Modern Societies Not Any Less Violent Than Ancestors

A new study conducted by anthropologists challenges the popular notion that as nations and modern societies develop and advance, that there is less violence and death from war.

In fact, the findings, published in the journal Current Anthropology, show that people who live in modern-day nations are not any less violent than their ancestors or people who currently live in small-scale hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies.

Researchers Dean Falk, a distinguished research professor of anthropology at Florida State University (FSU) and Charles Hildebolt, a professor from the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, say that even though modern societies are just as violent as their ancestors, living in a large, organized society may increase the likelihood of surviving a war, partially because a smaller portion of the population engages in direct warfare.

So while larger, modern-day societies may have a larger number of soldiers or combatants who die, they represent a smaller percent of the total population.

On the other hand, smaller communities are at greater risk in times of war. “Rather than being more violent, people who live in small-scale societies are more vulnerable to a significant portion of their community being killed in warfare than those living in states because, as the old saying goes, ‘there is safety in numbers,'” Falk said.

“We recognize, of course, that people living in all types of societies have the potential not only for violence — but also for peace.”

The researchers found that war deaths for both small-scale and more modern state societies escalate upward as populations get larger. Part of that, they believe, is because of the innovations in weapons and military strategies associated with modern life. Instead of stone axes, there are now fighter planes and more sophisticated weaponry.

Falk said the findings challenge the idea that as nations and modern societies develop, that there is less violence and deaths from war.

In this study, Falk and Hildebolt analyzed data on population sizes and death from intergroup conflicts among 19 countries that fought in World War I, 22 countries that fought in World War II, 24 non-states and 11 chimpanzee communities.

They included chimpanzees, Falk said, because they attack and kill individuals in other groups. The found that chimpanzees on a whole were actually less violent than humans, which researchers believe suggests that humans developed more severe forms of warfare compared to chimps. Similar to humans, the chimps’ annual average percentage of deaths declined as the population increased.

Source: Florida State University