Why don't we kill each other as much as we used to?

Proof of things you already suspected: Human society is not more violent today than in the past. Quite the opposite, in fact. (At least, as measured by statistics based on Western European historical records.) Vaughn Bell of MindHacks turned up this fascinating story from 2003, in which sociologists and historians debate what, exactly, caused the precipitous drop off in the European murder rate that happened over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Theories include "The Rise of Courtly Manners" and "The Establishment of the Modern State".


  1. Doesn’t take into account state violence. From Tilly to Hitler, the trend is to replace retail violence with wholesale.

      1. In terms of the number of casualties you’re probably right. Factors like improved field medicine and greater dispersion of combatants (due to improved transportation, communication, and weapon lethality) have contributed to a general trend of reduced casualties rates in Western military conflicts.

    1. From what I’ve read, it’s still at a lower level over-all. State violence was less extreme but still very common in earlier societies.

    2. yep, that’s pretty much what i was gonna say. murder has become less personal and more a job than it has ever been before. i personally would like to murder a bad person at least once in my life, i mean a really bad person, someone who is about to kill either me or some innocent person. only weird thing about such sentiment in my view is that everyone prefers to say ‘give my life to save another’ when really what they are saying is they want to kill for justice.

      i don’t know whether this professionalisation of murder is a good thing or not. one good thing though is that these people we train to kill now are also quite good at nonlethal takedowns and increasingly tactical and strategic methods of isolating and disarming enemies are being used more and more.

      but there’s a problem… murder and war used to keep human populations in check. organised structured war and murder is so efficient at avoiding unneccessary killing that i think you could consider it a significant factor in the swelling of human population to unsustainable levels. are we better off or have we just traded brutality for the very real and – look around – increasingly present problem of starvation and diseases of aging.

      how exactly can you make population control not an evil thing, when everywhere below us on the food chain you can see over and over again the consequences of not managing population. and if it’s not centrally managed, a la 20th century dictatorships and totalitarianism, then who decides? because as it stands the general trend is the stupider humans are breeding faster than the smart ones. university trained professionals have less children than the dirt poor farmers of africa and central america. and despite all the disease and starvation their growth rates are still higher than in the west.

      it’s a dilemma that unfortunately in the end is always solved with massive amounts of suffering one way or another. is the problem the reality or our rose coloured glasses? and who says who dies and who lives? in essence this is the reason why we are still living within what amounts to a candy coated feudalist system. we keep finding ways to feed and house more and more people but the margins keep getting tighter and the resource management gets more and more difficult.

      if the problem was easy to solve, it would have been solved before europe needed to send excess population around the world to spread more efficient life support methods to new lands that were almost unpopulated in comparison. i guess in a way we are all waiting for new vasco da gama, columbus, van diemen, magellan, and whatnot. look at that sky out there. full of space. so much space. if only we had a way out of the gravity well.

      1. There is so much wrong with this comment, even leaving aside the overt sociopathy of the first paragraph. I think you’ll find that disease had a greater role in keeping human populations in check than murder and violence, since the invention of the city at any rate. The number of children alone lost to disease prior to modern medicine is staggering to the modern mind.

        And modern medicine is the solution to the ‘problem’ of population control, it turns out. Given access to modern medicine, education and some control over their own lives, in aggregate women choose not to have so many children. While the world’s population is still increasing, the rate of increase is falling, and should flatten out or go negative later this century. Top-down solutions are unnecessary, as well as being unpalatable.

        As for going into space, I’m as big a starry-eyed dreamer as anyone, but unless you can ship something like a million people off the Earth every day, you are not going to make an appreciable dent in our going-on-seven-billion.

  2. It’s all relative to where you are as much as when it is. Also there may have been a decline from then because they ran out of people to burn.

  3. The migration of Europe’s violent, disposable men to the New World and other areas made accessible by the progress in ship building and navigation might have had something to do with it.

  4. Here’s a really good TED Talk by cognitive linguist Steven Pinker on the subject:

    And I seem to recall that Levitt & Dubner wrote about this in Freakonomics as well. (Though it’s been a while since I’ve read that book; so my memory may be paying tricks on me.)

      1. Well, I haven’t read the entire book; but I did read the sample sections on the website you linked to. They address Pinker’s claims here: http://sexatdawn.com/page11/page2/page2.html

        Unless the book goes into a lot more detail on the subject, I would not say that they “thoroughly debunk” anything that Pinker said in his talk. They simply assert that he was wrong, and don’t provide any evidence to back up that assertion. At least Pinker presented evidence in his talk to back up his claims. Where’s the actual evidence that he was wrong?

    1. The phrase “constant allegorization” should be useful for some purpose.

      I’m not sure what purpose, but I like the sound of the phrase.

      Maybe a band name?

  5. In Bogrotavia they achieved Pacification through mind-control, and in some extreme cases the replacement of the violent individual with an identical clone more susceptible to mind-control.

  6. I’m right now reading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror about the 14th century. In short, if anyone got in your way, you killed them. As long as you did it in a “just” manner, you were fine (if you weren’t killed in revenge). All this before and after the plague eliminated a third to a half of Europe and Asia’s population.

    /Yay for the Reformation?
    //Oh, right. That brought more death.

    1. The other side is, with a better state and social infrastructure supporting everyone, there’s less need to kill someone, because there’s less stuff they can do to you that would ruin your life. Morality’s fine, but to get the arseholes to stop killing, they need to know it just wouldn’t be worth it.

  7. I am sure it’s got something to do with the fact that (at least in Europe) people are no longer drunk all the time, as they were in centuries past, before the discovery that you can boil water to sterilize it (discovered in china a long, long time before Europeans did)

  8. Every working day I ride my bike to a building with the highest concentration of police in the state. Cops are every where. Buying food in the concourse, smoking outside the front door. There is an intersection outside that front door, with a bicycle lane which goes around the corner. Every single bike rider who gets a red light on that road right straight through the red light and keeps going. They do it in full view of the smoking cops, none of whom could consider handing out a ticket.

    The police are not going to book bike riders for running red lights because they don’t want to. They don’t book car drivers for talking on mobile phones either. Because they don’t want to.

    My point, if I have one, is that it takes more than passing a law to change behaviour. You need lawmakers, judges, police and citizens who respect the law for that to happen. Leave out one factor and it isn’t going to happen.

    When I was young kids used to roam around inside the back the their parents car. Now the new baby gets a restraint system which would also be appropriate for flight in a space shuttle.

    The Transport Accident Commission here in Victoria, Australia has had a lot of success with advertising which shows you exactly what happens when you go through the windscreen of a car which stops at 1000G. Perhaps better communication in the middle of the last century enabled something similar.

  9. “I am sure it’s got something to do with the fact that (at least in Europe) people are no longer drunk all the time, as they were in centuries past”

    Haha! Someone’s never been to the UK!

  10. I’m afraid to say I am more than a little disturbed by some of these comments, and I believe it highlights a major problem with this study, and studies of this sort.

    The claim is that there has been a tendency for murder rates to fall off over the last 400 years, which is statistically verifiable within, I would think, a large margin of error. Against Michael Smith, #16, I would argue the establishment of the police had everything to do with this. It would only take a few tickets, in the example he gave, to stop cyclists running that light forever. If one looks at history, it’s almost as though the more prominent a feature of modern life is, the more it is taken for granted, the more violent its introduction. Work and law being two examples. What are states around the world if not the jealous monopolisers of violence?

    The claim is not that the world is more or less violent, which is such a large claim, it is almost metaphysical. How does one quantify violence? But there are a few fallacies present in the above arguments:

    Locien and James 84, shome mishtake shurely? You mean there aren’t as many casualities, relatively, on the side of western nations when they exert their powers over whoever’s got the short end of the stick this year, but you forget the trully original innovation of modern warfare: war these days is war against the civilian population of a country. It started with a stray bomb that fell on London, escalated into the destruction of whole cities (Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima), to the present day wars against ideologies rather than armies and those who carry the ideologies, in the form of Afganistan and ‘domestic teror’.

    Now one can find examples of cities being destroyed back to Bibical times, but these pale against the havoc war-technology has created. A person can fly through the skies as easily as walk down the street, but wonder becomes horror as that technology is used to wipe out whole populations.

    Walter Benjamin, in his beautiful essay about the two-sided nature of technology, ‘To the Planetarium’ (http://www.mediafire.com/?mytjteoyzmk), writes about World War I, the so-called ‘Great War’:

    Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. for the first time on a planetary scale-that is, in the spirit of technology. This immense wooing of the cosmos was for the first time enacted on a planetary scale — that is, in the spirit of technology. But because lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath.

    It is finally the mistaken belief that human kind has conquored nature that leads to the trully abhorent comments made by elfspice, which insist on the necessitity, even the soverign good, of genocide. I am filled with rage whenever somebody suggests overpopulation is a real problem. Present conditions have determined there be a scarcity of resources, but present conditions are characerised by the ‘lust for for profit of the ruling classes’ in Benjamin’s phrase, and they can be changed, and under no circumstances ought their continuation be thought desirable. Colombus, De Gama, intrepid exploreres, certainly, but never think of them without thinking also of the genocide that followed in their wake. If only that were the last time technology was used in such a way! History is not over, and in a certain way of thinking, it has not even really begun, and I shudder to think it will be aborted through the devastation which follows from present circumstances. I do not anticipate a time when no living person is considered as excess to the population, but I think that time ought to come.

    I may have strayed slightly from the topic at hand, but I heard an interesting statistic from the television show, QI: more people are injured and killed at work every year than at war. Since we presumably all agree that violence is, even if it is ever necessary, deeply regrettable, I hope we can all get together and abolish work.

    1. Work-related deaths are not usually the result of violence.
      Sometimes they are, but not particularly often.
      On average, two people a day die on the job in Canada.
      Scaling up, that implies about twenty+ a day lost “on the job” in the USA ; is that accurate?

      It’s pretty clear to me that our manners have in general become less savage over time – although it sometimes also seems as if the penalties for violating the Law have increased in severity at the same time.
      Two steps forward, one step back. But over time, we seem to be treating each other better.

      1. Yes, I thought about this, and it really should have been phrased ‘If war is opposed due to the injury and death it carries, than work ought to be opposed for the same reason.’ If I hold that workplace injuries and death are nonetheless the result of violence, then I admit also that I have a particular definition of violence. It is not as though most people have a choice, whether or not to work — if one seeks to participate in society, one must, and not to particiate in society is folly. &c &c &C. One sees that internet comments are a poor way of advancing an argument and I have in the last hour found a much funner way of dealing with things on the internet I don’t like [http://erkie.github.com/]. Alhough, since you dismiss industrial accidents so lightly, I think we know whose side you will take in the inevitable war against the robots.

        I can’t help feeling as though you missed my point, just a little bit.

    2. War against civilian population is not new, except that it is now a deliberately considered part of strategy, rather than something incidental to it. Hiroshima, rightly or wrongly, was done as part of an idea to reduce fighting; countless towns before it were obliterated because soldiers wanted more food or valuables. Over-all I think the statistics are similar to combat deaths: fewer total deaths from more horrifying but more isolated attacks.

    3. Against Michael Smith, #16, I would argue the establishment of the police had everything to do with this. It would only take a few tickets, in the example he gave, to stop cyclists running that light forever.
      My point is that the police won’t issue those tickets. They don’t see a problem with bike riders running that light, and nobody is forcing them to enforce the law. Customary law is overriding the actual law which we all agree to follow, which is why the anomaly exists. Maybe something similar happened with ancient murders. Sure its illegal, but what are you going to do? Lock people up for it?

  11. that nytimes link leads to a page that doesn’t exist (according to the nytimes). I tried searching their archives but it just leads to the same place.

  12. There’s so many factors to correlate this to that my head is swimming with possibilities.

    A virtuous circle, where a momentary lull in violence leaves a generation unbrutalized and less willing to kill?

    The Reformation’s emphasis on individual relations with God?

    The introduction of the potato and subsequent reduction in starvation? (Really, don’t dismiss this one: the potato’s introduction completely changed the lives of millions of European peasants.)

    I’m going to be researching this all day now.

  13. It may also be that the reduction in the level of inter-personal violence is related to the progress of civilization, in the literal sense of that word: as more of us come to live in cities, more of us understand that we need to get along with each other, in order to , well, get along in life.

  14. I think it’s probably something mundane that caused the murder rate drop.

    Perhaps the introduction of higher-value food sources like the potato that kept the population fed. If you’re hungry then there’s incentive to pillage and steal; and if you’ve got the inventory, incentive to protect and defend. I’ll bet there were changes in agricultural yields by the spread of better practices too.

    Also, contrary to the “religion responsible for most deaths” arguments, I wonder if the introduction of competing religious factions, ie – Protestantism versus Catholicism – helped bring down overall death rates. Think about it this way: you would be less inclined to kill your immediate same-religion neighbor if there was a looming threat of invading different-religion armies. You need all the manpower available. Plus there is the instant comradeship of being on the same team. Hatreds and resentment are focussed on the enemy. I’m thinking maybe that the death toll of a few battles is less than the attrition of daily civilian life.

    Whacha think?

    1. Probably the exact opposite, regarding your thoughts that the addition of multiple competing denominations would result in a lower murder rate. (Or, rather, not “the exact opposite” so much as “probably somewhere in the range from no effect to the exact opposite”), in that regions where the religious beliefs weren’t relatively homogeneous tended to be ones without a strong state/central authority to maintain order and adherence to the rules of law.

      But, then again, I’m more likely to attribute the drop in murders to this rise of this strong centralized state — as opposed to the strong-in-theory-not-in-practice states that were common throughout parts Europe during various periods of the Middle Ages. (The Holy Roman Empire of the late Middle Ages and Early Modern periods is a great example of a state that was strong-in-theory: in theory the Emperor was the supreme central authority. In reality most of the actual power was delegated downwards to princes, dukes, counts, prince-bishops, and other nobles who wielded their powers over smaller territories with varying degrees of success and competence.)

  15. “May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb” as the old saying goes. In other words, the punishments for pretty crimes were so severe that our forefathers would commit more heinous crimes to escape the consequences of the lesser ones since the outcome was the same.

    Relaxation of the penalties for many crimes brought the overall murder rate down substantially.

    Conversely, we seem to be headed in the opposite direction today. 3 Strikes & You’re Out, vehicular homicide and other draconian sentencing guidelines are encouraging perpetrators to seek escape by extreme means rather than face the court system.

  16. 34 comments and no one mentions firearms ?

    Murder and mayhem became way less attractive when even the puniest woman can kill you dead from 10 meters away

    1. That should be fairly easy to test: Just compare per capita gun ownership statistics with the murder rate. (I don’t think the results would support your hypothesis, though.)

  17. A few years ago I read some paper called (roughly translated) “Crime in Tavern in the City of Zürich in the year 1470”.

    Of a population of about 3000 people, there were some 350 acts of crime (from over-staying, and not closing at the given hour up to brawls and knife-fights with lethal consequence) in TAVERNS in one year. That got me cross-checking with todays crime rates, and lo and behold, they are 10 to 100 times higher than today.

    Helps a lot to put “law and order”-politicians claims into perspective.

  18. -yawn- Rise of the modern state and the police function, end of story. Right? Seems obvious to me, anyway.

    RE: Stephen Pinker’s discredited theorizing about hunter gatherer societies: I guess the guy has done some serious work as a linguist, but he spews so much nonsense about other things that it kind of makes me question his area of research, and certainly his credentials as a ‘public scientist.’

    I was horrified to read a couple of years ago an entirely serious essay he wrote theorizing that Jews are inherently smarter than everyone else in the world because they were reproductively selected for good math skills in Europe for several generations in the medieval period, (due to their money lender function). His theory is so full of holes that it hardly merits discussion, but the broader question of Bell-Curve style racism certainly does; even if he was theorizing that Jews are smarter, as opposed to Murray and Herrenstein arguing that Africans are stupider, it amounts to basically the same thing.

    As I said, this kind of off the cuff and suspect “scientific” theorizing kind of makes you question the guy’s whole oeuvre…

    1. Stephen Pinker’s discredited* theorizing about hunter gatherer societies

      *[citation needed]

      Also, this wasn’t really Pinker’s theorizing: He was citing the research of anthropologists who study hunter-gatherer societies.

      I was horrified to read a couple of years ago an entirely serious essay he wrote theorizing that Jews are inherently smarter than everyone else in the world because they were reproductively selected for good math skills in Europe for several generations in the medieval period, (due to their money lender function).

      I think you need to re-read that essay (available HERE), because Pinker never argues that. First of all, he’s describing someone else’s theory, not his own. Second, he doesn’t argue in favor of it; he simply describe the theory and the evidence that has been presented in support of it. Third, the whole point of Pinker’s essay was to raise the question of whether this ought to be seen as a legitimate scientific theory, and whether it is appropriate for scientists to study this sort of thing. So, your objections are unfounded.

      But, even if you were right, and Pinker did argue that Jews were smarter than everyone else, how exactly would that discredit his findings about the history of violence?

  19. I was at a conference last week by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He wrote a book called, ‘On Killing’ that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He maintains that violence (aggravated assault) is up 5 to 7 times since the 1960’s.

    He says that if we had the same medical technology now as we did in 1970, we would have a murder rate that is 3 to 4 times higher. If the medical technology was the same as it was in 1920, it would be ten times higher.

    He also said that even that number is conservative because there is an incentive for law enforcement to not report violent crimes properly. Many aggravated assaults are classified as simple assaults.

    A couple of warnings from him include the fact that many more people want you to feel their pain now. When two kids got in a fight years ago, they would be friends the next day. Now, one of the kids frequently brings a knife or a gun to settle up.

    This pandemic of adolescent violence is now moving along to the workplace, which is why we are starting to see a major increase in workplace violence…and it is only going to get worse.

    He also maintains that the next major terrorist attack on American soil will be targeted at children…likely in a school, daycare center, or school bus.


  20. Either we now love each other or we have given up caring as a species.

    Sorry I cant be any more profound than that tonight.

Comments are closed.