The world has evolved to a place where nobody can feel safe. Violence in the news and on social media permeate our lives. Are we a species doom to kill and be killed?
The New Testament tells us not to be anxious or fearful. It is our trust in God that protects us. Today, medical science warns us of the health implications and psychology tell us how fear and anxiety often escalate into anger, which can result in violence. Our constant exposure to bad news is overpowering our sense of trust in God. I see fear as the major cause behind many of society’s problems and many of our interpersonal issues. So I’ve presented posts about different aspects of fear in an effort to help you, my friends, sort some of it out: fear of death in Afraid of Death?, fear of people unlike yourself in Who are Your Neighbors?, fear of criticism and low self-esteem in Advertising Creates Fear, and politically created fear in The Hidden Poison of Politics. This post is about your fear of being a victim of violence. I expect you will find the statistics as surprising as I did.
Hostility and Kindness are in Our Genes
What is in our genetic makeup makes us aggressive or kind? Fundamentally, our brains struggle with control over our violent impulses. The hypothalamus contains a cluster of cells that play a key role in aggressive behavior. When neurons in this cluster are stimulated in mice, they immediately become aggressive and their aggression is proportional to the strength of the stimulation. This cluster is also in humans in the most evolutionary ancient part of our brains. Almost every sexually reproducing species shows aggression.
But we are also wired for kindness and morality as shown in a study of babies. When presented with a puppet show of stuffed dogs, infants repeatedly preferred the nice puppy who was helpful instead of the mean puppy who was obstructive. Even at three-month-old, the infants demonstrated a sense of justice, by choosing the dog who was the defender, banishing the mean dog. Basically, intimating that “you are mean and you don’t deserve kindness”.
So, both morality and violence are baked into our biology and we humans switch between them depending on which is most effective at the time.
An interesting change has been seen in our biology. “Genetic self-domestication”, which bred peaceful individuals to other peaceful individuals, produces more peaceful offspring over several hundred thousand years. (so long.) This was evidenced by scientific examination of human skulls over the centuries. The ancient longer faces indicated more aggression producing testosterone. The faces of today are shorter and wider….less testosterone and a larger reasoning pre-frontal cortex. Studies show that the impulse control provided by the pre-frontal cortex, functions poorly in murderers.
Surprising Evidence on the Trend of Violence
Based on a variety of data sets, the reality is that we live in one of the most peaceful times in history but it doesn’t count as news. Over the centuries, we have lowered our rates of death by 90%. Paleontologists’ records show that, on every continent, ancient history was a horror show of violence and cannibalism. Spanish scientists have scoured the records of over 600 societies in existence between 50,000 years ago and today. Violent death among prehistoric people was three times what it is now.
During the last decade, data was collected on historical murder rates for several European countries. Over the span of 800 years, rates decreased, being cut in half every hundred years. The homicide rate fell from one in a thousand to one in a million. Why? There is a strong case for the “civilizing process”. Society changed and more penalties were enforced for harming another person. But this was not all due to altruism…. violence also interfered with the economy. The value of a person became more equated with how much self-control they had instead of how good they were at fighting.
During the Middle Ages the slave trade and torture were lawful and often conducted in the presence of judges. Therefore, equality was the radical idea of the 18th century, probably starting with printed materials, such as the Bible, as well as an increase in literacy. This was followed by newspapers and other print which created a broader sense of community. Empathy was and is increased by identifying with characters in novels and the questions driven by scientific experiment and reasoning. These made people think about social issues and equality.
197,734 case records from the Old Bailey, a judicial system in London, were scanned into a computer. For the years 1674 through 1913, data was searched for matches to violent words such as “knife”, “beating” and “killed”. During those years there was a strong shift away from interpersonal violence indicating that by the early 20th century people were using more civilized methods to resolve conflict. (yeah)
Even deaths due to wars is declining. In spite of the astronomical number of deaths during WWII, the wars of the 20th century show a decrease in deaths per capita. During the 13th century in the Mongol conquest, Genghis Khan’s troops killed an estimated 10% of the world’s population!
So violence is down, yet there is still a danger of totalitarianism in the election of nationalistic leaders who can destroy the trends of peace. Experiments were formulated in Poland to test whether people would inflict pain on others when ordered to do so, as in the WWII Nazi regime. Psychologists found that 90% of people will commit violence if ordered to by an authority figure. Which says that you and I would probably have done the same with the additional economic and survival stresses experienced during that war. (Yikes)
Where Violence is Being Reduced
News and social media inundate us with violence and we judge risk and danger by how many examples come to our minds. Surprisingly, the risk to Europeans and North Americans is less than that of being hit by lightning. But violence is concentrated in time and space in certain communities.
Education, government and equality drive down murder rates but they are not distributed evenly. Income equality is one of the strongest indicators of violence and violent acts are contagious (e.g. revenge). A program in Baltimore called Cure Violence sends trained “violence interrupters” into the community to intervene in the interpersonal pyramids of aggression at early stages. The program also connects with services to address the source of the violence… typically economic. Cure Violence has been duplicated in 50 cities around the world resulting in a decrease in violence by 40% to70% with sustained outcomes.
A mass shooting killing 36 people in April 1996 prompted the Australian government to take action. They banned and then collected assault weapons totaling 650,000. Killings plummeted. In the following 23 years only 2 mass shootings occurred resulting in only 10 dead.
Connecticut passed stricter gun laws after the Sandy Hook school shooting. The five-year average of gun homicides has dropped by 1/3. Comparing other states in the US, the greater the gun restrictions the lower the gun violence.
In the Middle East there are strong religious and ethnic tensions. Prejudice results in dehumanization of ethnic groups, which then can escalate to the justification to inflicting harm. But in North Iraq, researchers wanted to test the idea of “contact” as a way to reduce prejudice. Integrated soccer teams were set up as a league with a few non-integrated teams as control groups. Although some players were initially uncomfortable, the integrated teams became social groups off the field with a more understanding perspective on people who were different from themselves.
Recent incidents in the news have not escalated to world war. New monuments are named for martyrs and civil rights leaders instead of war heroes. Requests for human rights are crossing international borders. As exemplified by Gandhi, nonviolence resistance is more effective than violent resistance by a factor of two. Human rights parallel this statistic. Will we stay on this path? If we don’t let media frighten us away from our trust in God, we can do so much more with His help.
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The information above was derived from an episode of Nova in November of 2019. I strongly encourage you to watch the video. It will give you further perspective on the chances of becoming a victim of violence and more background on what you have just read. It will also provide some support for some of the statistics that you may find astonishing.
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of Sonship. (Romans 8:15)
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7)
Then Simon Peter drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. “Put your sword back in its sheath!” Jesus said to Peter. “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given Me?” (John 18:10-11)
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matt 5:9)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” (Luke 10:36-37)
At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, (2 Cor 8:14)