Are we more moral than cavemen?

June 16, 2008 |

Over the weekend, Eric Posner of Slate asked whether humans have become any more moral in the last few thousand years. His target was opinion leaders (most recently, David Brooks) who decry a moral decline in our society.

Posner asks if opinion leaders have been making such statements since the beginning of time (I believe they have, but I couldn’t track down the right citation), and whether if we are to take from that fact that we as humans are far less moral than our caveman ancestors.

Posner suspects that we are at least as moral as our ancestors. I’m not sure if there is good data on morality (definition would be the first problem in that study), but there is good evidence in terms of violence.

In pre-state societies, about 60% of men die in violence. Since the Middle Ages, the murder rate in Europe has fallen a hundredfold. A smaller proportion of the human population died due to violence in the 20th century than in any previous century (yes, that’s including both world wars and Stalin).

Further Reading

The first two of the factoids above come from The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Chapter 17 is particularly relevant.

2 Responses to Are we more moral than cavemen?

  1. levbor June 17, 2008 at 8:45 am #

    I suspect we don’t really have enough data to justify those factoids, but neither do those opinion leaders have any ground to justify their statements.

    Anyway, they are probably talking about sexual morality. I don’t think we have much more pre- and extramarital sex than people of the previous centuries, but we talk much more about it.

  2. Anonymous June 16, 2008 at 1:20 pm #

    “American Heritage Dictionary
    fac·toid (f?k’toid) n.

    1. A piece of unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition: “What one misses finally is what might have emerged beyond both facts and factoids—a profound definition of the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon” (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt).
    2. Usage Problem A brief, somewhat interesting fact.

    fac·toid’al adj.

    Usage Note: The -oid suffix normally imparts the meaning “resembling, having the appearance of” to the words it attaches to. Thus the anthropoid apes are the apes that are most like humans (from Greek anthr?pos, “human being”). In some words -oid has a slightly extended meaning—”having characteristics of, but not the same as,” as in humanoid, a being that has human characteristics but is not really human. Similarly, factoid originally referred to a piece of information that appears to be reliable or accurate, as from being repeated so often that people assume it is true. The word still has this meaning in standard usage. Seventy-three percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the sentence It would be easy to condemn the book as a concession to the television age, as a McLuhanish melange of pictures and factoids which give the illusion of learning without the substance. · Factoid has since developed a second meaning, that of a brief, somewhat interesting fact, that might better have been called a factette. The Panelists have less enthusiasm for this usage, however, perhaps because they believe it to be confusing. Only 43 percent of the panel accepts it in Each issue of the magazine begins with a list of factoids, like how many pounds of hamburger were consumed in Texas last month. Many Panelists prefer terms such as statistics, trivia, useless facts, and just plain facts in this sentence.”

    I prefer facts, no matter how trivial.

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