Scientists battle over whether violence has declined over time

Bruce Bower writes: Contrary to a popular idea among researchers, modern states haven’t dulled people’s long-standing taste for killing each other in battle, a controversial new study concludes. But living in a heavily populated society may up one’s odds of surviving a war, two anthropologists propose.

As a population grows, larger numbers of combatants die in wars, but those slain represent a smaller average percentage of the total population, say Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee and Charles Hildebolt of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. That pattern holds for both small-scale and state societies, the researchers report online October 13 in Current Anthropology.

Increasing absolute numbers of war dead in human societies have resulted from the invention of ever-more-lethal weapons, from stone axes to airborne bombers, the researchers suspect. But Falk and Hildebolt show that states, which centralize political power in a bureaucratic government, are less likely to lose large portions of their populations to war than are small-scale societies, such as hunter-gatherers. That’s a consequence of large populations acting as a buffer against war casualties among noncombatants, not a lesser appetite for violence, the researchers contend.

“Small-scale societies are not more violent than states,” Falk says. “But there is safety in numbers.” [Continue reading…]

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