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"Wars are becoming less frequent."

He wrote, as we approach the centenary of The War To End All Wars.

No one with an appreciation of human history would write such a thing. Nor would they imagine that the technological innovations between us and that war have been marginally more important than those in the century proceeding WW I. The Green Revolution is fine, but it seems hard to believe its productivity improvements outstrip those from the mechanization of agriculture, or the use of railroads to move grain. Polio prevention is awesome, but its gains pale before those from imposing simple sanitation codes and providing clean water.

And perhaps the "salvation through technology" set should reflect on the impact of the addition of mobilization by railroad to the diplomatic problems following the assassination of Ferdinand. Or on the confusion, to horrifying cost, of military and grand strategy by the introduction of the machine gun. The unintended consequences of those innovations, and the complete failure of technology to solve them, made for the costliest and stupidest war to its date.

By all means, pursue better and better technology. But the world's deepest and most serious problems have always been political, and always will be, and will always be beyond resolution by better gadgets.

That's not just a soundbite, it's a measurable fact.

Even when we include the horrors of the world wars, the 20th century had fewer per-capita battle deaths (both civilian and military) than the centuries before it.

The same trend is detectable at decade timescales, and shows that we are still improving since the world wars.

Stephen Pinker's book "The Better Angels of our Nature" goes into the underlying statistics to support these assertions.

Some in the historical and anthropological community are critical of Pinker's approach and statistics:



There are plenty more if you search in

reddit.com/r/askhistorians and reddit.com/r/Anthropology

So i'm not sure this debate is settled yet.

There are two arguments that are presented in both of these comments. The first is that the historic and pre-historic data on violence is incomplete. For this, there is no doubt and Pinker spends a lot of time talking about this. This is true for a vast majority of topics and its unfortunate that there is just a whole host of things we will never be sure about due to the non-existence of preserved evidence.

The second takes issue with his use of per-capita comparisons and suggests that an absolute rate may be a better measure. This is extremely silly and Pinker spends very little time discussing it because it really is absurd to entertain. For one, it implies the only true solution to any violence is massive population control. And two, it negates any comparison to cultural or behavioral change by simply pointing to the population size of the planet. Think of the statement, "Modern medicine has not advanced from the hunter gather days because more people under the age of 40 die every year than did 5000 years ago."

Edit: The second comment brings up a third point that the lower rate of violence does not imply we are better off, and is therefore questioning what we should define as violence. Pinker again readily addresses this issue by explicitly defining the type of violence he is analyzing, physical, and repeatedly stating that these issues are outside the scope of his book.

I don't think your comment is an accurate summary of the the links i posted.

For example, in the first link the author summarizes his long comment: " In short, he's extremely sloppy with his numbers and relies on almost no scholarly sources. I would not accept the type of work he puts in from an undergraduate.". So maybe Pinker does jump to conclusions that not necessary result from the data.

The third point , about how do we define violence is crucially important. I wonder if you counted the homicide rate in nazi germany before wwii or in soviet russia after wwii , you've get much lower numbers than pre-history(per capita). But it's hard to tell with a strait face those are "better" or less violent than pre history.

For example, in the first link the author summarizes his long comment: " In short, he's extremely sloppy with his numbers and relies on almost no scholarly sources. I would not accept the type of work he puts in from an undergraduate.". So maybe Pinker does jump to conclusions that not necessary result from the data.

Is he forgetting that Pinker writes mass-market books, not journal articles?

Even in pop-science books, there's often a list of citations at the end.

Centuries or a single century (20th)? I have no access to the book and I would be interested to see the numbers. It's hard to outdo the 20th century with the jump in the military technologies (starting with the machine gun, the first weapon of mass destruction), and two massive world wars. How, for example, do we compare to the 19th century?

There are quite a few resources on Pinker's website about the work. The FAQ is probably a good place to start: http://stevenpinker.com/pages/frequently-asked-questions-abo...

Here is a direct answer to the question. There's a ton more info on the topic and a huge portion of his book is dedicated to it:

*Wasn’t the 20th century the most violent in history?

Probably not; see chapter 5, especially pp. 189–200. Historical data from past centuries are far less complete, but the existing estimates of death tolls, when calculated as a proportion of the world’s population at the time, show at least nine atrocities before the 20th century (that we know of) which may have been worse than World War II. They arose from collapsing empires, horse tribe invasions, the slave trade, and the annihilation of native peoples, with wars of religion close behind. World War I doesn’t even make the top ten.

Also, a century comprises a hundred years, not just fifty, and the second half of the 20th century was host to a Long Peace (chapter 5) and a New Peace (chapter 6) with unusually low rates of death in warfare.

Thank you! The FAQ is very informative and indeed answers many questions.

Pinker's claim is per capita deaths.

I don't pretend to know if it is the correct measure, but it is at least an interesting measure of the human resources being put to war.

To whoever does not have the book but wants to get a gist of it here is a talk given by Steven Pinker on the subject:


The claim is usually that inter-state violence has been falling steadily since the end of WWII, the same way that inter-personal violence has been falling since, well, basically since civilization started. He's probably referring to the arguments in this:


How many democracies have started wars against other democracies?

Others have cited Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature, so I won't rehash.

But I couldn't disgree more with your comment that "the world's deepest and most serious problems have always been political, and always will be, and will always be beyond resolution by better gadgets." Technology CAN help. It can't help everything, and I don't think he was claiming that. But if you think your live would have been better in the 14th century, you're insane.

Funny you mentioned that. There is a wiki on this!


My favourite example is Finland v. Allies in WW2.

If we define democracy as liberal, pluralistic democracies with a respected constitution, then that list shrinks dramatically.

Inhabited solely, of course, by True Scotsmen.

Not really. When people say 'democracy', they generally mean modern states with universal suffrage. They don't mean to encompass "ancient greek states where only wealthy native men could vote" nor "enlightenment-era Polish noble republics". In this argument, I find that it's the people who claim any system that has more than one voter to be a 'democracy' as the ones bringing in the semantic ambiguity.

The spirit of the argument "there is no(t much) war between democracies" is that "when everyone gets a say, they generally don't choose to march off to war". Given the spirit of the argument, to then define democracy as forms of government with quite limited voter eligibility, is somewhat intentionally missing the point.

> "Wars are becoming less frequent."

> He wrote, as we approach the centenary of The War To End All Wars.

The diminishing in size and frequency of armed conflict is either evidence that we'll have less destruction due to war in the future, or more destruction due to war in the future. It's not clear to me what model predicts more war, when observing less war--can you explain under what circumstances your model would predict less war?

To reduce technology to gadgets (even if just hyperbolically) is just wrong and condescending.

Good luck solving the political problems of our day without technology to help.

I don't think anyone is arguing that technology alone will solve our most pressing problems, but you seem to take offense in that straw man. Do note that BMG is also focused on education (which to many is a good way to solve many political problems) and talks about influencing political decisions (noting that politicians are often risk averse, so that showing the way and reducing the risk with intelligent investments is another way to help).

Yes. Those damn peasants moved around too much thanks to this new fanlged railroad, and caused the war! Brilliant.

Here's the funny part: your claim may even have some validity. But increased mobility is a very good thing, in the long run. I would argue that we need much more of it. I acknowledge it can cause problems in the short term, especially when there are very large differences in living conditions. But as the poverty rates in different areas slowly converge, I think this will become less of a problem.

I agree with the point I think you intend to make, but I think you're going about making the point really badly.

Yes, the issues of the world are political. But demonizing technology doesn't help. Pointing out that technology didn't fix the problem would be a more reasonable way to make your point than "look how technology was used to make things worse".

I'm pretty thoroughly pro-technology. It leverages human behavior, and people are generally trying to do something positive, so technology is generally a positive. But it can and does amplify negative behaviors. More importantly, it is orthogonal to a large and dangerous set of human problems. I think Gates' piece dramatically overstates just how much can be hoped for from technology, and shows a disturbing ignorance of some important basic problems.

Give the original poster some credit. He's obviously not a luddite, he's just trying to push through the popular self-delusion that getting a big job, making money, and donating to charity can actually make a difference.

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