Ranking Historic Atrocities: Pinker’s “Better Angels.”

I have been swamped recently, but regardless of how busy I get, I try to make time for reading of one type or another. In this case I have recently started to reexamine Steven Pinker’s much debated book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Viking, 2011). For those unfamiliar with the book, Pinker argues that, in contrast to modern assumptions that the modern age (World War I, World War II, etc…) has been more violent than the past, violence has actually declined in the modern era in comparison to past centuries.

Various aspects of Pinker’s many arguments related to his thesis have been praised or criticized by scholars in a variety of fields and disciplines. I do not intend to add to either those praises or criticisms here. First, so much has already been written about Pinker’s book that I am very late to the party. I also do not have the time, at this busy point in the semester, to offer any substantive analysis.

But regardless of where one falls in their estimate of Pinker’s arguments, his book contains a lot of interesting information that can provide useful fodder for classroom discussions on the topic of historical violence in human societies, particularly (perhaps) in a world history survey course. One example is the chart (borrowed from Matthew White- who has since updated his figures and rankings) laid out on page 195, which ranks the 21 greatest causes of death (related to violence in one form or another) in human history.

Pinker notes: “’The twentieth-century was the bloodiest in history” is a cliché that has been used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender. But is it true?” (page 193)

Pinker then cites the above mentioned chart, which lists seven of the ten greatest death tolls in history as taking place (either wholly or in part) during the 19th or 20th centuries. They include the following:

  1. World War II (20th century)- 55,000,000 dead
  2. Mao Zedong (20th century)- 40,000,000 dead
  3. Mongol Conquests (13th century)- 40,000,000 dead
  4. An Lushan Revolt (8th century)- 36,000,000 dead
  5. Fall of the Ming Dynasty (17th century)- 25,000,000 dead
  6. Taiping Rebellion (19th century)- 20,000,000 dead
  7. Annihilation of American Indians (15th– 19th centuries)- 20,000,000 dead
  8.  Josef Stalin (20th century)- 20,000,000 dead
  9. Mideast Slave Trade (7th-19th centuries)- 19,000,000 dead
  10. Atlantic Slave Trade (15th-19th centuries)- 18,000,000 dead

Assuming these numbers are relatively accurate, then it does not look good for the modern era. Indeed, one can see how someone doing a quick count of great historical atrocities might come to the conclusion that modern people have been far more violent, at least in terms of total deaths, than those before them.

In response, Pinker points out, of course, that there are significant population differences between humans in the modern era and those in the past. Thus, taking into account population differences with past societies, Pinker develops an “adjusted rank” with adjusted death tolls based on a “mid-20th– century equivalent” (see his methodology on pages 193-194) to come up with a new ranking (page 195).

  1. An Lushan Revolt (8th century)- 429,000,000 dead
  2. Mongol Conquests (13th century)- 278,000,000 dead
  3. Mideast Slave Trade (7th-19th centuries)- 132,000,000 dead
  4. Fall of the Ming Dynasty (17th century)- 112,000,000 dead
  5. Fall of Rome (3rd-5th centuries)- 105.000,000 dead
  6. Timur Lenk- a.k.a Tamerlane (14th-15th centuries)- 100,000,000 dead
  7. Annihilation of the American Indians (15th-19th centuries)- 92,000,000 dead
  8. Atlantic Slave Trade (15th-19th centuries)- 83,000,000 dead
  9. Second World War (20th century)- 55,000,000 dead
  10. Taping Rebellion (19th century)- 40,000,000 dead

Some thoughts…

  1. If Pinker’s adjusted totals can be trusted (which is highly debatable), medieval and early modern Asia or the Middle East were historically much more violent (proportionately) than the often maligned West.
  2. The great tragedies of the 20th century, such as World War II or Stalin’s reign of terror, pale in comparison to the great tragedies of the past. Consider the An Lushan Revolt resulting in the “modern equivalent” of 429 million dead in comparison to World War II resulting in 55 million dead.
  3. I question the coherency of some of these groupings. The “Fall of Rome,” for example, as a devastatingly lethal event in history spanning the 3rd through 5th centuries is particularly problematic. To provide one example, many scholars seriously dispute the “fall” narrative, arguing instead in favor of transmission or continuity during this period. Also, what would be classified during this period as resulting from “the fall of Rome” that is clearly distinguished from broader Roman history, which was also always bloody? Finally, two centuries is a long time for something to fall. Including the “crisis of the third century” as a cause of the “fall” of Rome more than two centuries later seems like a stretch.
  4. Although the list includes the reigns of Mao and Stalin individually, it seems “Deaths attributed to Communist Governments” might also be listed as a category, as scholars have argued it resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 million people during the 20th century, almost twice as many as in World War II. See The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repressiona 1997 book edited by French historian Stéphane Courtois.
  5. I have other quibbles and more substantive concerns. Regardless, Pinker’s book is (at least) an engaging and interesting one prompting much thought on a variety of subjects.