Friday, September 30, 2016

7qt - September rain


Alas, right after the beautiful, cool, clear weather that signals the start of fall in Virginia, we always get a wet spell.  That's okay, though, because it doesn't last -- it just clears the air for a lovely October, usually.

The cool, damp weather is reminding me of the Northwest.  I actually got up the nerve to take a walk the other day -- all three kids, plus the dog on his new no-pull harness.  (He still pulls, but less at least.  Sigh.)  It was really pleasant, if a bit misty out.  Our new neighborhood is fairly flat for some distance, with a lot of branching roads and interesting houses to look at.  Much better for walking than our old place, where there was one short route you could take unless you wanted to brave the steep hills, which I almost never did willingly.

I am really proud that I walked almost a whole mile.  My back has started to give some trouble already.  I can't figure out what sets it off; it isn't walking and it isn't carrying Miriam.  But if I spend a day doing housework it gets pretty screwed up.  I don't know if it's lifting things, vacuuming, bending over, or just too much standing, but it takes a couple days to recover.  Anyway, I figure light exercise can help, and I had the energy to do it for once.


Fall weather means fall food.  I am the last person in the world to diss pumpkin spice -- it's basically crack -- but let's not neglect the other delicious fall flavors: apple, cinnamon, winter squash, sweet potatoes, sage, sausage, celery, curry, chili.  Or am I the only one who craves these things in the fall?

My new thing with chicken is to butterfly it instead of roasting it whole.  It cooks in half the time, the skin is crispy all over instead of just on one side, and I really think it helps keep the breasts from drying out.  Up to now I've been putting it on a bed of lemons and fresh herbs from my new garden, which is always good.  But last time I put it on a bed of carrots, celery, and onions, and it was SO GOOD.  The vegetables cooked in the chicken juice, and those that stuck out from under it caramelized.  And there's just something about cooked celery with poultry that makes me think of Thanksgiving stuffing.  Heck, cooked celery in general is kind of magical.  Maybe I'll make cream of celery soup tomorrow.


Here are a couple recipes for you guys, because if you visit this blog for recipes you are the World's Most Persistent Readers and I love you for it:

Pumpkin Muffins
(my mom's recipe, for which she is justly famous)

1 1/2 cup squash (cooked, pureed, or else canned pumpkin)
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup molasses (or maple syrup)
3/4 butter (BUTTER. Nothing else.)
2 eggs
 2 1/2 cup flour (any combo of white and whole wheat you prefer)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup pecans (optional)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ginger

375 degrees for 20 minutes. 10 minutes for miniature muffins.  They are best when you eat them hot -- you can split them open and put butter inside.

Cabbage Chili

1/2 cabbage
1 onion
1 lb beef
1 can diced tomatoes
1 small can tomato sauce
1 can pinto or kidney beans
1-2 potatoes

Brown the beef, with the onions and cabbage if you prefer, and drain out the grease.  Then combine all the ingredients and cook for about half an hour.  Season with garlic, salt, and chili powder.  Warms you up deep down.


Another thing I am doing lately is bread.  It's been at least a year since I inadvertently killed my last sourdough starter -- very sad, because it was a great starter that endured neglect very patiently and still gave me good results.  But I have started another one and after a lot of pancakes and English muffins, it's finally reached maturity and can do bread.

Artisan sourdough bread is not difficult, but it can be scary, because you can spend a day and a half working on it and get bad results sometimes.  The first one I made with this starter was a brick because it wasn't really mature enough, and the second was too wet and collapsed.  But the third one was the charm!

And it's just so delicious when it actually turns out ... that's what keeps me trying even at risk of disaster.


We had a little health scare with Miriam this week.  She had a little sore on her butt that looked like no big deal, but then a couple of days later it appeared to have grown.  (I don't look at her backside often since she's out of diapers.)  And then the next day it looked blistery around the edges.  I worried that it might be infected, so I put some peroxide on it, but that made her scream like a banshee.

Then the day after that, she had three cold sores on her face.  That started to freak me out.  But I heard heard that hand, foot and mouth disease was going around, and the facebook group I ask these questions in was very emphatic that that must be it, it doesn't always present with fever.  Okay, so I canceled any outings for the week and planned to settle in and wait for the rest of the kids to get it.

Only John really thought I should take her to the doctor to be sure, and later that evening I found out that HFM blisters are very small, whereas what Miriam had looked more like impetigo.  (Thank goodness for the internet and pictures of every nasty skin condition you can imagine.)  So I made the appointment and sure enough, that's what it is.  Impetigo is a staph infection on the skin which is both painful and really gross-looking.  It's very good we brought her in when we did, because without antibiotics it can continue to spread and get quite serious.

The doctor prescribed both oral and topical antibiotics.  Alas, my child's perfect untouched gut flora will probably never be the same.  The first time we gave her the meds, she spat at least half of pink liquid back out on John and me, and the ointment ended up almost everywhere.  But now, thanks to bribery (one mL of medicine, one sip of juice) and letting her do some of the ointment herself, she's pretty cooperative.  Apparently she is no longer contagious and the sores should start to heal in a few days.  But the meds have to be continued for a full ten ... oh joy.

I'm hoping that as the sores heal, she'll start sleeping better.  Her sleep has been terrible lately, and that has resulted in me spending hours on the floor of her room, screwing up my back.


It appears the problem with Marko is that I was pushing on to new things too fast.  Unfortunately I have only a few super easy readers, and the easy readers at the library are much harder.  Marko can read those, but they are really hard and long for him.  If I have him read the really easy ones we have at home, he does much better, and gains confidence.  I need to look out for more like that, because the entire point of homeschooling is that everyone can go at their own pace.  If he's going to feel dumb because he's being asked to read things he isn't really ready for, he might as well be going to school!


I was going to let the kids watch the debate, because I remember being a kid and watching the debates in 1992 and it just seemed like one of those historical moments to let kids be a part of.  But I forgot that when I was a kid, we were in Pacific time and so we watched those over dinner, while apparently on this end of the country you're stuck watching them well after bedtime.  So I watched them alone.

It was fun, I guess.  Sometimes I got frustrated and turned it off for awhile because I couldn't deal with watching them just shout over each other.  Other times I laughed because Trump kept digging himself deeper and deeper holes.  Don't get me wrong, I think Clinton deserves credit for baiting him, but he made it very easy.  Paying no taxes is "smart"?  (Does that make him one of Romney's 47%?)  Failing to pay your contractors is "good business"?  Insulting women is okay if they "deserved it"?  The guy has basically no awareness of how these things look to people who are not his fanatical followers.

And part of it was just, I've been a woman debater.  I know how it is having guys shout over you or bluster with such confidence that they get believed even though they're making stuff up and you prepared for hours.  It made me feel good to see a woman on the stage doing just fine, even when I don't agree with a lot of her points.  (Between the two of them, I feel very scared for Syria.  Whichever one wins, they are likely to feed the conflict there, and it's not going to be pretty.)

How has your week been?

Friday, September 16, 2016

7 fall takes


John, I'm sure, would remind me that fall has not started yet.  And therefore we can't be experiencing "fall weather" because the weather we're experiencing is normal for mid-September, which is part of summer.

BUT.  I am wearing a sweater today.  His argument is invalid.

It's not just that either.  There is a tree in our yard with one reddish branch.  The oak tree has brown leaves starting to appear here and there, and all the black walnut trees in the area have yellow ones scattered around.  I haven't seen any sumac lately, but it might already be finished -- it's always the first to change colors.

So yesterday I called it: since it's definitely feeling like fall, that means it's definitely time to make pie.

Apple, because I'm not a lemming.  Just because pumpkin spice is "cool" doesn't mean pumpkin is what you start fall with.  You start with apple and move on to pumpkin in October.  Well, that's my opinion anyway.

Did you know pie is actually REALLY easy to make?   You hear complicated instructions about pie crust, but it's not actually hard to get it "good enough."  Perfection -- both flaky AND easy to handle -- is hard, but if you're willing to accept a slightly messy-looking pie because you tore holes in it and had to patch it, that's pretty simple to do.  My crust took a total of about 20 minutes to make, and it was deliciously flaky if a little homely.  And the filling, that's just a matter of cutting up fruit and sprinkling it with flour, sugar, and cinnamon, even easier.  You should make a pie today.


I had a really, really horrible week or two healthwise.  I just felt so lethargic.  Getting up from chairs, I felt dizzy and saw stars.  Functioning as a responsible adult felt like this Herculean task.  I was getting pretty good sleep most of that time, but I still would find myself dozing off in the afternoon -- which I really can't afford because even with the TV on, the kids get in fights or wander off.

It was really demoralizing; I couldn't do anything I enjoyed.  Even reading a book felt really hard -- I couldn't focus.  Answering emails?  Forget it.  Too much work.  I scrolled through Facebook a lot, aching to lie down but afraid if I did I would fall asleep.

I considered a lot of possibilities.  It felt like low blood sugar, dehydration, or sleep deprivation, except I was eating, drinking, and sleeping fine.  Might have been anemia, but my midwife should have my lab reports by now and I would think if they showed anemia she would have called me.  (Of course I could have called her but that is HARD.)  Then again low blood pressure is common right around this part of pregnancy because your blood volume needs increase.  My blood pressure was normal at my last appointment, but then I felt fine that day anyway.

Then weirdly I just started suddenly feeling better.  It could have been any number of things.  It could have been that I started putting flaxseed in my English muffins or that I ran out of prenatal vitamins (have they been POISONING me?) or that I started soaking in epsom salts for the magnesium.  Or maybe it just passed.  All I know is I can go to bed at 10, be up for an hour with Miriam at night, get up at six or seven, and feel okay all day now.  I have accomplished several things per day without hating every minute!  So, all I can say is, I hope this lasts.  I like functioning.


Marko is officially registered as a homeschooler, just in time for him to lose all interest in school.  I really believe it's best for him to be mostly self-motivated right now and that if he's not keen on reading at the moment, I should wait.  But MAN does it take patience and forebearance.  I know it'll turn him off reading if I push too hard.  On the other hand I don't want him to forget all he knows.  I've done a trade with him ("if you read five pages of this book to me, I'll read this Star Wars book to you") and I've tried to incorporate his current obsessions ("I wrote a story about ghosts and skeletons for you!") but it's been kind of like pulling teeth.  I blame how fun our new house is, and how busy he's been playing in it.  Plus, I haven't been as available for school stuff in the past couple months as I should have been.  (This is why I shudder at the thought of homeschooling while having  a baby every other year.  Isn't that a guarantee that the older kids' school will be constantly disrupted?  It's disrupted enough with just Miriam, who does not like sharing my attention.)

I figure I'll just keep offering stuff and checking out easy readers and we'll see how it goes.  Maybe now is a better time for math or science than reading anyway.  I just feel like the pressure is on because at the end of the year we have to "demonstrate progress" in one of several approved ways and the whole concept terrifies me.  What are they going to do if they don't think he's made enough "progress"?


I have officially read all the Terry Pratchett books the library has.  They were all super awesome; I highly recommend them.  There's adventure, but not a lot of gruesome death or heartrending loss.  There are interesting themes but no preachiness.  I think my favorites are Small Gods and Reaper Man -- one about a minor deity having a change of heart and the other about Death having a change of heart.  What can I say -- I guess I'm interested in the theologically impossible!

What should I read next?  I have already forgotten everything people have recommended to me in the past, so .... feel free to repeat yourselves.  I need to keep a running booklist.


It's always on the verge of having another kid that I start to really appreciate the size family I have.  Three kids is a really good number.  And more importantly, not having anybody under two.  It's especially great when we go out.  When it's time to leave the house, everyone uses the bathrom before we go and no one has to wear a diaper anymore.  Everyone can run out to the car themselves and only Miriam needs help buckling.  Everyone is good about holding my hand in the parking lot.  And we're good for a couple of hours at the park or library before anyone starts asking to go home or eat a snack.

Now, don't get me wrong: if I mistakenly try to do a big grocery shop in the afternoon when they're tired and cranky, or if Miriam is having a tough day and wants to spend the entire time at the park being held, it's not super fun.  But it is just so much easier to do stuff when you don't have a baby (and a hulking diaper bag) to worry about.

At home, too, they sometimes all disappear outside or into the playroom and don't fight or cry for minutes on end!  Or they all split up and play their individual things perfectly happily.  Miriam tends to stay up a little later than the others, and though I wish she wouldn't, I have to admit it's really fun to sit with her in the playroom as she makes tea for me, makes food for her "babies" (one of which is a koala and another of which is a bear), sits her babies on the potty, puts them to bed, builds towers of duplos, and basically is busy as a bee doing what she calls "work."  As I've said before -- Peak Cute.


So I read a news story about the SSPX, which got me googling for more information, which led me onto some traddie blogs.  I usually try to steer clear of these because they raise my blood pressure, but it's kind of like a train wreck -- I get fascinated by the awfulness.

You see, most Catholics are very cagey about the more iffy things in the Church's history.  They either don't know about that stuff, or they pretend it didn't happen, or they have complicated reasons why that wasn't doctrine, or there was a good reason for it at the time, or whatever.  And in some cases they have a good point.  But traditionalists aren't so bashful.  They actively dig up the worst, most embarrassing words and actions of early Catholics and gleefully agree with them.

Which is why there's no better way to question your faith than by listening to them.  They will tell it to you straight: the Church used to teach some really awful things.  It's up to you to decide if that's a dealbreaker or not.  The traditionalists don't seem to see why it would be.  Their problem is trying to figure out how a church supposedly guided by God could stop believing that stuff.

Anyway, I'm sharing the really horrifying links because I want to point out that Catholicism is, in many ways, a big tent and that these ideas have been held by many, many faithful Catholics over the centuries.  Saints lived and died believing them, as the quotes attest, and while there are really good arguments why Catholics today don't have to .... it's still kind of bad that they're in there at all.  And I am tired of constantly being told that the Church "never taught that" or "never did that" or "only bad Catholics would ever say that."

Here and here are two on the Church's treatment of Jews.  Both authors wrote their posts to defend their own anti-semitism.  They point out that forcing Jews to wear distinguishing marks, expelling them from countries, or enslaving them are entirely within the tradition of the Church -- and therefore, of course, that makes them perfectly justified in wishing to do the same things.  Finding quotes from the saints in there -- St. Pius V, Bl. Julian of Norwich, Padre Pio, etc. -- was kind of shocking to me; I guess I had assumed that these were people who would take the moral high ground even in opposition to cultural prejudice.  I found both posts eye-opening because I wasn't really aware of the extent to which Jews used to be persecuted.  I guess that's something we can thank Hitler for -- that now very few people want to be anti-semitic, because we know how bad it can get.

And here is a post making the exact argument that I have made here: if God wanted to save everyone, he could do it; the fact that he doesn't do it proves he doesn't want to.  Only I shied away from the conclusion he draws.  My conclusion was that there could not possibly be any hell because it didn't serve any of God's stated ends.  His is that God prefers to glorify himself by the eternal torment of most of the people he ever created.  [Because yes, of course this guy believes that the invincibly ignorant and unbaptized infants are punished just like sinners are.]  I hear Calvinists believe the same.  It seems obvious to me that a being that would do a thing like that would be unworthy of worship.  Yet I understand the argument -- on the one hand, morality does not exist apart from God so if God says it's the right thing to do, it is; and on the other, morality doesn't matter because what really matters is making sure you're not one of the ones being tormented forever.  I disagree with both premises, but that would have to be a whole other post.


John's work recently had their big annual fundraiser, which is a benefit polo match.  Polo looks to me like a sport for crazy people -- I mean, hockey is dangerous enough when you don't bring horses into it.  But the donors love it.  There's a fancy-hat contest and a luncheon and all the posh things you might imagine.

So after it was over I got some leftover party favors: four boxes of fancy chocolate.  I want it out of my house so it doesn't tempt me, but on the other hand I want to eat it all.  And I can now, because my stomach has gotten a lot better.  I did get a stomachache one time when I had four pieces of candy after dinner, but at least I can have some.

Still.  If you live near me and want some chocolate, send me a message.  Like, soon.  :D

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature

I heard about Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature some time ago and wanted to read it, but it didn't occur to me to check the library.  Last week I ran into it while looking for something entirely different, and despite my slow pace with books lately, I decided to take a chance on being able to finish it before it was due.  At about 900 pages, that was a big gamble, but I got it done.  Turns out feeling too tired to do any housework jives pretty well with reading books instead.

The basic thesis of the book is this: violence has been going down throughout human history and is now at an all-time low.  Proving that point is pretty easy, though, compared to the other question of why.  What exactly has been changing throughout human history that made people become less violent?  This latter question remains partially unanswered.  Pinker has ideas, but it's very hard to prove that anything caused any other thing, especially when they are both broad trends over centuries.

I found Pinker's evidence that violence is decreasing absolutely convincing, even in areas where I at first felt doubtful.  For instance, I'd always thought that hunter-gatherers were known for being very peaceful, considering they had little to fight over.  But in studying both the skeletons from ancient hunter-gatherer sites and the rate of violent death in hunter-gatherer tribes today, it turns out that is not the case at all.  They were many times more likely to die a violent death than any city-dwelling society -- though, of course, many of these deaths may be at the hands of neighboring agricultural tribes.  There is only so much we can know.  But my mental image of foraging being a life of peace, security, and bliss was not really that accurate.  While they may well have been without internal government or property, each tribe would have had to defend its territory against other tribes, and they may have had disputes within the tribe as well.

Another surprise was that non-war violence has been going down for centuries as well.  For instance, killing of citizens by their government is way down, as I might have known if I'd realized just how extensive the death penalty was in the Middle Ages.  Torture is down, which I did know -- gruesome executions and tortures used to be a frequent public spectacle, while now torture is a rarity and the source of scandal when it's found out.  Domestic violence is down.  Rape is down, though it can be hard to measure beyond this century, since it wasn't always considered a crime before.  Child abuse is down.  Genocide, shockingly, is down.  Civil war is down.  Murder is down.  Pinker scrupulously cites his sources, criticizes them where faulty, and never seems to jump to any conclusions.  But the charts he comes up with from this data are staggering.  This is not a small decline, possibly able to be put down to faulty numbers -- it's huge and unmistakeable.

Pinker admits that most of us aren't going to believe his thesis on first blush.  After all, we are familiar with the violence of today, and less familiar with that of yesterday.  When someone is murdered in our area, we are bound to know about it, while if we are looking at the history of another place and time, we probably only know of major wars.  History is myopic; the closer something is, the more information about it we have.  And so much violent conflict in the past gets glossed over by the writers of the time, because it was common enough not to have been a very big deal.

Still, there's enough information to work with, if you push past your automatic reaction.  For instance, you can look in ancient literature.  The numbers of those killed in battle are probably not trustworthy, but the descriptions of ancient warfare may well be.  When Biblical heroes capture a city and put everyone within to the sword, that is probably an accurate description of how wars were conducted at the time.  When Odysseus throws infants off the tower of Ilium, this isn't considered unusual behavior in a conquerer, and Homer somehow expects us to continue to consider him a hero.  The Romans, of course, were big on torturing people to death, and are responsible for things like gladitorial games and crucifixion.  The Middle Ages weren't really an improvement either -- take the Arthurian tales, which are chock-full of gore and rapine.  Our "parfait knight," Lancelot, "had the custom of never killing a knight who begged for mercy, unless he had sworn beforehand to do so, or unless he could not avoid it."  Still a little much for a modern audience!  And of course Shakespeare is full of similar stuff.  Pinker quotes Henry V:

Why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.

And Henry V, too, is painted throughout the play as a hero!

So, what happened?  There is no one cause, according to Pinker, so he has to go one step at a time and explain them all.

Pinker points first to the invention of government.  I've always felt a little doubtful of anarchy, because its proponents seem to assume human perfection at the outset.  Pinker basically destroys the whole idea with his proof that the invention of the state coincided with a massive reduction in violent death.  And he also offers an explanation.

Violence, he explains, is not entirely an irrational behavior.  There is a reason why we evolved with violent impulses -- they have sometimes, in our history, been useful or at least made sense on an individual level.  There are three main causes of violence he points to: gain (as when one person or group attacks another to take their territory, possessions, or wives), fear (when one nation makes a preemptive strike against another in order to forestall an attack they expect in the future), and retribution or honor (when one attempts to punish someone else for a past harm, in the hopes of getting a reputation in the future as a person who shouldn't be messed with).  Each of these is pretty rational, especially in a dangerous situation and resource-poor situation where survival is not assured.  Gain may be necessary for survival, and a tribe that is strong and raids its neighbors often will survive better than one that doesn't.  Fear is often justified -- it can be hard to know when an enemy might attack, when they might at any time.  And as for retribution, it seems the only way to keep attacks from others from being constant.  America has participated in conflicts for all of these reasons: the conquest of Indian territories and the Mexican-American War for gain, World War II for retribution, and the invasion of Iraq out of fear.

The trouble is that these reasons interact to encourage a state of constant war.  If war for gain happens often, than war for fear will be waged to prevent it.  And the only alternative to pre-emptive war is to engage in terrifying retribution if you are attacked.  Reputation, something I tend to laugh about today, could be as vital for survival as food.  But what is likely to happen is that one tribe starts a war out of fear, the other overreacts out of vengeance, and they both wind up feeling like the injured party.  Neither sees any way the war could have been avoided, even though they both suffer from it and would both be better off if it could have been avoided.  And it is likely to unleash a cycle of retribution which will be hard to stop.

Government is a mechanism for stopping this kind of thing by punishing anyone who engages in it.  When a person or group thinks of attacking for gain, it will have to weigh the chance of failure plus the punishment in case of success.  When a person desires retribution, they can be reassured that the government will punish, so attacks are disincetivized without a direct conflict.  And with everyone knowing these two kinds of conflicts are increasingly unwise and unlikely, they will be less likely to attack out of fear either.

The correlate of this is that when people do not trust their government -- when it is obviously corrupt, favors some over others, or does not punish aggressors -- violence levels rise again, as if the government were not there.  Pinker points to situations where this has taken place, from failed states to certain American cities.

I can clearly see this play out in my own life: my kids fight incessantly.  Either one is afraid the other will attack, or they have already been attacked and want revenge.  Or, sometimes, it's just a matter of "he won't do what I want."  And while I like the concept of being a libertarian parent and letting them work things out, the fact is that I've tried it both ways and leaving them alone more provokes more fights.  When they are assured of my quick intervention -- no matter what exactly I do to intervene! -- they are much slower to attack one another.  They feel secure that someone else is going to defend them, so they don't have to be constantly on battle alert.

So, that's one big factor, and it reduced violence as humankind transitioned from hunter-gathering to settled cities.  Something similar happened in the Middle Ages as disparate feudal holdings coalesced into modern states -- less raiding, more law.  But obviously it could do nothing about the problem of interstate war -- there is no higher authority to punish aggressive states.  (The Pope tried, of course, but he couldn't enforce much.)

Another massive factor is trade.  This, again, put the smackdown on a cherished theory of mine, this time agrarianism.  My understanding of agrarianism as being preferable and allowing for more independence relied on the ability of the land to easily sustain all the people who live on it.  But that is not the reality for most of history; population always grows but land never does.  A man with seven sons may not be able to divide his farm enough for everyone.  What is the solution?  Raiding and violence.  It is the only way, in an agrarian system, that a person can better his situation.

But medieval Europe had a great deal of prejudice against any other way of improving one's lot.  There were laws against usury, of course, which prevented a modern financial system such as we enjoy.  In addition, guilds had rules against innovation, working longer hours, setting lower prices -- pretty much any form of true competition.  It was frowned on to sell something for more money than you bought it for.  Yet all of these are nonviolent ways of increasing one's wealth -- something that anyone with a growing family finds they have to do.

As these laws and prejudices began to dissolve, commerce became more and more common.  A merchant class arose that didn't rely on farming at all.  Not only did this mean that there was no point in raiding anyone anymore, but it also gave a huge incentive for peace and cooperation.  Enemies became business partners, and business partners are always worth more to you alive than dead.  As trade expanded across national boundaries, there started to be a powerful group within each country that adamantly did not want to go to war with others.   Today, the more a nation trades with others, and the more trade organizations it is a member of, the less likely it is to go to war, especially with its trade partners.

A third set of reasons can be grouped together under "the Enlightenment."  It started with urbanization as a result of increased trade -- life in a city lends itself to examining different perspectives.  The printing press contributed, too; more and more philosophers and thinkers were able to trade ideas quickly and easily and to spread them to a larger audience.  Pinker lists Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and Mill as influences on the moral thinking of the day.

Enlightenment humanism was based on a few key principles like the universality of human nature (so another person is necessarily as important as oneself), human rights, and reason as a tool for seeking the truth.  A belief in reason was sufficient to put an end to witch-burning, for instance.  A belief in universal human nature could help people overcome their national, ethnic, or gender prejudices.  It's funny, because I hated the Enlightenment when I first learned about it in high school -- it was dry as toast -- and was explicitly taught to condemn it in college.  Now I am beginning to see it as one of the best things that's ever happened.

Pinker takes some time to argue against the belief that violent ideologies, such as fascism and communism, really sprang from the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment was based on individual rights, while these other philosophies thought of man mainly in a collective way -- as a race or a class.  They also did not consider men to be equal, or possessed of the same nature, but rather to be valued or not based on membership in certain groups.  The thinkers they draw from can be described as counter-Enlightenment.  However, Pinker does defend one Counter-Enlightenment thinker, Edmund Burke, who argued in favor of culture and custom as well as reason to guide behavior.  Pinker believes that cultural standards, from etiquette to common moral prejudices, can be a civilizing force too.

Out of the Enlightenment we get modern democracy.  Democracy is one of the most powerful forces against warfare that we have.  While it isn't technically true that no two democracies have ever gone to war, it is the case that the more democratic two nations are, the less likely they are to go to war.  There's a lot of fussing with the numbers to explain this, because many countries that call themselves "Democratic" aren't that democratic after all.  Pinker finds papers which rank countries by how democratic they are, does his level best to exclude confounders, and still finds correlations between democracy and peace.

Why don't democracies go to war as much?  Well, one obvious reason is that the people bear more of the costs of a war than the ruler does, so a nation ruled by the people will be more hesitant to go to war.  Another is that democracies generally have already accepted Enlightenment values, so they acknowledge that their rivals possess human rights.

There's a lot of discussion of recent history.  What about the two world wars, don't they prove that things are worse now?  Well, no.  First because, proportionate to the world's population, they aren't actually the worst slaughters in history after all; and second because two data points don't make a trend.  While over time wars have gotten larger, they've also gotten less frequent -- and they've gotten less frequent faster than they've gotten larger.  The peace we've enjoyed since the second world war is unprecedented.  The conflicts that loom large on our consciousness are tiny compared to the wars of the past.

Another issue he addresses is abortion.  Surely the number of abortions, if they are counted as violent deaths, makes our age the bloodiest!  Although Pinker is prochoice, he produces data to show that before abortion was common, infanticide was just as common.  From Carthaginian child sacrifice to Roman infant exposure, through the Middle Ages: "For almost a millenium and a half the Judeo-Christian prohibition against infanticide coexisted with massive infanticide in practice ... In 1527 a French priest wrote that 'the latrines resound with the cries of the children who have been plunged into them.'"  So it's sort of a net zero there, except where birth control has reduced the abortion rate.  In recent years abortion has been falling around the globe, so it's still good news.

There's a heck of a lot more in this book.  There's a discussion of why men are more violent than women, and whether increased participation of women in public life has made war more rare.  There's speculation about reading novels increasing empathy.  There's some stuff on psychology and neurobiology -- too much, in my opinion, because even after you get through the long explanatory sections, there's not much we can learn.  That was disappointing to me, because I think there's a lot we should be able to learn from the human brain.  Does growing up in a stressful environment make a person more aggressive for life?  Perhaps the science just hasn't gotten there yet.

There's also little discussion of the role of parents and parenting customs.  That is especially odd considering he does talk about changing patterns in education.  (For instance, a switch from rote learning to greater abstraction, which may be responsible for an increase in people's ability to abstract and empathize.)  He defends this on the basis of the popular scientific theory that everything can be put down to genes, chance, and peers and nothing at all to parents.  I'm sorry, this theory fails a basic sanity test.  You can't say a teacher or best friend has an influence and your parents have done.  There probably is something funky in there.  My suspicion is that most parents in a given culture raise their kids about the same, more or less, so the differences blend into the differences in the larger environment.  Try a study comparing homeschooled Fundamentalist kids with the children of crunchy hippies and then get back to me.

So, the book isn't perfect.  Some of his theories I find a little nuts (blaming the crime spike of the 1960's-90's on cultural shifts, even though he admits that those shifts have not reversed) and sometimes he doesn't dig further into a theory that interests me, as I mentioned.  But overall it's still a phenomenal book.  He is rigorous about what we can and can't know from the data available, and he always seems to test and double-test his theories.  Sometimes he proposes a theory and then argues against it so thoroughly it's hard to tell which side he actually favors.  I appreciate this kind of objectivity.

And its conclusions are far-ranging.  I find myself staggered, thinking of the education I've received.  I was always taught history as a decline from former greatness to present chaos.  How did the authors of these books not realize how much better things are today?  Or did they simply assume that a less religious age must be worse, regardless of greater peace and prosperity?  I was also taught to demonize the Enlightenment, the destroyer of a far superior Catholic culture, when in reality there is no true contradiction between faith and Enlightenment values -- rather, religions are improved when they adopt them.  (Unless, of course, you think the Catholic Church was better when it allowed torture, slavery, and conversions by the sword.)  I feel as though I was taught my whole life to be against the side of the angels -- government, capitalism, rationalism, urbanization, technology, all things I was taught to view with suspicion which actually have done more good than any of the things I was taught to revere.  I'm a little ticked off about this, to be honest.  This kind of history "education" seems actually prone to make the world a worse place.

Of course there is still one counter-argument left to the traditionalists: the world is less violent today, they may admit, but that doesn't mean it's better.  It used to be more manly, tough, honorable!  People today are weak, without conviction, effeminate, materialistic.  Well, maybe so.  But I think that not having to worry that my children will be slaughtered is just more important to me than the abstract value of "valor" and so on.  And if a person is to argue that the past was better because one was more likely to go to heaven then -- well, the burden of proof is on them.  Is there any merit to being a faithful Catholic when the alternative is to be punished?  Is one more likely to go to heaven as a person who enjoys watching public executions than as a person who does not?  We are seeing an increase in kindness, concern for people different from us, and self-control.  How can that be a bad thing, even from an "only-salvation-matters" perspective?

Anyway, this is one of those life-changing books that I want to force everyone I know to read.  At the same time, at 900 pages, I know the odds aren't good that any of them will.  Hence the review.  I wish there were a shorter, more journalistic version of this book which could serve as an introduction.  I'd pass it out on street corners.  That's how big a deal I think this book is.  If you can get your hands on it, read it.  There's so much more in it that I haven't mentioned that will totally blow your mind or get you thinking.
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