World War II killed at least 40 million people, only a generation after World War I killed 15 million. Yet today, full-scale warfare between nations has disappeared.
When the 1900s began, average human life expectancy was only about 48 years. Now it's nearing 80.
Murder in Europe was about 100 per 100,000 population during medieval times -- but it has fallen 99 percent, to just one per 100,000 today. Lynching of blacks in the U.S. south ended.
Right after World War II, the world had only 20 democracies, but now the total is near 100.
Surprisingly, life has improved to a stunning degree. Several recent books declare that civilization has entered a new phase -- a time of humane values, orderly society and widespread public safety -- despite random terrorist attacks, gun massacres and other horrors that make headlines.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker -- author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined -- calls the transformation "maybe the most important thing that has ever happened in human history."
Interviewed in the July-August issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Dr. Pinker said some scholars once assumed that humans have built-in "urges like revenge and dominance" making them "killer apes" with "homicidal DNA." But now it has become clear that intelligent, reasonable people can suppress lethal instincts and create law-abiding cultures in which families live peacefully. The psychologist said:
"It used to be that countries in Europe would start two new wars a year for 500 years. As of 1945, that went to zero. Military historians have just been astonished at the fact that war between developed countries has pretty much ceased to exist .... If you look at statistics on war worldwide, since 1990, they have been going down, down, down. Fewer people are killed in war than ever before."
Question: If warfare is vanishing, why does America bankrupt itself by spending $1 trillion per year for the world's largest war-making machine -- more taxpayer cost than virtually all other nations on Earth combined? What's the point of this gigantic spending? Other Western nations don't squander their assets in this manner. Today, threats arise chiefly from hidden terror fanatics and Third World civil conflicts -- small menaces against which giant armies, navies and air forces are ineffective.
Dr. Pinker attributes the general retreat of violence to democratic civilization fostered through efforts like the United Nations.
"If you live in a society where there is a rule of law for long enough, it changes your emotions," he said. " You become less likely to react with rage if someone gives you the finger or calls you a nasty name. You don't challenge them to knife fight; you walk away."
The Harvard scholar added that gun-saturated America is bloodier than other advanced nations:
"By a number of criteria, the United States is more violent than other Western democracies. Our rate of homicide is two to five times higher .... We start more wars, and 33 of the 50 states have capital punishment, which has been abolished everywhere else."Let's all hope that America gradually joins the rest of modern cultures in the historic shift away from killing.