Sunday, November 30, 2014

"The Better Angels of Our Nature" -- Part 1

         I am currently reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Originally, I had intended only to read the book and prepare a standard review. However, as I have read further, I believe that the only way to do justice to the book is to prepare a multi-part review.

         Plinker's book was published in 2011. As such, I expect that Plinker completed his writing in 2009. (I understand that it typically takes two years after draft of the manuscript for a book to finally be published). Obviously, there are studies and materials available now that would not have been available when Plinker prepared his draft, and I hope to touch upon those of which I am aware.

          Plinker's basic thesis would likely surprise most people: that violence has decreased by orders of magnitude since ancient and medieval times. Pinker spends most of his book setting out the evidence of the decline, while exploring different theories on what underlay the decline. Consequently, his book is primarily ordered by six major historical periods in which violence has declined. Finally, Pinker explores theories of violence, countervailing tendencies for good, and attempts to tie everything together through examining the five major forces he believes led to a decline in violence.

           Pinker's first chapter is an attempt to convince the reader that our fore-bearers held a very different attitudes toward violence than we do today--that they were much more accepting of violence than we, and glorified violence to a degree unknown in today's civilization. The title of his chapter, "A Foreign Country," is taken from a quote by L.P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Because the purpose of the chapter is to expose the reader to the mindset of what are very foreign cultures--separated by time and space--he relies on anecdotes and what I would term truisms to show that people in the past (even as little as 50 years ago) not only tolerated violence, but seemingly relished it.

           A couple points should be made clear from the beginning to understand his thesis and explain some seeming contradictions with observed reality. Initially, although Plinker talks about violence, it should be understood that he is, in fact, discussing a particular type of violence: homicide. There are several reasons for this. First, when examining prehistoric and preliterate societies, physical evidence will reveal violent deaths, but not other types of violent crimes. Second, even in literate societies, records are sketchy about many other types of crimes. Third, Plinker assumes that homicide rates will track other crimes of violence, so that a culture with high rates of homicide will also have a high rate of other violent crimes, and vice versa. This assumption may be grossly correct, such as when comparing modern cultures to their ancient equivalents, but does not necessarily follow when comparing current cultures. For instance, in 2009, relying on official crime statistics, The Daily Mail discovered that the United Kingdom was the most violent country in the Western world, even though it has one of the lowest homicide rates. That is, Britain had a violent crime rate of 2,034 per 100,000 versus 466 per 100,000 in the United States. Conversely, the homicide rate for the U.K. was only 1.49 per 100,000, while the homicide rate in the United States for 2009 was 5.0 per 100,000. The inference from this is that the United States is overall less violent than Britain (or the rest of Europe, for that matter), but that if you are the victim of a violent crime in the U.S., you are more likely to be killed. Since Pinker does not recognize this discrepancy (at least to the point I have read), he does not try to explain it.

          Related to this is that the forces that lead to declines in violent crime do not necessarily lead to declines in property crimes. In fact, while economic factors (income disparity or economic recessions/depressions) are unrelated to violence, there appears to be a definite correlation between economic factors and property crimes.

          The other major point to understand is that Pinker's study is primarily a study of Western Europe and countries inhabited by their descendants--the United States, Canada, and Australia. The primary reason for this is simply one of records. Even in medieval times, Western Europe kept better records (at least that have survived) than anyone else. So, as Pinker goes through his historical trends, it is largely only the West that has made it through all stages in the successive orders. Other cultures have lagged, and some have yet to realize the full reduction in violence that we in the West enjoy.

          As Pinker takes the reader through a quick tour of history, literature and advertising in the first chapter, he spends a significant amount of space to the Hebrew Bible, the Roman Empire, and early Christendom. He obviously approaches this portion of his narrative from the perspective of an unbeliever. His object was to show that the people of the Old Testament were savage and barbaric in the way they treated enemies and each other. And it is true. Reading through the Old Testament with my family has given me new insights to Middle-Eastern cultures, and the barbarism that is the modus operandi of Islam. People speak of Islam as a religion of the 7th Century A.D., but the culture is really one of the 13th Century B.C.

         However, what I see with the Old Testament that perhaps Pinker does not is a people that cannot meet their ideals, but that are being cultivated and molded by a God who must often act as a surgeon or gardner--excising damaged tissue or cancer, pulling weeds, trimming and pruning, working with the materials at hand--before reaching an end goal. To understand this process in the context of violence and civilization (for the basic theme to Pinker's book is that civilization drives out violence), I need to discuss an idea from a different book--Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1987) by K. Eric Drexler.

          Drexler's book addresses the ultimate goal of nanotechnology--to produce machines the size of proteins that mimic what nature can do, but programed to our goals, not the what natural selection and competition have produced. As part of his discussion, Drexler discusses that it is not just natural organisms that reproduce and compete, but ideas do so as well. Drexler writes:
Where genes have evolved over generations and eons, mental replicators now evolve over days and decades. Like genes, ideas split, combine, and take multiple forms (genes can be transcribed from DNA to RNA and back again; ideas can be translated from language to language). Science cannot yet describe the neural patterns that embody ideas in brains, but anyone can see that ideas mutate, replicate, and compete. Ideas evolve. 
Richard Dawkins calls bits of replicating mental patterns "memes" (meme rhymes with cream). He says "examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body [generation to generation] via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in a broad sense, can be called imitation."
Memes replicate because people both learn and teach. They vary because people create the new and misunderstand the old. They are selected (in part) because people don't believe or repeat everything they hear.  ... 
Since ancient times, mental models and patterns of behavior have passed from parent to child. Meme patterns that aid survival and reproduction have tended to spread. ...   
Memes themselves, though, face their own matters of "life" and "death": as replicators, they evolve solely to survive and spread. Like viruses, they can replicate without aiding their host's survival or well-being. Indeed, the meme for martyrdom-in-a-cause can spread itself through the very act of killing its host. 
...  Just as viruses evolve to stimulate cells to make viruses, so rumors evolve to sound plausible and juicy, stimulating repetition. Ask not whether a rumor is true, ask instead how it spreads. Experience shows that ideas evolved to be successful replicators need have little to do with the truth. 
At best, chain letters, spurious rumors, fashionable lunacies, and other mental parasites harm people by wasting their time. At worst, they implant deadly misconceptions. These meme systems exploit human ignorance and vulnerability.  ...
(Drexler, pp. 35-37) (brackets and highlight in original). Of course, just as not all genes or bacteria are bad (in fact, many bacteria are useful), not all memes are bad. Some may combine elements of good and bad. Some may become obsolete. And like our body has an immune system to protect against infection, so too do our minds and cultures contain mental immune systems to reject bad ideas--the simplest of which is "believe the old, reject the new", or "tradition." (See Drexler 36-38).

          As we look at the world in the time of the Old Testament period, we see a world filled with violence--wars, raids, revenge killings, honor killings, and human sacrifice, hostile to outsiders and strangers. Most "justice" was through the vendetta or by mediation (and payment) between tribal leaders. At the beginning of the period, cultures were tribal in nature, with the most advanced social construct being the city state. At the end of the period, although there were empires, even these, however, were still based on tribal affiliations, and the nations, such as they were, could accurately be described as super-city states.

          However, with Judaism we see memes appear that pre-date their general adoption by hundreds or thousands of years. Most people look at the Law of Moses and see a system of bloody animal sacrifice. As Pinker describes: "God then spends seven chapters of Leviticus instructing the Israelites on how to slaughter the steady stream of animals he demands of them." (Pinker, p. 7). I'll get to the animal sacrifice issue below. But beyond that, what we see is a moral/religious code that forbid "murder," even of foreigners and strangers--a significant step forward when we view the world at that time as whole. The Law of Moses is fairly welcoming of strangers. Although it is easy to forget, the Tribes of Israel were not the only groups to flee as part of the Exodus, but other groups of slaves joined and lived with Israel and, apparently, were accepted into the body of Israel. The Law also required Israelites to treat strangers ("sojourners") kindly and fairly. People could join Israel through a process of conversion to the religion. Instead of vendetta, the Law of Moses provided for sanctuary cities where accused murderers could flee and demand a fair trial. Provision was made for the support of widows and the poor. Slaves had to be treated humanely, and a system for forgiveness of monetary debts was introduced. Where Pinker sees a religion that harshly treats homosexuals, is actually a religion that prohibits fornication and rape--of women and men, girls and boys. One simply needs to look at the prevalence of rape and male rape in the Middle-East and Africa today to see the significance of the Law of Moses. For the first time, a religious system arose that demanded self-control of the baser instincts, and encouraged empathy. Instead of a bloody primitive system, the Law of Moses captured the essence of the most important forces that contributed to the decline of violence.

          Pinker complains of the harsh punishments handed out by God in the Old Testament, and the instructions to commit genocide. In his criticism, Pinker lapses into cultural relativism, holding all cultures (at least at that time) to be equal in value and worth. This is where the discussion on memes becomes relevant. The peoples that lived in the ancient lands of Israel possessed many bad memes, including child sacrifice. These were powerful memes as we can see by how easily Israel itself was infected by these memes through the next several hundreds of years. Penicillin does not negotiate with bacteria--it kills their offspring. A surgeon does not engage in talks to increase the understanding between a tumor and a cancer victim--he or she cuts the tumor out. At the level of the bacteria or cancer cell, the acts of the physician are violent. Yet they are necessary to serve a greater good. So too were God's attempts to excise the bad memes (by eliminating their carriers). God was attempting to spread civilization, and it was necessary to pull up the bad weeds.

          Pinker makes much of the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, and the whole system of animal sacrifice. However, to the believer, the story of Abraham and Isaac foreshadow the sacrifice made by Christ: everything from the age of Isaac, the location of the incident, to Abraham's words to Isaac that God would provide a sacrifice. Similarly, the system of animal sacrifice looks forward to Christ. These are intended to teach the Israelites how to recognize their Messiah.

         Pinker points out how the "heroes" of Jewish history, including David and Solomon, were violent and flawed men. He misses the point. God did not want the Jews to have kings. He warned against it, but they persevered in demanding a king. Saul, David and Solomon weren't a gift to Israel, but a warning that no matter how good the man, absolute power corrupts absolutely. They are warnings, not persons to model ourselves after.

         Pinker then gives the same treatment to early Christianity and Medieval Europe. However, in doing so, he again confuses behavior with ideals. Christianity provided the foundational ideas for the decline of violence, even if society as a whole rejected those foundational ideas.

         Pinker himself repeats some bad memes that have caught on because they are popular or easy to understand, while not necessarily reflecting reality or historical analysis. For instance, to demonstrate the changes over the last 100 years, Pinker states: "Military men are inconspicuous in public life, with drab uniforms and little prestige among the hoi polloi." (Pinker, p. 23). Military men may be inconspicuous in public life, but it is ridiculous to assert that military men have little prestige among "the common people." Gallop polls from earlier this year show that Americans place far more trust in the military (39% expressing a great deal of confidence, and an additional 35% having "quite a lot") than in the President, Congress or the Supreme Court. It is not the hoi polloi who do not respect the military or its leaders, but the elites. (See Col. John A. Vermeesch,"Trust Erosion and Identity Corrosion," Military Review, Sept.-Oct. 2013, p. 2).

           The replacement of the gaudy uniforms of past centuries with the "drab" uniforms of today is not because of the loss of prestige, but because of battlefield necessity. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, camouflage was of little consequence to armies that moved and fought en masse at ranges of 100 yards or less. In fact, bright uniforms were necessary for the commander to see and control the positioning of his troops. Advancements in weapons, particularly individual weapons, forced troops to begin using cover and concealment--including adopting drab colors and camouflage. Most experienced militaries had switched to drab uniforms prior to World War I, and the few that still used bright colors going into the War quickly changed.

           To give an example of the sweeping changes of the last couple of decades, Pinker provides a mock commencement speech outlining the end of the Cold War, collapse of the Soviet Union, and so forth, and how it would seem ridiculous in the mid-1970's. What caught my eye was this line: "China will also fall off the radar as a military threat; indeed, it will become our major trading partner." (Pinker, p. 28). The implication is that because of strong economic ties, war will become impossible. In The Future of War by George and Meredith Friedman, the authors discuss and analyze this very issue:
The argument that interdependence gives rise to peace is flawed in theory as well as in practice. Conflicts arise from friction, particularly friction involving the fundamental interests of different nations. The less interdependence there is, the fewer the areas of serious friction. The more interdependence there is, the greater the areas of friction, and, therefore, the greater the potential for conflict. Two widely separated nations that trade little with each other are unlikely to go to war--Brazil is unlikely to fight Madagascar precisely because they have so little to do with each other. France and Germany, on the other hand, which have engaged in extensive trade and transnational finance, have fought three wars with each other over about seventy years. Interdependence was the root of the conflicts, not the deterrent.  
 There are, of course, cases of interdependent in which one country effectively absorbs the other or in which their interests match so precisely that the two countries simply merge. In other cases, interdependence remains peaceful because the economic, military, and political power of one country is overwhelming and inevitable. In relations between advanced industrialized countries and third-world countries, for example, this sort of asymmetrical relationship can frequently be seen.  
 All such relationships have a quality of unease built into them, particularly when the level of interdependence is great. When one or both nations attempt, intentionally or unintentionally, to shift the balance of power, the result is often tremendous anxiety and, sometimes, real pain. Each side sees the other's actions as an attempt to gain advantage and becomes frightened. In the end, precisely because the level of interdependence is so great, the relationship can, and frequently does, spiral out of control. 
(Friedman, pp. 7-8) (italics on original). The Friedmans then compare and contrast the Cold War with the situation prior to the outbreak of World War I, and suggest that it was the independence of the Soviet Union from the United States that allowed each to forgo extreme measures and gave them freedom to maneuver. However, prior to World War I, the European nations' interdependence, measured by international investment and trade, was greater than it is now (at least at the time the Friedmans wrote their book), and it was this high amount of interdependence that created the conditions for war.

           Pinker also raises current German pacifism, seemingly as a triumph of civilization. He writes: "Conspicuous pacifism is especially striking in Germany, a nation that was once so connected to martial values that the words Teutonic and Prussian became synonymous for rigid militarism." (Pinker p. 24).  German pacifism, though, is the result of violence. This is alluded to by Pinker, who quotes Tom Lehrer's "lullaby":
Once all the Germans were warlike and mean,
But that couldn't happen again.
We taught them a lesson in 1918
And they've hardly bothered us since then.
(Pinker, p. 24). However, it was not World War I that broke the German thirst for war, it was the utter and humiliating defeat visited on the Germans in World War II.

          In his book, How Great Generals Win, Bevin Alexander explains that one of the rules of successfully concluding a war is to destroy the will of the enemy to fight. By "enemy," he does not mean the enemy military forces, per se, but the civilian population of the enemy country. As an example, Alexander uses General William Tecumseh Sherman and his devastating march through the South during the American Civil War. After Grant was given command of all Union Armies, Grant designated Sherman as the overall commander of the Western Union forces. Sherman's general order was to destroy the Southern General Johnson's army, get into the Confederate interior, and do as much damage against the Confederacy's war resources as possible. (Alexander, p. 147). Bevin writes:
Sherman had come to realize that destroying the Southern people's will to pursue the war was more important than destroying Johnson's army. Once the people wearied of war, their armies would melt away. So long as they remained adamant, they would continue to throw up armies or, failing that, guerrilla bands, which could lead to endless war. The only sure solution was to inflict so much damage on Southern property and way of life, and not merely "war resources," that the people would prefer surrender to continued destruction.  ...
(Alexander, p. 147).

        Pinker's second chapter tracks the decline of violence from our primitive ancestors that lived in small hunter-gatherer bands or early agricultural communities, to that in early nation states, taking a small detour to look at violence among other primates. I'll summarize and discuss those ideas in my next post on Pinker's book.

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