Now we’ve got our fancy computers, air-conditioning, and $1 hamburgers, modern Homo sapiens enjoy the thought of being more “civilized” and less violent than non-Industrialized societies both past and present. Well, according to a new study, we might have to get off our high horse.
Anthropologists from Florida State University argue that modern civilization hasn’t diminished humankind’s bloodlust and appetite for violence at all, it simply manifests in a different way. In this sense, violence appears to be a constant feature of being human.
Writing in the journal Current Anthropology, they compared data on population sizes and death from intergroup conflicts in 11 chimpanzee communities, 24 human non-state groups from across the world, 19 countries that fought in World War I, and 22 countries that fought in World War II. The authors say they included chimpanzees as a comparison with humans because they are one of the few animals that attack and kill individuals in other groups, a phenomenon comparable to war.
In their study, Dean Falk and Charles Hildebolt argue against psychologist Steven Pinker's 2011 conclusion that humans “started off nasty and… the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction.” Pinker suggested that we, as 21st-century humans, actually live in the safest time in human history. In many respects, life has indeed never been more comfortable.
However, just as innovation has brought a level of easiness to our lives, it equally sows the seeds for potential destruction. Falk and Hildebolt suggest that pre-modern civilizations were not more violent. In fact, as societies become larger in population, they innovate more damaging weapons and harmful warfare strategies. War becomes less about small-scale face-to-face combat, and more about A-bombs and airstrikes.
They suggest conflict appears to be more damaging in pre-industrial war as a higher portion of smaller populations were decimated.
"Rather than being more violent, people who live in small-scale societies are more vulnerable to a significant portion of their community being killed in warfare than those living in states because, as the old saying goes, 'there is safety in numbers,'" Professor Falk explained in a statement.
Others have argued optimistically that a developed sense of reason, moral sense, and empathy, all associated with being more "civilized", should be able to constrain the development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons that also come with "advanced" societies.
However, "the assertion that people who lived/live in small-scale societies were/are generally more violent than denizens of states should be abandoned, because severity of war deaths appears to be a function of population sizes in H. sapiens rather than a manifestation of greater violence in smaller, more vulnerable societies,” they claim.
"We recognize, of course, that people living in all types of societies have the potential not only for violence – but also for peace," they added optimistically.