Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The State of Nature: Part Two

Trends in Violence, PART TWO:

The State of Nature... Are the Noble and Brutish Images Two Sides of the Same Coin?

51R2YlIF95L._SL500_AA300_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.


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.

BetterAngelsThough 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.


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.


Unknown said...

Why has violence declined?

An uneducated guess:
[1] War is the great game of kings and dictators, and democracy has exponentiated throughout the world over the past century.

[2] Global free market capitalism intertwines countries to the point where it no longer makes economic sense to wage war.

[3] As we move away from an economy in which wealth arises from things to one in which wealth precipitates from information, there's increasingly less to be gained by physically invading another country.

[4] People have become more enlightened over the past 1000 years. Once-commonplace practices like slavery and torture, universally morally sanctioned in 900 A.D., inspire ecumenical revulsion today.

America's behaviorist-befuddled and genetically-determinist-deluded Social Darwinist pop culture will cause many Murkans to erupt from their seats with rage over this one, but a wealth of evidence appears to converge on the conclusion that it's true. Evidence includes the increasing proliferation of international organizations like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF and the Peace Corps, unheard-of prior to 1900; global crackdowns against child sex slavery, despite claims that such practices are "part of the traditional culture" in some societies (viz., Devadasis in rural India); the international ban on gas warfare following WW I, and bans on atmospheric atomic tests and germ warfare in the 60s -- the latter spearheaded by Matthew Meselson, one of the greatest scientists of our time and someone who deserves both a Nobel Peace Prize and a Nobel prize in molecular biology, but who will get neither (because the world isn't just).

Anonymous said...

Just the highlights of the last twenty odd years:
Congo 1998
Ituri, Congo Major (1999- )
Lebanon Body Count
Gulf War (1990-91)
Iraq, American Occupation (2003- )
Afghanistan (2001- )
Palestine Body Count
Sri Lanka (1977-)
Lebanon Body Count
East Timor

And I have no doubts that I have missed quite a few other bloodbaths.

Anonymous said...

[1] War is the great game of kings and dictators, and democracy has exponentiated throughout the world over the past century.

So what accounts for the US invasion of Granada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan?

Michael C. Rush said...

[Sorry to put this here, but I don't find a contact address for you anywhere on your site.

I thought you might want to comment on your blog on this recent trend (,2933,284075,00.html), as one of the leading proponents of a transparent society and letting the public, not just the government or the corporations, be the watchers.]

Unknown said...

Don Quijote remarked:
So what accounts for the US invasion of Granada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan?

In the case of Granada, Iraq and Afghanistan, rogue presidents exercising dictatorial powers in violation of the constitution (Iran-Contra, signing statements, abolition of habeas corpus, etc.).

The backlash by the American public against this dictatorial xenomorphosis of the U.S. presidency under the drunk-driving C student has been massive, and will increase. We can look forward to fewer American invasions in the foreseeable future because of these dictatorial abuses, as well as the restoration of constitutional checks and balances. A bill has already been introduced to restore habeas corpus; I predict a new improved War Powers act as a result of the Iraq debacle.

Yes, things really are getting better.

Anonymous said...

"Every creative act is destruction. You can only bring about the creation of the new by the death of what it replaces." - Prof. Daniel Robinson, "The Great Ideas of Philosophy" - speaking on the theories of Nietzsche.

This is a riff off of the same song, just reconfiguring the notes: Is today more corrupt? Or was the past?

Which is "better"?

In order to make a value judgment -- which is really what we're doing here -- we have to define waht constitutes "Better" or "worse." To do this, we must define what exactly a societal structure is supposed to give its members.

Safety, self-fulfillment, sense-of-belonging, a support network in times of trouble, happiness, health, quality-of-life, life expectancy, level of violence -- these are just a few possible measures. Some overly-simplified notion of "innocence", or a sole measure of violence/war, represent too few datapoints.

In fact, whatever we decide here is highly questionable -- especially as there are no members of the Tribal Societies we are discussing present on this forum.

Even beyond this, we have to accept that there may be other points of view on how to value a society:

Some people may feel (by Nietzsche-an tradition) that a society should be measured by its ability to fulfill its rulers' Will to Power: that the worth of society cannot be measured by the opinions/suffering of the Herd, but rather on the amount of success found by the Hunter.

Such a set of measures would give heavy weight to tribes ruled by cruel tyrants, and very little weight to "liberal" society.

No agreement on measures is likely to be reached. This is the danger of engaginging in philosophy. In the end philosophy is merely opinions -- and everyone has one.

Make no mistake -- when we start to try to place values or worth on a society, we have definitely crossed into the realm of philosophy. No matter how stringent our method, there will always be counterarguments -- and in this realm, arguments of gut emotion hold almost as much wieght as statistics.

I, personally, prefer to live in a society where I am not likely to be murdered or have to go to war, and I have a relatively high standard of living.

I am not a follower of Nietzsche.

That said, I still have primal urges -- I do martial arts, sword fighting, and sparring. I weight train. I enjoy conflict, when it is controlled (and especially when I win). I am still a human animal, after all.

Re: Why has violence waned?

Because people don't like to die. They don't like the uncertainty of war. And as quality of life goes up around the world, there is less desire/need to take what belongs to others. (The exceptions are obvious.)

In the end, that's what War is -- taking away somebody else's stuff. Their land. Thier lives. Their ideology. Their Oil. But there's always something.

Enterik said...


Here's an amusing anecdote...

I brought my father to Rancho La Brea Tar Pits and the first words out of his mouth were, "This is where I would dump the body". Fear not, we had no body in tow, my father is a career CSI. However, he was right, the attached museum contains one partial human female skeleton with a tool-punctured skull that dates to around 9000 year before present. It would seem some things haven't changed all that much over the past millenia, including erudite musings on human nature.

The contrast Hobbes and Rousseau brought to my mind an earlier pair of philosophical contemporaries, Itinerant middle-management administrator K'ung Tzu (proponent of hierarchies and rules) and Librarian Lao Tzu (proponent of the great integrity of a simpler past).

Both articulated useful notions regarding human nature and society, but I find the empirical meritocracy of Mo Tzu and the operant conditioning-based legalism of Han Fei Tzu to be more relevant to describing the success of [modern] civilization in apparently reducing violence.

Thus it would appear I fall most naturally into the Miscellaneous school of Lu Buwei who sought to condense the one hundred schools of thought into one useful tome. I suspect many others posters/readers of this blog have similar predilections even if there is some disagreement in detail.

Simply stated, cleaving too tightly to an idealogy gives one a distorted view of the past, present and future. And that noble and not so noble sentiments from the past should be periodically re-evaluated for their utility.

David Brin said...

Zorgon, you raise good points, but you tend to crystalize them too far. For example, it is valid to say that our society now emphasizes levels of compassionate empathy with others, to a degree that no previous nations would have even found sane. It is all part of the “expansion of horizons of inclusion” that I discuss elsewhere.

But this was not a sudden shift. Before 1900, the Salvation Army and missionary groups preached outreach to the benighted “lost souls” out there, in their own poor ghettos or overseas peoples. True, we would consider their approaches patronizing and racist and sometimes oppressive, but thousands did eagerly sign up to do what they saw as good.

Ah, Don is back! Welcome back, prodigal son! DO keep up that end of the argument. We need lists like that to remind us that even though per capita violence is plummeting, the 20th Century tended to concentrate violence into sudden, roiling pits of undiluted hell.

Proving that ALL of us might find ourselves in such a zone of unravelling horror, someday. It reminds us of how fragile progress has been.

“So what accounts for the US invasion of Granada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan?”

Um, I know of no US troops in southern Spain. Oh GRENADA! Right. Look Don, I was no huge fan of Reagan. But unlike W, he was not always wrong. e.g. calling the USSR an “evil empire” was spot on and the left was idiotic to disagree.

Moreover, I believe the fundamental test of an “imperial pax” intervention is whether the people, afterwards, are hugely glad we came. And when it comes to Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, and yes, Afghanistan, you just ask the average person (especially women in Afgh) whether they want their dictators back. Why is our popularity highest in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, despite everything W has done to drive allies away?

Dig it, Iraq seems planned IN ORDER to deny us that moral authority to intervene! And before you say “no one should have that authority” let me agree, in principle. Now find me the lawful Pan-Earth alternative.

Seriously. I have elsewhere spoken of WCN -- Whatever Comes Next in international law. Till now, the nations have defended sovereignty with utter tenacity... and we Americans rightfully fear a WCN that’s badly designed and that could turn into an oppressive world mono-state. Nevertheless, can you imagine “international” chaos lasting a thousand more years without world peoples deciding on some “Earthwide” structure? Or even a hundred years? Or even fifty?

Our problem is twofold. How to design a GOOD WCN. And how to manage things till then. Show me a better era than Pax Americana. (When it is well-led.) It is the only decent interim.

Sam, you have a point. But I like to view the Enlightenment as ABOVE philosophy. (Though Locke was a philosopher.) Rather, it is a structure within which philosophies can argue and reach new blended or metazoan forms, instead of remaining caught in unicellular life-death, either or choices (usually resolved by death.) Moreover, it has achieved pragmatic outcomes better than any other societies that let simple, unicellular philosophies guide them.

Within the Enlightenment, Nietzscheans can rave and rant and make vivid art - like Star Wars - and get rich and do everything except force others to bend to their whim.

Anonymous said...

This website seems relevant to all the arguments in this post.

He raises some interesting points even if I don't agree with all of them.

One of his major points is that dictatorships seem almost a necessary transition between traditional aristocrat/peasant society & modern 'democratic market society' (eg: Cromwell, Napoleon) . So we should be cautious about labeling dictatorships as evil & opposing them.

David Brin said...

Simplistic by far.

What Cromwell & Napolean ... and my hero Pericles, for that matter... represented was men who arose during mass transitions toward more democracy and a more level power structure, at a time when the people were clearly ready for more freedom/power, but NOT ready to exert a genuine,m explicit social contract.

What makes these three special is that they sincerely wanted the people's revolution to succeed... partly... in ways that would make a better state and a more elevated and empowered populace... but they also deeply feared runaway effects that would turn the people into a mob.

Lenin and Stalin and Mao were in similar situations. They became true dictators, viciously slaughtering the very people they represented. In contrast, Napolean was very friendly to democracy BELOW the level of his monopoly on coercive state power and right to wage war.

In utter contrast, Washington saw that his people were relatively calm and educated and too dispersed for mob rule. The perfect time for a genius to decide to set an example and offer pulse examples of letting-go. One of the greatest men of any age.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

Washington was a great man. I agree with that. But he was flawed as well. If I am not mistaken, not much later on he lost his faith that America could rule and protect itself. He came to vocally favor going back under the rule of Great Britain.

This is related to the whole "Federalist Papers" fiasco, as I remember.

(I haven't looked up sources on this today, because it's too late, and I am a mere mortal. My degree is not in history or philosophy. If I am wrong, then I will learn something new :) )

My point is, that Washington didn't really let go. He may have stepped aside, but he came back later, rather forcefully.

No matter how great the man, the temptations of power are hard to resist.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

Your theory that the Enlightenment is "above" philosophy is very intriguing. I would like to -- and some extent, I do -- believe this personally.

There is some truth to it, since philosophy and science (and occultism, with a few seedier things) walked hand-in-hand, and vast amounts were learned in a short period of time. Beautiful thoughts and a beautiful age.

But there is a danger of putting the Enlightenment on too high of a pedastal, and to become too blind to its flaws. The mistakes of the past shouldn't be forgotten.

While the Enlightenment as an entity may be "above Philosophy", the moral philosophies created during it are not. Some of them are wonderful, I agree -- but they bear the weakness of all moral philosophy: That they cannot be proven. Therefore you cannot convert anyone that does not want to be converted.

Putting the moral philosophies of the Enlightenment "above philosophy" is just as dangerous as putting the actions of Mao or Stalin "beyond good and evil." (qv, Nietzsche)

Anonymous said...

A clarification on my last paragraph (I realized I cut it a little short to be clear):

"Putting the moral philosophies of the Enlightenment "above philosophy" is just as dangerous as putting the actions of Mao or Stalin "beyond good and evil." (qv, Nietzsche)"

That is, you are putting one flawed set of rules above all others. Maybe I shouldn't care what philosophies others extoll.

Or maybe I'm secretly rooting for Sartre's Existentialism or Campbell's "Follow Your Bliss", instead ;) Or maybe Hedonism. I've always wanted to have 2,000 wives.

David Brin said...

I consider none of the Enlightenment's copmponents to be above citokate. Indeed, the citokate process is THE core element that makes enlightenmant cultures error-correcting processes and capable of metazoan virtues.

I have often pointed out that even admirable movements like inclusion and tolerance and otherness can become silly when they are fetishistic and neglect any connection to their gritty roots.

Moreover, I have elsewhere (someone liunk to my "meme war" piece) said that I'm not even sure this great experiment is sane! Certainly the New Confucians do not think so. Nor do the Wh'ha'bs.

But we are capable of IMAGINING being wrong. It's why we have science. Ironically by our standards... I think that suggests we're the sane ones.

Anonymous said...

"But we are capable of IMAGINING being wrong. It's why we have science. Ironically by our standards... I think that suggests we're the sane ones."

This, I agree with completely.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the author of the historyexplained website doesn't take enough care to distinguish among dictators. The one that really bothered me was his criticism of the West for opposing N. Korea's take over of S. Korea. It's true that the division of the peninsula is not a good thing, but in light of the current conditions in N & S Korea, how can anyone argue that the Koreans wouldn't be better off if the South backed by Western powers had succeeded in taking over the North.

Anonymous said...

However, I should add that sometimes some thoroughly disgusting dictator may be the least bad option. Has deposing Saddam Hussein really had any beneficial effects? Could it have had beneficial effects if done right?

Anonymous said...

The contrast Hobbes and Rousseau brought to my mind an earlier pair of philosophical contemporaries, Itinerant middle-management administrator K'ung Tzu (proponent of hierarchies and rules) and Librarian Lao Tzu (proponent of the great integrity of a simpler past).

Both articulated useful notions regarding human nature and society, but I find the empirical meritocracy of Mo Tzu and the operant conditioning-based legalism of Han Fei Tzu to be more relevant to describing the success of [modern] civilization in apparently reducing violence.

So, enterik, would it be accurate to say that you prefer taking your philosophers Tzu by Tzu?

(Sorry, I couldn't help myself...) :)

Enterik said...

JONATHAN: So, enterik, would it be accurate to say that you prefer taking your philosophers Tzu by Tzu?

Hurrah! Hurrah! And the little one stops to formulate an antithesis towards deriving a hegelian synthesis, and they all go marching down into the ground to get out of the rain, bum, bum, bum...