Tuesday, April 2, 2013

You Mean Humans Have Grown Less Violent? Steven Pinker on our better angels...

fig. 1: Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker  (wikipedia.org) 
I am currently reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Great book. But I kept on saying "this sounds familiar." When it dawned on me why. I've seen the basic outline for the material. I caught the basic argument in a Ted talk that Pinker gave in 2007. Which is shown below.

Often a summary is all a book needs. Indeed, when I discovered that I've already heard the material, I was almost tempted to return the book  And I'm glad I didn't.

Because  The Better Angels of Our Nature supports the hypothesis with a depth and breadth of  material that make his conjecture crystal clear. In fact, right now, I've graduated from healthy skeptic to reasonably certain that he is correct -- though I currently am only about a quarter of the way through the book. But my turning point was -- as always with nerdy me -- the data he uses. Because without data, you only have opinion. And everyone has an opinion... But with a good dataset, you have fact. And few people are armed with the truth. But to those that are, usually, goes the spoils.

He traces the decline in violence by tracing several well-documented phenomena.

  1. Plummeting murder rates in Europe after the Middle Ages. 
  2. The correlation between homicide and other violent crimes -- rape, assault, etc. 
  3. The declining percentage of the population that actually dies in war. (to See More, click below......)
All in all, I've been impressed. Though I still have about 200 pages into this monster, I am really buyng Pinker's argument. Without a state,"Might makes right" is the rule. The result is anarchy and thuggish rule -- sort of like the way Don Corleone ruled: Only the insensitive and physically strong survived.
fig 2: Declining European violence (Source: thegatesnotes.com,)
Pinker's argument is well-documented.

Al through college, I was exposed to a Romanticized view of primitive peoples -- Rousseau's"Nobel Savage." But it turns out that primitive humans were more violent than we are today. And greater percentages of them died due to warfare and murder.

So Rousseau is out. His "hypothesis" is wrong.  While an understandable reaction to the genocides that Europeans often waged on native populations, to hold out that primitives were happier than us  seem preposterous.

If Rousseau is it, the evidence let's Hobbes back "in." Since he seems the more accurate of the two great philosophers who pondered primitive ways of life. Our ancestors were brutish boors. Who killed and were ill-mannered. And throve in culture where war took about 25% of the lives (versus less than 1% of modern humans). Where knights (and I imagine Samurai in Japan) murdered, raped and stole their way to the top.

Pinker goes on to point out that the civilizing process teaches us to live and work together. Which makes us stronger. This unity allows us to compile knowledge, which makes it easier to create environments that allow us to live in even more culturally diverse, commercially connected cosmopolitan lives. Ironically, far from being the enemy like many a libertarian thinks, Pinker makes it clear that the state is essential to this "civilizing" process. By providing rules, and having the force to impose them internally, the state keeps our "daemons" -- greed, and the desire to impose our will on people weaker than us if we can.

Only the state is able to make us all "play nice" together.

So, it appears that I am recovering from my 20-years worth of post-undergrad views about aboriginals. They, like all of us, were not noble savages. Instead, they were violent. Had wars. And, like we see outlined in the Old Testament, conquered men, and often killed their women and children, while raping their girls.

To my mind,  The Better Angels of Our Nature is one of those rare books that causes you to say, "Wait... You mean I've been looking at this the wrong way?" Those books include Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present which I first read in university. And Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Which I read earlier this year, and made me rethink how huge a role luck plays in the success or failure of anyone or anything.



So, without further adieu, here is the Ted Talk that introduced me to Steven Pinker's ideas about five years ago. Enjoy...


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