Part 3: Is Pronoia Just for Rich, Comfortable People?

(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)

There is considerable evidence that the agonies of war have aroused increasingly effective efforts to stop war.

In 2005, the Human Security Report presented detailed proof that the world has become dramatically more peaceful since the end of the Cold War. It said that the number of violent conflicts has declined by 40 percent, while acts of genocide have dropped by 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished 33 percent during the same time, and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent.

Meanwhile, coups d'etat have decreased 60 percent since 1963, and the number of soldiers killed in battle has declined from an average of 38,000 per war in 1950 to 600 in 2002.

Shouldn't reports on these shocking developments have been at the top of the headlines for at least one news cycle? Wouldn't it make sense to declare a holiday and dance in the streets?

One of the primary causes of the plunge in violence, according to the Human Security Report, is the unprecedented upsurge of international peace activism, much of it spearheaded by the United Nations. Other factors it cites include the acceleration of democratization and the steep downswing of global poverty.

The main study was released in 2005, with updates issued in 2007 and 2008. Among the most recent findings: Deaths caused by terrorism have decreased 40 percent; support for al-Qaeda in the Arab world has diminished precipitously; and the number of wars in sub-Saharan Africa was cut in half between 1999 and 2006, while fatalities from those conflicts dropped 98 percent. More info is here:


Is there other evidence that the global culture of war and violence is receding? If so, it would be a cause for jubilee in the developing nations. To the degree that civilization is consumed with fighting, less energy and fewer resources are available to lift up the disadvantaged. As the richest and most powerful part of the human enterprise, the West is the dominant force in determining which way the scale leans: toward an obsession with conflict and supremacy or a focus on peace and well-being. So where do we stand?

According to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, the human race has been growing progressively kinder and gentler since the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century. "Today," he writes, "we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth." In numerous ways, violence and cruelty are decreasing. (You can read his full argument in his article "We're Getting Nicer Every Day":

One measure of the change is the steep decline in the homicide rate. In the 14th century, for example, there were 24 murders for every 100,000 people in England. By 1960, that figure had shrunk to 0.6 per 100,000. A similar decrease occurred throughout Western Europe.

As further proof of his theorem, Pinker also cites shifts in the ways wars have been waged. The mass conflicts of the last hundred years wrought catastrophic casualties, and yet they were far less efficient killers than the tribal clashes that dominated the centuries before modern warfare.

In the old days, violence was more consuming. A greater percentage of the men were soldiers, the battles were more numerous, and the death rates during combat were higher. "If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society," says Pinker, "there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million."

A third sign of waning cruelty is the dramatic drop-off in torture. Two thousand years ago, many cultures considered torture to be a legitimate element of their system of criminal justice. To the Romans, crucifixion served as a rightful punishment and an effective deterrent. The Egyptians preferred baking wrong-doers to death in the fire of the desert sun.

Throughout the Middle Ages and as late as the 18th century, the courts of Europe relied on torture as a means of wresting revelations from the accused. The Roman Catholic Church authorized its use in 1252 and didn't officially rescind the order until 1816. If you're ever in Amsterdam, you might want to visit the Torture Museum to get a look at the actual devices used during those many centuries, like the Judas Cradle, which forced the victim to sit on a pointed, pyramid-shaped chair.

In addition to the forcible extractions of information, which were conducted covertly, European cities also staged public spectacles that featured excruciating executions. Some victims were burned alive and others were hanged, then cut up. "Softly, softly, gallows are everywhere and numerous are the executioners," wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th century.

For hundreds of years, in numerous places on the planet, torture was routine, legal, and commonly accepted. But it's not any more. We shouldn't underestimate how miraculous a change this is. While sickening outbreaks still take place -- witness the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq beginning in 2004 -- they incur widespread moral outrage when they're discovered, and there is an international system of laws in place to discourage them.

So let's see: Pinker's research suggests that over the course of the last 600 years, the murder rate has declined 97 percent. The percentage of deaths during wartime has decreased by 95 percent. We can't be sure of the exact reduction in torture, but we know it's no longer a commonplace feature of the judicial system, and few of us have attended a public hanging.

Pinker says that social scientists are having to come to a conclusion that goes against the grain of the conventional wisdom: "Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler." What is that something?


Read Part One of the series.

Read Part Two of the series.