Sorry Pinker, humankind is not likely progressing toward a more peaceful world

Total war fatalities over time per year normalised to the world population.
Total war fatalities over time per year normalised to the world population.

The conclusions of a new study(1) of wars over 600 years of human history are disturbing.

  • The number of war casualties tends to follow a power law over the whole data series for the period considered, with no evidence of periodicity.
  • In modern times, wars have tended to become less frequent but more destructive.

Human conflicts are a critical phenomenon, meaning that humans worldwide tend to form societies existing in a self-organised critical(2) condition. In these conditions, war is simply one of the methods that the system has to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible speed.

In practice, these results confirm that there is little evidence supporting the idea popularised by Steven Pinker that humankind is progressing toward a more peaceful world.

____________________

(1) Martelloni, Gianluca, et al. ‘Pattern Analysis of World Conflicts over the Past 600 Years’. ArXiv:1812.08071 [Stat], Dec. 2018. arXiv.org, http://arxiv.org/abs/1812.08071.
(2) Bak, Per, et al. ‘Self-Organized Criticality’. Physical Review A, vol. 38, no. 1, July 1988, pp. 364–74. APS, doi:10.1103/PhysRevA.38.364.

4 comments

  1. Thank you very much for the post. I have enjoyed it.

    However, I do not think the study of Martellony et al. shows very much. They have just plotted two databases (without any attempt to analyse and organize the data) and performed a very preliminary data fitting showing that a power law could be present. In fact, as they recognize, also a log-normal, distribution can be behind. In addition, they perform a spectral analysis that give no results. That could be expected, since the study takes data from a database that includes many societies. It is well known that mixing data we tend to get white random noise.

    This proves that wars are caused by complex reasons that will depend on different societies. Also that the number of casualties will vary, depending on technology and many other factors. But this was known by everybody.

    The whole point of Pinker was that our society was, slowly and painfully, evolving towards a less violent one. This implies that the process is non stationary and, therefore, it is difficult to analyze as it is done here. It would be necessary to restrict to a shorter time period and not just analyze wars casualties but rather how conflicts are tackled. Unfortunately, this is not as simple as using Matlab for combining two databases.

    The results of Bak et al. have a more scientific basis, however those are mathematical models that are only valid in the Platonic world. A study showing how our societies resemble the conditions of the model would have been much more enlightening. (Note. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get the full study. Is it somewhere on the web?)

    • You are welcome! As always, you are so keen. Yes, the study is very simple and limited, so let me distinguish two things.
      – First about the straightforward data analysis. I think its simplicity is its strength: There is no reason to think we are progressing when we look to war patterns. And It is a wake call for those who think everything is ok.
      – Second it is the claim I have “highlighted” that we live in a self-organised critical condition and wars are the way the system dissipate entropy. Wow, Yeah, That’s quite an overleap… but it is so thought provoking ;;;))

      And here you can find Per Bak et. al. classic paper: http://www.johnboccio.com/courses/Physics120_2008/docs/btw.pdf

  2. Thank you for the link and for the discussion

    The conclusion (from that article of a collection of similar ones) that war may be a response to self organized criticality is, certainly, thought provoking idea, but it may also resemble Maslow’s hammer.

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