Background On Conflict
In prehistoric times, mankind often had only two choices in
crisis situations: fight or flee. In modern times, humor
offers us a third alternative; fight, flee, — or laugh.
A saying quoted by many people, especially those
who are pessimistic about the human condition, is this:
“Humans are the only species that kills their own kind.”
While this is not correct, it is not too far from the mark.
Intraspecies violence is quite uncommon. Certain types
of ants, for example, are the only species, other than
humans, that engage in full all-out warfare against each
other. Other than that, intraspecies violence occurs
almost exclusively in mammals, primarily lions, dolphins,
chimpanzees, and humans. While other mammals
may display aggression and violence in order
to compete for food, territory, and mates, it is the
primates, primarily chimpanzees (who share
95% of their genes with humans) and humans, who are most
likely to kill each other. Humans appear to qualify as the
most violent of all the species. They have been responsible
for the extinction of thousands of other species,
and have been quite effective in exterminating other
humans — witness, for example, the deaths of some
16 million people in World War I, and some 60 million
people in World War II.
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As recently as the 1960s, there existed a delightful
myth to the effect that humans, in pre-history and
early historical ages, were peaceable and non-violent.
That was a political position espoused primarily
by new-agers, but it was adopted by scientists who
wished to be politically correct, despite significant
archaeological evidence to the contrary. By the middle of the
1980s, however, it became quite clear that this prevailing
view was incorrect. Lawrence Keeley in his 1996
book, War Before Civilization, asserts that throughout
history, approximately 90–95% of known societies engaged
in at least occasional warfare, and many of them
Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of
Our Nature, reminds us that it is the rate of violent
deaths, that is the percentage of the population killed,
rather than the absolute numbers, that is relevant in
making comparisons across the ages. His detailed study
of the data involved resulted in some very interesting
• In prehistoric hunter-gatherer and hunterhorticultural
societies, the rate of violent deaths
ranged from 0 to 60 percent with an average of
• In contemporary/recent hunter-gatherer societies,
the rate of violent deaths ranges from 4 to
30 percent with an average of 14 percent.
• In all prestate societies that engage in some
mixture of hunting, gathering, and horticulture,
the rate of violent deaths averages 24.5 percent.
• In the earliest state societies, the rate of violent
deaths averaged 5 percent.
• In state societies during the wars of the 17th
century, the rate of violent deaths was 2 percent.
• In the first half of the 20th century, the rate of
violent deaths from wars was 3 percent.
• In all of the 20th century, when the last four
decades are included, the rate of violent deaths
was less than 1 percent.
Despite the solid evidence proffered by these
numbers, the 20th century is commonly thought of as
being the most violent century in history. While it is true
that it had more violent deaths than earlier centuries, it
also had more people. In 1950, the population of the
world was 2.5 billion. This is about two and a half
times the population in 1800, four and a half times that
in 1600, seven times that in 1300, and fifteen times that
in 1 C.E. In looking at rates of violent deaths rather
than absolute numbers, then, the death count of a war
in 1600, for instance, would have to be multiplied by
4.5 to compare its destructiveness to wars in the middle
of the 20th century. Perception of rates of violence in
the 20th century is also magnified by historical myopia:
that is, the closer an era is to our vantage point in the
present, the more details we can make out, and the
more significant events appear to be.
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