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Is Humanity Becoming Less Violent?

By Jacob Devaney on Monday November 2nd, 2015

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Is War on its Way Out?

Yes, things look pretty bad in the world – but statistics show us that peace is actually increasing. Scrolling through social media, or turning on the news may make you feel otherwise and that’s why we need to look at the larger picture. Sometimes it’s easy to wonder if violence is worse than it ever been, or whether we are just more aware of it thanks to social media. Hopefully some of these facts will help you to have hope and keep on working for peace.

Peace code in the brain

The work of Robin Grille, author of Parenting for a Peaceful World, highlights the increasing trend towards peace. You may know of Grille through his TED Talk, The Peace Code, which is featured in the UPLIFT article Violence is a Preventable Brain Disorder. 

For centuries now, the frequency of warfare as well as the proportion of war-related deaths around the world have been tumbling. In The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker, Harvard Professor of psychology, joins a chorus of historians, anthropologists and political scientists who are chronicling the decline of many kinds of violence over history. This decline seems to be accelerating; in every way, the practice of war seems to be on its way out.
Hard to believe? Let’s take a look. Among ancient agricultural civilizations, warfare almost always meant complete genocide and enslavement of entire populations. Hunter-gatherers, from prehistory till modern times, lost on average between 4% to 30% – some archaeological sites suggest up to 60% – of their populations to warfare.
Long before WMD’s were conceived, the 8th century ‘An Lushan’ revolt in China wiped out two thirds of the Chinese population in just eight years – that is: one sixth of the world’s population at the time.
– Robin Grille, The Peace Train is Coming

Peace sign in crowd
There is a strong connection between child rearing practices and war

Research across many scientific and social sciences has come to recognize a distinct connection between child rearing practices and the types/amounts of war and violence in the greater society. When we are less violent to our children, they grow into less violent adults.

One of my studies on the origins of war and interpersonal violence in child abuse is my research into the childhood of Nazis.  The true cause of WWII and the Holocaust can be seen in the horribly abusive childrearing practices in German families in the early 20th century. Most families, even wealthy ones, committed infanticide without guilt. Newborns were tightly swaddled, covered with blood-sucking lice, and were usually handed over to usually brutal wetnurses.

Proof that it was the horribly abusive childrearing of Nazis that was the cause of WWII and the Holocaust can be seen by what happened after the war, when there were serious efforts to change childhood in many European nations.  Over sixty years ago, several middle European nations vowed not to repeat their usual abusive childrearing practices, and passed many laws that achieved this — laws prohibiting hitting children (even spanking by parents), laws giving mothers three full years of pay for each child born so they could give them proper care, laws providing free parenting center advice, etc.  The result of this near elimination of child abuse was that in most European Union nations today adults have little interest in military ventures, and young men simply don’t want to join armies.
-Lloyd Demause, the Origins of War in Child Abuse

Why do we still believe that the world is becoming more violent rather than becoming less violent?

One factor is our new global awareness shared through the internet and social media. Another is the fixation on violence within the commercial news media. According to Professor Steven Pinker, there is a deeper psychological process animating this behavior. He attributes cognitive bias which allows vivid events like 9/11, or the Norwegian Utoya massacre, to obscure those that are more mundane, or happen gradually.

I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics.
-Steven Pinker

The statistics clearly say that despite appearances, war is less of a deadly threat than in previous decades, especially when we look at it as a percentage of the total population affected. As well as a decreasing mortality rate from War, there is also a global downward trend in homicides. England, Canada, and most other industrialized countries have also seen their homicide rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. According to Steven Pinker: ‘Though numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012.’

There is Still Work to be Done

It is also worth remembering that the vast majority of people want peace. On February 15th 2003, an estimated 15 million people in 60 countries around the world said “No to War” before the Iraq Invasion. With 3 million marching in Rome, 1.5 million in London, 1.3 million in Barcelona and 1.5 million in New York City, making it the largest international call to prevent a war in human history. The vast majority want peace.

Peace sign protest
As people everywhere are engaging in the peace process, peace is increasing

Besides protesting war, and rising up against sexual violence towards women and children, people everywhere are engaging in the peace process through subtle activism, meditation, and a personal spiritual practice. This past year on International Day of Peace, September 21st, there were globally synchronized meditations in over 1,400 locations. Creating peace starts within and then we can bring it into the world around us, to create real and lasting change in our communities. Watch the video Inner Peace to World Peace by clicking the banner below to learn more.

Sometimes it is darkest right before the dawn. It can be overwhelming and depressing to be a sensitive person in this world and exposed to relentless bombardment of bad news through various media, but don’t lose hope. When you feel like this, remember that there are also hundreds of thousands of us working towards and creating peace in the world every single day. That often gets overlooked and unreported. We have lost many battles but when we look at violence in the larger historical context, peace is winning.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

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Jacob Devaney

Founder and director of Culture Collective, creative activist, musician, and producer.



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1 Comment on "Is Humanity Becoming Less Violent?"

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Pam Bailey Paton
Pam Bailey Paton
It seems to me that one of the stumbling blocks we have is that we feel that to obtain peace we must obliterate conflict. I think that conflict arises out of passion and that we need both peace and passion to feel balanced. The problem then, perhaps, is that we are usually not skilled in resolving conflict without violence. To be able to reduce the amount of violence in the world further, I think we should be cultivating ways to allow passionate conflict with the aim of learning and teaching how to resolve this conflict without physical harm to ourselves… Read more »