Is a totally peaceful life a historical anomaly?
September 29, 2011 2:15 PM   Subscribe

What approximate percentage of the human population that has ever existed has lived a life free from violence on a mass scale?

I live in Lawrence, KS - which was once the epicenter of mass violent bloody struggles during the "bleeding Kansas" era leading up to the civil war. But today of course it is peaceful.

I have never served in the military or experienced armed conflict, but many people have as a soldier or as a affected civilian in a war torn region.

Likewise I have never experienced riots, famine, revolution, coups etc. It seems like a great historical anomaly that I and many of my peers have the good fortune to never have experienced mass turmoil or violence.

Is this as great anomaly as it seems? What percentage of humans that have ever lived can claim such relatively peaceful lives? (For the sake of argument lets not count individual acts of violence that we typically association with criminal acts and count only violence writ large.)

Is there any way to even begin to answer this question?
posted by jlowen to Human Relations (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not clear on what you're asking - are you looking for areas of inhabited land that have never experienced mass violence? Or are you looking at the last ~100 years, i.e. the timeframe spanning >99% of the currently living population of the earth, and what % of them have likely never experienced mass turmoil/violence? Are natural disasters counted in turmoil?

I live in Saskatchewan, there's so few people here relatively speaking I don't think we've ever had any riots in our biggest cities. This ain't Vancouver. Life doesn't get much more peaceful than here. But this place hasn't been free of violence forever - back in the 1800s there was the North West Rebellion.
posted by lizbunny at 2:28 PM on September 29, 2011

You live in a country that takes the war to other people's countries and is well protected by two large oceans and huge military budget. So the short answer is that yes, you are experiencing something relatively rare.

I would guess that about 20% of the people who have ever lived have experienced war and its consequences in their own land. That's a very rough assumption based on such things happening about every 150 years, average lifespan without war being 50-ish years, some slow population growth after the war, and a 50% chance of being the defender in a war.
posted by michaelh at 2:29 PM on September 29, 2011

It seems like a great historical anomaly that I and many of my peers have the good fortune to never have experienced mass turmoil or violence.

Steven Pinker has argued that the world has been getting less and less violent, both recently and throughout history:
The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.

At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. 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, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million. . . .

On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.
So maybe this isn't such an anomaly.

People are fascinated by violence, so violence gets a lot of attention. It's confirmation bias. This makes it seem like violence must be everywhere, and so you feel like it's a bizarre fluke that the lives of you and the people you care about haven't been marred by violence.
posted by John Cohen at 2:31 PM on September 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

There were long period of human history in which fighting in a war was by choice, and anyone who didn't choose to join the army was relatively safe from the effects of war.

Some examples:

The Pax Romana
Japan from ~1600-1868 (the Edo period: internal peace and relative isolation)
Various long periods in the history of China without internal rebellions or dynastic collapse
Switzerland from the mid-19th century to the present

Famines of course happened more often. I think freedom from famine is more definitively characteristic of the modern experience than is freedom from war.

Now, in terms of crimes such as rape and murder, I think that modern societies are clearly far safer than at any time before.
posted by twblalock at 2:34 PM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

With respect to history, there were a couple of centuries of relatively peaceful life during the Pax Romana. The bottom of that wikipedia page lists several other eras in other civilizations as well.
posted by jquinby at 2:35 PM on September 29, 2011

You live in a somewhat historically anomalous time, and we can only hope that it will continue and spread to larger portions of the population in the future.

I don't have the statistics you're looking for, and I doubt they could be compiled with any degree of accuracy over the entire course of human history. However, I'll recommend a book I've recommended on Metafilter before: James Payne's A History of Force. Payne looks at actual rates of homicide, assault, war death, and other forms of violence in societies all over the world for as far back as there are records in any form. His conclusion is that by every available measure, human society is continually becoming markedly less violent over time, both in terms of formal wars and interpersonal violence.

(I'll also repeat the caution I always give about this book, which I think is overall excellent but for one section. In that section, the author expresses his own opinion about modern Islamic societies, which is not favorable and seems based in bias. His prediction of a continuing violent future in the Muslim world doesn't appear to be supported by his own evidence. I don't like to recommend the book without noting this jarring digression from the fact-based inquiry he otherwise conducts and without stating that I disagree with him strenuously on this point.)
posted by decathecting at 2:37 PM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

It is mentioned in jquinby's Pax Romana link, but China has had long periods of peace (also some truly awful conflicts which have never entered public knowledge in the West). Egypt also had long periods of bounty and freedom from war.

Speaking of... one thing that characterized and enabled Pax Romana was the grain surplus from Egypt and Cyrenaica. Famine was not really a factor in the life of Roman citizens during the Empire's pomp. I'm fairly ignorant of Chinese history, but I believe that has also been the case during several periods.
posted by Kattullus at 3:52 PM on September 29, 2011

It's worth considering that there is an enormous amount of human history about which we know virtually nothing. For example, the society that created the Lascaux cave paintings seems to have been somewhat stable for tens of thousands of years, but they didn't leave behind a Egypt/China/Rome/Mesoamerican-style durable archaeological record.

Some people believe that things like organized war go along with the increasing density and centralization of wealth and power that accompanied agricultural life, and so as a percentage of human time on earth, war would be a relatively recent invention. On the other hand, most of the people who have ever lived have lived pretty recently.

I've posted this quote from this insane New Yorker article before, but its relevant here:
In that respect, Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.
posted by jeb at 4:04 PM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

This sort of question is really complicated to answer. Take the Pax Romana, which several folks have mentioned. Yeah, there wasn't much in the way of outright mass warfare within the borders of the Empire -- but there were occasional outbreaks of revolt and civil war, and of course the borders themselves were constantly expanding through violent conquest. In addition, maybe 20-30% of the population was enslaved during that period. Slaves got more rights over time, but conditions could still be pretty harsh (Wikipedia has an overview). I would call that widespread institutionalized violence, but it was "normal" rather than a large-scale social upheaval, so I don't know how it fits into your question.
posted by twirlip at 9:05 PM on September 29, 2011

There isn't any possible doubt that in these years, decades, centuries, the number of people that die violently at the hands of others is decreasing.
posted by nickji at 10:42 AM on October 10, 2011

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