Wars and Atrocities

In the Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that humanity’s social-psychological norms have discouraged and actively prevented violent behavior more successfully over time. He notes that the trends in violence have shown a steady decrease as technology improves, and that we are prone to a generational bias within our understanding of history.

If I were to ask you to name five wars or global events that killed over 20 million people, could you do it? My best bet is that you would know one or two: WWII, and the Reign of Stalin, before you gave up and started guessing. While Pinker argues that there are about five historic atrocities that may have caused more deaths than WWII, I will list ten historic events that have estimates around 20 million deaths or higher (from Wikipedia):

Three Kingdoms War in China
Mongolian Conquests
European Colonization of the Americas
Taiping Rebellion
Communist Revolutions and Their Aftermaths
Atlantic Slave Trade
Mao’s Great Leap Forward
The Soviet Regime under Stalin
the Transition from Qing to Ming Dynasties

Looking at this list, which I have placed in no particular order, how do you feel? Many of these events are within the past 200 years. Did you know about all of these events? I hadn’t even heard of some of them before reading this book.

While I find it a mild stretch of interpreting the data to say that there are five events in history that have killed more people than WWII, I agree with Pinker’s assessment here. For much of the world’s history atrocities with mass slaughter were more a norm than they were today, where accidental the death of ten citizens in a bombing is an outrage.

Pinker argues that we have a 20th century bias- that this century’s major atrocity’s overshadow the historical significance of past ones. He also argues that the figures are likely higher than what we see for all of these cases because of poor data collection in the past. I am convinced that this is a significant reality. He says that the 20th century was not at all abnormal- that genocide, a term coined to describe the holocaust, was the norm of warfare for most of expansionist human history. Simply open up the Old testament and you will find examples of God-ordained genocide. And when the Romans took Carthage they completely destroyed it and enslaved its people. Genocide didn’t have a name in the past because it would be like renaming war.

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9 thoughts on “An Uplifting Reality; Steven Pinker and a Revelation on violence- ABKpsych/ In Reviewniverse

  1. This is a very well written, thoughtful, confronting and challenging read – I am a New Zealander and am still utterly devastated by the very recent atrocity against Muslim people, while they were praying, in their mosque. 50 innocent people were murdered in what I thought was my peaceful and largely accepting country. I read somewhere that for our population size, this is equivalent to a mass murder of over 3000 people in the US. So, for me, the idea that hate and violence may be actually decreasing on the whole is a hard to see but a little comforting. It seems radicalization and extremism is rife, and I fear so much for the current global political environment. What I would say is that the response from the NZ community has been one of togetherness and deepest respect and empathy. There are some amazing photos of our priminkster wearing a hijab, and there has been a public outpouring of grief and support.
    On a personal level, I admire you so much in sharing that you have been a victim yourself. It takes courage and strength. Many find this too hard to do themselves but draw strength and inspiration from people who do…
    Thank you for posting this.

    1. I’m glad to see that after so much violence from hatred and anger the response in New Zealand is inclusive and sane. I hope the best for your country in these times.

      As always thank you so much for reading and leaving such a thoughtful comment- it means a lot to me!

  2. Powerful article, arguing is became part of our lives, it became so normal, that it doesn’t even surprise people anymore..The world is changing and sadly in to the dark part

    1. I’m sorry you feel that way! Hopefully this article shed some light on how the world is actually getting better for us over time. I really recommend The Better Angels of our Nature. I think it gives a much nicer view of our world and a good case for optimism!

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. Keep writing my friend.

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