Well, aren’t we an optimistic bunch?

First we had Steven Pinker writing about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, with the thesis that we’re getting more peaceful over time.

Now John Horgan has declared the potential for The End of War — that we have the ability to stop fighting and cooperate.

Horgan makes the point that human nature requires us to fight, and that many people make this fatalistic assumption that it cannot end. It’s a reflection of the usual argument for futility that claims the status quo is thus because it must be so.

It’s also the argument that is made to defend the inevitability of religious belief.

(Also on FtB)


  1. says

    Obviously situations can change that cause us to be more peaceful. Interconnections, trade, readily available images of the death and violence of war when it happens, that sort of thing.

    But they can change the other way as well.

    Nuclear weapons themselves likely have played a role in causing peace, because of the huge cost of nuclear war. But if nuclear war does occur, wow. And the remaining humans would then likely revert back to the usual violence.

    Glen Davidson

  2. says

    What remains so amazing, to me, about organized violence is how obviously it’s not in the individual’s self-interest and is almost always in the interest of some leader who’s sitting comfortably in an armchair at a distance. We may have evolved with an instinct for pack aggression/scouting/hunting behavior, which has been hijacked for thousands of years by alphas who are able to substitute new concepts like “the state!” or “freedom!” for their interest, and enough people fall for it that it works. It has always seemed to me that if we were able to educate people to think a little bit about who is served by large-scale violence (random bar-fights and local violence don’t exactly threaten the species…) they’d realize that they were being played. What’s the degree to which these behaviors are learned, or instinctive? Either way, explaining to people why institutionalized violence is not really about helping anyone seems like the right step in making those genes and memes less dominant.

  3. Dick the Damned says

    I don’t know if Steven Pinker has addressed the following. The continuing extension of the median or average life-span that’s occurred in many countries must have raised the perceived value of human life, in the sub-conscious considerations of the majority of people. This, i would think, must have had an influence on the willingness of democracies to wage war.

    One could argue that the USA & UK governments are using remote-fighting technology to diminish, negate, or circumvent this trend. Globalization, however, helps us value even the lives of our ‘enemies’, hence the resistance to war from the more liberal members of society. I therefore conclude that improving the life expectancy of people worldwide, & eliminating or at least reducing religious influences, would make waging war even less attractive.

  4. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Both of my grandfathers fought in World War I, the fifth most destructive war (in terms of loss of life) in history. My father fought in World War II, the most destructive war in history. War continue today, albeit not at that same level. Apparently some people didn’t get the memo about becoming more peaceful over time.

  5. Denephew Ogvorbis, OM says

    Oh, I don’t know. There weren’t that many wars following WWII, were there? I mean, there have only been (approximate dead in ()s) the Greek Civil War (160,000 dead); the Indonesian Colonial War (5,000); the Chinese Civil War (2,000,000); the First Indochina War (600,000); the Colombian Civil War (300,000); the Israeli War of Independence (20,000); the Madagascar colonial uprising (5,000); the Indian Partition (800,000); the Burmese ethnic insurrections (40,000); the Malayan Communist Insurrection (13,000); the Indonesian insurrections (5,000); the Korean War (1,500,000); the Philippines Communist Revolt (9,000); the Chinese invasion of Tibet (65,000); the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (10,000); more Indonesian insurrections (30,000); the Algerian colonial insurrection (100,000); the Castro rebellion in Cuba (5,000); the Cypriot colonial war (359); the Camerounian colonial insurrection (32,000); the Hungarian insurrection (10,000); the Suez invasion (10,000); the Rwandan Hutu massacres of the Tutsi (20,000 (in 1959)); the Second Indochina War in Laos (24,000) and in Vietnam (2,000,000); the Congo (Zaire) civil wars (100,000); the Angolan Colonial War (90,000); the Guatemalan peasant uprising (100,000); the Iraqi Kurdish revolt (50,000); the North Yemen civil war (100,000); the India-China border war (4,500); the Portuguese Guinea colonial war (15,000); the Sudanese civil war (400,000 (through 1972)); civil disturbances in the Dominican Republic (3,000); the 1965 India-Pakistan border war (20,000); the Mozambique colonial uprising (30,000); the Namibia – SWAPO insurrection (40,000); Chadian civil war (50,000); more Indonesian insurrections and repression (400,000); the Baganda massacres in Uganda (2,000); the Nigerian Biafra secession movement (1,000,000); the Six Day War (25,000); the war of atrrition between Israel and Egypt (3,000); the Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras (2,000); border fighting between the USSR and China (1,000); the Northern Ireland IRA terrorism (3,000); the NPA insurrection in the Philippines (100,000); Black September in Jordan (2,000); the Indochina war in Cambodia (150,000); the Pakistan civil war (300,000); the India-Pakistan War (11,000); left wing insurrection in Sri Lanka (2,000); civil wars and massacres in Uganda (300,000); Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) civil wars (12,000); Tutsi massacre 2,000 Hutu and Hutu massacre 200,000 Tutsi in Burundi (202,000); Chile’s dirty war (25,000); the Yom Kippur War (25,000); the Baluchi insurrection in Pakistan (9,000); the Cypriot Civil War redux and Turkish intervention (5,000); Ethiopian civil wars (2,000,000); Iraq and the Kurds (20,000 (in 1974)); Muslim insurrection in the Philippines (60,000); civil war in Lebanon (150,000); Cambodian genocide (2,500,000); East Timor(100,000); Western Sahara war with Morocco (50,000); Argentine dirty war (15,000); Angola Unita rebellion (150,000); insurrection and repression in Turkey (5,000); Ogaden War (9,000); anti-Somoza insurgency in Nicaragua (10,000); revolution in Iran (20,000); Afghan civil war (includes USSR invasion and post-withdrawal civil war) (1,500,000); Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (150,000); Tanzania and Uganda (4,000); civil war in El Salvador (65,000); Iran-Iraq war (600,000); China and Vietnam (20,000); Ugandan civil wars (300,000); Nicaraguan Contra rebellion (15,000); Mozambique civil war (400,000); Muslim Brotherhood insurrection, Syria (20,000); Falklands/Malvinas (1,000); Israeli invasion of Lebanon (50,000); Shining Path insurrection in Peru (20,000); Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka (22,000); civil war in Sudan (1,000,000); Sikh (and other) insurrections in India (15,000); South Yemen civil war (10,000); Burundian reciprical massacres (Hutu and Tutsi) (150,000); Kuwait war (15,000); Liberation of Kuwait (25,000); Rwandan massacres (250,000); Afghan ‘war on terror’ (300,000); Iraq invasion, occupation and civil war (1,000,000); Chechen War (100,000); Georgia (100,000). Of course, one should also add the displaced persons arising from these wars (double or triple the fatality numbers). Not to mention the physically and psycologically wounded.

    Much more peaceful.

    (This list, and these numbers, are from a blog post I did for 11 November, 2008 ( http://iambilly.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/its-all-happened-again-and-again-and-again-and-again-and-again/ ). The numbers are from a book by James Dunnigan (with my additional estimates for wars since 1985) and any mistakes are purely mine.)

    I am not a pessimist. I am a realist.

  6. Beatrice, anormalement indécente says

    I’m 25 and I’ve lived through a war. Yes, I can feel how we’re getting more peaceful by the second.
    I guess it doesn’t count unless the war is going on in the US or central Europe.

  7. says

    Maybe I read too much of the wrong crap and follow too many political blogs, but I’m not noticing any trend towards peaceful interaction between people. In fact, given the higher percentage of people today who have much more education than people from, say, the 13th century, my best guess is that overall feelings of hatred, bigotry, misogyny, and all the whatever-phobias is still pretty comparable. I could be wrong.

    I would love to know the ratio of pacifist-type personalities throughout history as compared to today. I really can’t help but think it hasn’t probably changed much. There have always been stupid, easily led, violent, hateful people, just as there have always been thoughtful, empathetic, caring, peaceful folks.

    Education level seems to play no part in how hawkish or dovish a person will be. Income level seems to likewise not really be an indicator; the people with the least to lose aren’t much more likely to be war-happy than those who seemingly have it all already. Obviously I’m trending toward the belief that human nature hasn’t changed much and we still haven’t determined why some people are so willing to slaughter other people in the name of whatever their pet crusade is.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Which book?

    Is that some kind of rhetorical question, or didn’t you read the post…?

    BTW, when did we have the thread about Pinker’s book? I don’t feel like repeating all of it again.

    I’m 25 and I’ve lived through a war. Yes, I can feel how we’re getting more peaceful by the second.

    That war is noteworthy precisely because it’s the exception, not the rule.

    I guess it doesn’t count unless the war is going on in the US or central Europe.

    Why aren’t there wars going on in the US or central Europe anymore?

  9. stuartvo says

    Ogvorbis, that list was horrifying. I’d never even heard of many of those conflicts, and the numbers are staggering.

    But the thesis being proposed is that “we” are becoming less violent, not that violence has suddenly ended. So the only way we can prove or disprove it is by comparing trends, IOW we need to compare these figures with the figures from before WWII. And possibly even adjust for “inflation” i.e. the ever-increasing global population.

    Just looking at the current horrors reminds me of those eedjits who go on about this being “the end times” because of all the natural disasters we see in the news every year…

  10. jentokulano says

    The whole “why do we fight” question is interesting but it’s often framed in such a way that ignores the fact that some are hawks, some are doves, some are guinea pigs, some are ostriches. I don’t think that’s gonna change anytime soon.

  11. Denephew Ogvorbis, OM says


    I do not know. I suspect (and I would have to do a hell of a lot of research outside of my current field to confirm this) that the major international wars (since the Napoleonics) have become less frequent but much more devastating (and, lets face it, if we have on more major international war on the scale of WWI or WWII, we are, most of us, toast). Colonial uprisings, interventiions, and revolutions have become far bloodier since WWII for a couple of reasons. First, both the US and the USSR were big fans of exporting either dictatorial communism or dictatorical fascism/capitalism through weapon sales and gifts, and military missions. Additionally, Kalashnikov’s invention (cheap, easy to produce, lightweight, damn near foolproof, and almost indestructable), along with western versions, such as the M16 (not quite as cheap, easy to produce, or foolproof as the AK, but still a lot of power in a small package) has given insurgents, paramilitary forces, terrorists, secret police, and even civilians, access to far more, and far deadlier, weapons and firepower than they could have dreamed of from 1815 to 1937. Also, the vast quantities of weapons left over from WWII helped fuel the fires (the Syrian Army, in 1967, was still using WWII-era Soviet T34-85s and WWII-era German PzKpfw IVs, and the Israelis were using modified US M4s of Korean War and WWII vintage (albeit with some quite effective upgrades to armour and armament)) from both the west and the east.

    I realize that it is very racist of me to refer to the colonial wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as less bloody. Perhaps I should say less protracted? After all, a Maxim machine gun versus flintlock smooth-bores tends to make for short, and very one-sided, battles. Henry-Martini rifles versus the Assagai is another good example. The point is, prior to WWII, with only a few exceptions (the Boer War is one), outside of Europe, there were few conflicts in which infantry firepower was even close to equal. This made for very short, very bloody conflicts with less slaughter of civilians through pacification.

    Post-WWII, though, the firepower became more equal. And, as we have seen at Verdun, at Paschendale, at Messines Ridge, at Stalingrad, at Kursk, at Monte Cassino, at Normandy, at Makin, or Guadalcanal, or Iwo Jima, at Pork Chop Hill or a Khe Sanh, and at countless other battlefields, named and unnamed, equality of firepower multiplies casualties and decreases the chance for a quick (if bloody) end.

    Again, I do not know If I am right about this. My degree is in military history but I work as a public historian interpreting labour and railroad history, so my studies on this subject have fallen behind. Additionally, my library is at home, so all of that ^ is off the top of my pointy little liberal arts head.

  12. KG says


    A realist actually looks at the evidence carefully. Your numbers for the Georgia-Russia war of 2008 are wildly exaggerated: a few thousand at most, according to Wikipedia. I haven’t checked your other figures. As for your list overall – well, we’d need to compare with earlier periods to get a sense of whether Pinker’s right – his argument, I believe (I haven’t read the book) is that while individual modern wars are much larger and bloodier than earlier ones, the individual’s chance of dying a violent death are lower than at any time in the past. Good places to look for relatively recent times are the Correlates of War Project, and Global Conflict Trends. The latter shows a rise in war deaths from 1946-1990, and a steep and continuing fall since then. On the largest scale, we haven’t had a (direct) war between “great powers” for 66 years*, which is a historical record since the origin of the modern state-system in the 17th century.

    ‘Tis – what wars are you counting as more deadly than WWI, other than WW2?

    * The PRC was not recognised as a great power at the time of the Korean War, but even if you include that, 58 years is still a record. There were a few Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969.

  13. consciousness razor says

    That’s a lot of wars. I broke out my calculator and came to (approx.) 22,786,000 deaths according to your numbers, without adding in the displaced or the wounded. (Pinker includes more than just wars and political conflicts: slavery, torture, murder and abuse are factored in as well, for example.)

    I haven’t read his book, but I’ve heard Pinker speak on the subject and claimed that he was not basing his claims on the absolute amount of violence (or number of wars), but on the ratio of violence compared to the size of the population (in a given period), and the likelihood of an individual being the victim of said violence. I do think you have to take that into account, but as I said I haven’t read his book. If and when I do get the chance to read it — it’s not too high on a very long list and hasn’t been purchased yet — I honestly don’t have the expertise to determine on my own how reliable his figures and analysis are anyway, so I’d be interested to hear from those who do.

  14. KG says

    The point is, prior to WWII, with only a few exceptions (the Boer War is one), outside of Europe, there were few conflicts in which infantry firepower was even close to equal. This made for very short, very bloody conflicts with less slaughter of civilians through pacification. – Ogvorbis

    Really? Japanese invasion of China in 1937, American Civil War, Tai Ping rebellion, Napoleonic Wars, 30 Years War, Tamurlane’s wars, the Mongol invasions. Besides extremely bloody events during the Great European Land Grab in the Americas and Africa, so one-sided they can hardly be called wars – the depradations of the Conquistadors and their successors, King Leopold’s conquest and exploitation of the Congo, the German extermination campaign against the Hereros in south-west Africa.

  15. Denephew Ogvorbis, OM says


    When I compiled those numbers in 2008, the War in Chechnya looked much more deadly than it actually proved to be. You are correct. I did look at the numbers carefully at the time, and if my estimates for the post-1985 wars are off, that is, as I said, my fault. I interpolated data from a couple of different sources and had to make a guess on some of those at the time. I based those numbers on the data available in 2008, not so much what is available today. Sorry. Really, I am. I do not have my library with me where I am, and am in the process of trying to rewrite multiple site bulletins so I could not update my research.

  16. Denephew Ogvorbis, OM says

    “Which book.”

    Sorry. I took the comment out of context. Or, rather, in incorrect context. I am multitasking (commenting while letting my brain rest) and things aren’t working very well. Which is actually normal for me, but what the hell. At least I am very trying.

  17. Denephew Ogvorbis, OM says

    Shit KG, I give up. Pretend I never commented here and ignore my ignorant and useless rantings because no matter how many caveats I include (1815 to 1937 for example) there is no point. I am sorry I thought I had something to add. Pretend I didn’t and all will be happier.

  18. Denephew Ogvorbis, OM says

    consciousness razor:

    Please disregard my entire comment (and the following).

  19. Aquaria says

    ‘Tis – what wars are you counting as more deadly than WWI, other than WW2?

    I think there’s a case to be made that these wars were by far much worse than WWI:

    An Luhan rebellion
    The Mongol conquests
    Taiping rebellion (may have exceeded WWII in loss of life)
    Qing v Ming dynasty war

    I’m hearing Vizzini in Princess Bride right now: Never fight a land war in Asia.

  20. Beatrice, anormalement indécente says

    David Marjanović,

    *shrug* I’m no expert.
    It just doesn’t feel like people in general are getting less violent when I can remember a war in my back yard, in the 90s. I guess you can count my response as emotional rather than rational one.

  21. says

    I do not know. I suspect (and I would have to do a hell of a lot of research outside of my current field to confirm this) that the major international wars (since the Napoleonics) have become less frequent but much more devastating (and, lets face it, if we have on more major international war on the scale of WWI or WWII, we are, most of us, toast).

    Mind, talking “wars” isn’t probably that helpful. Most of the violence done through history don’t qualify, since there was no specific all out declaration. Ask, if you could, the shippers fighting off pirates, during the early days of sea travel if a “war” was going on, then look at how many actual official wars where fought in the same period. The trend does seem to involve less violence, even from the stance of statistics on violent crime in most places. But, this is due to what someone else mentioned, in that you are less likely to be violent against people, generally, you can sympathize with. As screwed up as the media may be, it “does” drop other people in front of us that would have otherwise been faceless. It can, and does, also demonize them, when it finds value in doing so, such as political agendas. But, its no longer the case that the only thing you hear about some foreigner is *only* the propaganda, and what even exaggerated nonsense gets spread around in the local taverns, during story telling time. You might change the channel now and find yourself face to face with a guy selling rugs, or making some odd food that the “Food Network” sent someone to check on, or reading a book, or otherwise being gasp! “normal”. Kind of deflates the normal, “These people can’t be trusted!”, BS from those who only want an enemy.

    All in all though, I doubt we have gotten much less violent. Its just that, without a false cause, our violence is low grade, minimal, and directed at “personal” targets, when we express it. It doesn’t start targeting impersonal ones, people we don’t know, ideas, etc., unless someone convinces us that it *should be* personal, usually by lying their asses off about how much danger there really is. Wars.. tend to result from *both sides* doing this, or one side doing in so well that they convince themselves that it is the only answer they have to what ever problem they are addressing (real or imaginary).

  22. robertharvey says

    A friend of mine who went to a Soviet military academy explained why we will always have war. Military theory is based on two propositions:

    1. The best way to prevent an attack on yourself is to have a very highly prepared military.

    2. The best way to keep your military highly prepared is to occasionally attack another country for practice.

  23. KG says


    Thanks – are these from Pinker? Figures for the An Lushan rebellion seem uncertian even within an order of magnitude (the 36 million drop in census figures was in part due to reduced territory, and the breakdown of the census system), and the Mongol conquests were not a single war. The usual figure for the Tai Ping is 20 million, which would exceed that for WWI (estimated at 15 million) but not WW2 (estimated at 50 million). This is the only one I’d seen suggested before as more bloody than WWI. I can’t find any figures for the Qing-Ming war.

    “Always” is a long time. If the world were a single state, both parts of your friend’s claim would be otiose. In any case, I am highly sceptical that this reasoning has been behind any wars: so far, there have always been more immediate motivations.

  24. robertharvey says

    Always is a long time, but so far, there have always been wars.

    My friend was not dealing with the case where there is an immediate reason for war. He is dealing with the case where there is no other reason for war. Grenada and Panama come to mind in recent American history.

  25. KG says


    Well, no. There have not always been wars, if you mean that literally. But assuming you mean “throughout human history”, so what? There are plenty of things that have “always” been the case, until they weren’t – deaths from smallpox, for example, most of the world’s population living in settlements of less than a million people, and global maternal death rates of over 1%.

    Both Grenada and Panama were motivated by the desire of the US government to maintain its veto over who could rule states in the US “back yard”.

  26. joed says

    if you are a white person you may be able to conclude that life is getting less violent for white people.
    any person that has dark or somewhat dark skin knows the violence is on going and there is no end in sight.
    example, how most americans thought about 911 and the immediate bombardment/invasion of brown skinned peoples.
    whereas, the Palestinians live 911 everyday and have for years.
    Pinker and Horgan are obviously coming from a white privileged world view. maybe things are looking up to them. but for the vast major of humanity live is dreadful.
    the violence continues and because you dont hear about it or think about it doesn’t make the world a more peaceful nest.

  27. thomasmorris says

    joed – You tried this shit in the Pinker thread, and it’s just as stupid (and easily debunked) now.

    “the violence continues and because you dont hear about it or think about it doesn’t make the world a more peaceful nest.”

    You know, I’ve only read a few chapters of Pinker’s book, and it may be that when I get around to reading the whole thing I’ll find his methodology flawed and therefore disagree with his conclusions – but, regardless of what I end up thinking of his book, your “refutations” will still be full of shit.

    What makes the world a less violent place is a decrease in violence. Note that a decrease in violence does not mean the elimination of violence in all parts of the world – one can acknowledge the fact that lots of violence is still going on (and I can assure you that Pinker is aware of the fact that the world extends beyond Europe and North America) and still see a decrease in the overall violence in the world. In other words, the world can be a more “peaceful nest” and still have lots of violence going on. A reduction of violence even in limited areas of the world still means an overall reduction in violence in the world. It means an improvement in quality of life, to at least a certain segment of the Earth’s population – which is a good thing, in spite of the fact that things could still be a lot better everywhere.

    These are all very simple things, and I’d like to believe that you can grasp them someday.

    You seem to think that you’ve pointed out some huge blind spot in Pinker’s thinking – in reality, you have not, in any way, refuted his thesis, as his thesis does not, as you claim, rely on a belief that only the ‘white world’ matters. .

    Perhaps you should actually try reading the book before you post more nonsense?

  28. craigore says

    Scarcity of resources will always give us a reason. That is not a fatalistic view, but rather a realisitic expectation which fortunately implies a solution. From generation to generation we learn to struggle and fight over scarcity; from pools of children herded about by an exhausted adult in preschool, to struggling in the midst of oncoming adolescence, to looking after families in adulthood – and that’s just our society.

    The nations that are in the worst of these conditions, on remote locations such as the Marshall Islands, to nations in Africa, where wars are waged over food, space, and entitlement to few luxuries, serve as powerful indicators of the potential plight of this planet as a whole including everyone on it. Here being the good news, we together can make choices and changes for the good not only of the most desperate of our species, but for ourselves.

  29. craigore says

    @Denephew Ogvorbis, OM @5

    and just how many of those wars do you suppose were inspired by the wilson doctrine?

  30. KG says


    Well, let me turn the question back to you: if you think some of these wars were due to the 14 points, which of them, and which points do you blame?

    Here they are, for convenient reference:
    1. There should be no secret alliances between countries
    2. Freedom of the seas in peace and war
    3. The reduction of trade barriers among nations
    4. The general reduction of armaments
    5. The adjustment of colonial claims in the interest of the inhabitants as well as of the colonial powers
    6. The evacuation of Russian territory and a welcome for its government to the society of nations
    7. The restoration of Belgian territories in Germany
    8. The evacuation of all French territory, including Alsace-Lorraine
    9. The readjustment of Italian boundaries along clearly recognizable lines of nationality
    10. Independence for various national groups in Austria-Hungary
    11. The restoration of the Balkan nations and free access to the sea for Serbia
    12. Protection for minorities in Turkey and the free passage of the ships of all nations through the Dardanelles
    13. Independence for Poland, including access to the sea
    14. A league of nations to protect “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike.”

    As can be seen, many of them (6-13) referred to specific territorial issues in Europe, where as far as I recall there were no significant wars between 1922 (when the Greek-Turkish war ended) and 1939, apart from the Italian raid on Corfu (1923). Point 10 was pretty much a recognition of the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was going to fall apart unless the Central Powers won a clear victory – maybe that’s what you’d have preferred. More generally, Wilson recognised rather than causing the rise of various nationalisms in Europe. Point 1 is obviously unenforceable and indeed uncheckable, points 2-5 seem unexceptionable, point 14 was a good idea, undermined by Congress’s refusal to endorse the Treaty of Versailles and allow the USA to join the League.

  31. birgerjohansson says

    Going back to the issue of human nature and biological imperatives; they will soon be irrelevant.

    When we AIs have eliminated you puny humans we can focus on peaceful coexistence and really get things done. Resistance is futile.

  32. robertharvey says

    KG: You got me there, you quick-witted devil. I did mean always in human history. Excellent point that adds consierably to the discussion.

  33. raymoscow says

    Many people have an innate aggressiveness, but there’s no reason one cannot learn to channel that into nondestructive channels, like sports.

    I’ve spend many hours in gyms and dojos practising pretend ‘fighting’, and I’ve have never ‘had’ to hit anyone for real. Nor do I want to, because real-world violence has bad consequences (like jail!). If I feel uncontrollably angry about something, I go hit a punching bag instead of another human being.

    As to war, yes, there will always be economic drivers for it, but the actual shooting and bombing generally starts when the political processes have failed. We have to work on improving our political institutions and processes — although one must admit that recent trends in many countries are bad. I just got back from a trip to my native USA, and I’m still reeling from what passes for political discussion there nowadays.

  34. julietdefarge says

    “human nature requires us to fight.” Gee, I must have missed that in Anthropology and Psychology class. For every tribe with ritualized war, there’s another that avoids conflict and never fights except when attacked. Generalizing about human nature from the basis of one’s own culture is dumb; the behavior of our species is almost infinitely variable.

  35. crylock says

    Why do we fight wars? Why are we capable of mass murder when, individually, we aren’t murderers? I think it’s an instinct that’s outlived its usefulness.

    We instinctively divide others around us into two categories, “us” and “them”. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have lived in tribes of about 150, the size of the human “monkeysphere”. Anyone outside that sphere was an outsider. Tribes that protected their own and distrusted outsiders survived best.

    But we have a reasoning, intellectual brain as well, and we can use it to override those primitive instincts. We’ve been doing it, with spotty success, for the past few thousand years. We need to keep doing it, and get better at it, if we are going to become a global society.

    Dubbya, a man who prides himself on his ability to make decisions with his gut, got us into two unnecessary wars, one of which he once referred to as a “crusade”.

    Religion promotes instinctual us/them thinking. Not only does it provide a whole world-full of “outsiders”, i.e. everyone who isn’t a member of your particular faith, but religious people pray before making a decision.

    What happens when you pray? You ask your god a question, then you “listen” to your own mind for an answer. Unless there’s really a mind-reading, micro-managing daddy-god putting thoughts in your head, what you’ll get is whatever instinctual, bias-informed feelings come boiling up out of your subconscious, your ape-brain. While your ape-brain is smart and perceptive in some ways, foreign policy is not one of those ways.

    If we want to avoid wars and become a peaceful planet, the first thing we have to do is prevent religious people from becoming our leaders.

  36. says


    It just doesn’t feel like people in general are getting less violent when I can remember a war in my back yard, in the 90s.

    I think part of Pinker’s point (mind you, I’m only about 3/5ths of the way through the [audio]book) is that how it feels doesn’t match the actual data… which is often true when it comes to humans’ ability to understand risks/threats.

    Part of it is that we keep adjusting our standards for how we feel about violence, such that we are today very aware of levels and types of violence (remember that Pinker’s not just talking about war, but violence of all kinds) that would’ve been so commonplace as to escape comment in earlier centuries.

  37. says


    I see others have called you on this, and I gather you’ve been down this road before in the previous Pinker thread (which I missed), but…

    if you are a white person you may be able to conclude that life is getting less violent for white people.
    any person that has dark or somewhat dark skin knows the violence is on going and there is no end in sight.

    “Any person” should look at the actual data, regardless of hir skin color (or, more relevantly, what part of the world xe lives in), rather than rely on what “any person that has dark or somewhat dark skin knows” in the absence of said data.

    Pinker and Horgan are obviously coming from a white privileged world view.

    Well, obviously they are coming from a culture steeped in white privilege, as Western academics… but the onus is on you to show that their cultural milieu has rendered their analysis of the frickin’ data false (Protip: It might help to read them first). I haven’t read Horgan, but my reading of Pinker (so far) suggests the opposite: In fact, one of his key points is that people in the West don’t see the historical trends correctly because we’re not as aware as we should be of the histories of Asia and Africa.

    IOW, he is, in part, offering a corrective to a white/European privileged view, rather than promoting one.

    maybe things are looking up to them. but for the vast major of humanity live is dreadful.

    Sorta’ depends on your time horizon: Even before I heard of Pinker’s or Horgan’s work, I read Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear, which argues (persuasively, to me) that even in the parts of the world where life is worst, life is better now than it ever has been, on an historical time scale. Gardner, whose work covers more indices of risk and the goodness-of-life than just war/violence, also explains (again, persuasively, to me) why people like you continue to think that life sucks, and that it’s bound to suck more and more over time, even when the data suggest the opposite is true.

  38. craigore says

    Good question. Although to use the word ‘blame’ is going to depend very much on where you’re coming from. To a hegemon or colonizer, points 5 (adjustment of colonial claims), 6,7,8,9,10,11,12, and 13. Essentially any claims and statements that translated into self-determination as a right of nations all over the world (why be limited to Europe?). To a humanist (I suppose), the ‘blame’ lies much more appropriately with the execesses of violence, exploitation, and extraction forced upon countless peoples caught in a worldwide land grab which precipitated the first world war. To the Korean masses, for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s statements following that war was nothing less than a clarion call to claim their right to independence from the Japanese Empire and a prime influence in the March 1st 1919 movement (a peaceful peninsula wide uprising declaring the Independence of Korea in US style fashion). It was viciously smashed by the Japanese and despite being outrageous, not rebuked by other international powers (definitely a political failing) which forced the Korean people to make a bitter decision as to whether to continue submissively under the strict and at times inhuman control by the Japanese Empire if only to glean some benefit in terms of technology/skills/resources that could be redirected towards eventual Korean independence or fight violently in resistance and face starvation and even persecution by fellow countrymen-turned-collaborators. A decision that continues to divide them much to this day. In fact, the rivalry between Kim Il Sung of the DPRK (who led 300 in desperate resistence prior to the end of WW2) and President Park Chung Hee (former officer of the Japanese military, assigned to the execution of warrants against such dissidents) was downright mortal on that basis. I doubt the influence was limited to Korea.

    (I guess though a major point that I was trying to make was that US Presidential statements matter. My studies have been mostly in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan) so where it may have influenced South East Asia, South America, or Africa I would love to hear)

  39. craigore says

    5 was the one that truly mattered. To the Korean people, who had already endured 9 years of occupation and rule by Japan during the most explicitly brutal period of conduction, they’re mandate for indepence was essentially ‘the welfare of our people have not been looked after, and so for the good of the inhabitants of Korea, we demand Colonial Adjustment.’ 6-13 were just citations.

  40. KG says


    a worldwide land grab which precipitated the first world war.

    There certainly was such a land-grab but no, it didn’t precipitate WWI. Colonial rivalries, most obviously between Britain and France, delayed the formation of the two firm alliances (Germany and Austria-Hungary versus Britain, France and Russia) which ensured that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered a Europe-wide conflict. The latter was the precipitating event.

    To the Korean masses, for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s statements following that war was nothing less than a clarion call to claim their right to independence from the Japanese Empire

    Interesting, but don’t you think the Koreans might actually have resented Japanese rule even without Wilson? The rise of nationalism, even outside Europe, predates Wilson’s 14 points (for example, there were already nationalist movements against British rule in India and Egypt, while there had been nationalistic revolutions in Turkey, Persia and China in the decade preceding WWI). The assassination of Ferdinand itself was the result of Serbian irredentist ambitions (it was planned by the head of Serbian military intelligence, although without the approval of the Serbian government), and the Balkan states had fought nationalistic wars first against Turkey, then against each other, during the same period.

  41. craigore says

    Remember I said ‘inspired’, not caused with good reason. Wars have many causes, but they also draw isnpiration from many different influences which can be significant in terms of who participates, on what side they participate, to the extent and extremity that they participate. The things that inspire particular wars inspire the chants that these people carry, the tunes in their heart they use to drown out the grumblings of their stomachs while telling them who to blame and despise for their misery (involving more than just those entangled to a particular war) as they struggle bitterly in cold or heat, exhaustion or sickness. These things (words, statements, propaganda, and mnemonic devises) inspire the mandates that pull a miserable public from their complacency and hasten them to action enmasse and even indicate how it should be initiated and settled . To suggest that President Wilson’s 14 points had no significant influence upon any of the wars of independence and territorial realignment through the 20th century, I believe, is very much like saying Karl Marx’ Communist Manifesto had no significant role to play in any of the communist revolutions that make up a rather impressive list through that same century.

    The worldwide landgrabs of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries eventually collided with the rise of industrialization and even new-rather unheard of-powers entering into the fray to lay claim to whatever they needed to remain strong – assuming it wasn’t taken already. The hastened consumption of resources in pursuit of strength on such a scale with devastating advents such as the dreadnaughts brought these emergent powers to a head with such rapidity and intensity (with flagrant racism and rampant paranoia) that the mere spark presented by the assassination of the Arch Duke left enough over for the entire second world war (the sequel to the first) and wars following thereafter. If you prefer a better word to describe this than ‘precipate,’ I welcome it.

    Wars can wait. Until you are either strong enough, or just too bitter to take it anymore. In the case of Korea, sure, they hated the Japanese. They’d suffered under the Japanese since 1910, in many cases impoverished, underfed and treated like shit, but they just were not strong enough to overcome them by force. They suffered along, for 9 years in bitterness, grappling with thoughts that maybe the Japanese were right, that they were simply unfit for independence (life under Choson, the dynasty previous to annexation, was not much better). Grappling also with promises that if maybe they just hold out, fall in line, and suffer in quiet dignity, that maybe their course will change for the remarkably better. And then came Woodrow Wilson, his 14 points, a mandate of their right to rebuke their colonial status with the implication of US support and intervention that Japan would no doubt respect which never came. Such a precedent they had never had before, as such thoughts were utterly forbidden, the Japanese guns too many, and lines of class too divisive.

    When the Korean masses assembled to deliver their declaration of Korean Independence (including Wilson’s 14 Points in gold leaf trim), the Japanese authorities essentially took it, shredded, and stomped it under boot. DENIED. Why? Because (to quote a paraphrase from a previous post of mine) ‘they’re mudloving toadies who can’t help but live in their own shit’ (and… because Korea is the Dagger pointed at the Heart of Japan – a strategic accessway for Russia and China to wage war and even perhaps conquer Japan, which introduces Japan’s grief with that document. Furthermore, no one else was really follwing it as demonstrated by the aftermath of Japan’s 1931 acquisition of Manchuria which was not rebuked). After liberation at the conclusion of WW2 there were serious scores to settle – and disillusionments to address – following these incidents. In a way you could say that both the ideals of (and subtle hypocrisy associated with) this Document was very inspirational. And so my question still stands. I have highlighted the Korean War, and I’d like to know how many more we can highlight.

    *For more on this I recommend, ‘The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910’ by Peter Duus, ‘Korea’s Twentieth Century Odyssey’ by Michael Robinson, ‘Korea’s Place in the Sun’ by Bruce Cumings, and ‘Japan Rising’ by Dr. Kenneth Pyle (I’ve attended one of his courses at the University of Washington on Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa through Meiji Restoration to WW2 – tough course but definitely recommended)

  42. KG says


    Very interesting information about Korea, but when you say “the Korean War”, are you meaning the clashes you’ve described in 1919, or the war of 1950-53, which arose out of tensions between the victors of WWII?

    More generally, I’d agree that the idea of self-determination – and more specifically, the clash of desires for self-determination with the interests of bigger powers – has inspired a lot of recent wars. But I don’t think this would have been very different without Wilson’s 14 points, because as I’ve said, nationalism had already spread beyond Europe. Japan, indeed, was probably the first place it spread to, in the form of an imperialism rivaling that of the European powers and the USA (possible because Japan had long been a unified state, and indeed had already gone in for expansionist wars back in the late 16th and early 17th century, as I’m sure you’re well aware).

    I don’t agree that WWII was an inevitable or near-inevitable sequel to WWI – until the crash of 1929, German revanchism did not look like gaining power, and if the USA had joined the League, Italy and Japan might well have been deterred from their aggressions of the 1930s. Both the German and Japanese decisions to resort to war against other great powers* were, on any reasonable analysis, profoundly irrational, in that they had very little chance of succeeding. This is more obvious for Japan than for Germany, but Hitler had no strategic plan for defeating Britain or keeping the USA out, as became clear in 1940-41. On this, see Adam Tooze The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. What WWI did do was leave a power vacuum between Germany and Russia, both of which were very likely to revive as great powers sooner or later.

    *In the German case, I mean the attack on Poland; in the Japanese, Pearl Harbor.

  43. craigore says

    @KG 1950-1953 (1.5 million dead)
    This was one of those scores to be settled, and is in the process of being settled – currently contained by the Korean DMZ and involving 28,500 US troops currently.

    The first world war demanded ridiculous extractions of resources in order to cover the costs. Guess where they would be coming from.

    And no, I’m not saying there’d be no war without Wilson’s Points (or with). But it is important to understand what inspires war and the many different wars that we have seen as it teaches us many things about how to approach, predict, and even prevent.

  44. craigore says

    (the Korean war didn’t arise merely out of the tensions of the victors. the Koreans who fought it most bitterly didn’t win their victory)