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
European Colonization of the Americas
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.