In my debates with some theists over the nature of human morality I am sometimes accused of being utopian. Of only seeing a good side to human nature. Ignoring the history of violence and persecution.
Maybe it’s just a matter of my critics finding a balanced view of human nature impossible. However, I reject their criticism because I have in fact written about the human nature and intuitions, such as the “then vs us” intuition, which have motivated negative examples of human activity.
Still, these critiques have put me in admirable company – Steven Pinker has received similar unwarranted criticism. Particularly in the publicity surrounding his new book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
I have a copy and look forward to reading it. His earlier books are impressive and this has certainly had excellent reviews.
Pinker argues, and provides evidence for his argument, that human violence has declined. He is not claiming this trend is inevitable or that it cannot be reversed. Just that it is a fact of recent history.
The Guardian recently published an interview with Pinker about his findings. You can read it at Steven Pinker: fighting talk from the prophet of peace. This included a table from the book that impressed me. it was a list of the 21 worst atrocities (conflicts or tyrannies) in human history. Pinker recalibrated these, to express the number of victims in terms of an equivalent 20th Century population.
I have listed the data below in order of the recalibrated death tolls. It certainly provides some food for thought. (And, incidentally put’s paid to the simplistic ideologies which blame all wars and atrocities on either religion or atheism).
|Ranking||Conflict||Century||Death toll*||Death toll (20C equivalent)**|
|1||An Lushan revolt||8th||36m||429m|
|3||Middle East slave trade||7th-19th||18m||132m|
|4||Fall of the Ming dynasty||17th||25m||112m|
|5||Fall of Rome||3rd-5th||8m||105m|
|7||Annihilation of the American Indians||15th-19th||20m||92m|
|8||Atlantic slave trade||15th-19th||18m||83m|
|9||Second world war||20th||55 million||55M|
|11||Mao Zedong (mostly government-caused famine)||20th||40M||40M|
|12||British India (mostly preventable famine)||19th||17m||35m|
|13||Thirty years’ war||17th||7m||32m|
|14||Russia’s “time of troubles”||16th-17th||5m||23m|
|16||First world war||20th||15m||15m|
|17||French wars of religion||16th||3m||14m|
|18||Congo Free State||19th-20th||8m||12m|
|20||Russian civil war||20th||9m||9m|
|21||Chinese civil war||20th||3m||3m|
*Median/mode of figures cited in encyclopaedias or histories. Includes battlefield and civilian deaths
**Deaths were calculated against global population at time, then scaled up to mid-20th century level