The State of Nature... Are the Noble and Brutish Images Two Sides of the Same Coin?
Last time we pondered an issue that Stephen Pinker raised recently at THE EDGE, where he critiqued the widely and passionately-held belief that less technological native peoples tended to be more noble-minded and nonviolent than citizens of modern, western, industrial society. Certainly, that impression has been enhanced as our gore-drenched televisions bring us views of 20th and 21st Century machine enhanced mayhem.
But Pinker argues - backed by substantial evidence - that these myths are mostly illusory. That civilization, wealth, industry, law and education have made modern humans demonstrably calmer, more generous and less prone to violence, despite Hollywood cliches to the contrary.
I’ll leave it to Pinker to convince the reader with facts. My own role is to step back and offer some unusual perspectives. A few angles that may not have been fully considered, as this debate rages.
A FRATERNAL PHILOSOPHICAL SPAT
Does civilization take us closer to an ideal culture, by inculcating respect for law and calmer methods of accountability? Or does it take us farther away, by demolishing the democratic tendencies of so-called “primitive” societies?
This is actually quite an old puzzler. Indeed, one may be tempted to pose this issue in terms of two long-ago social thinkers, Hobbes and Rousseau. The former prescribed strict hierarchies and rules, in order to curb man’s reflexively brutish tendencies. In contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached that complex nation states corrupt the inherent goodness which all humans once displayed, in the state of nature.
Though often presented as polar opposites, ironically, both of these views have been used to justify for rather nasty versions of oppression. They are, in fact, very close cousins, sharing many underlying assumptions and agendas. Both of them serve a pernicious, though all-too common, habit of romantic oversimplification. But more on that, later.
As we saw, earlier, modern anthropology has shed some light on this ancient argument. For example, it has long been known that native tribes ran a gamut fully as broad as the spectrum of modern cultures, with many of them now apparently as violent - on a per-capita basis - as the denizens of any urban gangland.
This does not mean we should stop trying to learn from different tribes, eras and ways. The essential lesson of tolerance and diversity is not that all ways are morally equal, or that “not-us” is routinely better than “us.” A far saner and more supportable justification for diversity is that we all benefit -- both ethically and pragmatically -- every time we learn fresh perspectives.
One needn’t be fetishistic about tolerance in order to deeply appreciate and promote the process I’ve called “otherness” -- (which is one of the wellsprings of science fiction, by the way).
Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and traditionalist farmers had no mythical patent on moral-superiority, by sole virtue of being less complicated. While communalism does seem to work, on occasion, in some small tribes, it should be no surprise that close inspection always reveals plenty of human follies, imperfections and tragedies.
Yet, if Rousseau was off-base in depicting tribal life as totally innocent, does he still have a point about the corrupting influence of modern society? A fine and ironic parable for this point of view can be found in the comic film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which depicts the results when a single useful modern tool lands among previously uncovetous bushmen, creating jealousy and strife where there had been none.
Eden, disrupted by the arrival of satanic technology. A theme that appears to be very popular (with variations) on both the far-left and the far-right.
THE PAST WAS ROUGH
In speaking up for the calming and civilizing effects of modernity, Steven Pinker cites some studies. I’ve seen others taken from ancient, medieval and pre-modern annals. Certainly, those who study the past most-closely nurse few Rousseauean fantasies. Just try standing in a trench at an archaeological dig and tracing with your finger layer after layer of chocolate-black soot from each occasion that a settlement was sacked and burned. Or sift through old-time diaries and other annals that portray how often the average male - in almost any society - found himself levied for duty as a soldier. (In very few eras did a non-slave avoid having to take up arms, often, in the course of a normal, forty-year life span.)
But let’s hear from Pinker’s essay on The Edge:
”To be sure, any attempt to document changes in violence must be soaked in uncertainty. In much of the world, the distant past was a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, and, even for events in the historical record, statistics are spotty until recent periods. Long-term trends can be discerned only by smoothing out zigzags and spikes of horrific bloodletting. And the choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion.
“Yet, despite these caveats, a picture is taking shape. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.”
I want to snip-in a few of the facts and studies that Pinker shares.
”The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply—for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.
“On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.
“Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.”
Naturally, this kind of talk sparks outrage from nostalgists of all kids. From right wing fundamentalists who dislike being told that the world is being made better by the hand of Man, and by left wing romantics who hate it ... well... for the exact same reason.
Next time: Why has violence (apparently) waned?
or return to Part 1 of this series
Note: Science fiction author - and fellow "Killer Bee" - Greg Bear will apparently be the guest on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, on the Comedy Network, Thursday night. Sparked by recent publicity attracted to SIGMA, the think tank of science-endowed sci fi writers that Greg & I helped to establish, some years ago. Knowing Greg, this ought to be fun.