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Are we living in a less violent world?

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A new book on Gilpin County says we are

By Forrest Whitman

My Libertarian buddy Jerry has been suggesting that I read Steven Pinker’s new book which asserts that we live in a less violent world than we’ve ever seen. A new book by David Forsyth about Black Hawk and Central City agrees. Both books argue that people basically want stable lives in stable towns and cities. That was true of Gilpin County.

Less violence in Black Hawk and Central City as civilization advances

  Gilpin County saw a huge influx of miners, merchants, bar keepers, prostitutes, wagoner’s, and other types of people in an incredibly short period of time. Between 1859 and 1873 the population frequently surged to 20,000 and in one peak period to 30,000. Given this large and rootless population one would expect a lot of violence. That didn’t happen. In fact, violence was rare and the few murders, armed robberies, and other violent crimes were so rare they were headline news in this newspaper. Forsyth thinks these early settlers wanted stable institutions. They built churches and the opera house. They elected a sheriff. The second one, Billy Cozens, established basic legal rules. They set up mining districts to regulate the staking of claims and mining of gold. There was a good deal of respect for law and order. Steven Pinker’s book, called “The Better Angels of Our Nature” argues the same thing.

The better angels of our nature

  Pinker argues that the more peaceful a society is, the more it is healthier, richer, better educated, better governed, better traders, and more respectful of women and children. He goes out on a limb and argues that movements for animal rights, voting rights, gay rights, children’s rights and so on have made the world a less violent place. During the mining boom here, child miners were common. Kids who should have been out playing in the sun were too often down in mines. By the 1920s that had stopped. By that time women were gaining the right to vote, and more and more minorities could vote too.

Pinker concedes that not every bit of data supports his idea. The era of automatic guns has made gun violence much more destructive. The single shot (or at the most a few shots) guns of the past have been replaced by guns that will shoot many rounds in seconds. That does make it easier for horrible massacres to happen. But, he still argues there are fewer such incidents now than a century ago. Not only that, the mad men who go on shooting sprees are more likely to be “copy cats,” and so are more prominent now. He sticks to his statistics, though. The homicide rate is slowly dropping and has been for two decades.

Are humans changing?

  Pinker even argues that homo sapiens (that’s us) have possibly, just possibly, evolved more quickly in the last few centuries. That comes (in theory) from an actual shift in the human genome in a less violent direction. We’re now tuned in to each other and to the whole worlds as we’ve never been. Facebook, for instance, lets us know what people in far lands are thinking about events there. All of this linking up makes us more compassionate, more willing to assist others and less willing to do violent acts. Whether or not he’s right about that, we can’t argue the fact that we’re more tuned in to other humans than we were a century ago.

How good is the evidence for less violence?

  Many of the trends David Forsyth discusses in Gilpin County are undeniable. In the early mining towns progress was slow as we became more civilized, but we did become more civilized. It was a step forward when the sex workers in the brothels were required to have health certificates. It was a step forward when all children were required to go to school up till a certain age. It was step toward civilization when table manners began to be practiced even out here on the frontier. Steven Pinker details how each of those parts in the civilization process moved from east to west. As part of that process, homicide rates gradually decreased along with violent acts, particularly against women, children and animals. This is all good evidence for a decline in violence. More evidence was supplied in last weeks’ Weekly Register-Call. Starting in 1861 there was a Territorial Ranger assigned to Gilpin County. That official could intervene in serious cases of violence and had the authority of the territorial courts behind him. His presence, while mostly symbolic, may have slowed the level of violence.

Not so convincing is Pinker’s argument for less violence on national and international levels. Is it less violent to direct a drone strike against a house or public building than to send soldiers against whoever is in there? That’s arguable. Are there fewer little wars of dominance being fought since World War II ended? Pinker thinks so, but I’m dubious. It is true that the Obama administration has not engaged in any “little wars” since getting out of Iraq (and Afghanistan may be soon over). Does that mean a less violent approach to international affairs? Pinker certainly thinks so.

Pinker loves statistics. He proves that death from deadly quarrels has declined from 1820 through 1952. He also shows that the number of small wars has declined as well. This has led to fewer deaths in war. He proves both with many a chart and graph. Mathematicians love his books for just that reason. Unfortunately, one could argue that this only means that war making has grown more sophisticated. Instead of rows of young people serving a cannon fodder, we target our wars more specifically. I’m certainly not capable of judging that, and I hope Pinker is correct.

A less violent world

  The mining camps of Colorado in the last part of the 19th century and in the early 20th did show an evolution. They became less violent and more civilized. The reader can trace that in Forsyth’s book as Central City and Black Hawk moved from mining camps to homes. Steven Pinker’s book does demonstrate many ways in which our whole world has become a less violent place over the recent centuries.

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