Could the world’s history of violence be coming to an end?
The story of the human race over the last few thousand years is written in blood — one of unremitting violence: devastating wars, genocide, feuds, terrorism and cold-blooded murder. Our predilection for brutality must be the single greatest threat to the continuance of our species.
And looking at the state of the world today, especially with the rise of global terrorism this century, it’s hard to believe there has been, or could be, any change for the better.
Yet it is the theme of An End to Murder by Colin and Damon Wilson (Robinson, £10.99, October 2015) that, with the progress in forensic science and understandings brought by psychology, together with improved education and communications worldwide, it might be possible soon to see mankind’s homicidal tendencies curbed.
‘I believe that it is entirely possible, in the next decade or two, that the 21st century serial killer will go the way of the 18th-century highwayman — driven to functional extinction by the forces of civilisation, and by social and scientific development,’ writes the late Colin Wilson in the book he began a year before he suffered a stroke in 2012. After Colin’s death in 2013, the book was completed by his son Damon.
But not only the days of serial killers are numbered, but of violence generally: ‘The very reason that this book was written is because attitudes to violence in society have changed fundamentally over just a few hundred years,’ says Damon.
An End to Murder is a well-reasoned and impressively researched work on the part of Damon Wilson. The book is in three parts: in Part 1, Damon gives a historical perspective of violence, from the first hominids to today — could the strange evolution of the human body have inclined our species towards being habitually violent? — and explores the latest psychological, forensic and social attempts to understand and curb human atrocity.
Part 2 is Colin’s work, containing much that will be familiar to his longstanding readers, especially those who know his monumental in-depth study of criminology A Criminal History of Mankind (1984, 2nd edition 2005) or, for example, Serial Killers (2008), written with Damon, and from which Colin quotes at some length. Part 3 comprises Damon’s conclusions.
At the outset, Damon admits he has attempted to write a ‘sister book’ to A Criminal History of Mankind, and that he has included everything Colin wrote for the original manuscript of An End to Murder — his last original writing. But Damon could not continue what his father had written because he had been writing in the form of autobiography, focusing on his fascination with crime and his philosophical desire to understand criminality. So Damon has to write a new book around it.
The causes of a global fall in unnecessary violence over the last 20 years — the main reason for writing the book — are many but strong, says Damon: ‘The recent fall in violent crime, and the absence of global conflict for over two-thirds of a century, may indicate that our educated intelligence may at last be edging us ahead of our catastrophically brutal inclinations.’
Damon shows there has been a decline in violent crime at least since the 1980s, and gives some reasons as to why he thinks this has happened. He suggests that among the factors which have led to the decrease in violent crime since the 1980s are, perhaps surprisingly, the removal of leaded petrol — lead pollution in the atmosphere is known to cause brain damage — legalised abortion, thus reducing the number of unwanted and so possibly dysfunctional children, and even the spread of computer games keeping hooligans off the streets.
But does he think statistics from a period of 30–40 years are sufficient to suggest a continuing decline in criminality? ‘Developing police forensic techniques, general education and the various environmental factors I describe in the book, are pushing the violent death figures steadily downward,’ Damon told me. ‘There will always be murders — by people who lose control of their tempers, or governments who “have to make tough decisions” — but the sheer scale of homicide has fallen dramatically and steadily, across the planet, since the Middle Ages.
‘It was over a hundred times more dangerous to live in medieval Oxford than it was to live in modern London, as parish records make plain. The very rapid drop in violent human death in the last two decades is just a sharper decline in an already firmly downhill slope. Even the world wars, when taken into account with the greatly increased human population of the world, were just small and (obviously) temporary upward blips on the graph.
‘The shortage of vital resources that might result from man-made global weather chaos (aka global warming) might kick us back to what the Vikings called “an axe age, a sword age”. But if civilisation and mass communication survives the coming crisis, I believe that the civilising process will continue as it has: slowly and, for most people, imperceptibly, but as steady as the erosion of mountain ranges.’
Damon points out that one per cent of the population are ‘pure sociopaths’, without conscience or fellow-feeling, equating to a staggering 73 million people (in a global population today of 7.3 billion); also that the sociopath has an ‘in-born malfunction’ of the brain, although the influences that have led to a fall in crime might affect the sociopath as much as the ordinary citizen. Does he think, then, that a global change in this respect could rid the world of sociopaths, or at least reduce their numbers?
‘Sociopathy is inborn and incurable, due to a malformation of the sufferer’s brain. But so were a lot of other congenital problems that modern medicine has at least partially alleviated in the past few decades. Sociopaths are often, if not always, poor at judging potential risks to themselves, and thus suffer unnecessary misfortunes that the rest of us avoid through greater foresight. They also don’t care for society’s rules or for the suffering of others. But most sociopaths also live within the letter of the law. Any social or evolutionary change will affect them and their lifestyles, just as such things affect the rest of us; they are just statistically more likely to harm themselves or others.’
Admittedly, only a tiny minority of sociopaths will be serial killers anyway, but what about those running governments, the military, big corporations or terrorist groups? Can we still contemplate an end to murder when all these sociopaths — especially those in power over us — are in the world? After all, these are the people likely to be least affected by consciousness change, if in fact such change is taking place.
‘We are all aware that dangerously unstable or selfish people get into positions of power — sociopath or non-sociopath. As Douglas Adams suggested, those who show signs of wanting political power should, under no circumstances, be allowed to achieve it. We should deal with bad leaders the same way we do with career criminals, and hope that the example of severe punishment deters future bad leaders.
‘Joking aside, I think our leaders will be, and are, changed as society as a whole evolves. Humanity is becoming civilised and, lagging behind, so is our leadership. To remind myself of this I re-read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich every few years.’
Interestingly, Damon points out in An End to Murder that great revolutions all came after the ruling class thought they were above the law and there had been also a technological leap in communications. Does he see a parallel today, with the rise of the internet and the questionable attitudes of the banks and multi-national corporations? If so, what form of revolution would he foresee?
‘Xenophobic nationalism — the bane of the 19th and most of the 20th century — is withering under the glow of the worldwide web. My kids simply can’t understand, let alone condone, the racism and parochial attitudes that were all but lauded when I was a child. That is a revolution, but not one that is overtly noticeable. I hope, too, that free market globalisation capitalism, and all its iniquities and inequalities, will also wither and be replaced, partly because exploitative systems do not do well under the constant barrage of modern external media investigation and internal whistleblowing.
‘Add to that that the fact that financial capitalism has caused all the major economic problems of the past few years, at least partly because it is based on an outrageously archaic system. The financial markets are basically run in the same way as they were back in the 19th century, but are fuelled by 21st-century technology. Deals that used to take weeks or months to complete a hundred years ago are now completed in nanoseconds, by the thousand.
‘The chaos effect alone risks terrible instability, even leaving out the “questionable” methods of the big banks and financial firms. These systems and practices will have to be thoroughly reformed before they do even more catastrophic damage than they already have — even right-wing pundits are coming around to this realisation. And that, too, would be a quiet sort of revolution.’
In his ‘Conclusions’ at the close of An End to Murder, Damon writes: ‘Reading my father’s books showed me that being aware of the evil that humans do can give you a better idea of human good … the violent crime rate is falling around the globe … The glow around the edge of the darkness has become perceptibly brighter in just my fifty years.’