Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"The Better Angels of Our Nature" -- Part 2

           This is a continuation of my prior review and analysis of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. In Chapter 2 of his book, Pinker explores the first of 6 forces which he believes led to the decline of violence, which he terms "the pacification process." Basically, what he describes is the impact of civilization on reducing violence, but not to be confused with the "civilizing process" which he describes in a later chapter and is a different (or perhaps, more correctly, a further) stage in civilization. At this point, what Pinker focuses on is the creation of the first city states, with the attendant development of writing, the arts, etc.--the hallmarks of civilization. "Pacification" is a very descriptive term because it relates to the transition from primitive societies, with no law, to one governed by laws--whether because that society developed such laws on its own, or it was imposed on it by an outside group (e.g., the pacification of native tribes in many areas of the world by colonial powers).

File:Emile gsell hmong warriors.jpg
Hmong Warriors
           The first point to understand is that primitive cultures (i.e., pre-state cultures) are very violent. On this point, Pinker appears to draw heavily on Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization (which I have reviewed previously). As Pinker notes, an average of 15% of people in pre-state cultures die from a violent death, with some archaeological sites evidencing a rate as high as 60%. Conversely, in primitive states, the percentage rate is far less--2.5% to 5% seems typical. Moreover, through ethnographic studies, murder rates appear to be much higher than more advanced societies. For instance, the Semai, a Malaysian tribe known for the peaceful behavior, had a murder rate of 30 per 100,000--some three times the worst crime infested holes in the United States. (p. 55).

          (For further comparison, even when considering the impact of all deaths from murder and warfare in the 20th Century, deaths in modern cultures is just a small blip compared to primitive cultures. Pinker notes that in the 20th Century, 6 billion people died. Of these, 40 million (0.7%) died as a direct result of battle. Deaths due to warfare, both direct and indirect, genocides, purges, and other man-made disasters are estimated to be 180 million in the 20th Century--only about 3%. (p. 50). The difference is even more stark when comparing primitive societies to the U.S. in 2005--one of the worst years for U.S. troops deaths in recent years. Pinker observes that roughly 2,500,000 Americans died in 2005. Of that, 945 died in combat (0.0004%). Adding in the 18,124 homicides only brings the rate of death from violence to 0.008%.).

         The reason for the high numbers of violent deaths in primitive societies is that, although formal warfare between primitive tribes is mostly blustering, the impact of regular raids--even if only small numbers are killed in each raid--is significant on a small group. "It is the sneaky raids, not the noise battles, that kill in large numbers." (pp. 43-44).
A party of men will slink into an enemy village before dawn, fire [sic] arrows into the first men who emerge from their huts in the morning to pee, and then shoot the others as they rush out of their huts to see what the commotion is about. They may thrust their spears through walls, shoot arrows through doorways or chimneys, and set the huts on fire. They can kill a lot of drowsy people before the villagers organize themselves in defense, by which time the attackers have melted back into the forest.
(p. 44). Not only did primitive tribes enjoy killing one another, they would take trophies and even enjoyed torturing and mutilating their victims. (pp. 44-45).

          But why the violence? That is an interesting question that I don't think Pinker fully explores. He focuses on realpolitik type reasons. Pinker observes that Hobbes wrote that the three principles causes of quarrel are (1) competition (as for resources), (2) diffidence (meaning "fear"), and (3) glory (i.e., "honor" or "credibility"). (pp. 33-34).
 Many scholars have found the image of the harmless foragers to be plausible because they had trouble imagining the means and motives that could drive them to war. Recall, for example, Eckhardt's claim that hunter-gatherers had "little to fight about." But organisms that have evolved by natural selection always have something to fight about (which doesn't, or course, mean that they will always fight). Hobbes noted that humans in particular have three reasons for quarrel: gain, safety, and credible deterrence. People in nonstate societies fight about all three. 
Foraging peoples can invade to gain territory, such as hunting grounds, watering holes, the banks or mouths of rivers, and sources of valued minerals like flint, obsidian, salt, or ochre. They may raid livestock or caches or stored food. And very often they fight over women. Men may raid a neighboring village for the express purpose of kidnapping women, whom they gang-rape and distribute as wives. They may raid for some other reason and take the women as a bonus. Or they may raid to claim women who had been promised to them in marriage but were not delivered at the agreed-upon time. And sometimes young men attack for trophies, coups, and other signs of aggressive prowess, especially in societies where they are a prerequisite to attaining adult status. 
People in nonstate societies also invade for safety. The security dilemma or Hobbesian trap is very much on their minds, and they may form an alliance with nearby villages if they fear they are too small, or launch a preemptive strike if they fear that an enemy alliance is getting too big. ... 
But in most surveys the most commonly cited motive for warfare is vengeance, which serves as a crude deterrent to potential enemies by raising the anticipated long-term costs of an attack. ... Foraging and tribal people avenge theft, adultery, vandalism, poaching, abduction of women, soured deals, alleged sorcery, and previous acts of violence. One cross-cultural survey found that in 95 percent of societies, people explicitly endorse the idea of taking a life for a life. Tribal people not only feel the smoke welling up in their breasts but know that their enemies feel it too. That is why they sometimes massacre every last member of a village they raid: they anticipate that any survivors would seek revenge for their slain kinsmen.
(pp. 46-47).

          The security dilemma or Hobbesian trap described above refers to the calculus that, in a state of anarchy, it may be better to attack someone before they attack you. One method for avoiding the Hobbesian trap is pursuing a policy of deterrence--that is, not to strike first, but be able to survive a surprise attack by an enemy and be able to inflict a grievous injury in response. Otherwise known as detente.  But Hobbes saw another way to escape the dilemma which he termed the Leviathan: a governmental authority that has a monopoly on the use of force. "By inflicting penalties on aggressors, the Leviathan can eliminate their incentive for aggression, in turn defusing general anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating everyone's need to maintain a hair trigger for retaliation to prove their resolve." (p. 35). So, this is the first force for decreasing violence in Pinker's opinion: the formation of the state. Thus, the gigantic drop in violence between non-state and state societies.

          This raises the interesting possibility, which Pinker will explore in a later chapter, that reversing or eliminating the forces that reduce violence will also reverse the downward trend in violence.

           Although Pinker does not explore the issue--he merely pokes around the edges--their may be a genetic basis for violence, at least in some people. Pinker spends some time discussing violence among our nearest primate relatives: the chimpanzee. (However, chimps are not the only higher mammal to engage in violence). He observes that the common chimpanzee lives in large groups (about 150 individuals, although they will forage in smaller groups) that occupy a distinct territory. If a group encounters another group from different community, the interaction is hostile. "When the groups are evenly matched, they dispute the boundary in a noisy battle. The two sides bark, hoot, shake branches, throw objects, and charge at each other for half an hour or more, until one side, usually the smaller one, skulks away." (p. 37). These displays may also occur between individuals. "Once thought to be rituals that settle disputes without bloodshed for the good of the species, they are now understood as displays of strength and resolve that allow the weaker side to concede when the outcome of a fight is a foregone conclusion and going through with it would only risk injury to both." This behavior can still be seen between gangs or gang members--e.g., "the monkey dance."

          Like humans, though, chimpanzee are not content to simply raise a ruckus. They will engage in ambushes and raids against chimps from different communities; and they will murder chimps in their own communities. (pp. 37-38). There are evolutionary advantages to gaining territory or eliminating rivals. Pinker seems to recognize that chimpanzees and humans probably descended from a common ancestor that was likewise violent, but lets the obvious conclusion simply lie there: that because of the advantages it may convey, some people may be genetically predisposed to violence.

         The Independent recently reported:
A study looking at the genetic makeup of 895 criminals in Finland has discovered a pair of genes linked with extreme violent behaviour. 
The research, carried out by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and published in the journal Molecular Pyschiatry, compared the genes of non-violent offenders with a group of 78 individuals convicted of violent crimes. 
Experts involved in the study say that the majority of violent crime in any society is usually carried out by a small group of repeat offenders who resist attempts at rehabilitation. 
The group of 78 were responsible for a total of 1,154 murders, manslaughters, attempted homicides or batteries and the geneticists concluded that between 4 and 10 per cent of all violent crimes in Finland could be traced back to individuals with these genotypes.
All those in the study that had committed murder (including a secondary group of 114 individuals who had all killed at least one person) possessed the MAOA gene, with a variant gene of cadherin 13 or CDH13 also found to be common among violent offenders.
The MAOA gene is sometimes known as the “warrior gene” and is associated with higher levels of aggression in response to provocation, while studies into CDH13 have associated it with substance abusers and low impulse control.
Boys with this gene are more likely to join gangs. The so-called "warrior gene" is controversial because it is more common among black men--almost 10 times as many black men have the gene than whites. The latter article from The Unsilenced Science notes:
... The MAOA gene has a portion with repeated segments of DNA. This section of the gene is called a promoter because having more repeats increases the amount of enzyme that the gene produces (with a rare, debatable exception). After a 2002 study found that having three repeats together with having suffered child abuse is somewhat associated with violent tendencies, a flood of follow-up research ensued, and MAOA was relabeled “the warrior gene.” This version of the gene and one with four repeats are the most common versions, or alleles. These studies always had a few people with neither the 3-repeat nor the 4-repeat allele. A small number only had 2-repeats. The scientists decided that having 2-repeats in the promoter is sort of like having 3-repeats, so they invented the term “MAOA-L.” (“L” stands for low. Pretty clever, huh?) However, a pair of studies in 2008 found that the 2-repeat allele is associated with twice the rate of violence without child abuse coming into the equation. This allele is less powerful than Brunner syndrome but far more common. 
Two small studies gave hints that the especially dangerous 2-repeat allele might be more common among African Americans. One study wrote that 6% of their non-white (but probably mostly African-American) male subjects had this allele. The other had 5 of 37 (14%) African-American men possessing “rare MAOA alleles.” Those percentages are remarkable given that studies of white men have suggested that 1% or fewer have this gene. 
If a single gene could offer some explanation as to why African-Americans commit roughly five times as many violent crimes per capita as whites, then wouldn’t studying it potentially save countless lives and deserve a Nobel Prize? After all, even a case of Brunner syndrome was effectively treated for a period with an antipsychotic. Well, at long last, Reti et al determined that 0.5% of white MAOA genes and 4.7% of African-American MAOA genes are this 2-repeat allele, almost a ten-fold difference.
See also the following article at Conservative News.

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