Suppose there are two countries, comparable in all aspects of quality of life, except in one of them there are 13,400 intentional homicides every year, and in the other the number is 56. Which one would you prefer to live in, if you had the choice?
The reason I am asking this question is that I am currently working my way through Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My intent is to write a critique of his book from the point of view of Cultural Evolution. Surprisingly, as best as I could determine, this hasn’t been done. My critique, however, is going to focus on his explanation of why violence has declined, not on whether it’s happened or not.
Pinker’s book has sparked quite a controversy, but the main thrust of his critics has been on the empirical trends. Did violence really decline? I have discussed some of it in previous posts, in particular the one where I reviewed the recent article by Azar Gat.
But in this post I want to ask an even more basic question. In order to answer the question of whether violence has declined, we need to measure it. Pinker has followed the standard approach in criminology by focusing on the rate of homicide; that is, the number of people killed per 100,000 population per year. It seems the logical way of doing it; which is why I was surprised to see that many of Pinker critics chose to attack him by saying that rates are misleading—we should look at the absolute numbers.
For example, in a review in Scientific American, Robert Epstein wrote:
Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker’s entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease? By this logic, when we reach a world population of nine billion in 2050, Pinker will conceivably be satisfied if a mere two million people are killed in war that year.
It seems to me that only a deeply innumerate person could write this (innumeracy is mathematical illiteracy; incompetence with numbers rather than words).
Since a respected publication, Scientific American, published such a critique, perhaps the point is not as blindingly obvious as it seems to me. So here’s how I would explain it.
Let’s think about homicide as a component of quality of life (a negative one to be sure). In fact, because the right to life is the most basic human right, surely reducing the probability of being deprived of it by intentional homicide should be on the top of our agenda. But the probability of being killed is directly related to the homicide rate, not to the absolute number of homicides. A homicide rate of 50 per 100,000 means that you have a 0.05% chance of being killed in any particular year. This may not sound like a lot, but over a life span of 70 years it accumulates to a whopping 3.5 percent. In Honduras, where the murder rate is close to 100 per 100,000, and life expectancy is 73.5 years, the chances of ending your life by being murdered accumulate to more than 7 percent. Since males are much more likely to be murdered than women, their chance is at least double that. Let’s say it’s 16 percent, or one in six (probably an underestimate). What this means is that every male born in Honduras is automatically enrolled in a game of Russian roulette with a six-gun.
And now back to the question I asked at the beginning. 56 homicides per year is how many people are killed in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The homicide rate there is a 50 per 100,000. According to Wikitravel,
Some parts of St. Thomas, especially Charlotte Amalie can be very risky at night. Drugs and other related crime are a major problem, and dangerous public shootouts are a fact of life around St. Thomas. Tourists should exercise extreme caution when getting around as some neighborhoods can be dangerous, even if a well-known restaurant is in a particular neighborhood.
13,400 homicides is the number for China. But because China has much larger population than U.S. Virgin Islands, the homicide rate in China is only 1 in 100,000. All travelers in China comment on how safe they felt there.
Now I agree that St. Thomas has wonderful beaches, and China, not to put too fine a point on it, is a dictatorship. But there are plenty democratic countries with fine beaches, so let’s focus on the question of personal security. If you had a choice of moving to a country in which you would be 50 times more likely to be murdered, compared to the alternative, would you do it? Most of us, who don’t have a death wish, surely would choose a country with a lower homicide rate, no matter what the absolute numbers are.