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Steven Pinker: Better Angels of our nature

Okay, time to try to review this before I pay more in fines than it'd cost to buy my own copy! If you haven't heard of this, it's Pinker's book stating and arguing that human on human (and to a degree, on animal) violence has decreased massively throughout history -- by up to three orders of magnitude -- and trying to get at the causes of why. Much (much!) shorter versions of this are in his 2007 Edge essay and his 2010 TED talk (transcript and video at link). My journal includes by those links this on falling homicide rates in England for the past 800 years. Note it's a log scale, so that line is an exponential decline in normal terms.

First, something about Pinker and this book: Pinker is a linguist, but this has nothing to do about linguistics. Pinker is a cognitive scientist, and -- well, I guess the book does have something to do with cognitive science, impulses to violence and empathy, roots of moral feeling, and all. But it's not a Cognitive Science book. Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist, or sympathizer, thereof, but the book has little to do with ev psych. I'm sure Pinker believes that there are 'modules' leading to violence, but also to cooperation, and the balance between them is clearly culturally adjustable by, well, three orders of magnitude. He does briefly consider the hypothesis that societies pacified by strong states have selected for less violent people, but rejects the hypothesis.

In terms of what I've read recently, I think this book is most like Charles Mann writing 1491 or 1493. Author became interested in a subject, author read lots of research on the subject, author summarizes his reading for the general public, because actual researchers are too specialized and busy doing research to do it themselves. It's Steven Pinker as in-depth science writer, not as linguist or sociobiologist or whatnot, and unless you think he's irredeemably tainted in scholarship, adjust your expectations accordingly.

tl;dr for the rest of the post: I recommend reading the book, if you can find time.

How to summarize a 700 page book? Foolish to even try, especially when Pinker has written his own summaries you can read. One thing I can do is assure you that, e.g. the Edge essay makes a bunch of claims; the book expands those claims with reference, graphs, references, discussions of epistemology (how we know), references, examples, and references. The TED talk has some of the graphs, like the huge percentage of male deaths due to conflict in hunter-gatherer societies.

But I can expand on his now somewhat out of date summaries. Right in the preface, he lists "Six Trends".
* A Pacification Process, of state formation, and the rise of Hobbesian Leviathans replacing feuding with central and third-party law enforcement, with a basic five-fold drop in death rates, despite the more organized warfare.
* A Civilizing Process, which is a lot vaguer, but associated with another 10-50x drop, and which may be connected to court behaviors ("courtesy"), and a rise in the value of self-control vs. defending one's honor, and to the rise of commerce, and thus of trade, valuing the existence of others, and also trying to understand them so you can sell them things. Also connected to changing from eating with belt knives to eating with silverware or even chopsticks, much harder to kill someone with in a drunken (or otherwise) rage. Gun control (my gloss) might be the tail end of that, seeking to make it harder to find the means of killing each other.
* A Humanitarian Revolution, from the Age of Reason and Enlightenment on, attacking despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, and cruelty to animals. One surprising hypothetical cause for this is the rise of the novel, especially the first person epistolary novels that were popular at the time. Pinker gives examples of big bad manly men weeping over the fate of some author's fictional maiden; it may be a quirk of human psychology that a novel can get us to have more empathy with someone's thoughts and feelings than watching them get crucified.
* The Long Peace after WWII, where developed nations stopped fighting each other. Pinker is actually skeptical of the role of nuclear weapons, which usually get the credit, in this.
* The New Peace, a fall in organized conflicts since the end of the Cold War.
* The Rights Revolutions, a growing revulsion against violence toward women, minorities, children, and animals. I alluded to this in my post on Heidi, on how utterly non-violent the book was, at a time when children probably got beaten weekly, never mind the goats.

Closely related to those are his Five Historical Forces.
* Leviathan
* Commerce, ideally a positive-sum game vs. the zero or negative sum games of violence.
* Feminization, increasingly respecting the interests and values of women; "Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men."
* Cosmopolitanism, literacy mobility and mass media, to take the perspective of other people unlike themselves and expand the circle of sympathy.
* The escalator of reason, forcing people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, ramp down the privileging of their own interests, and reframing violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.

I'll switch to noting various things that caught my interest.

* page 83-84: "Donald Black argued that most of what we call crime is, from the point of view of the perpetrator, the pursuit of justice." "Only a minority of homicides are committed as a means to a practical end", such as getting rid of an obstacle or witness. "The most common motives for hoicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful partner." "Most homicides, Black notes, are really instances of capital punishment, with a private citizen as the judge, jury and executioner." "[dogma] is that violence is caused by a deficit of morality and justice. On the contrary, violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived." He also critiques the idea that violence is a kind of disease, or something the poor engage in because they were needy or expressing rage against society; in fact, the rage is usually at someone who dissed him or scraped his car.

Many lower-status people are effectively stateless. Some via living by illegal activities like drug dealing or prostitution, so they can't turn to the police; others via a condition of mutual hostility and distrust with the police, as between US blacks. Looked at this way, the violence of poverty and bad neighborhoods is simply a return to the state of nature, where justice and protection are in one's own hands, or those of honor and reputation for capability for violence and vengeance.

* If you just look at the book in a bookstore, graphs of note are on page 49, 53, and 55; these are about non-state vs. state society deaths in war and homicide. 92 compares US and UK 20th century homicide rates, in a graph that belies his larger trends. US went up, down a lot in the 1930s, up again in the 1960s, and down again the 1990s. UK -- well, England, maybe he means it -- creeps along at a much lower level (1 per 100,000 vs. 5-10) and its own modest rise (not quite to 2) after 1970. 97, for a divergence in white and black violence rates in NYC and Philadelphia. There's a list of figures in the front, so you can look for more.

* page 138 describes a couple of medieval people testing the effectiveness of torture. A Milanese judge killed his mule, accused his servant, and extracted a confession via torture; the servant refused to recant even on the gallows, for fear of more torture. Pinker doesn't mention whether the servant was finally hung, but the judge did abolish the use of torture in his court. The Duke of Brunswick was told by two Jesuits that the Inquisition was only arresting people implicated by the confession of other witches; the Duke quickly showed that a woman on the rack would eagerly implicate those Jesuits of being warlocks themselves, and say she'd seen them at the Sabbat. One of the Jesuits, Friedrich Spee, "was so impressed that he wrote a book in 1631 that has been credited with ending witchcraft accusations in much of Germany."

* page 176: "Lynn Hunt points out that the heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel. In this genre the story unfolds in a character's own words, exposing the character's thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely best-sellers... Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with who they had nothing in common."

* page 165 discusses Kant's ideas of how to establish perpetual peace: democracy, a league of nations, and global citizenship.

* page 314 mentions the great success of UN peacekeepers, reducing recidivism of conflict by 80%. Even when forces aren't big and armed, just accepting them is a signal of commitment. Costly, as even small ones are intrusive, hence credible signal. Plus they can reassure that the other side isn't secretly re-arming, assume everyday policing responsibility, and identify rogue acts of violence as rogue. Plus good old neutral face-saving bribes; one hasn't sold out to the enemy by taking UN money to stop fighting.

* 317 discusses the indirect deaths of civilians in warfare, and whether 20th century war kills fewer soldiers but more civilians than the past. (No.) 321 notes ways of low-tech genocide; one hardly needs gas showers to kill lots of people cheaply. French revolutionaries in Vendee would pack people onto barges, sink them long enough to drown them, then bring them up for the next batch. In Burundi in 1972, thousands of people could be packed and locked into a building and left for 15 days. No food, no water, all die.

* 348 says terrorism has had truly abject rates of success in achieving terrorist goals. Only 7% of the US State Department list had achieved their goals, or less than 5%, 2 of 42, after the later rout of the Tamil Tigers. And campaigns mostly targeting civilians always fail; the limited successes are from military-target campaigns with goals of evicting a foreign power. Imposing an ideology or destroying a state don't work either.

* 366: the Islamic share of violence has risen -- largely because the amount of all violence has fallen, leaving Islam with a larger share of the total by default.

* 420 notes the failure of evolutionary psychology, specifically the Trivers-Willard theory of sex ratios, to explain female infanticide in humans.

* 460 notes that factory farming is no modern invention. "The Elizabethan method of fattening pigs was 'to keep them in so close a roo that they cannot turn themselves round about...' 'They feed in pain, lie in pain, and sleep in pain.' Geeser thought to put on weight if the webs of their feet were nailed to the floor, and it was the custom of some 17th century housewives to cut the legs off living fowl in the belief that it made their flesh ore tender."

* 462 repeats the claim that Hitler and other Nazis were vegetarian, "not so much out of compassion for animals as from an obsession with purity, a pagan desire to reconnect to the soil, and a reaction to the anthropocentrism and meat rituals of Judaism." (I confess I have no idea what the word anthropocentrism is doing there.) "The Nazis... instituted the strongest laws for the protection of animals in research that Europe had ever seen", along with human treatment on movie sets, the anesthetizing of fish, and killing lobsters swiftly before cooking. "Ever since that bizarre chapter in the history of animal rights, advocates of vegetarianism have had to retire one of their oldest arguments: that eating meat makes people aggressive, and abstaining from it makes them peaceful."

* 512 notes the role of positive illusion (me: or the Dunning-Krueger effect) in feeding cycles of violence, making people more optimistic about victory (or unjustifiably confident in their own competence) than they deserve. Over the past five centuries, countries that started war won less than half the time. Overconfidence feeds into wars of attrition, the most destructive of all wars, as does an analogy of the dollar auction, or war of attrition game. No matter how much one has spent or lost, it seems worth fighting on in the hope of victory, lest one have spent so much to lose it all.

* 200 talks about wars as a random process and Poisson distribution, and the possibility that the first half of the 20th century was just unlucky.

* 540: in econ experiments with public goods games, citizens of some countries, (Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Oman), punish generous contributors rather than stingy ones. Instead of policing free riders, or accepting chastening for having been free riders, they punish the policing of free riders (themselves in earlier rounds.) More civic minded countries were the US, Australia, China, and Western Europe. This is correlated to civic norms, the degree to which people think it's okay to cheat on taxes, claim undeserved benefits, and dodge subway fare-collectors. Also correlates to World Bank measures of Rule of Law.

* 544: another interesting graph, an exponential (or more) rise in apologies by political leaders, taking off in 1980. I've seen self-styled political 'realists' pooh-pooh apologies and touchy-feely gestures, but they seem to work. Though costly apologies work better than pure symbolic ones, naturally enough.

* 548 notes that torture rarely stays instrumental, even when it might start with a practical justification; torturers get carried away. The next page notes that there may be more scholars studying serial murder than actual serial killers -- another number in decline, despite the news.

* 611 starts the consideration of whether we've evolved to be less violent. (No, or at least no strong evidence.)

* 622 and on discuss the nature of morality, and moral foundations, not just Haidt's model but two others (Shweder, Fiske). We can distinguish between morality, a topic in philosophy, from the moral sense that people feel. And while a moral relativist or nihilist might think morality is arbitrary, like aesthetic preference, moral sense is a distinctive mode of thought from aesthetic dislike (or being unfashionable or imprudent). (me: Though art seems to crossover into moral disgust at times.) Moral disapproval is universalized (I don't eat cauliflower, no one should murder), actionable (moral virtue is to be aspired to, moral failings to be rationalized away), and moral failings are punishable, one can and should punish a murderer. (Or adulterer!)

Haidt's model just divided Sweder's Community (into In-Group Loyalty and Authority/Respect) and Autonomy (Harm/Care and Fariness/Reciprocity), renaming Divinity to Purity/Sanctity, but Fiske has different boundaries. His Communal Sharing covers Haidt's Purity and Loyalty, Authority Ranking maps to Authority, but Equality Matching covers Harm/Care and part of Fairness, while Market Pricing/Rational-Legal covers the rest. Fiske says his sequence reflects their order of emergence in evolution, child development, and history.

Page 645 looks back and notes a mathematical sequence as well. Community is a nominal variable, in or out. Authority is ordinal, who's higher than someone else. Equality Matching is one-to-one correspondence, favor for favor. Prices are proportional, and 'rational' has that other meaning of ratios and fractions, not just general reasoning. For my part, I note that libertarianism and utilitarianism are both extremely rational (in both senses) in their own ways, putting numbers on everything, whether the prices of supply and demand forces or hypothetical utility values, which in either case can be traded off in ways offensive to other moralities.

* 654 talks about the Flynn effect, the long rise of IQ scores, which is more properly a rise in abstract and hypothetical reasoning ability and problem-oriented detachment, and whether this is connected to a rise in moral behavior. (Or fall of moral violence.)

* 638 discusses how framing and offering tradeoffs matching in 'sacredness' could lead to agreements between Israelis and Palestinians. In general, people don't want to be bribed to give up a sacred value, and will get angry at even the idea, but if told someone else is also giving up something sacred can be reconciled to it.

There could be more, but that's enough.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/324941.html#comments


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jun. 18th, 2012 11:33 am (UTC)
Off to reserve another book from the library...
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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