Is Humanity Getting Less Violent? Or Just Better at Hiding Its Violence?

The premiere of Handel's Messiah, in Dublin in 1742, was a very hot ticket, with an audience of 700 in the 600-seat theater. Hence, gentlemen were asked to come without their swords.


Think about that for a moment: Highly civilized people, who appreciated this wonderful music at least as much as we do, thought it perfectly normal to go about urban life with a deadly weapon. Yes, we here in the 21st century U.S. have our wingnuts running about trying to order lattes and burritos with AK-47's strapped to their chests, but their demonstrations make the contrast even more clear. The "open carry" gun demonstrators are a small minority who emphasize their restraint and responsibility. The point of wanting to carry a gun into a Starbucks is to show that you won't use it. In 18th century Europe, though, being armed was the norm for respectable gentlemen. And the number of duels fought all over the continent suggests that the admired man was the one who used his weapon, not the one who kept it sheathed.

European history for the past few centuries has seen a march away from personal violence in defense of one's person, stuff and honor. Since the beginning of the 18th century, the nation-state took on the power to defend and punish that once belonged to individuals.

That point is made in a new and profound way by this fascinating study of trial transcripts from London's Old Bailey, out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sara Klingenstein, Tim Hitchcock, and Simon DeDeo subjected records from more than 100,000 trials, from 1760 to 1913, to a computational analysis. By tracking the rise and fall of words in proceedings over the centuries, they were able to identify and quantify the passage of personal violence from a routine part of everyday life to a special category of heinous crime. In earlier years, talk of violence appears everywhere in the records—in the 18th century, cases of forgery or theft are as violent-sounding as cases of assault. But the mid-19th century, the two sorts of trials use different words and concepts. The change, the authors write, is steady and gradual—the result of slow, profound shifts in society, rather than any particular revolution or policy.

The next phase in this evolution away from a Game of Thrones world took place among those states that had taken over the business of punishment and revenge. Governments with these powers used violence less and less. Consider the death penalty: In the 18th century, you could be hanged (or worse) in London for forgery or for stealing a watch (as Sandy Blakeslee reported in her New York Times piece on the Old Bailey research). Today in much of Europe the state won't put you to death even if you kill 77 people.

Might there be something inevitable about this march away from mayhem and gore, first for individuals and then for their governments? I'd be inclined to say no, but I wonder. In the two biggest nations that still execute criminals—China and the United States—a change could be dawning similar to what happened in Europe. Earlier this week Brian Knowlton reported in the Times that American executions are fewer, and polls suggest that support for the death penalty (though still a majority view) is down a lot from where it was 20 years ago. And according to the criminologist Roger Hood China is also beginning to retrench on capital punishment.

So is the march away from mayhem inevitable? I'm not so sure. For one thing, even in well off and peaceful nations there are large stretches of territory where that Game of Thrones world still exists, and young men (in particular) learn that they can count only on their own fighting prowess to maintain the respect of others and their own safety. (Ta-Nehisi Coates lucidly explains it here.) Secondly, it seems wrong, empirically and maybe morally, to gauge the world's violence level by the relative freedom of some people from being mugged or punched. In order to secure the comfortable and violence-free neighborhoods of which rich nations are proud, a great deal of violence is done to people who don't live there. This occurs both within nations (see Coates again) and among nations. Are we who live in the United States really so self-involved that we can say the world is less violent, when our drones are raining fiery death on people all the time? Don't we have to reckon the killings and brutality that are happening out of our sight as well as the peace and security we experience directly? Steven Pinker has argued that the overall trend nonetheless is downward. Nonsense, says the terrifyingly clear-sighted philosopher John Gray. What has happened, he writes, is that "in much the same way that rich societies exported their pollution to developing countries, the societies of the highly-developed world exported their conflicts."

In 2014 in Dublin you don't need to carry around a sword to keep your self-respect. Perhaps that means the sum total of mayhem in the world has declined. But there's an argument to be made that it has simply moved to places where the citizens of Dublin (and New York and Shanghai) don't have to see it.

Klingenstein, S., Hitchcock, T., & DeDeo, S. (2014). The civilizing process in London's Old Bailey Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1405984111

Illustration: A day in court in Germany, circa 1550. Via Wikimedia

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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