1 of 2
1
Pinker’s “Better Angels” Book
Posted: 01 March 2012 08:53 AM   [ Ignore ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14

OK, I’ve finished reading Steven Pinker’s new book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. Pluses and minuses. On the minus side, clearly Pinker is wading into an area that is outside his main area of expertise. Although there is some discussion of psychology, basically this comes down to a treatise on sociopolitical history. So there’s that. And the thing is bloody long and more than a little dull. I imagine that Pinker realized his weakness in this area and decided to overcompensate by overdoing the data gathering and detailed discussion. The book is organized extremely tightly, as one long, dense argument for a pair of theses:

(1) That violence has declined markedly throughout history, particularly in the last few hundred years, and even in the last centuries and decades.

(2) That this decline in violence is due to humanity’s willingness to give power up to a centralized state rather than taking violence into their own hands, increasing cosmopolitanism, and finally the humanistic ideology of the Enlightenment.

I’ve read a few reviews of this book, which have appeared not actually to have read it. (I suspect the reviewers may have been ‘getting back’ at Pinker for his previous books—especially The Blank Slate—for their apparently conservative backing of the notion that differences of personality were due to genetic factors rather than parental or cultural influences).

At any rate, Pinker has a seemingly endless amount of data for his thesis #1, outlined in numbing detail. There are two objections I’ve seen raised to it, nevertheless. The first objection is that Pinker’s data for pre-historical, hunter-gatherer societies is scarce. There is a fringe opinion that human hunter gatherer societies lived in a kind of pre-lapsarian Eden, and that all human violence therefore is due to the baleful influence of modern culture. Pinker has evidence to suggest this view is incorrect. In particular, there is evidence from modern hunter-gatherer societies, which have been typically extremely violent, and there is evidence of excavated remains of prehistoric hunter gatherers, which again show that violent death was common. Neither of these lines of evidence is absolutely conclusive, of course. It could be that modern hunter-gatherer societies have been somehow tainted by modern culture, and it could be that for some reason prehistoric people tended to preserve better those who died violently. Or some such thing.

The second response is that Pinker determines the decline in violence statistically, rather than using absolute numbers. So although millions of people died violently during the 20th century, that is a much lower number statistically than the (e.g.) thousands who died in a given century during prehistoric times. This response strikes me as completely wrong-headed. It would have it that a small, hunter gatherer society where a majority of people die violently was somehow less violent than a major country like Japan, simply because Japan is so much bigger. Generally speaking when it comes to these kinds of issues I think John Rawls’s notion is correct: the question is, if you were placed randomly into any of these cultures, which would you rather be in? A small group where a majority die violently, or a large group where a very small percentage do? The question answers itself.

So I think in general these kind of responses are not terribly convincing. It’s pretty clear that violence has declined throughout recorded history and beyond. (If anyone has hard evidence otherwise, I haven’t seen it).

His thesis #2 is somewhat more problematic, simply because it’s so much more difficult to come up with anything like causal data on a worldwide, ongoing phenomenon. But given that the decline of violence appears to be worldwide (on a historical timescale) and accelerating in recent centuries and decades, it’s not clear what else could be at issue other than something worldwide and quickly diffusable like culture. (Of course, it is probably a number of different variables, only some of which Pinker is noting here).

He views the state’s monopoly on violence as overall a good deal for citizens to have made, since it takes violence outside of the realm of personal vendetta (except, perhaps, the vendettas of the leadership). With the rise of cosmopolitanism the state became less personalized and more legalized, also reducing the likelihood of tit-for-tat violence.

Finally, the enlightenment virtues of human rights, abolition of slavery, women’s rights, secularism, etc., have only served to accelerate the advances seen before. Pinker cites Peter Singer’s notion of an expanding circle of empathy among humans: thrown together in closer, more diverse groups, over time people become better able to see others as individuals with whom they can empathize. I think we see this even now in the gay rights movement, where all of a sudden—in under a generation—gay marriage has gone from an anathema to something widely embraced in western society.

The question that a number of critics have dwelled upon is whether or not this decline in violence will continue. Are we seeing the dawn of a new age of peace? Or is this just a temporary lull before the storm? Pinker does not give a consistent answer to this question. At times he suggests that the data supports the notion that violence has declined and therefore will likely remain so, at others he suggests that he has no crystal ball for the future.

I would say that if he’s right then the future looks relatively bright. Though as always there are major caveats such as ongoing population pressure (whether or not population tops out soon, it is nevertheless at a very high level and will remain so for a very long time) and pressing environmental issues like global warming. Any of these, or just age-old problems between countries like Iran and Israel, could plunge the world into nightmare at any time. So I don’t think we can say with any certainty that the future looks rosy, and insofar as Pinker suggests otherwise (which he does, at times), he’s overstating the case.

So anyhow overall it’s a good book, densely argued and pretty convincing, though not at all an easy read. And apart from Pinker’s earlier run-ins with other academics, I can’t see why his theses would be all that controversial. Certainly none of the reviews yet have led me to believe that they found a fatal flaw in his approach or reasoning.

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 10:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  9301
Joined  2006-08-29
dougsmith - 01 March 2012 08:53 AM

I imagine that Pinker realized his weakness in this area and decided to overcompensate by overdoing the data gathering and detailed discussion.

That’s an interesting observation and I suspect you may be right. I have already described the reasons for my discontent with Pinker’s book elsewhere (i.e., his dismissal of genetic influence) so I won’t repeat it here.

It is my least favourite book by Pinker, but at least I got it signed by him. Just like I got Dawkins to sign my copy of what, in my opinion, was his weakest book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” If anyone of you ever decide to publish a book, don’t sign it for me. It’s a bad luck.  grin

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 10:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14
George - 01 March 2012 10:09 AM
dougsmith - 01 March 2012 08:53 AM

I imagine that Pinker realized his weakness in this area and decided to overcompensate by overdoing the data gathering and detailed discussion.

That’s an interesting observation and I suspect you may be right.

Yeah, it has the sort of earnest turgidity of a book written by someone who knew he was about to get slammed from all sides for wading into something out of his field. (A no-no in academia). It’s unfortunate because we know, especially from books like Language Instinct, what a relaxed and funny writer he can be.

And (virtually?) no cartoons!

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 10:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Moderator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4082
Joined  2006-11-28

Im a bit surprised given that due to both Pinker’s previous approach and the title, I would have expected this one to identify a biological rather than cultural source for prosocial/non-violent behaviors; sort of a Peacemaking Among Primates specifically for humans. I’m not sure I’ll get to this one in the face o the growing pile waiting by my bedside, but I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks for the review!

 Signature 

The SkeptVet
The SkeptVet Blog
Militant Agnostic: I don’t know, and neither do you!

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 11:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  9301
Joined  2006-08-29

The only reason I can think of why Pinker tried to avoid biology here (although he did discuss it briefly in his book) is because he learned his lesson from the reaction to his The Blank Slate. The fact that he thinks evolution doesn’t happen fast enough to play a role here (as he said in the book and also told me in person!  wink ) is quite baffling to me. He supports Cochran’s theory on the selection of Ashkenazic Jews for higher intelligence (which must have happened pretty fast as well), so I don’t really see why he gets so dismissive when the topic turns to violence. Maybe he got scared…

[ Edited: 01 March 2012 11:08 AM by George ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 11:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1191
Joined  2011-08-01

Thanks for the synopsis, Doug. When the book came out, it intrigued me. But honestly, I can’t read big dense books. I never get through them. And if I do, by the time I get to the last chapter I have forgotten most of what I have read. Now that I have read the “Doug notes” I can skip the book.  LOL

 Signature 

Free in Kentucky
—Humanist
“I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.”—Edith Sitwell

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 11:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14

I think the pattern is too widespread, continuous and fast (particularly recently) for it to be due to some simple biological factor. It’s not clear what the worldwide selection pressure would be, and there’s also no obvious bottleneck, as might occur with relatively isolated groups like Ashkenazic Jews.

I do agree that one would have assumed Pinker to look for a biological explanation. That he didn’t is a surprise, though he does discuss the biological alternatives in some depth later on.

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 11:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14
FreeInKy - 01 March 2012 11:09 AM

Thanks for the synopsis, Doug. When the book came out, it intrigued me. But honestly, I can’t read big dense books. I never get through them. And if I do, by the time I get to the last chapter I have forgotten most of what I have read. Now that I have read the “Doug notes” I can skip the book.  LOL

Yeah, that’s kind of why I decided to write my review/synopsis rather than just be lazy about it. I think it is a good book and worth reading, but it’s the kind of book that just won’t be read because of the way it’s written.

Took me forever to get through it ...

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  9301
Joined  2006-08-29

I imagine one pressure would be the crowding of people in large cities and towns, which probably begun to happen after the Neolithic Revolution. The second bigger factor was not really a slow adaptation, but rather a coincidence, where the majority of people in Europe were replaced by less violent people, culminating in Industrial Evolution. It didn’t really happen in a few generations (although it may seem so when we look at it in retrospect), but the origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to at least the fifteenth century (according to Gregory Clark). The Enlightenment here was only a symptom, not the cause.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 11:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14
George - 01 March 2012 11:24 AM

I imagine one pressure would be the crowding of people in large cities and towns, which probably begun to happen after the Neolithic Revolution. The second bigger factor was not really a slow adaptation, but rather a coincidence, where the majority of people in Europe were replaced by less violent people, culminating in Industrial Evolution. It didn’t really happen in a few generations (although it may seem so when we look at it in retrospect), but the origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to at least the fifteenth century (according to Gregory Clark). The Enlightenment here was only a symptom, not the cause.

Pinker’s data shows declining violence well before the 15th c., and violence has declined worldwide, not just in Europe. And it has been declining recently (over the last century or so) at an accelerating rate.

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 11:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  9301
Joined  2006-08-29
dougsmith - 01 March 2012 11:37 AM
George - 01 March 2012 11:24 AM

I imagine one pressure would be the crowding of people in large cities and towns, which probably begun to happen after the Neolithic Revolution. The second bigger factor was not really a slow adaptation, but rather a coincidence, where the majority of people in Europe were replaced by less violent people, culminating in Industrial Evolution. It didn’t really happen in a few generations (although it may seem so when we look at it in retrospect), but the origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to at least the fifteenth century (according to Gregory Clark). The Enlightenment here was only a symptom, not the cause.

Pinker’s data shows declining violence well before the 15th c., and violence has declined worldwide, not just in Europe. And it has been declining recently (over the last century or so) at an accelerating rate.

But that doesn’t negate what I am saying. The violence has been declining worldwide as the world was getting more populated. The violence didn’t decline in isolated peoples or lost tribes at all; their statistics on murder are as high today as that of the rest of the world prior to the Neolithic Revolution. And, again, the reason why it has been declining recently at a much faster rate is, once again, because of the fairly fast disappearance of the violent people in Europe and then Eastern Asia. It took a while to get there, but once it got to a certain point, things really started to change. Maybe 50% of violent population wasn’t enough to make a difference. And maybe 35% or 15% wasn’t enough either. But once the number got down to, say, 10%, everything began to change. You don’t really need 100% of U.S. population to be not racist to have a black man to be elected as your president. All you need is 51%.

[ Edited: 01 March 2012 12:13 PM by George ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 12:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1191
Joined  2011-08-01

Have y’all read Nonzero by Robert Wright? His big idea is that it’s about game theory, and about “us” and “them.” It has generally been in the best interest of individuals to cooperate within the “us” group, while ignoring or even violently opposing the “them” groups. Societies tend to evolve from very small bands to tribes, chiefdoms, kingdoms, states, nations, etc. As societies have progressed to ever larger spheres of interaction, the “us” groups keeps getting bigger while the “them” group gets smaller. Eventually, we may have a truly global civilization where there will be no more “them.”

 Signature 

Free in Kentucky
—Humanist
“I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.”—Edith Sitwell

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14
George - 01 March 2012 11:56 AM

But that doesn’t negate what I am saying. The violence has been declining worldwide as the world was getting more populated. The violence didn’t decline in isolated peoples or lost tribes at all; their statistics on murder are as high today as that of the rest of the world prior to the Neolithic Revolution. And, again, the reason why it has been declining recently at a much faster rate is, once again, because of the fairly fast disappearance of the violent people in Europe and then Eastern Asia. It took a while to get there, but once it got to a certain point, things really started to change. Maybe 50% of non-violent population wasn’t enough to make a difference. And maybe 35% or 15% wasn’t enough either. But once the number got down to, say, 10%, everything begun to change. You don’t really need 100% of U.S. population to be not racist to have a black man to be elected as your president. All you need is 51%.

What is the selection pressure here? I can understand that there might be selection pressure against violent tendencies in countries with massive war losses, but that wasn’t the case in many countries that have seen these declines. Indeed, as you note, the isolated tribes are still violent even though their ancestors were violent (arguably) for tens of thousands of years. Why do violent cultures persist if there is such strong selection against it?

What explains the ongoing violence in isolated tribes is their insulation from the broader, more liberal culture.

On the racial argument one would expect Australia to be particularly violent, in that it was populated by inmates from British prisons. But it isn’t.

Further, what’s needed to establish the racial argument is actual genetic data. Pinker cites one proposed “Warrior Gene” thesis for Maori men but finds that the same gene is “even more common in Chinese men” who are not known for their warlike tendencies. (p. 620).

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 12:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14
FreeInKy - 01 March 2012 12:09 PM

Have y’all read Nonzero by Robert Wright? His big idea is that it’s about game theory, and about “us” and “them.” It has generally been in the best interest of individuals to cooperate within the “us” group, while ignoring or even violently opposing the “them” groups. Societies tend to evolve from very small bands to tribes, chiefdoms, kingdoms, states, nations, etc. As societies have progressed to ever larger spheres of interaction, the “us” groups keeps getting bigger while the “them” group gets smaller. Eventually, we may have a truly global civilization where there will be no more “them.”

Pinker cites Wright in his book, and their theses seem very similar.

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 12:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  9301
Joined  2006-08-29

You don’t need massive wars to select against violence. What you need is a population growth and agriculture, something isolated tribes don’t experience. Agriculture allowed people to settle down and form large cities. It started to pay off to have other traits than just being a violent individual. (Violence probably does pay off among the hunter-gatherers.) Being a hard worker to slave 24/7 on the field or being intelligent to profit from the hard working people, was what was now being selected for. The rest, like the aristocrats for example, still enjoyed fighting and their fitness began to decline because the fitness of the rest of the people began to rise.

That’s also what could have happened with the Neandertals, where we could have acquired a more optimal trait to have simply outnumbered them. We didn’t have to really wipe them all out. And the same can perhaps be expected, say, in Europe. If the Muslims continue to experience a higher fitness than the Europeans, Islam may eventually take over. No, they don’t need to bomb us at all.

[ Edited: 01 March 2012 12:34 PM by George ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2012 12:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  15370
Joined  2006-02-14

Strikes me as a tortured line of reasoning given the data. But if it satisfies you, so be it.

 Signature 

Doug

-:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:- -:—:-

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Profile
 
 
   
1 of 2
1