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If we count human on animal violence, are we living in the most violent era ever?

As an example of the decline in violence, Steven Pinker uses the fact that in the middle ages, we used to consider a burning cat to be entertainment. And yet, Steven Pinker appears not to take into account human on animal violence in his statistical analysis of violence. Otherwise, I would think that the 60 billion animals that we routinely raise and slaughter for food each year would overwhelm all the violence that we were committing in the past, even on a per capita basis, and make this the most violent era ever.

Killing a cow for food is a violent act, even if it isn't done in public like burning a cat on stage for entertainment. In the past, I don't believe that we used to consume animal foods in the same proportion as we do now. At least, from 1960 to 2000, while population doubled, the consumption of animal foods quadrupled. The animal foods that we consume are mainly a result of unseen, outsourced violence, but violence on par with cat burning.

As our technological prowess increased, we became more adept at inflicting systematic violence on animals, birds, fishes and the Earth. Climate change, environmental degradation and human ill health can all be viewed as the Earth's reactions to this violence. Therefore, it is important that we measure violence correctly so that we may respond accurately and save ourselves.

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    Jul 9 2012: I foumd Steven Pinker's book "The better Angels of our nature" to be compelling. It shows strong evidence that this is absolutley NOT the most violent era - even so, even one occurance is too many for any victim.
    • Jul 9 2012: I have no doubt that his arguments are compelling, but violence across species boundaries is also violence and he seems to have largely ignored it. Just because an organism has the misfortune of having a tiny fraction of its DNA different from ours, we can't ignore the violence being committed on it and become too self-congratulatory about "the better angels of our nature." Nature doesn't make such anthropomorphic distinctions and we are now facing the catastrophic consequences of our myopia.
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        Jul 9 2012: He did not address this for sure but history does. How many millions of bisons were killed for the fun of it during the opening of the west? That must overide today in my opinion. With licensing etc. (and I am not for draining life out of anything) most hunters are kiling deer etc that are over populating, I think.
  • Jul 14 2012: Sailesh, thank you infinitely for asking your question. People who post on TED, including myself, are usually well-educated. As such, our answers usually reflect the prejudices that are always so well hidden in the thoughts we have been fed and that we have digested that we seldom notice the passing shadows of such prejudices.
    What I would like to share is a story about awareness of the nature of our identities as I believe that it is not only relevant but crucial to the conversation that Sailesh started with his conversation.
    The first story is about a dog's love for me. She is a dog, and I am a human, and yet when she died she came to tell me that I would learn that she had died but that I shouldn't die or be sad because she was alive and well. Obviously, we did spoke neither in English nor in French (the two languages I am fluent in), and yet she spoke in a language that we could both understand. It was a visual language combined with a kind of knowing akin to the flash of clarity and understanding after you've worked on a problem for a long time and finally arrived at the answer. We were on different continents when she died, and there was a nine-hour time difference between us, but her death and time of death were confirmed. She had died at about 4 p.m. in the office of a French veterinarian, and she had given me her message in person, so to speak, in California at about 5 a.m.. I called my father immediately to ask my father if Mali was okay. She wasn't ill, he said; but when i told him about her visitation, he had to tell me the truth that she had indeed died. Of course, her visitation changed me profoundly, but such a transformation is not quite the subject of our conversation. For the purpose of our discussion,I wonder, if the bond of love was not so strong between us, would both of us have been receptive to the kind of language I tried to describe?
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      Jul 14 2012: So you're saying you saw the ghost/spirit/mental presence of your dead dog which died in France whilst you were in the USA. And dogs are very connected to man kind, they've been that way for roughly 10,000 years. It's astonishing some of the things I can tell from what my dog does, i.e scratching the door to be let out and nudging her dish to be fed etc etc. Though these could be interpreted without a bond between us. Anyone could rationally deduce that scratching at the door means something to do with said door. And this behavior is rarely observed in nature, especially between two different animal species, though rare stories do appear of humans and animals getting along in a certain situation but there's generally a benefit to this that spurs on the interaction i.e the animal gets food out of it.
      • Jul 15 2012: There was no benefit for my "dead" dog. she seemed to have come to visit me so that i would not fall apart emotionally when I learned that she had died. It seems, also, that she wished to give me proof that life somehow continued in a different place and environment and that such experiential understanding was key to understanding what love was not only between speicies but also within my own species.
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          Jul 15 2012: Unfortunately I've to asses everything on a scientific basis, and this leads me to have to say as you should expect me to say, that it was your personal experience and that I can't disprove what you saw/ felt and you can't prove it either way even if you were the most honest human alive.
      • Jul 19 2012: All right, but then what about relationships between human beings, beings of the same species? You can't prove either way that any type of relationship can exist between two human beings as you cannot prove personal experiences and experiences that result from interactions with other humans. What does science, as you seem to so narrowly define it, do with that?
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          Jul 19 2012: It's called psychology and people spend a their entire lives studying the brain and how it interacts with others. And it depends how much evidence you want as proof. If two people showed all the normal signs of love and stuck together especially through rough times where neither party benefited you could conclude that their is a bond/ relationship.
          And by personal experience I didn't mean what you seem to think I meant. If we can observe something and measure it, tell someone about it and then they can then go and see it, it takes that step beyond personal experience.
          But what I mainly meant was the idea of hearing/ seeing your dead dog. Like people claim to hear god's word or see spirits or be abducted by UFO's. All of which lack evidence and are put down to personal experience and can't be proved.
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    Jul 10 2012: Hello Sailesh,

    your question underlies a certain definition of 'violence' which I tend to define differently.

    To me, nature itself is based on the most violant principles I can imagine, as survival is based on food-chains of living creatures, which contains flora as well as fauna. In terms of beeing 'alive' there is no difference to me if a cow is eating grass for survival or if this cow is slaughtered by man for the same purpose. The grass as well as the cow has been violently separated from their 'existence' to serve as nutritious food for another species. So if this basic principle is named 'violence', than the cow was as violent as the butcher.

    It becomes difficult the moment you start to differentiate 'values' of species, which is no more than 'random' and via 'definition', as LIVE itself is distinct towards the non-living physical world by itself.

    By this I consider myself as 'violent' in eating my salat as when I am eating my steak. What makes us feel differet is only related to our empathy, any by this the salat usually short, as we have no experience what it means to be a vegitable. Yet towards LIVE there is no difference at all.

    By this empathy corrupts our value system from the beginning and therefore makes it questionable in all distinctions.

    Fishing as we know it today would probably be quite different, if fish would just have a vocal organ to scream panicky while they are suffocate to death. Not because the 'violence' would be any different, but because our empathy would be approached in a more understandable way to humans.

    What makes the difference to me in this matter is not the act of violence, as it can never be avoided, but the fact of suffering within it and the original need. The cat beeing burned to death has no need but a lot of suffereing, while a properly farmed and killed cow suffers, if at all, quickly. If we would find out, that salat suffers as much as fish and the cat, we should take care for it to remain as fair as possible.
    • Jul 10 2012: I don't share such a dark view of Nature. I believe that if ecosystems were strictly based on violence and "survival of the fittest," Life would not have endured for 4.5 billion years on Earth. I believe that it is compassion, cooperation and symbiosis which makes Life thrive.

      As far as eating salad being just as violent as eating cows, please note that deliberately raising cows requires that we feed them the equivalent of salad in very large quantities, day in and day out, for 1-2 years before the cow can be eaten. Therefore, there is far more "violence" embedded in the animal foods we eat.
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        Jul 10 2012: Compassion, cooperation and symbiosis is not contradictory to the 'survival of the fittest', as they are strategies of getting 'fitter'.

        The reason why we are increasing the "violence" embedded in the animal foods we eat is because the human race is increasing in numbers so much and got out of proportion of any natural balance of the given eco system on this planet.

        So if you count the salats we need to feet our cows which feet us may not be less if we would spare the cows and lived on salats only. So a decrease in numbers of 'violence' could only be archived in focusing on the nutritional contents of what would be more 'fair' to eat or the numbers in species which have to eat.

        As a collective, based especially on those strategies such as compassion, cooperation and symbiosis, as well as our capacity in inventing and using tools let us become the most 'fittest' of all animals yet it did not change the rules of 'survival' itself.

        So if your wish to reduce this 'violence' it implies the reduction of the human species itself. Which, in my view, has to be adressed one day.

        The balance of a given eco system is not a constant, it is constantly changing, interwoven and highly interdependent with one another. This actually can be calculated in less complex models of prey/predator relations and turned out to me chaotic in its pattern.

        But as our species evolved beyond those natural rules of balance, our impact, our inprint on the overal 'violence' had to evolve as well.

        The only 'ease of ones mind' I can picture at the moment relates to our technology only if we were able to grow or meat via genetic engineering directly and bypassing any attached 'brain' to this food within the process. Althoug the violence against a 'living organism' would not decrease this way, it would suit our concept of moral probably better than it does today.

        I do not consider this view on nature beeing 'dark' as it already contains a moral valuation in it while looking at the given facts.
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    Jul 9 2012: Well no I believe your trying to compare apples to cummbers. I don't know for sure but I have not seen any cows in my life set on fire for intertainment. I have put them on the bbq but only a steak or hamburger maybe ribs. I can also say I have never put any part of a cat on the afore mentioned grill.
    My ancestors climbed to the top of the food chain for a reason. I don't think we all should eat the cows chickens fish but that's a personel choice won't falut you for not eating meat and ask same. Now as far as counting the processing animals for food as violence NO afraid not. If we would count them don't forget anmial shelters game taken by hunter or the all important road kill also don't forget animal attacks. I think then you would have to do alittle readjusting for the population difference. Beware though figures lie and liars figure
    • Jul 9 2012: I don't see the distinction between setting a cat on fire and setting bits and pieces of a cow on fire in a barbecue. One was for entertainment and the other is for enjoyment and both are unnecessary.

      It is not about fault-finding but about recognizing and understanding the deep interconnectedness of our shared journey on this planet. What I do affects you and what you do affects me, profoundly.
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        Jul 10 2012: This is slightly incredible, the big distinction would be the fact that the cow's dead, that would be the first thing that comes to mind. So the cow can't feel pain at this point whilst the cat can.
        Our shared journey with livestock is that we've kept them alive so we've got food. It's not violent it's nature.
        • Jul 10 2012: Agreed that the cow is dead and can't feel pain when it is being burnt on the barbecue, while the cat does feel pain when it is being burnt alive. However, the cow was bred with the intent of killing it before its natural death and therefore, there is violence involved and there are ecological consequences to be faced. By all of us. Therefore, that violence matters and needs to be accounted.
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        Jul 10 2012: Sailesh what is you definition of violence? By your logic should we not be stopping lionesses from killing zebras and antelopes? They kill their prey before their natural death and they even purposefully aim for the young or the old in the herds.
        • Jul 10 2012: My broad definition is that violence is the presence of injustice, but I was only interested in having a conversation about human inflicted violence as it is we who are stressing the biosphere at the moment, not lions.
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        Jul 10 2012: Ok we'll agree on the fact that unfair treatment of animals during their life is not to be accepted in the world. But the biggest fault here is your inclusion of eating animals. We have to eat animals, if you want to talk about biospheres or ecosystems there has never been a case where an animal has purposefully decided to just not eat it's main source of nutrition.
        • Jul 11 2012: Animals may be the main source of nutrition in affluent diets, but it is certainly not the main source of nutrition for the majority of people on the planet. According to Prof. David Pimentel of Cornell, two-thirds of the people on the planet are consuming mainly plant-based foods, while the remaining one-third are consuming most of the animal foods. Therefore, eating animals is not a necessity, but a choice. It is a choice that the affluent are making, while effectively causing all Life on Earth to suffer in the process. I wrote a piece recently in IndiaWest on this issue:

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        Jul 11 2012: I suspect there may be a correlation between wealth of a country and whether they eat meat or not.
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        Jul 11 2012: I do see a difference I see no reason to set a cat on fire even for enjoyment. The cow on the other hand is food for my body. I would agree that some of what I do affects you and vise versa but not all of what we do does. We will just have to agree to disagree on the eating of critters.
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    Jul 9 2012: Most animals survive by eating other living animals or plants.

    We are animals, but we also have evolved to have reason, and empathy not just for our own family, tribe, species, but also for other animals. Many of us would oppose unnecessary suffering of humans and animals.

    As animals our instincts are still strong in regards to eating meat, in fact we generally eat too much if food is freely available having evolved where food is scare.

    If you are rich enough and there are non animal food options, then why not consider reducing or eliminating meat? I get this point.

    Many would support reducing suffering while the animals grow and when they are slaughtered.But I guess the animals we grow for food would not exist if we did not grow them. In the wild everything is dog eat dog. That does not excuse us perhaps.

    First step minimise suffering of creatures that can suffer humans and animals.
    I don't think this extends to stopping cats chasing birds, but just to the animals in our care.

    Its a big step, against our basic nature in some ways to forgo meat. Many of us still get a buzz out of hunting.But I recognise the ethical argument has some merit.

    I've heard it said you can judge a society by how they treat the incarcerated. Perhaps you can also tell a lot by how they treat animals.
    • Jul 9 2012: Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." However, I do not view this as an ethical issue because ethics brings in connotations of blame-fixing, right vs. wrong, etc. Instead, this is Ethos, about defining who we are in the family of Life.

      In the Abrahamic wisdom traditions of our dominant culture, it is said that Man was created in the image of God. Then, let's act like it. Let us be as compassionate towards all Creation as we imagine God to be. In the modern era, we are able to reach that goal. For, as a species, we don't have any serious competitors except in science-fictional movies. Torturing animals and eating them should not be part of our Ethos.
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        Jul 9 2012: I agree that animals bred for food should at least have a decent life e.g organic farms etc and not having 20 chickens in a metre square box (this is what I think you mean by torture)
        But if you want to talk about the tree of life, it is the most successful species that survives so in this angle what we're doing is fine, yet we can clearly see it's not, why is this? because it's an ethical issue and we've stepped beyond natural selection and have evolved mentally to see things such as right or wrong.
        Now the morality of Abrahamic religions are really horrible but I won't go into it, it also says somewhere in Genesis that the animals are for Adam's use i.e do what you want.
        So violence to you is basically just eating them and rearing them to be eaten.
        But this is natural, it's possibly the best invention a species could think of to ensure it's survival. See this idea of not eating animals it is just not sensible to me. They're a huge source of energy, fat and protein. As Obey says one species eats another. Now here's another interesting point, why don't we eat chimpanzee's or monkeys? Well it's because (mainly) they're humanlike, they're smart they can do things we can do, and also they don't make great livestock but that's a smaller point. The main point here is we don't eat intelligent things usually.
        I'm not sure i you've ever seen sheep or cows on a day to day basis, (I live surrounded by farms) they are the most stupid and all round useless animals I've ever seen, sheep die if they roll onto their backs for goodness sake. The only reason natural selection hasn't killed them off is because we've been breeding them and keeping them alive. They are awfully adapted for survival and we've artificially made them better.
        I've made a few very jumbled points but the main drift is, 1)it's natural to eat meat 2) let's not raise livestock in a disgraceful manner 3) you can't be violent to something that's dead.
        • Jul 10 2012: Agreed that there are passages in the Bible that can be interpreted to incite violence towards other people, animals etc., but this is the case in most such texts. It is up to us to reject such interpretations in these texts that are not compatible with compassion for all creation. I don't see any other way for all of us from different cultures and traditions to come together to solve our global, interconnected problems. Please see, e.g., Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion web site.
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          Jul 11 2012: Hi Stewart, I guess there are lots of natural drives and instincts we have that we decide to moderate because we are not completely slaves to instinct. We have the ability to reason.

          For example our sex drive. We don't accept rape (usually). But it is a perfectly natural drive to have sex and to use force to achieve it in the animal world.

          I just suggest it is worth considering. Do we have to be slaves to our instinct and nature.

          I think it reasonable to assess whether eating animals is more harmful or beneficial on balance. Much more efficient use of land to grow vegetable food than plant food. Less methane. etc

          Not just animal suffering, but sustainability and other considerations.

          Agree in principle that the more we see ourselves in animals the more we care. However, Chimps are eaten. Called bush meat in Africa. Whales are eaten. I suggest the key drive is more likely that herd and other animals are just more convenient to domesticate and may provide other benefits - wool, milk etc.
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      Jul 11 2012: Agreed not every basin instinct of ours should be followed but some have very useful, the feeling of wanting to be the best, drives competition etc, our social instincts allow us to care for each other etc.
      And you're right about the potential for the use of land to grow more vegetables and what not,but that doesn't tie to the violence Sailesh thinks there is in eating animals. I just find it odd to evolve to a state where we, at least where I'm from, are sorted food wise for many many years to come.
      Last point would you agree the chimps are killed in Africa odd of necessity for some people or for their coats for others, then you've to start questioning the morality of those who kill chimps.
    • Jul 15 2012: The way I understand Gandhi's quote is that the ability to experience the suffering of another--human or animal or other--is linked first to the awareness of that other being as a life form and second to the awareness that life is to be loved. But then again, what is love? If you're so inclined, read the book True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is short and a real treasure full of wisdom that he shows you how to put into practice.
  • Jul 9 2012: I am in agreement with Dr. Rao. I find the slaughter of billions of animals every year to be unnecessary and driven by unquestioned culture and ruthless corporate greed. Mainstreaming a plant-based diet would not only end the violence against animals, but reduce famine and poverty by redirecting precious grain from animal feed to human diets, reduce fuel and water inputs for animal agriculture and potentially avert looming water and fuel-related conflicts, help address heart disease, diabetes and obesity epidemics, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially. I understand not everyone can eat only a plant-based diet, and many indigenous communities have hunted for many years...there are certainly exceptions when it comes to subsistence, health concerns, and so on, but on the whole, US society's torrid affair with meat and dairy is based on inhumane practices that I completely disagree with, and what scares me most is that China is following suit by increasing its pork intake, India is increasing dairy production, and increasingly progress and status are associated with material and meat consumption. In my opinion, real progress would be to eat and live simply, and prevent human "civilization" from destroying its very life-support system. Numerous footprints - melting glaciers and ice caps, rising global average temperatures, more severe storms and extreme events, rapid extinctions, and failing mineral, carbon, and water cycles, all faster than predicted by the world's scientists, are showing us that as we inflict violence on animals and nature, we in fact are killing ourselves.
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    Jul 9 2012: I consider any animal violence is part of nature and survival tactic , even plants are violent they do have thorns and poison and lot of chemicals to kill.

    I assume that you intended to ask a question that weather humans have became more violent (in terms of killing other humans) over time. The answer is Human race is rapidly moving away from violence and we have achieved a huge progress in that terms. We have evolved from barbaric hunter gatheres to a highly sophisticated civilization where violence at any scale is being magnified by media and strives for justice and peace. And there is still some violence in this world, but it is mostly due to uneducated religious groups and some other reasons. Humans have learned that to survive we need to be dependent on others and we need unlimited resources, which humans are also a resource which is unmatched. The best way to manage human resource is not by slavery(we have learned this the hard way, ask any HR in corporate sector) but by providing a purpose.
    • Jul 9 2012: The point made in Steven Pinker's talk is that human on human violence has been decreasing fractally over the years, since Biblical times. My question is whether this decrease has been more than offset with the violence committed on animals, birds, fishes and the Earth with the net result that we are facing catastrophic consequences in the form of climate change and mass extinction. All violence has consequences, - call it Karma - even when it is committed across species boundaries.
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    Jul 8 2012: I think you're idea of calling cattle slaughter violence is limited by the fact it's sheer nature. It's natural for one species to kill and eat another, we've just got really good at doing it.
    I'd also add that we mainly do it out of necessity not for entertainment or for malice, burning a cat is 1)not natural 2) I think contains a lot of malice.
    A good analogy I can think of is this, if you've ever seen a cat kill a mouse you think to yourself "O good cat" but if you see a cat teasing the mouse, i.e letting it run for a bit then catching it again and repeating this (at least I think) "bad cat!" and I normally chase my cat away at this point to let the mouse get away.
    So the difference is one is nature HAVING to takes its course whilst the other is needless suffering.
    • Jul 8 2012: Interesting distinction, but I'm not sure that it applies. For instance, in the dairy industry, we kill male calves and in the egg industry, we grind up male chicks in what is seemingly gratuitous violence. Nature never intended the male of a species to be so mass slaughtered at birth.

      To a point, yes, Nature intends one species to kill and eat another to maintain a balance in an ecosystem, but when one species burns down a Florida sized area of tropical forests every two years in order to raise and slaughter billions of farm animals, the violence is no longer natural. Besides, since consuming animal foods is a matter of choice, the suffering of the farmed animals can also be viewed as needless.
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        Jul 8 2012: Few things, we've evolved to eat meat, our appendixes have shrunk and our wisdom teeth come too late to be of any use in grinding plant material.
        And I didn't say I agree with all foods, I disagree with veal etc, anything that you have to go out of yoru way to achieve is almost always just not worth it.
        And nor did I agree to the cutting down of forests.
        I'd say we've to get better at our farming techniques
        Create sustainable methods of development
        But meat is in our diet, it has been for the past 100,000 years and it isn't going to go anytime soon.
        I'm not 100% sure on how they kill cattle but saying just lopping their heads off really quickly, it's quick and virtually painless, but if we saw off their limbs bit by bit, then that's cruel violence.
        So there's another angle, methods used.
        • Jul 9 2012: Unfortunately, the animal food industry has achieved its productivity improvements over the past few decades, mainly by ratcheting up the suffering and the violence. Killing male calves and male chicks improves the efficiency of dairy and egg production. Keeping animals in tiny crates improves the productivity of factory farming. And yet, the increase in demand for animal foods is such that forests continue to be destroyed on an continual basis.

          It is also established that humans do not need to perpetrate this violence. We can all live very healthy lives on plant-based diets. Therefore, the violence is being committed as a matter of choice.

          While it is true that meat has been in our diet until now, we have also shown that we are perfectly capable of making significant changes in our cultural practices on short notice. Slavery and discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, caste etc. all fell out of favor in the past two centuries alone. In the face of climate change and other environmental catastrophes, I feel that the violent practice of animal agriculture is up for such consideration.

          All violence has consequences. And the consequences of animal agriculture are being meted out to all of us, including those who are not consuming the products of this violence, and indeed all Life on Earth.
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        Jul 9 2012: What makes you think plants are very different from animals in terms of a life form. I can argue eating plants is more violence than eating animals, plants are highly respectable life forms.

        You have to research and innovate an energy source for human body other than life form, like from non life form of matter like coal or sunlight or electricity.
        • Jul 9 2012: Even if eating plants is defined as a violent act, it stands to reason that far more plants are violently affected when we feed them to animals and then wait 1-2 years for the animals to grow before eating the animals.