An appreciation of the author Colin Wilson (1931-2013) - philosopher, critic, novelist
Are we about to become the civilised, humane creatures we have always aspired to be?
by Geoff Ward
Most people today would vehemently deny that the world is becoming a less violent place, but they are simply wrong, says Damon Wilson. Over the past 600 years murder, and all other types of unnecessary violence, has declined, and might one day disappear altogether…
* Damon Wilson
‘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 Colin Wilson in An End to Murder (Robinson, UK £10.99, October 2015).
But not only the days of serial killers are numbered, but of violence generally, maintains Colin’s son Damon who completed the book his father began two years before his death in 2013, aged 82. ‘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.
The dispiriting story of the human race over the last few thousand years is one of unremitting violence: devastating wars, genocide, feuds, terrorism and cold-blooded murder. Our predilection for violence must be the single greatest threat to the continuance of our species. And looking at the state of the world today, especially with regard to the rise in global terrorism, 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 that, with the progress in forensic science and understandings brought by psychology, together with improved education and communications worldwide, it might be that mankind’s homicidal tendencies will soon be curbed.
An End to Murder is a well-reasoned and admirably 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 rein in human atrocity.
Part 2 is Colin’s work (perhaps a quarter of the book), 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 Encyclopedia of Murder (1961) or its sequel, Encyclopedia of Modern Murder (1983), with Donald Seaman, from which titles Colin quotes. 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 had to write a new book around it.
So was it Damon or Colin who came up with the title for the book, or did they think on it together? The title seems very optimistic but in tune with Colin’s philosophy of optimism, the ‘new existentialism’. Once arrived at, did Damon ever consider putting a question mark after the title?
He told me: ‘I came up with the title, advised by my excellent editor at Robinson, Duncan Proudfoot. I thought I'd made it up off the top of my head, only later to find that it was the title of a Pathe News documentary, made in 1945, about the discovery of the Holocaust. It's possible, given the mountain of research I've done for the book over the years, that I might have actually seen it on the web, and later forgot it on all but a subconscious level.
‘The title that dad was working under, before his stroke, was The Mammoth Book of Homicidal Monsters, so you can probably see why I was so keen to change it. It was a bit of a pot-boiler book for him, when he first took it on, but dad never wrote anything flippantly. He was again trying to look at “the problem of the criminal mind”, but this time through the lens of his own autobiography as a self-trained criminologist. If he had succeeded in writing such an insightful book, I like to think that he would have persuaded the publisher to allow a better title, even if that took it out of their much-loved “Mammoth” range.
‘I never considered putting a question mark after the title, simply because I believe that, circumstances of civilisation continuing as they have, that murder will indeed all but cease in the near future. I know that sounds ridiculously optimistic, but history is on my side here. Dickens believed that poverty should be eradicated, and was effectively ignored in his lifetime, but a century and a half later Dickensian poverty is gone from Britain's inner cities. This was not a matter of charity or a Scrooge-like conversion of the rich to humanitarianism, but of science and economics. As I say in the book, life is much more selfishly profitable for everyone when we add an “e” to the end of the word “human”.’
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,’ said Damon. ‘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 discusses the statistic 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.’
One of Colin Wilson’s key ideas was that the human race is approaching an evolutionary leap of consciousness. Did this idea contribute in any way to the notion of ‘an end to murder’? Could the influences which have brought about a reduction in crime be the result of an ongoing change in consciousness?
‘I agree absolutely with dad,’ Damon replied. ‘But I think that the change of the human race has being going on for some time, largely unnoticed. When I was a computer journalist (back in the late 1990s), I interviewed a “futurologist” who pointed out that, even then, mobile phones were old and outmoded technology. As soon as we accept the physical implantation of phones into our jaws, he said (a tiny speaker under the ear and a mic in the front of the jaw), we will be effectively telepathic, speaking to whoever we want instantly, anywhere in the world. Add internet access and we will also become walking libraries.
‘Modern human beings, with or without surgical implants, take such superhuman powers for granted and, as such, we are mentally almost unrecognisable from forebears only a generation or two in the past. The overall effect of modern technology, coupled with universal education, is giving the human mind the impetus to evolve, just as dad predicted.’
Interestingly, Damon points out in the book 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. Did he see a parallel today, with the rise of the internet and the disdainful 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.’
At the end of A Criminal History of Mankind, Colin Wilson wrote: ‘Only when society recognises that it possess the power to control crime will crime be controlled.’ Are we on the way to this recognition?
‘Precisely,’ said Damon. ‘Dad always believed that criminals are simply too lazy to realise that the supposed shortcut of crime was actually an illusion, that a life of crime is essentially a life of failure and misery, for the criminal as well as for their victims. This is obviously less true of white-collar criminals but they, too, are finding it harder to conceal their activities. The power of public scrutiny and outrage destroyed both the Kray Brothers and Enron.
‘And, it is to be hoped, that as the technology and communication systems get better, the public will demand greater transparency and greater action against “civilised cannibals” within society. As dad pointed out in the book, it took less than a generation for highwaymen to go from being Britain's greatest scourge to their total eradication. If crime really ceases to pay, thanks to concerted social action to nab the worst criminals – gangland, big business, and political – then the present downtrend in crime rates will naturally continue.’
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.’