The good news is that, since the end of the Second World War - as Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature - there has been a steady world-wide decline in the number of deaths due to warfare. In Europe, countries which had been in an almost constant state of war with one or more of their neighbors for centuries—such as France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Holland, Poland, Russia—have experienced an unprecedentedly long period of peace. As Pinker points out, the decades after the Second World War—up till the 1980s—saw an increase in intrastate violence in the world as a whole, due to a large number of civil wars. But since the 1980s, intrastate violence has declined too, so that, the last 25-30 years have been by far the least war-afflicted in recent history, and have seen a correspondingly low number of casualties.
There are a number of obvious factors responsible for this increased peacefulness—for example, the nuclear deterrent, the growth of democracy (making it more difficult for governments to declare war against the will of their citizens), the work of international peacekeeping forces, and the demise of the Communist Bloc. Perhaps—strange though it may sound at first—sport is a factor too. Sport is a good example of what William James meant by a ‘moral equivalent of war’—an activity which satisfies similar psychological needs to war, and has a similar invigorating and socially-binding effect, but does not involve the same degree of violence and devastation. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that, over the 75 years of this steady decline in conflict, sport has grown correspondingly in popularity.
Another important factor is interconnection, increased contact between people of different nations due to higher levels of international trade and travel and (most recently) via the Internet. It is likely that this increased interconnection leads to a decline in group identity, and in enmity towards other groups. It promotes moral inclusion, an expansion of empathy, and makes it less possible for us to perceive different groups as ‘other’ to us. It helps us to sense that, even if they appear culturally or racially different, all human beings are essentially the same as us. I’m certainly not an apologist for globlization, but this is one way (possibly the only way) in which it has had a positive effect.
Perhaps, then, as a species we are slowly beginning to transcend the pathology of warfare. Hopefully conflicts such as the present one in Ukraine will be seen more and more as aberrations, as group identity fades further and a sense of moral inclusion increases. And perhaps eventually, if this process continues, the need for social identity will fade away to the point that empathy extends indiscriminately, to and from all human being, so that it becomes impossible—even for power-greedy governments—to exploit or oppress other groups in service of our own desires.
*There are also environmental explanations for war—such as population pressure—which unfortunately I don’t have space to discuss here. See my book The Fall for a fuller discussion.
Reference: Fry, D. P., & Söderberg, P. (19.07.2013). Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War. Science (2013), 341: 270-273.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and Back to Sanity. www.stevenmtaylor.com