The Noble Savage is a myth. The idea of a noble savage implied that our modern world was defective – that romantic simplicity was superior to our cut throat world. The French called this “romancing the mud” and for good reason. People without historical memory idealize the past and assume mankind declined in morality and virtue.
We live in a world where individuals are less likely to meet a violent death than ever before in history. Steven Pinker looks at the evidence and wonders why.
We’re not talking about a small dropoff or a temporary period of peace. This is a multi-century long dropoff in violence. Primitive societies are extremely violent and suffer the highest rate of violent deaths.
The savages really were savage.
At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of notions like progress, civilization, and man’s rise from savagery and barbarism. Recently, however, those ideas have come to sound corny, even dangerous. They seem to demonize people in other times and places, license colonial conquest and other foreign adventures, and conceal the crimes of our own societies. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.
Pinker argues by appealing to the evidence. The casualty rates as a proportion of the population have declined drastically.
At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.
Anthropologists frequently misunderstood tribal warfare as a “ritualization” rather than deadly combat. So few seemed to die, so it was more peaceful and nicer than the mechanized total warfare of the West.
They misunderstood the dampening effects that limit all combat. The deadliness of the weapons, psychological limitation like fear, the scale of political objectives, the ability of the society to regenerate losses.
When primitive tribes engage in missile combat, it may appear “ritualized” and almost non-violent to outsiders. Our own combat is fantastically ritualized by that same standard. Why don’t they just close the distance and kill each other? Why do they hide under cover and fire unaimed suppressive fire all the time? Why indeed.
States combined larger bodies of people than tribes, so fewer will die violently. Here’s a mathematical model of intergroup conflicts and why group size matters:
Imagine if there are 1,000,000 individuals in a region.
We can subdivide them into different polities. 2 Nation-states in one case or 10,000 tribes in the other case. Each of the tribes has 100 individuals, and each state has 500,000.
So what happens if these people are divided evenly and go to war?
If two tribes go to war with a 1% casualty rate on each side, then 2 men will die.
There are 5000 wars between the 10,000 tribes with the same 1% fatality rate (every tribe goes to war once). 10,000 are killed in total.
Now say the two states go to war, each sustaining 1% casualties. 500 will die on each side – a total of 1,000 killed,
When people think about fatality rates, this may be deceptive. When two tribes fight, only 2 men are killed. This seems far less violent than when 2 states fight and kill 1000.
Go back to the overall fatality rate for the whole population of one million:
When two states fought: 1,000 died. or 0.1% of the 1 million.
OR when the tribes fought, 10,000 died. 1% of 1 million.
Now, making this even more slanted, primitive tribes suffer an even greater percentage of war deaths than modern states.
Reducing the number of groups will reduce the casualties caused by intergroup fighting. Fewer groups will also reduce friction and conflicts between groups. This makes fighting seem rarer or less deadly without actually changing anything but the size of groups.
I offer a few speculations as to why the world became less violent:
1) Larger Group sizing – From Tribes to States
2) Economic Changes – From hunter-gathers to Agricultural states to Industrial states. This feeds the larger group size and keeps them cooperating.
3) Specialization of labor – Most men no longer fight. There is only a small warrior class, while other men specialize in other critically needed labor.
There’s more obviously, but these seem to describe the fundamental changes that lead to lower casualty rates in warfare.
*Wars between groups may be just as frequent, but there are fewer groups.
*Switching to agricultural and industrial economies provides more material and reduces the need for conflict over food and territory. This increases group size.
*A lower percentage of men fight.
I think these are broad enough to explain the long-term decline in violence without utopian fantasies.