A Perspective on Numbers… and Violence

More than a few commentators and political figures have trotted out words to the effect that we live in the most dangerous time in human history.

Yet, for the last several years, and perhaps for as long as a decade, a number of social scientists have been making the point that, statistically, the present is the best time to be alive because, among other things, the likelihood of death from violence is the lowest ever. The reasoning behind this is that, historically, a far smaller percentage of the population dies from violent causes today than ever before. Statistically, speaking, based on both records and the causes of death determined from ancient skeletons, in Iron Age times and before, an individual faced a ten to twenty percent chance of dying violently, depending on the locale and year. The author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker, notes that in “the transition from tribal societies to settled states, there was a reduction from about a 15 percent chance of dying violently down to about a 3 percent chance in the first states.”

In the eighth century, the An Lushan Revolt in China resulted in 36 million deaths at a time when the world held roughly two hundred ten million people – a world-wide casualty rate of more than 15% just from that one uprising. The Mongol Conquests of the thirteenth century resulted in roughly 40 million deaths at a time when the world population was between 350 and 435 million people, meaning that Genghis Khan effectively killed ten percent of the world’s humans. World War II resulted in 55 million deaths from a world population of 2.3 billion [2.4%].

There are pages and pages of statistics supporting the general conclusion that, on an individual statistical basis, we live in the safest and most peaceful time in world history. While the statistics can be convincing, very few people believe them, true as they are.

Why not? First off, very few of us live the life depicted by the statistics. Compared to a slave in 1850, an inner city black male today is statistically far better off – but compared to a white male junior executive, he’s a lot worse off. And when some thirty percent of women, just in the United States, suffer domestic or sexual abuse in their lifetime, it really doesn’t mean much to them to hear how much worse it once was. While it may be “statistically comforting” to know that the murder rate for males has dropped from 15% to less than one percent over the centuries, that isn’t exactly comforting to the families of the nearly ten thousand men killed in the U.S. every year, or the fact that almost fifteen percent of all males will suffer severe physical violence during their life.

Second, most people don’t relate to numbers and statistics. They relate to people they know, to what they hear from acquaintances and friends, and to visual images they see, especially on television and social media. And those stories and images convey danger, danger, danger. But while each of those personal stories or received images is largely accurate, they don’t represent the totality of the world.

There is also a third factor, which bothers me. Although it is uncontestably true that the percentages of death by human violence have been decreasing over the years and centuries, human population has been growing, with the result that the number of deaths caused by World War II, for example, would have wiped out the entire human population of the world three thousand years ago, or a third of it at the time of Christ. Or consider that over 100 million people died as a result of war in the twentieth century, equivalent to roughly half the world’s population at the time of the Roman Empire.

Somehow, saying that it’s a lot better than it used to be isn’t as comforting as some of the statisticians claim, but, at the same time, it is a whole lot better than it once was. The improvement’s just not near as good as it should be… or could be. And, please, don’t tell me it could be worse. It has been, and, if we’re not careful as a species, it will be again.

2 thoughts on “A Perspective on Numbers… and Violence”

  1. Grey says:

    I think you are missing a fourth factor, which I guess could be summed up as the natural human tendency to overestimate the significance of the time in which you live.

    I read an essay related on this in December, discussing GOP rhetoric about ISIS, which was normally apocalyptic in nature, with Jeb Bush for example calling it “the war of our time.” The author noted, drawing the same comparison to the horrors of 70 years ago, that “there are a great number of people, often “policy intellectuals” but not always, for whom the ‘war on terror’ is a channel for their own grandiosity, personal boredom or wish that they lived at a more dramatic historical moment.”

    He concluded “This is not the 1930s and 1940s. That history, on such a vast canvas, created leaders who still tower over the present-day going on a century later — FDR, Churchill, de Gaulle. It produced literature which remains a nourishing guide to understanding key aspects of the human condition. Good for Orwell, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer and Weil for having such great material! But good lord, these were awful times. Let’s not flatter ourselves by imagining that we live in anything remotely like them. And thank God!”

    Anyway, it’s worth a read.

    1. Good point, and it’s always better from the condition-of-living point of view to live in less “interesting” times.

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