07 November 2011

A Farewell to Arms

A book recently published by Steven Pinker, called The Better Angels of Our Nature, makes an interesting claim:

Violence has declined through history and still is dropping today.

Wait a minute. What about the First World War? The Second World War? The deaths of 20,000,000 people during Stalin's purges in the 1930's in between? The Crack epidemic of the 1980's? Two million people in American jails? What about 9/11? The Iraq and Afghanistan and Libyan Wars?

In fact, this is how proximity weight-loads the history that WE remember. It is dramatically amplified by the rise of the 24-hour news cycle since the advent of CNN. This is called a "bias towards recency." A careful statistical and historical analysis makes a compelling case that in fact violence has declined throughout history.

Put another way: the actual likelihood of being assaulted or killed has been falling for centuries.

How could this possibly be?  

Pinker's book moves through the historical record first (Hey! Ever hear of the Hundred Years War? This represents a century of continual European warfare, famine, and death). It then addresses the intellectual revolutions of the last several centuries, and even delves into modern studies on the human mind and human behavior. Pinker's lasting achievement is that his intellectual quest really knew no bounds: he covers the gamut from psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, history, and social science.

He didn't operate in a vacuum, however. Pinker homes in on, and give full credit to, a particular inspiration. He calls Norbert Elias, a German-born scholar who wrote during Hitler's 1930's, "the most important thinker you have never heard of."

Elias proposed that the growth of the nation-state all over the world in the past several millennia has had profound effects (described in Thomas Hobbes, 1651 book Leviathan) on stabilizing human behavior. It created physical boundaries, it established bahavioral norms with consequences. The consequences were profound, too: outlaw behavior drew out the posse - stirred up the hornet's nest - and sociopaths were removed from the gene pool. In the United States, we incarcerate more than 2,000,000 people, mostly men, but in past centuries there weren't resources to hold people in jail. Beheading, hanging, and feathering with arrows accomplished the same goal much less expensively. With time, violent tendencies have been steadily filtered out of the human race, and all of this stemmed from the establishment of nation-states.

The other thing that Elias and Pinker noted was the rise of commerce. Mutual gains from trade created a common purpose, and raised most of humanity above the tribal state. The xenophobia common throughout the world earlier became progressively more untenable - xenophobia interfered with the common gain, and has been increasingly less tolerated by the majority of humanity.

There has also been a "rights revolution" in the past century: women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, animal rights... with the accompanying increase in sensitivity that goes with these. There is also a somewhat more controversial idea: that there has been a rise in human reasoning ability. However, it's hard to separate this from evolving culture. Pinker also tends to dismiss income inequality. However, numerous studies have shown that income inequality correlates closely with homicide rates in country after country, and areas within countries. If you wish to see low rates of violence (the anomalous Breivik massacre last summer notwithstanding) go to Norway. Norway has an income disparity range far smaller than the United States or even many other countries in Europe - and is one of the most peaceful nations on the planet.

Something neither Elias nor Pinker noted was an additional factor that I have noticed: the establishment of sports as a normative social activity. Sports in aggregate constitute a legally-sanctioned opportunity to compete with others without loss of life or limb (Rugby or Hockey or Lacrosse notwithstanding). Sports are a way to release pent-up energy and frustration; they are also a means for organizing small armies and using strategies to win... and gain fame and riches at the same time.

I may have come up with this sports issue on my own because it seems an odd part of our culture. I (and several of my children) have never been able to see any point to golf, baseball, or football. The potential aerobic benefits of basketball and soccer seem counterbalanced by the risk (some say inevitability) of knee and spinal injury. In fairness, people look at me as someone in his '60's practicing Jujitsu and think I'm crazy. In my defense, it makes me more flexible/younger, and gives me a means to perform community service outside the range of Church opportunities.

The bottom line: the Angels in our natures seem to be winning the battle for the soul of humanity.


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