Violence Will Continue to Decline

In The inexorably positive direction of human destiny, I posited that socionomic theory implies an exceedingly positive view of ultimate human destiny and suggests continued long-term progress in every sphere of collective social activity. This proposition can be tested via a social trend for which very long-term data exists: rates of human violence. Fortunately, anthropological and sociological data provide quantitative measures of violence extending from prehistoric times to the present.

Socionomic theory identifies waves of social mood as the driver of social events. Positive social mood fosters forbearance, cooperation, and nonviolence. Negative social mood stimulates anger, conflict, and violence. The Wave Principle of human social behavior suggests long-term human progress and the relative ascendancy of positive social mood. Therefore, socionomic theory implies that history should show trends toward increasing cooperation and declining violence.

Despite what we might infer from gloomy daily news headlines, this is exactly what data reveal has happened, according to a masterly new book by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. A counter-intuitive and dramatic decrease in violence since the dawn of humanity is described in the 800 pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Pinker's data show that a decline in violence is a persistent historical trend, on scales ranging from millennia to years. Death rates from violent trauma in 21 prehistoric societies averaged 15 percent, as determined by forensic archaeology. This was five times the rate of 20th century deaths due to war, genocides, and man-made famines combined.

World Wars I and II had only the 16th and 9th highest death rates, respectively, from conflicts during world history. These rates were lower than during the Fall of Rome, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, and the most deadly, the An Lushan Revolt during China's Tang Dynasty in the eighth century that destroyed a sixth of the world's population.

Pinker also cites data showing a declining trend in the frequency and duration of wars between great powers over the last four hundred years. He says the historical trajectory of war can be graphed as a declining sawtooth pattern. The inverse of this is an ascending sawtooth pattern of peace, the same form as the Wave Pattern of human progress discovered by R.N. Elliott and described in one of my previous articles. The long-term trend in the ascendancy of positive social mood over negative social mood is exactly consistent with the past historical trend of war and peace.

European homicide rates have also shown a stunning drop from the Middle Ages to the present. Because murder can be clearly conceptualized across cultures, it is a more reliable index of violence than robbery, rape, or assault. There was a thirtyfold greater risk of murder in medieval Europe than today.

"When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire," Pinker notes, "people guessed that twentieth-century England was about 14 percent more violent than fourteenth-century England. In fact, it was 95 percent less violent." Pinker's data suggest we are living in the safest time in the history of the world.

The period since the end of World War II has been called the Long Peace. The Cold War ended and, in an historically unprecedented development, the major developed countries have stopped waging war on each other for almost seven decades. There were also no wars in western Europe; prior to the Long Peace, European states had started about two new armed conflicts per year since 1400. Its important to note that the Long Peace from 1945 to 2000 coincides with a long-term bull market in stocks. Positive social mood, reflected in a rising market, brings both peace and prosperity.

Not only has there been a historical decrease in war and rates of murder, but also in a large number of violent practices that were once taken for granted but have now either disappeared or are considered inhumane. What historians sometimes call the Humanitarian Revolution began in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. It led to the first systematic movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence such as dueling, judicial torture, slavery, superstitious killing, despotism, and sadistic punishment.

As Pinker writes, "Readers of this book no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery; divinely commanded genocide; lethal circuses and tournaments; punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs; decapitation for not bearing a son; disembowelment for having dated a royal; pistol duels to defend their honor" and other barbaric practices such as human sacrifice.

In past ages, many victimless crimes were punished by public torture and mutilation as a form of popular entertainment. Most nations today have eliminated the death penalty. In the early 19th century, England had 222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, robbing a rabbit warren, and cutting down a tree. Today, other forms of violence that were once routinely tolerated such as domestic abuse, savage beatings of children, and rape are illegal.

"Most practices have moved in the less violent direction, too many to be a coincidence," says Pinker. He makes a strong case that there has been a long-term global reduction in rates of violence at multiple levels: in the family, neighborhood, between tribes and other factions, and among major nations and states.

Socionomic Wave Theory allows us to predict long-term human progress and ultimate reduction in the pernicious effects of negative social mood, such as violence. Pinker persuasively shows this is precisely what has happened during the history of humanity.

Pinker describes the past but does not forecast the future trend of violence. Socionomics and the Wave Principle, however, do allow a look ahead. Although violence may never disappear, and some periods of negative social mood will generate extensive conflict, the Wave Principle allows us to project the past trajectory of declining violence into the long-term future.

A 2013 study in International Studies Quarterly by researchers at the University of Oslo and the Peace Research Institute supports the prediction from the Wave Principle of declining future violence. This study predicts that the number of conflicts in the world will be halved by 2050. This prediction was derived from a statistical model that includes demographic data, social welfare indicators, and conflict history, and the conflict simulation program was run 18,000 times. The researchers focused on internal armed conflicts between governments and organized groups because they "kill more people and last longer."

So both past trends and future projections are consistent with a declining rate of violence. Empirical data support conclusions about violence derived from the Wave Principle.

This article I wrote describes how socioeconomics provides an elegant explanation of the causes of the historical decline of violence.