Open Thread – December 4th, 2010

By Razib Khan | December 4, 2010 3:27 am

A few people have asked about me the assertion I made about the decline in violence over time. This doesn’t seem to pass the smell test for many moderns. In particular, I think the objection about the magnitude of modern wars is a valid one…but the main issue to remember is to focus on the proportions of those who died. So, the key metric would be the fraction of Germans who died from 1940-1945 and the fraction who died during the worst five year interval of the Thirty Years War. I’ll leave it to readers to dig further (you actually engage in a lit search rather than offer up more opinions), but here are two arguments. First, Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime:

Research on the history of crime from the thirteenth century until the end of the twentieth has burgeoned and has greatly increased understanding of historical trends in crime and crime control. Serious interpersonal violence decreased remarkably in Europe between the mid-sixteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Different long-term trajectories in the decline of homicide can be distinguished between various European regions. Age and sex patterns in serious violent offending, however, have changed very little over several centuries. The long-term decline in homicide rates seems to go along with a disproportionate decline in elite homicide and a drop in male-to-male conflicts in public space. A range of theoretical explanations for the longterm decline have been offered, including the effects of the civilizing process, strengthening state powers, the Protestant Reformation, and modern individualism, but most theorizing has been post hoc.

A chart:

homocide

And Steven Pinker’s essay A History of Violence.

Do note that an “open thread” means you can talk about other things as well.

Update: BHTV of note.

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  • jeet

    FYI last I heard Pinker was working on expanding ‘A History of Violence’ into a book.

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  • JL

    Improvements in medical technology may have had a large effect on homicide rates beginning in the 20th century. See this paper: http://people.umass.edu/zguo/iraqi%20war%20/murder%20and%20medicine.pdf. There are several times more aggravated assaults today than there were 50 years ago, but the difference in homicide rates is small.

    Wounded soldiers are nowadays much more likely to survive for the same reason. This explains some of the differences between WW2 and the Thirty Years’ War, too.

  • Douglas Knight

    I mentioned war in my comment, but I’m more concerned about interpersonal violence among hunter-gatherers. I’ve heard of many ways to measure this, with wildly different results. But maybe one should start with pushing measures of agricultural homicide back earlier. Do we know murder rates in Rome?

  • omar

    I hope that over time your steady drumbeat of objective information will have an impact, but it seems to be a very slow process. Among my friends and family (generally “post colonial left-liberal”, and therefore totally convinced of the violent depravity of the modern world) I notice that if such information is repeated many times, then the specific examples used in argument tend to change, but the overall argument (things were better before modern western white capitalism destroyed the equilibrium of the world) does not change much..

  • dave

    I’ve heard repeated several times the claim that the most common way to die as a hunter-gatherer male was to be murdered — typically by a rock to the back of the head wielded by another male, the male being either a intra-tribe rival or a neighboring tribe member you stumbled upon while hunting.

    Is there any evidence for this claim? One friend mentioned something about skull fractures in skeletal remains, but he was pretty vague. Thanks.

  • Katharine

    I don’t think liberals who think the modern world is a vast improvement over the old nasty days are so anomalous. At least I agree with Steven Pinker’s essay.

    For example, two extremes in an argument that reflects the topic of Steven Pinker’s essay are the groups of people who say either Money Uber Alles/Screw the Environment or Civilization Can Go F*ck Itself; I think we can agree that those with little regard for the Earth we live on or those with little regard for the human race’s continued health and improvement in general are both ridiculous. The challenge is ensuring both the continued advancement of civilization and the continued health of the planet. This is, of course, just one facet of the entire problem; this is the perceived battle between Corporate Fat Cat Nutbags and Anarcho-Primitivist Nutbags, with little regard for those who think both of those ideas suck.

    I think what’s being reflected in the ideas of the ‘post-colonial left-liberals’, who I do essentially number myself among (but I think that the modern world is certainly less depraved than what omar thinks many think), is a notion that there are some problems introduced by some facets of this advancement by people who have less sense of regard for other people, and there is a net improvement over the less modern silliness that it seeks to replace, but it does introduce a handful of new problems to be dealt with.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    http://crookedtimber.org/2010/12/03/moderate-doses/#comment-340262

    When Yglesias’s blog was in its first two incarnations the comments were good, iirc. But I’ve found (I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending, so I won’t try) that as blogs have gotten vastly larger audiences, the average commenter has gotten much stupider, so now (on almost every interesting blog) the comments are a rolling sea passionate arguments between morons. So they’re just not worth reading.

    :-)

  • omar

    Katharine, Just anecdotally, I think that the Pakistani upper middle class post-colonial left-liberal is not identical with you. What you are saying may be a fairly common set of ideas among American liberals, especially if they are also science educated (science education does make a difference in this matter) but my left-liberal friends and family are typically not in this category (again, this is all anecdotal). I have many (sometimes contradictory) theories about why that may be so, but it is.
    Also, I was specifically referring to left-liberal Pakistanis (not a large section of the Pakistani population). This was not meant to be a description of all westernized Pakistanis, just of the ones westernized in the postcolonial liberal leftwing mode..

  • http://www.scholars-stage.blogspot.com T. Greer

    Razib, I am curious if you have read Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization. I read it this summer and it blew me away. If you have read it I would be interested in hearing what you thought of it; if you have not, I highly recommend doing so. He touches on many of the topics mentioned on this blog – evolutionary basis for conflict, hunter-gatherer violence & displacement, the rise of agriculture, tribal consolidation & early states, the spread of religions, languages & ethnicities, comparative history, imperialism and its effects on world development, geographic & cultural determinism, to name a few – and I think you are one of the few people qualified to assess the many arguments he makes.

    http://www.amazon.com/War-Human-Civilization-Azar-Gat/dp/0199262136

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    thanks. i got the book on ILL, so i’ll see if i gte to it over xmas.

  • Katharine

    Also, I was specifically referring to left-liberal Pakistanis (not a large section of the Pakistani population). This was not meant to be a description of all westernized Pakistanis, just of the ones westernized in the postcolonial liberal leftwing mode.

    Hm. I am not familiar, honestly, with the mindsets of left-liberal Pakistanis. Since I’m not sure where you’re typing from and where your left-liberal compatriots live, are you talking about Pakistanis who live in Pakistan, or Pakistanis as a whole?

  • Katharine

    Razib, have you ever been able to dig up any data on views of people of various political leanings who are science educated versus those that are not?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Razib, have you ever been able to dig up any data on views of people of various political leanings who are science educated versus those that are not?

    no, i thought the sample sizes were small in gss. i’ll look.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    might be something in ‘majorcol’ var. no time now, but will do later. look yourself if curious.

  • http://infoproc.blogspot.com steve hsu

    I like Azar Gat’s work, and I suspect Razib will as well.

    If you have read Gat you might like this discussion between Western and Chinese intellectuals (including Gat) about the possibility of an authoritarian capitalist model of governance:

    http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2009/05/is-there-china-model.html

    Go Ducks! :-)

  • Antonio

    I’m wondering whether this overtime change in violence from the 16 century to the presented is correlated with genetic changes….but perhaps I’m digressing :)

  • Katharine

    JL, am I correct in concluding from that paper that odds are that the attempted homicide rate has been the same for years, just that the likelihood of dying from injuries from assault is lower?

    And why such a bizarrely stable rate of assault and homicide combined?

  • JL

    JL, am I correct in concluding from that paper that odds are that the attempted homicide rate has been the same for years, just that the likelihood of dying from injuries from assault is lower?

    Umm, no. The homicide rate has been relatively stable, whereas the aggravated assault rate has skyrocketed. This suggests that the attempted homicide rate has skyrocketed, too, because, as they say in the abstract, “homicides are aggravated assaults with the outcome of the victim’s death”. Without medical advances, the homicide rate would therefore be much higher than it is today, ceteris paribus.

    And why such a bizarrely stable rate of assault and homicide combined?

    Where did you get that idea? According to the paper, the homicide rate has been relatively stable, whereas the aggravated assault rate has increased by 700 percent since the 1930s. (To some extent, the latter number probably reflects artifacts such as increased reporting of crimes to the police.)

  • justin giancola

    glad we’re keeping the beards in science! ;p

    btw, in the video the general sense of fairness in the chimpanzees, and a possible general idea of equality in animals is mindblowingly cool!…really that’s about as cool as shit gets!

    it seems the golden rule doesn’t need our elightened human brains to come to light

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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