Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Our better angels

I was about 12 years old when I came across Francisco Goya's collection of etchings called "The Disasters of War." I knew nothing of Goya, nor of the subject of the etchings, the Spanish insurrection of 1808 and the resulting war with Napoleonic France. Anyone who has seen the etchings will not have forgotten them. Bodies without heads or limbs impaled on trees. Soldiers splitting naked bodies lengthwise with swords. Unmitigated scenes of rapine and slaughter. I had just lived through the Second World War, which to a young American boy seemed rather noble and heroic, aspetic even. Goya's etchings may have been the first time I had a sense of the human capacity for gratuitous violence.

I was reminded of those etchings while reading an article in this week's (London) Sunday Times by Steven Pinker. He takes on the notion that we are living in increasingly violent times. World Wars I & II. The Stalinist Gulags. Cambodia. Darfur. Afghanistan. It might sometimes seem that we are sinking into an abyss of violence. Not so, says Pinker. The evidence suggests that we enjoy the most peaceful era of human history, especially those of us who live in the post-Enlightenment West.

The homicide rate in Europe has dropped from 100 killings per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages to fewer than one per 100,000 in the modern times. Worldwide, the number of deaths in interstate wars has fallen from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to fewer than 2000. Among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the chance that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent among the most violent tribes to 15 percent at the peaceable end. By contrast, says Pinker, the chance that an American or European would be killed by another person was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period that included the two World Wars.

I mentioned a few days ago that I was reading Peter Ackroyd's big history of London. Until the 19th century, violence within that "civilized" city was pervasive. Executions and torture were spectator sports, attracting huge crowds. The heads of malefactors were severed and placed on spikes on London Bridge. The horrors depicted by Goya would have been assimilated as a matter of course. Today, in the West, we debate the morality of capital punishment for even the most heinous crimes. In pre-Enlightenment London, one might go to the gallows for what today would result only in a fine.

I am 72 years old, and have never witnessed an act of mortal violence or deliberate mutilation -- a fact that would astonish Samuel Johnson.

Natural selection has no doubt endowed us -- especially males -- with a propensity for aggression against those outside the tribe. Natural selection also seems to have favored altruism among the local group. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." If, as Pinker asserts, we are becoming collectively less violent, it is because the circle of those we call our own has been constantly expanding, to include more and more of those we previously considered "other."

It is hard to imagine any Frenchman today doing such violence against a Spaniard as was depicted by Goya. Europeans, at least, now think of themselves a one tribe. But the dark potential still lurks in our natures. We must align ourselves on the side of those things that unite us rather than divide us.