There are many ways to look at human history, and a typical viewpoint is to study wars. It is unquestionably one of the darker aspects of human culture, and yet we must look at it occasionally to maintain our perspective on human life. I have been reading Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History, by Matthew White, and he ranks the 100 deadliest intentional events. For each event, he includes number ranks, names of the events, their beginning and ending dates, and a number of deaths.
There are many ways to cut the pie in this complex subject, but White describes his methods, which seem reasonable, and appears to follow his self-identified procedure. Take World War Two, for example − it is such a complex thing as to when it started, when it ended, if it ever had a definite beginning and ending, and there is some question which countries were involved. Were all of the millions of deaths in the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1950 part of the war, or were many of them external to the war and part of Stalin’s plan for communizing his country? Also, in World War One, were the millions of flu deaths, largely spread by the soldiers, to be counted as war deaths? Some clearly were and some clearly were not, but how do you separate them? How to put firm numbers on very fuzzy data is a problem for every number in the book, except page numbers.
One of my personal problems was trying to put some perspective on the weighting of the millions of deaths. White solves this problem by claiming all human lives are equal, and therefore he bases his decision points on body counts, which of course gets tricky when there is massive starvation of civilians uninvolved in combat. His methods are fair and reasonable, but you must be aware of the necessary biases. Definitional bias becomes very important, because the world population has gone from .15 billion in 500 BCE, to 7.40 billion at present. That means the body count must now be fifty times greater to have the same impact on world society as it would in ancient times. In an effort to make this clear I created the chart below.
One of the considerations made obvious is that #2 Chinggis Khan killed approximately ten percent of all humanity, whereas #1, World War Two, which killed more people, only killed about three percent. When looking across the chart there are about five other events which were more deadly to humanity than WWII: #5 The fall of the Ming Dynasty, #9 Timur the grandson of Chinggis Khan, #13 The An Lushan Rebellion, #19 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire, #14 The Xin dynasty.
Our modern press has made Saddam Hussein to be one of the greatest monsters of all time, but we must look at the extreme lower right of each chart to see that as bad as he was, he is the least deadly on the charts, both in total numbers of victims, and in terms of impact on humanity. I did not start out to make that point, but it becomes obvious when looking at this chart.
There are lots of events listed in the 1900s, but the last fifty years has been remarkable for the paucity of major wars, and the great number of smaller ones may be due to better reporting. There may have been many more little wars in the past, but without a good written record we don’t even know of them, let alone how many people were killed.
Modern humanity is doing just fine when compared to our past.