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.


Belfry Bat said...

About two things...

I'm not convinced Homer (whether he's one poet with two styles or two poets...) intends us to think Odysseus a good person; hero needn't mean decent fellow, or someone you'd like to sit about drinking with him. He's a notable, and an exciting tale, but you likely wouldn't want to be him. (I seem to recall hearing also that Homer explicitly mentions not understanding some custom his heros practise, something to do with trading armour...)

And about science of neurobiology of stress... science gets trickier when the best controlled experiments can't get ethics approval; and I can't see a study getting ethics approval that purposedly puts some random human brains-in-formation into extended stressful environments. One can look for brains in formation already in stressful environments, but that's already accepting less control over the situation than the science will want; and you'll also want a deep long study, which probably means generational observations. Eeep!

Sheila said...

Right; I'm frustrated by the deficiencies of science on that issue, but of course they do make sense. I know there have been studies showing that cortisol is elevated some time after experiencing a stressor (being left to cry alone for a few minutes, for instance) and there have been attempts to show that this effect is permanent, but ... the sort of trauma big enough not to get lost in the noise of all the many stressful things kids naturally experience is abuse and would never be inflicted by scientists. But any non-randomly-assigned study always gets put down to genetics -- of COURSE this abused child turned out to be trouble, they have all the genes of their abusive parents!

But genetics should be ruled out when it comes to these rapid changes in violence, because on this short timescale genes can be assumed to be pretty constant. (Pinker does examine claims that humans have evolved to be less violent in recent times, but doesn't find any support for them.) It's *got* to be something else. I've read in several places (always with a negative slant) that men's testosterone has been going down recently, and the book didn't mention this. Which is odd because it seems it would have a massive effect on violence, seeing as men do most of the violence in the world, and we know men with high testosterone are more aggressive. The thing is, we have no idea WHY testosterone is going down, so it's just another mystery.

Anonymous said...

There is no way in heck that the infanticide rate prior to the legalization of abortion was equivalent to the current abortion rate. That is unbelievably preposterous. Fifty-eight million abortions in the U.S. since 1973; 1.72 billion world-wide. No way is that a net zero.

Also, this is unrelated, but I made both of the recipes you posted recently, and they were great! I used half white flour and half oat flour (oatmeal that I put through the food processor) in the pumpkin muffins. And the cabbage chili was so nutritious that I didn't feel the guilt I normally would have felt about heaping the top with Fritos and grated cheese. I added a pint of homemade chicken stock and doubled the recipe. Thanks for posting those!

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