo or for that matter Nagasaki or British or Belgian colonialism.

When doing the statistics, one key issue is how to measure violence.  Pinker often favors “per capita” measures, but I am not so sure.  I might prefer a weighted average of per capita and “absolute quantity of violence” measures.  Killing six million Jews in the Holocaust is not, in my view, “half as violent” if global population is twice as high.  Once you toss in the absolute measures with the per capita measures, the long-term trends are not nearly as favorable as Pinker suggests.

Here is John Gray’s (excessively hostile) review of Pinker.  In my view this is very much a book worth reading and thinking about.  And I very much hope Pinker is right.  He has done everything possible to set my doubts to rest, but he has not (yet?) succeeded.  I find it easiest to think that the changes of the last sixty years are real when I ponder nuclear weapons.

Ashwin October 11, 2011 at 7:40 am

Yep – it’s the peso problem all over again. Policies like broken windows policing, incarceration and more state violence give us an illusion of order which hides the fragility underneath and the fact that the eventual breakdown will be catastrophic. As always, stabilisation breeds fragility.

Andrew F. October 11, 2011 at 8:11 am

Pinker often favors “per capita” measures, but I am not so sure. I might prefer a weighted average of per capita and “absolute quantity of violence” measures. Killing six million Jews in the Holocaust is not, in my view, “half as violent” if global population is twice as high. Once you toss in the absolute measures with the per capita measures, the long-term trends are not nearly as favorable as Pinker suggests.

Yes, but we’re not measuring the violence of the killing, right? We’re measuring the extent to which there is violence in the world. Killing x people may always have y violence value, but the issue is the ratio of that y value to something else (perhaps to the non-violence value which is a function of all those who did not suffer violence).

John Personna October 11, 2011 at 10:12 am

Yes, or put another way, we are looking at the odds of violence “getting me.” For that, per-capita makes sense.

Thoma Hawk October 11, 2011 at 11:06 am

No, as Tyler’s example shows, it does not make sense. The six million Jews and millions of others murdered during WWII don’t increase the likelihood of a child in Wichita, and old lady in Quito, or a an aboriginal man in Australia being killed.

A relative measure is appropriate, but the relevant population must be selected. That population is the people in the relevant zone of combat operations. Per capita measures have undue dilution effects defeating your correct notion that we’re talking about the probability of “getting you.”

Sohier October 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

As Pinker is talking about global trends the relevant population is all of humanity. The whole point of the book is that while modern warfare can be extraordinarily violent if you get caught on the front lines, any one person is less likely to get caught up in war than was historically typical.

There’s frankly something bizarre about not preferring per capita measures. Are you really interested in arguing that a society of 2000 people that experiences 1000 deaths is more peaceful than a society of 1 billion people that experiences 2000 deaths? Tyler is smarter than that, and I think he just rushed the portion of the post where he tried to lay out a useful alternative metric.

Sohier October 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Actually, I’ll change my answer: the negative reactions to Pinkers thesis seem to be almost entirely based on the emotional salience of individual horrific and fear inspiring events. I think the desire to use absolute rather than per capita measures is similarly inspired; people want a metric that captures what feels important to them personally even if it’s not actually relevant to the discussion of trends in violence.

NoahB October 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I don’t find it bizarre. You’re talking about people being killed. Presumably, each person killed matters. Therefore, absolute number matter as well as per capita numbers.

Per capita numbers give us a sense of the chance of you as an individual being killed, which is important. Absolute numbers help give you a sense of the scale of violence. The Holocaust or the Cambodian genocide (which always seems to get ignored in these discussions somehow) simply wouldn’t have been technologically or even demographically possible in a pre-state hunter-gatherer society. Surely that matters if you’re trying to figure out how violence matters, or how people think about violence.

Again, a big part of the point of per capita measures is to find out how violence affects people psychologically; what is the culture like. But spectacular incidents of mass state-controlled violence also affect people’s psychology. Why exactly don’t they matter then? The fact that we can kill more people faster now and occasionally do seems like a salient fact — not the only salient fact, maybe, but worth considering.

Tom Grey October 11, 2011 at 8:12 am

The gov’t likes the illusion that “laws are peaceful”.
What is violence?
When a man with gun comes into your store, threatens to kill you if you don’t give him money, you give him money, he leaves “peacefully”. But his threat of violence is a form of violence. Were he in an organization that threatens to burn your place down, extortion, that would be violence, too. (In Slovakia, about 12 years ago, an “American Steakhouse” was burned down, possibly because the owner didn’t pay the extortion.)
If the organization is the gov’t, requiring you to pay taxes, that is also a threat, enforced by police and, if necessary, violence.

All gov’t spending is based on violence.
If his book fails to include threats, and in particular the threat of gov’t, his book fails to account for one of the largest sources of violence in the modern world.

Morality, Thou Shalt Not Steal, is being degraded by the “tax the rich … for social justice” folk.

Bill October 11, 2011 at 8:37 am

Tom, You might want to temper the comment and ask the question: might laws make you freer? Laws can proscribe conduct, such as making the guy think twice before he threatens you with a gun, and they can also prohibit: such as, Congress shall make no law….

Thoma Hawk October 11, 2011 at 11:08 am

Where is this fictional planet where criminals “think twice” before using a gun?

Cyrus October 11, 2011 at 11:30 am

Florida.

Right Wing-nut October 11, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Here in Texas, it’s the law-abiding that don’t think twice about using a gun… :)

Bill October 11, 2011 at 8:20 am

A little bit of brain science never hurt anyone, and this books sounds like it contains a fair amount of it to explain social evolutionary dynamics of stability.

But, for a society that spends so much on prisons, the military, and “homeland” security, I cannot wonder if those that “sell” those products or services do not have an interest in overselling, in other words, creating the psychological demand for their goods or services, making everyone anxious, and making me wonder if we might live in a world with less social violence but more unnecessary fear.

Ever watch the evening news. I get some other countries weather disaster or local warlord battle in my living room.

It hard to report this was a sunny day locally and everyone went about their work just as they did yesterday and that there is less social violence today than yesterday.

Bill October 11, 2011 at 8:43 am

Before he concludes that empathy will lead to less violence, I think Pinker should ask the question:

Can Greater Empathy Lead to War?

Can people be manipulated through empathy to support violence and war.

How many times have you heard someone say: Such and such dictator has done such and such to his people, and therefore the US should intervene.

How often have you heard: Even if he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, we were justified in fighting a war to depose him because of what he had done to his people.

NAME REDACTED October 11, 2011 at 8:44 am

Or it could just be a result of modern medicine and life expectancies?

chris October 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Well, better medical practices could save the lives of more combat and assault victims, I suppose, but I doubt it’s that significant. Increase in life expectancy is primarily due to a decline in infant & child mortality, so I don’t see the relevance there.

Adam October 18, 2011 at 10:49 am

It could easily be more relevant than you think. As someone who actually fights wars for a living, let me tell you they’re significantly less deadly than they used to be. Part of it is medical technology and simply better training and awareness of infection. Damn near all of the people who died in past wars died from non-lethal wounds. Even today, most deaths on the battlefield are people who bleed out, which are preventable deaths if they can get medical attention quickly enough. Further, advances in personal body armor and armored vehicles make it far more difficult to kill soldiers.

Of course, none of that is doing much for the civilian populations of these combat regions, who don’t have medics with them and are not traveling in armored vehicles wearing SAPI plates.

dearieme October 11, 2011 at 8:57 am

The 17th century was much more violent than the preceding times, as was the early 19th century, albeit to a lesser extent. Perhaps the distribution is well-described by “long periods of increasing peace, punctuated by large upward leaps of French aggression.”

msgkings October 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Breaks down with 20th century data…maybe you can expand to “…large upward leaps of Franco-Prussian aggression”?

But then we ignore Asia.

Will October 12, 2011 at 1:22 am

Brad DeLong claims that we are now in the longerst period without Franco-Prussian agression since Roman times. Is this true?

If so, especially assuming that there will not be a war on the Rhine for, oh, 30 more years, it is, in fact, exceptional.

Becky Hargrove October 11, 2011 at 9:05 am

There is a “lead, follow, or get out of the way” aspect to history that makes fragility a greater reality than it may seem. Basically, what matters is, how many people are trying to follow the status quo, but still being expected to get out of the way? The fact that number is high and continally growing is what makes me focus not so much on taking care of ‘if’ (sorry, Karl Smith), but explaining the ‘why’, and especially, ‘how’ to do something about it. A lot of the economic ingenuity of the present has been due to the fact that people follow the status quo in a million ways before they give up, what if that ingenuity were put into a more productive and efficient path.

Tomasz Wegrzanowski October 11, 2011 at 9:24 am

> That would help explain why the two World Wars, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and the Holocaust, all came not so long ago,

If you accept “per capita” measures, and I see no reasonable argument against them, they’re all much less violent than pre-20th century norm.

And stop this narrow white man’s history, post-1945 decolonization did more to end violence than nuclear weapons.

Andrew' October 11, 2011 at 9:26 am

How exactly do you measure that?

Jim October 11, 2011 at 12:09 pm

“post-1945 decolonization did more to end violence than nuclear weapons.”

Yeah, just ask the good people of Rwanda. The Middle East has also turned into a bastion of peace and tolerance, too, I see.

my informed opinion October 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm

> “post-1945 decolonization did more to end violence than nuclear weapons.”

> Yeah, just ask the good people of Rwanda. The Middle East has also turned into a bastion of peace and tolerance, too, I see.

Well, up to that point _all_ the colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa, at least, were like Rwanda. King Leopold, anyone? Maybe a bit of moderation towards the end… All this has been documented by numerous eyewitnesses.

Will October 12, 2011 at 1:23 am

Comparing the worst colonial violence to the worst post-colonial violence is obviously not the correct way to measure things. Does anyone have statistics? Pinker does, presumably…

Randy McDonald October 12, 2011 at 4:22 am

The death rates in the Congo Free State and French Equatorial Africa in the early 20th century amounted to a third of the population in each case. There hasn’t been anything similar in post-colonial central Africa, that region’s recent horrors notwithstanding.

Andrew' October 11, 2011 at 9:25 am

“Imagine a warfare correlate to the Minsky Moment.” Doozy is the exact word I had in mind when I read that. Store food and pacify.

8 October 11, 2011 at 9:27 am

What do many of the upward surges in violence have in common? Reason, science, scientific socialism, atheism. Science also gave us bigger, badder, and deadlier weapons.

joker October 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

A dumb, zealous society is a peaceful society, is that what you’re claiming?

The various religious inquisitions throughout history beg to differ.

8 October 11, 2011 at 11:49 am

I’m only countering Pinker placing any optimism on a Flynn Effect. Morality is not based on intelligence and intelligence is not enough because man is often irrational, without even considering emotion. Faith doesn’t have a monopoly on dumb or zealous. Man is by nature violent, the question is when is he most violent, or what is it that best constrains the impulse for mass violence?

The Spanish Inquisition only resulted in execution for 1% of the 125,000 cases, over 345 years. In one year, the 1936 Red Terror in Spain murdered over 6000 clergy, double the rate of the Spanish Inquisition over 345 years.

Will October 12, 2011 at 1:27 am

The Spanish Inquisition is hated for torture, not number killed. Compare big religious wars like Thirty Year’s War to big secular wars like World War One. I think that secularism may still come out on top/bottom but one would actually have to check.

Regarding torture, there was a brief period there (post-Hitler, pre-Bush) in which brutal torture was considered unbecoming of civilized governments. Presumably we had less torture than the Spanish Inquisition then? But now, brutal torture is considered to be awesome, and though we have not done much in the past 10 years, we may start doing more soon.

sonorasam November 8, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Any action by states or individuals that robs a persons dignity and humanity and the right to equality is a powerplay and thus violent. We may say waterboarding is “enhanced” interrogation, but it is violent and psychologically damaging. I’m not saying yes or no to it, (that’s a long discussion) just stating that violence against individuals runs from the subtle to the horrific. Whether you’re burned with phosphorous bombs or burned with cigarette butts on your arms, it’s is violent. The majority of violence is state supported whether the state is an armed tribe in the Congo or the US in Iraq. There is far more killing done because corporate manufacturers, ie: US have to sell their arms to both sides in order to stay solvent. It’s sort of a limited MAD approach to the world: hoping arming everyone keeps things equal. I love that rationality.

Randy McDonald October 12, 2011 at 4:27 am

“The Spanish Inquisition only resulted in execution for 1% of the 125,000 cases, over 345 years.”

True. The 1609 expulsion of Moriscos from Spain motivated by the Inquistion’s desire for a homogeneously Roman Catholic Spain

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expulsion_of_the_Moriscos

of well over a hundred thousand people, with a rather high death rate for the deportees.

philip gahtan October 11, 2011 at 10:16 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NYC_murders.PNG according to the map we were more angelic 100 years ago . less so 25 years ago

TGGP October 11, 2011 at 10:19 am
ad*m October 12, 2011 at 12:05 am

What balderdash review, especially in the comments section. Why link to this guy?

Anyway, ordered the book but not having read it, like most commenters here and elsewher. The main problem with Pinkers hypothesis seems to be with the definition of violence as being about the means, i.e. rampant slaughter by the axe rather than outcome, i.e. in terms of tribes or populations being destroyed. Means are really hard to quantify, especially in pre-history, therefore all these discussions about who was more violent etc.

It may at first glance, be more violent to kill all members of a tribe by the sword, rather than preventing them from having any offspring. But the measurable outcome a century later is the same.

And right now populations may be disappearing more rapidly than ever: http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/08/populations

Zero russians may have been killed by the US by violence during the Cold War , but after losing, the Russians are now dying out rapidly. A century from now, the effect will be indiscernable.

Will October 12, 2011 at 1:28 am

Being killed is pretty awful. Not having descendants in a hundred years is not as awful.

Randy McDonald October 12, 2011 at 4:24 am

“And right now populations may be disappearing more rapidly than ever”

No one is preventing Russians from having children. Where’s the violence in that?

Gene Callahan November 8, 2011 at 8:44 am

John Gray is excellent at throwing cold water on Enlightenment buffoonery. I suppose when that’s your religion, it makes you upset.

Neal October 11, 2011 at 10:23 am

Long periods of declining peace punctuated by increasingly violent outbursts: “I don’t know with what weapons we will fight the next world war, but the one after will be fought with sticks and stones.” (often attributed to Einstein)

The longer we progress, the more powerful our weapons. The more powerful our weapons, the longer it will take us to recover from those periodic outbursts of violence. (Arguably, if one considers the USSR and communist China as strongly shaped by WWII, we have not completely recovered from WWII.)

Call it a version of Malthus’ law? Our ability to destroy grows geometrically, our ability to make peace grows linearly?

Thoma Hawk October 11, 2011 at 11:50 am

I haven’t seen any evidence of “making peace” growing.

NAME REDACTED October 11, 2011 at 10:54 am

*****************************************************************************
I suspect that Per capita measures are useless here as an individual’s power to wage war is not a distribution with a well defined first moment.

joker October 11, 2011 at 11:08 am

“Pinker often favors “per capita” measures, but I am not so sure. I might prefer a weighted average of per capita and “absolute quantity of violence” measures.”

Such a humanist, you!

Ted Craig October 11, 2011 at 11:23 am

I’m not sure John Gray’s review is excessively hostile. If he strongly disagrees with Pinker, he should express that strongly. This is especially true because Pinker is so popular and some people (e.g. Bryan Caplan) take his writing as gospel.

Vladimir_M October 11, 2011 at 12:16 pm

The historical murder figures are problematic for Pinker’s thesis considering that the trend has, according to his own graphs, reversed at some point during the the 20th century — but they are absolutely devastating whey you consider that the present murder rate would be at least several times higher without the 20th century advances in medicine, thanks to which most of the once lethal wounds are now easily treated. (And all this is without even considering that what is expected as regular behavior nowadays when it comes to precautions against crime would have struck people from not so long ago as utterly paranoid siege mentality, and so on.) Generally, arguments based on simple plots of historical trends are likely to overlook all sorts of relevant confounding variables.

According to Murder and Medicine: The Lethality of Criminal Assault 1960-1999 by A.R. Harris et al. (ungated link http://people.umass.edu/zguo/iraqi%20war%20/murder%20and%20medicine.pdf)

“Compared to 1960, the year our analysis begins, we estimate that without these developments in medical technology there would have been between 45,000 and 70,000 homicides annually [in the U.S. for] the past 5 years instead of an actual 15,000 to 20,000.”

Note also that the ceteris paribus assumption doesn’t take into account the effect of the enormous changes in people’s lifestyle since 1960 that have been prompted by the increased danger of crime.

As for the particular cartoonish and bizarre historical and political claims by Pinker, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Most of his book would be deserving of a good fisking.

TheophileEscargot October 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I’d like to see some evidence that “modern weapons are more destructive” of human life.

They may well be more destructive of property. But the Rwandan genocide was largely carried out with machetes. In ancient times, the Athenians had no trouble killing all the male citizens of Melos and Scione with edged weapons. The Romans were able to crucify thousands at a time.

It’s counter-intuitive, but edged weapon warfare can be more deadly than a war of modern fireams. When two armies clash with edged weapons, a large fraction or a majority of the losing side can be killed in a single day. Firearms warfare is often much more protracted and low-intensity, as the armies shoot at each other from cover over a much longer period.

Later on, the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War killed significant fraction of the population without any more advanced weapons than pikes and muskets.

I’m not sure technology is a limiting factor on how many people you can kill. Even with obsidian, bronze or steel, the stronger army can kill pretty much as many people as it decides to.

Right Wing-nut October 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Huh? Look at the battles of the Civil War. For a more recent example, consider Gulf War I:
Over a period of about 6 weeks, we attritted the entire front line by 50%. FIFTY PER CENT!. The second line, we attritted by 25%. Look up “Death Highway” to see what a modern army can do to an enemy in retreat today.

Look at Hiroshima & Nagasaki to see what a modern army can do in an instant.

Viet Nam was a proxy war, and it is entirely inappropriate to compare casualty rates between proxy conflicts and great power conflicts.

Historically, generals consider pursuit to be one of the most risk-prone of all operations. Your forces become strung out vertically, and are often divided horizontally. The enemy can rally at any moment and in any place. In ancient times, an army in retreat could strip armor & drop weapons, giving them a tremendous advantage on the run.

Of course, prior to modern times, any sword nick had a good chance of being lethal, eventually.

Ricardo October 11, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Gulf War I doesn’t exactly refute Pinker’s thesis because it was an extremely brief conflict with a decisive outcome. So to were Israel’s prior conflicts with Arab countries. The lethality of modern weaponry may increase the number of deaths on a given day but it also might make conflicts between conventional armies much shorter. Nuclear weapons raise the stakes considerably so that any conflict between nuclear powers has to stay very focused and very short like India’s skirmishes with Pakistan.

TheophileEscargot October 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Battle of Cannae, August 2nd, 216BC
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cannae

Polybius writes that of the Roman and allied infantry, 70,000 were killed, 10,000 captured, and “perhaps” 3,000 survived. He also reports that of the 6,000 Roman and allied cavalry, only 370 survived

Over a period of one day, Hannibal “attritted” not just the front line, but the entire army, by 96%.

Right Wing-nut October 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm

1) You need to read through the article.
2) You REALLY don’t want to see how many enemy we can wipe out in one day with modern weaponry.

The fact that our weapons have become so terrible has increased the reluctance to use them. The fact that the generals are acting to protect their troops, and politicians to protect their citizens, doesn’t mean that our lethality has decreased, quite the opposite.

TheophileEscargot October 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm

In other words, you have no actual evidence of increased lethality, just an unsupported assertion. But OK, I’ll play in the fantasy realm.

Suppose, in the Gulf War, all the ammunition had instantly stopped working, and all the fuel had instantly evaporated, and instead of air strikes, the US had marched infantry into Iraq with bayonets.

The US is a bigger, more populous, richer nation than Iraq. It could win either way, just a matter of training and deploying enough troops. But there would be no fewer deaths if they had to do their fighting up close.

A gun, an air strike, a nuclear missile is more lethal than a sword… but only if you’re lucky enough to be facing a guy with a sword. A gun versus a gun isn’t more lethal than a sword versus a sword. Even a nuclear missile isn’t more lethal than an army with orders to kill everybody in the city. The Athenians killed all the men in the cities of Melos and Scione. They could have killed the women if they wanted to, but they were more valuable if sold into slavery. A nuclear missile would not have increased their power to kill everybody in those cities.

Better weapons give you an advantage over someone with worse weapons. They’re more lethal relatively. But an age where everybody has better weapons doesn’t mean everybody is more lethal. Whatever your weapons, you fight with them until you’ve killed enough of the enemy that the rest give up, or they’re all dead.

Matt October 11, 2011 at 7:07 pm

The US wins with low casualties now because of the technological disparity. You don’t take many casualties when one side can’t fight back. WWI is what happens when it can.

Right Wing-nut October 12, 2011 at 10:13 am

> In other words, you have no actual evidence of increased lethality, just an unsupported assertion.

Ever hear of MAD? Ever see footage of a nuke? Of Hiroshima or Nagasaki?

> The US is a bigger, more populous, richer nation than Iraq. It could win either way, just a matter of training and deploying enough troops. But there would be no fewer deaths if they had to do their fighting up close.

There would be no war with Iraq at all except for our ability to transport and deploy troops to the ends of the earth. My example from the first Southwest Asian War Games was intended as a LOWER bound on current lethality. As I previously stated, the only real measure of lethality is a Great Power conflict.

> A gun, an air strike, a nuclear missile is more lethal than a sword… but only if you’re lucky enough to be facing a guy with a sword.

Speaking of fantasy… Are you honestly claiming that a Patton-led infantry/tanks/airplane war on Russia would have had as many casualties as a Cuban Missile Crisis nuclear war? Just how certain are you that nuclear winter is a mythical theory?

===

Prior to industrialization, it simply was not possible to engage substantial portions of the human population in a coordinated conflict. Any and all effects were necessarily limited to the local environment. Industrialization changed that. Not only are the wars themselves conducted all over the earth, but due to the effects of trade, they can have global repercussions as well. Even without nukes.

The fact that the entire population of the human race is considered at risk in the event of a general war is not a fantasy. What people don’t realize is that you don’t need nukes to knock 10% or more of our population. Suppose the US & China were to go at it. No nukes, we want to be able to gain something by the end. Okay, so lets just sink all of the merchant ships on the other side. Let’s firebomb each others’ crops just before harvest. Let’s introduce a virus into their animal population. Oops! It jumped species…

TheophileEscargot October 13, 2011 at 5:05 am

Right wing-nut said:
Prior to industrialization, it simply was not possible to engage substantial portions of the human population in a coordinated conflict. Any and all effects were necessarily limited to the local environment. Industrialization changed that. Not only are the wars themselves conducted all over the earth, but due to the effects of trade, they can have global repercussions as well.

I’ve already given several examples of cities being exterminated before industrialization. But if you want more, look at Oliver Cromwell’s reconquest of Ireland after the English Civil War. He had no problem wiping out a large fraction of the population without industrialized equipment
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland

Or, consider the Thirty Years War. That engulfed the whole of Europe well before industrialization, and caused death rates of 15%-30% across entire states.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War

I’m not sure if a nuclear winter would wipe out a larger fraction of the population than that. Even if so, it’s only a hypothetical threat, as nobody has actually been willing to go that far. That bears out the point that the limits to killing are based on human decisions, not technological limits.

Also, the conservative view is that human events are largely determined by an unchanging human nature. You should really change your name to “Progressive nut”, since you’re espousing the distinctly unconservative idea that technology has fundamentally changed human affairs.

Brett Dunbar November 8, 2011 at 5:45 pm

There is considerable debate about the actual casualty rate on the road of death, It seems that most of the Iraqi forces abandoned their equipment and fled.
According to wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_of_Death
[…]
The death toll from the attack is unknown and still remains a controversial issue. Some independent estimates go as high as 10,000 or even “tens of thousands” of casualties, but this is highly unlikely. According to a 2003 study by the Project on Defense Alternatives Research, there were probably about 7,500-10,000 people who rode in the cut-off main caravan to begin with, but once the bombing started, most of them are believed to have simply left their vehicles in panic and escaped through the desert or into the nearby swamps (where 450-500 of them were taken prisoner). The often repeated low estimate of the numbers killed in the attack is 200-300 (as reported by Michael Kelly among others), but the actual figure was probably higher, and a minimum toll of at least 500-600 dead seems to be more plausible.

Marian Kechlibar October 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm

a) Genghis Khan
b) Muslim conquest of India
c) Punic wars
d) anti-Cathar crusades

Genocidal episodes of awful proportions, using only edged weapons and arrows.

Will October 12, 2011 at 1:33 am

Technology seems to enable one to kill more civilians with fewer soldiers, at least. How many men does it take to drop a nuke? If you have enough guys to kill with machetes, you can do that, but if you don’t, with modern technology you can kill with button-presses.

A war/battle ends when it’s clear enough who’s won. Though “enough” varies, clearness of victory seems pretty proportional to what % of soldiers are dead. So, % of soldiers dead should be roughly constant. Then, two factors limit civilians killed: Number of civilians and effectiveness of soldiers. Only one bound should be salient.

kevin h October 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm

C. Ryan and C. Jetha in their book “Sex at Dawn” had an interesting retort to Pinker. They believe that the change from a hunter-gather society to an agriculture based society has resulted in more violence amongst humans. They feel that Pinker is wrong in claiming that violence amongst pre-historic humans was significant because their motivations did not require violent means. So to speak if there is no land or possessions to defend then there is no reason to go to war. Their data on modern aboriginal tribal people who are primarily hunter-gatherers support this conclusion. Only when these people are exposed to modern technology/possessions do they find reasons to fight.

Sohier October 11, 2011 at 5:25 pm

What a naive book. there are always things people can fight over. More land when your tribe has gotten big for its territory, women, food if there is a famine. Or plain old revenge. The data sets I’ve seen/heard of indicate exceptional levels of violence in hunter-gather societies and in the fossil record.

kevin h October 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Read the book.

Matt October 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm

The noble savage is entirely discredited. While we mostly think of native Americans as crying Indians of PSA fame, their reaction to finding out about guns and horses was probably something like “Sweet! X tribe is finished now!”

Marian Kechlibar October 12, 2011 at 8:49 am

“So to speak if there is no land or possessions to defend then there is no reason to go to war.”

Well, except the natural tendency of humans to destroy, maim and kill.

The theoretical reasoning does not stand when confronted by practical observations of Yanomami Indian hunter-gatherers in the forest, or the Papuan tribes in the highlands, etc. There are still uncontacted peoples on the Andaman islands, who nevertheless are very violent against any private attempt to land on their island.

I must admit that the above-mentioned retort sounds rather like wishful thinking.

kevin h October 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Read the book, the address the Yanomami issue.

Adam October 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I don’t feel Pinker considers (at least not seriously enough) the ways in which brutality has been displaced by less bloody acts of aggression — violence has become something else, in other words. One could view slavery as violence and one could view factory work as slavery — even if it is self-imposed. Put another way, can we say that a depressed blue collar worker is objectively better off than a viking dying proudly in battle? To me both these people live “violent” lives and the quality of these lives is subjective. Broadly speaking, people are physically coerced into positions of suffering, it’s just that the violence is less explosive and obvious.

Harald Korneliussen October 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

Why anyone would listen to Pinker on a topic so far away from his subject of expertise is beyond me.

Oh wait, he has a Whiter Coat than Thou.

bouhan November 8, 2011 at 12:51 pm

check out deudney’s ‘bounding power’ for a theoretical take:

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8304.html

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