Are We Be­com­ing Vi­o­lent?

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - WORDS BY DR DAVID HAM­MOND

With the con­flict in Syria, ter­ror­ist at­tacks in France and racial ten­sions in the USA, do stats sup­port the easy as­sump­tion that we’re be­com­ing more vi­o­lent?

With the con­flict in Syria, ter­ror­ist at­tacks in France and racial ten­sions in the USA, it’s easy to think we’re be­com­ing more vi­o­lent. But do the stats paint a dif­fer­ent pic­ture?

We are liv­ing in the most peace­ful time in hu­man his­tory, at least ac­cord­ing to the ac­claimed book The Bet­ter An­gels Of Our Na­ture, writ­ten by em­i­nent psy­chol­o­gist Steven Pinker. Through anal­y­sis of his­tor­i­cal es­ti­mates, Pinker de­tails how com­mon vi­o­lence was in our past. Back then there were clans, witch tri­als and cru­sades to con­tend with. To­day, ev­i­dence sug­gests that the de­vel­oped world has never had to worry less about vi­o­lence.

To ac­count for this, Pinker de­scribes the process of civil­i­sa­tion. The evo­lu­tion of na­tional gov­ern­ments al­lowed the emer­gence of fair and con­sis­tent trade.

But 9/11, the War on Ter­ror and on­go­ing con­flicts in Syria and Iraq demon­strate that vi­o­lence is far from a by­gone prob­lem. The

United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) es­ti­mates that 65 mil­lion peo­ple are now forcibly dis­placed be­cause of vi­o­lence, which is the high­est num­ber since WWII. The Global Ter­ror­ism In­dex 2015 showed that deaths from ter­ror­ism have in­creased nine­fold since the year 2000.

So this is the most peace­ful time in his­tory, yet there are also re­cent trends in vi­o­lence. And it is this jux­ta­po­si­tion that leads to a sur­pris­ingly sta­tis­ti­cal de­bate.


First, some good news: vi­o­lence is rare. Lewis Fry Richardson, a Durham me­te­o­rol­o­gist turned con­flict an­a­lyst, es­ti­mated that only 1.6 per cent of peo­ple died at the hands of an­other be­tween 1820 and 1945. So­ci­ol­o­gist Ran­dall Collins sug­gests that, con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, hu­mans gen­er­ally do not find vi­o­lence easy. Most bar fights end once one per­son makes con­tact with an­other and rarely es­ca­late into the all-out brawls of Hol­ly­wood. In WWII it is es­ti­mated that as few as 15 to 25 per cent of sol­diers ac­tu­ally fired upon the en­emy when be­ing fired upon them­selves. Fear, it seems, be­came in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing. Many troops re­ported sim­ply ‘fir­ing in the air’ lest be­ing branded a cow­ard. In gen­eral, Collins sug­gests that peo­ple re­quire intense so­cial pres­sure to resort to vi­o­lence at all. Fur­ther­more, in an age where in­di­vid­u­al­ism is stronger than pa­tri­o­tism, armed forces are find­ing re­cruit­ment a chal­lenge, and find­ing pop­u­lar sup­port for war is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

Pinker’s work demon­strates vi­o­lence has de­clined in re­cent decades. Homi­cide rates, es­ti­mates of rape, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and even wars all appear to be fall­ing. But a lot has hap­pened since the pub­li­ca­tion of Pinker’s book in 2011. The Global Peace In­dex, a mea­sure of 23 in­di­ca­tors rang­ing from in­ter­per­sonal vi­o­lence to ter­ror­ism to in­ter­na­tional con­flict, shows that the world is less peace­ful than it was 10 years ago. Civil wars con­tinue in Syria and Iraq. Ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Europe have in­creased since January 2015 when two brothers forced them­selves into the of­fices of the French satir­i­cal pa­per Char­lie Hebdo, killing 11 peo­ple with as­sault ri­fles. While homi­cide rates in the US have halved since 1995, mass shoot­ings in 2015 killed 205 peo­ple, around five times as many than 2014. In the UK, vi­o­lent crime has been on the in­crease since 2013 with re­ported hate crime in­creas­ing by 42 per cent af­ter Brexit on 13 June 2016.

On an in­ter­na­tional level there are also omi­nous signs. The Dooms­day Clock, which is com­piled by the Bul­letin Of The Atomic Sci­en­tists, es­ti­mates how close we are to global dis­as­ter from threats posed by climate change, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and nu­clear weapons. In 2015 the clock was set at three min­utes to dis­as­ter, the worst as­sess­ment since 1984 when US and Rus­sian re­la­tions were at their worst. And the list of in­sta­bil­i­ties that could be the pre­lude to an es­ca­la­tion of vi­o­lence is long. The 2014 Rus­sian an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and on­go­ing

Con­flict an­a­lyst

Lewis Fry Richardson es­ti­mated that 1.6 per cent of peo­ple have died at the hands of an­other

con­flict in Ukraine has tested post-Cold War re­la­tions, ex­ac­er­bated by the shoot­ing down of a Rus­sian plane by Turkey in 2015. In 2016, over 52,000 peo­ple have been de­tained or ar­rested in the af­ter­math of the failed mil­i­tary coup that took place in Turkey on 15 July.

Else­where, on the 12 July, ten­sions height­ened be­tween China and the rest of the world af­ter

Bei­jing re­fused to ac­cept the in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal in The Hague that ruled in favour of the Philip­pines in ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes over the South China Sea.


To un­der­stand the ar­gu­ments re­gard­ing whether we are be­com­ing less vi­o­lent, it is use­ful to con­sider a sim­ple yet seem­ingly un­re­lated anal­ogy: a sand­pile. As sand falls it nat­u­rally forms a con­i­cal struc­ture. Pour some more sand into the mid­dle and it piles up higher and higher. Now imag­ine you add sand grains in a slow and con­trolled man­ner to a fully formed sand­pile. Each grain falls and then comes to rest some­where along the slope where fric­tion bal­ances grav­ity. This hap­pens for many grains of sand, but even­tu­ally a sin­gle grain falls that causes one side of the pile to col­lapse, dis­plac­ing a lot of sand in its wake. While sim­ple, the forces and in­ter­ac­tions tak­ing place be­tween the sand grains in the pile are dif­fi­cult to model ac­cu­rately and the ef­fect of any sin­gle grain has to be treated as ran­dom.

First de­scribed in 1987 by the fa­thers of com­plex­ity the­ory, Per

Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt

Wiesen­feld, the ran­dom­ness of the sand­pile is strik­ingly sim­i­lar to other phe­nom­ena. There are many grains of sand that have lit­tle ef­fect but there is an oc­ca­sional grain that has a ma­jor im­pact. In math­e­mat­i­cal terms, this ran­dom­ness can fol­low some­thing called a ‘power law’.

Here, there are many small, low im­pact events and the oc­ca­sional highly con­se­quen­tial event. In 2005, Aaron Clauset and Maxwell Young, com­puter sci­en­tists from the Santa Fe In­sti­tute, showed that ter­ror­ism fol­lowed the same sta­tis­ti­cal pat­terns of earth­quakes, with many small at­tacks and in­fre­quent but dev­as­tat­ing events such as 9/11.

To il­lus­trate, scale is use­ful. The United Na­tions Of­fice of Drugs and Crime es­ti­mated that in 2012, al­most 500,000 peo­ple were killed by homi­cide.

The Global Ter­ror­ism In­dex shows that al­most 33,000 peo­ple were killed by ter­ror­ism in 2014. Ac­cord­ing to the Upp­sala Con­flict Data­base, deaths from vi­o­lent con­flict in 2015 to­talled 118,435. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates of 800,000 deaths by sui­cide every year. So, given the cur­rent global pop­u­la­tion of 7.4 bil­lion, the mor­tal­ity rate from all of these dis­parate forms of vi­o­lence is around 20 peo­ple per 100,000. By con­trast, WWII killed 60 mil­lion peo­ple in a world­wide pop­u­la­tion of 2.3 bil­lion, an an­nual mean rate of over 435 peo­ple per 100,000. In ab­so­lute average terms, WWII killed as many in­di­vid­u­als every seven weeks as we would ex­pect to­day in one year of vi­o­lence. When vi­o­lence fol­lows power laws, ex­tremes need to be pri­ori­tised.

While pat­terns of vi­o­lence pro­vide in­ter­est­ing ana­logues with other phe­nom­ena, it is also dis­con­cert­ing: in power laws it is not as un­likely to see an event big­ger than the biggest on record. This is true for earth­quakes, and may be true for vi­o­lence.

But is vi­o­lence re­ally like earth­quakes just be­cause the num­bers look alike? Philoso­pher John Gray is scep­ti­cal of the abil­ity of sta­tis­tics to cap­ture the true na­ture of vi­o­lence, as it’s a topic that re­quires un­der­stand­ing of his­tory, pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, so­ci­ol­ogy and even psy­chol­ogy. While care cer­tainly needs to be taken when in­ter­pret­ing sta­tis­tics on vi­o­lence, it is also true that the world is a com­plex sys­tem, and com­plex sys­tems oc­ca­sion­ally pro­duce un­pre­dictable re­sults. Like the one grain of sand that causes an avalanche in the sand­pile, no one could have pre­dicted that Gavrilo Prin­cip’s op­por­tunis­tic as­sas­si­na­tion of Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand would spark WWI.

But ran­dom­ness doesn’t mean that the odds can’t change over time. So when it comes to vi­o­lence, is there any ev­i­dence that the world is chang­ing the odds to­ward peace?


The ab­sence of large scale con­flicts be­tween su­per­pow­ers in the post-WWII pe­riod has been de­scribed by em­i­nent war his­to­rian John Gad­dis

On average, WWII killed as many in­di­vid­u­als every seven weeks as we would ex­pect to­day in one year of vi­o­lence

as the ‘Long Peace’. The fre­quency of wars be­tween coun­tries has plum­meted since 1945: the bat­tles fought to­day are largely do­mes­tic in na­ture. Even to­day, nu­clear weapons have only been used twice in war­fare, de­spite ten­sions sur­round­ing the Cold War. In a world in which mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy is ca­pa­ble of to­tal an­ni­hi­la­tion of our species, hu­man­ity has so far man­aged to avoid Ar­maged­don.

In light of this, in 2011 Pinker asked the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: has some­thing changed? There are clear de­vel­op­ments in the post-WWII pe­riod that could ac­count for the de­cline in vi­o­lence. Democ­racy has con­tin­ued to spread across the world. The emer­gence of the United Na­tions has of­fered new av­enues of diplo­macy and has en­shrined the prin­ci­ple of sovereignty of state and borders. The use of chem­i­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal and nu­clear weapons have be­come an in­ter­na­tional taboo. The Euro­pean Coal and Steel Com­mu­nity opened up mar­kets for trade and even­tu­ally led to the Euro­pean Union, of­fer­ing an ex­am­ple of the ben­e­fits that come with re­gional in­te­gra­tion. Mean­while, across the At­lantic, civil rights move­ment rep­re­sented a turn­ing point in race re­la­tions in the US.

While recog­nis­ing that the Long Peace may not be a per­pet­ual peace, Pinker of­fers the the­ory that the post-WWII pe­riod has shifted from a game where coun­tries con­quer or be con­quered, to a more co­op­er­a­tive sys­tem where war will only oc­cur when the ben­e­fits out­weigh the costs.


How­ever, as many ex­perts have pointed out, there may be al­ter­nate ex­pla­na­tions for the data. For ex­am­ple, Tan­isha Fazal, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and peace stud­ies at In­di­ana’s Univer­sity of Notre Dame, high­lights that the rea­son that fewer peo­ple are dy­ing in wars may be be­cause there have been ad­vance­ments in med­i­cal treat­ments over the years. The Long Peace could also just be a run of luck in the power law na­ture of vi­o­lence. In books such as The Black Swan, statis­ti­cian and risk an­a­lyst Nas­sim Taleb has fa­mously writ­ten ex­ten­sively on the fol­lies of pro­ject­ing fu­ture trends from past data. In his work with prob­a­bil­ity ex­pert Pasquale Cir­illo, Taleb shows that the ex­pected time be­tween wars with at least five mil­lion ca­su­al­ties is 93 years. Taleb and Cir­illo’s work sug­gest that, when vi­o­lence is dom­i­nated by ex­tremes, it is too early to say with sta­tis­ti­cal con­fi­dence that the world has shifted to­wards peace only 71 years af­ter WWII.


So is the fact that the world is less peace­ful than it was 10 years ago a sta­tis­ti­cal fluc­tu­a­tion or some­thing more se­ri­ous? Well, al­most 50 years af­ter the civil rights move­ment in the US, the cur­rent Black Lives Mat­ter protests show that ten­sions sur­round­ing race is­sues re­main. The EU project was dealt an unexpected blow with the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. In the cur­rent US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Don­ald Trump, run­ning on a cam­paign of border pro­tec­tion, re­cently sug­gested that NATO is ob­so­lete and that the UN was in­ef­fec­tive. The fac­tors that Pinker as­cribes as cen­tral to the Long Peace seem to be un­der at­tack.

But there are good rea­sons not to get de­spon­dent. In a 2013 in­ter­view, US politi­cian Don­ald Rums­feld ex­plained a sim­ple truth: “be­lief in the in­evitabil­ity of con­flict can be­come one of its main causes”.

It is easy to fo­cus on neg­a­tives, but the Global Peace In­dex shows that there is good news in the world. While wars con­tinue, the most peace­ful coun­tries con­tinue to be­come more and more peace­ful. So it is fit­ting to fin­ish this ar­ti­cle with the in­sight­ful ob­ser­va­tion of Steven Pinker: “In­stead of ask­ing ‘why is there war?’ we might ask ‘why is there peace?’ We can ob­sess not just over what we have been do­ing wrong but also what we have been do­ing right”.

There are un­doubt­edly chal­lenges to face, but the post-WWII pe­riod has more than enough ‘rights’ to en­able us to face them.

Don­ald Trump, run­ning on a cam­paign of border pro­tec­tion, re­cently sug­gested that NATO is ob­so­lete

Dr David Ham­mond is a se­nior re­search fel­low at the In­sti­tute for Eco­nom­ics and Peace. His re­search ar­eas in­clude the driv­ers of peace and con­flict, ter­ror­ism and coun­tert­er­ror­ism, and as­sess­ment of state risk

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