Saturday, April 04, 2015

Violence, War and an Improving World - Part I: The Pinker Effect

A while ago I offered up an in-depth exploration of the mythic system of modern science fiction, as illustrated in James Cameron's epic film Avatar, exposing how a very healthy reflex (cultural self-criticism) all-too often sours into something much less wholesome -- a mythology that western civilization is not improvable.  That our society's inherent vileness merits only self-loathing and despair.

Ironically, some of the most sincere voices in film and fiction, who push messages of progress, are instead undermining it by encouraging cynical gloom. Take my esteemed colleague in the craft of creating worlds, Charles Stross, whose popular blog is often on target when it comes to listing phenomena that push against any hope for continuing our Western Democratic Scientific Enlightenment. The failure modes that he lists are daunting and mostly very real... and tell only half the story...  

The other half -- how we got the freedom and other goodies that are in peril, in the first place -- almost never comes up, nor the many, many countervailing forces that we might use - as our ancestors used them - to keep the Enlightenment Experiment going.

Why this obsession with downer news? Well, for one thing, dire warnings are more useful than polyanna-pangloss-happy ravings! If I must choose - zero-sum - between extremes, then please do have the cynics come sit next to me! 

But zero-sum is deeply stupid and self-defeating. As is stylish cynicism, over the long run. Diagnosing a disease is most effective when it is accompanied by a confident determination to take action. And that, in turn, requires some sense of the body's strengths, as well as its weaknesses.

In this new series, I plan to show how this same syndrome  pervades academia and popular punditry. The overall result has been a shattering of confidence in our ability to improve, giving comfort to those who see no reason to improve, at all.

== The worst sin: admitting good news == 

Among the most important books of our era is Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) which presents voluminous statistical and other evidence to show that the cynical catechisms of both left and right are specious. 

The crux: there is enough good news in human affairs to merit some cautious optimism. As overall per-capita rates of violence plummet, worldwide (though not in hellish trouble spots)… as poverty declines and ever-larger fractions of the world’s children bring school books back to homes with electricity, clean water and plentiful food… and as ever increasing numbers of girls feel empowered over their own lives… the real question boils down to: 

“Why is such good news anathema — even rage-inducing — among zealots at all ends of the political spectrum?”

To be clear, Pinker and his supporters have never said “there has been some progress — therefore let’s all relax.” 

But that is what so many hear. And that perception is, in its own right, deeply sick.

The fear on the left is that any admission of real progress will sap the intensity of our passion to save the world. The dread on the right is even more intense -- that Pinker’s statistics will show past liberal and progressive efforts were, in large measure, responsible for this tentatively good news. 

Now please, look over those two sentences again. Don't skim. They are blatantly true, and reveal stunning psychoses spanning our so-called political “spectrum.” In fact, both sides are functionally insane. Especially liberals, for not seeing the simple sales-pitch they could start using:

“You see? Progressivism works! We’re halfway there! Of course, if we don’t double down and fix the rest, all of our hard-won gains will be lost and we’ll all die! But Pinker’s statistics show it’s possible! So yay Pinker. And let’s embrace optimism. Step up, with confidence, spurn the gloomists and naysayers, and double down on progress!”

That is what a few pragmatist liberals (the only sane political bloc left in the U.S.) do say! But at the far-left (very different from “liberals”) -- even the possibility of an agenda based on confidence and optimism is utterly anathema. And thus, they play into the hands of the even-more-sick right.

== Attacking Pinker ==

Pinker’s statistics are hard to refute, so how do the paladins of pessimism respond? In this article by John Gray from The Guardian - Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war -  Mr. Gray argues with deceitful tricks and outright lies. 

He starts by pointing out that Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Voltaire — while demanding freedom for the common man, and definitions of citizenship an order of magnitude more inclusive than before — also muttered some statements that seem racist or bigoted or sexist, to modern ears. How monstrously vile

... by which I mean vile of Gray. In judging sages of the past, the rule must be “did they try hard to push our horizons of inclusion wider than the assumptions under which they had been raised?” If they fought to enlarge tolerance and opportunity beyond what men and women of their times took for granted, then yes, they were heroes of “enlightenment” and not hypocrites, as manipulative cynics like Mr. Gray would have you believe.  

But let’s elaborate on that point, since it seems difficult for many to grasp. Should Abraham Lincoln be “outed” for sharing some racial stereotypes of his own upbringing and era? Sure, look at them in cold light. But also take the word of Frederick Douglass who observed such inconsistencies up close, in the most dramatic case where an imperfect hero ultimately delivered the goods, however deep his imperfections:

“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” 
                   -Frederick Douglass 

Am I too harsh on Mr. Gray, for his assertion that enlightenment thinkers should have made leaps to perfection, instead of pushing humanity and humanism forward by incremental stages? (Increments far greater than all the cynics, like Mr. Gray, have ever accomplished, combined?) 

No, if anything I am being gentle, especially after Gray's loathsome trickery was quintupled — when he tried to fob off onto the Enlightenment all blame for Hitler and Stalin!

You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi “scientific racism” was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton. Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith.”

Grrrr.  The number of calumnies in just those sentences is beyond count. And that wasn’t even the whole paragraph! 

Anyone who correlates Nazism and Stalinism - two fiercely repressive state religions and pyramidal-authoritarian despotisms - with anything other than a pair of frontal assaults by romanticism against the tolerant diversity of enlightenment empiricism, is either a supreme delusion-artist or an outright propagandist. The fact that actual scientists fled both the Nazi and the Communist hells as fact as they could, lending all their fiber to strengthening the democratic west, just might suggest that Germany and the USSR were using the term “scientific” as an incantation, far removed from the real thing. The very thing that their befuddled modern analogues -- romantics like Mr. Gray -- also confuse. 

Indeed, it was western science that utterly demolished the rationalizations used by those despotisms for their insane thuggery, as well as engendering the fecund creativity that allowed free citizenries to surge forward, leaving both fanatical religions in a cloud of dust.

In Nazism, Stalinism and subsequent ‘isms' we see howls of rage aimed directly at enlightenment. Those who currently denounce democratic decadence — ranging from ISIS to the rising plutocratic oligarchy's court apologists like Gray and Leo Strauss and Francis Fukayama — all rationalize that the experiment in citizen sovereignty is doomed to collapse from inherent contradictions, despite it having achieved — in two centuries — far more than all other social systems across all continents and 6000 years.  Combined.

 Hitler and Stalin openly declared contempt for our experiment and eagerness to end it, using methods rooted in the feudal satrapies that dominated human affairs across those 60 centuries. Trying to pin them on our enlightenment is an act of legerdemain so staggeringly dishonest as to win Mr. Gray a place in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

== Other calumnies ==

Likewise, Gray's notion that Enlightenment’s defenders deny the efficacy of the atom bomb at deterring war. Um? Of course deterrence played a role! But if this window of relative peace is to become permanent, we had better use it to make peace a habit. And despite your snarking, Mr. Gray, just talk to the millions of young people graduating from the world’s universities, every year, to see that altruism and empathy are spreading!  And that nearly all of your assertions are diametrically opposite to true.

Oh, but he goes on, and makes one actual, true statement: If great powers have avoided direct armed conflict, they have fought one another in many proxy wars.”  

Yep!  Enlightenment is not a light switch.This is no fairy tale.  Justice and happy endings aren't guaranteed.  Martin Luther King Jr. did not promise the path would be linear, but an "arc" that will sweep toward justice only if most (not all) of us pull on it, like gravity.  

 Let me avow something that might (at first glance, please the mad Straussian neocons out there and upset goody-goody lefties, by admitting that some older, rougher tools were needed, in order to get us to these (tentatively) better days. Particularly a “pax” imperium — Pax Americana. And, like all such empires, PA made some awful, thuggish mistakes. Fewer than any other “pax” across 6000 years! PA presents history with a vastly better ratio of good deeds to bad, and Mr. Gray does not dare meet my offer of a wager over that. He knows I would own his house. 

But yes, we have stuff to atone-for.

Nevertheless, the defense umbrella of Pax Americana allowed half of Europe (and later all of it), much of Asia, and nearly all of the Western Hemisphere to spend the last 70 years allocating far, far lower fractions of their national wealth to armies and defense than any other peoples, across all of time. 

Please read again that last sentence and let it sink in. Across all of time, nations generally devoted half of their national wealth to war or defense, almost anywhere you look. Half. 

What was the average under Pax Americana? Two percent of GDP — that is how much the NATO countries are currently arguing over. A pittance that would be hilarious, if folks from any other era showed up to offer comment. 

The exception? The USA, which for a human lifespan has carried the more “normal” defense burden, protecting trade and general peace. And thereby empowered other nations to prosper. These aren’t just assertions. Refute them, if you can! (In the form, of a wager please: put real money on it.) You cannot.

Oh, but then, after dipping into a half-truth, Mr. Gray dives right back into full-lies. While it is true that war has changed, it has not become less destructive.” 

Dang. Just dang. Um, has he watched even one historical documentary, ever, of any kind? Notice that Gray does not even try to back this up.  He armwaves assertions. He is the Fox News of cynicism.

Is his screed without value? In fact, Mr. Gray raised many cavils and modern problems.  We do live in a world still wracked with awful conflicts. The USA can hardly preach a pure morality tale while we have the world’s highest incarceration rates. And the oligarchic putsch that has deliberately re-ignited the American Civil War — destroying politics as a means of negotiated problem solving — is an act of treason that threatens to eviscerate the nation’s heart, its ability to deal with a future of onrushing change.  These and a myriad other vexing challenges merit our determined attention and passionately militant response!

Only please dig this, Mr. Gray.  It is not your relentlessly deliberate cheating and lying that I find despicable, but your intensely evident aim to denounce and undermine our belief that problems can be solved. By denying that any of our past efforts ever have solved any.

It is the jibbering insanity of today’s Far-Left, which makes that extremum (not moderate liberals) almost 10% as crazy as today’s Entire-Right.

Yes, that crazy.


Continue to Part II: Is Conflict Necessary for Human Advancement?


Paul Shen-Brown said...

If I could once exchange with fate my place
Would give to scheme of things a newborn face
A scheme where good would not be cursed by base
And thus evolve a fairer human race.

- Omar Khayyam

David Brin said...

Nice. I did post one last answer on the previous thread. Oh, someone tell Tacitus we miss him.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I'm a terrible poet, so I'll let a master speak for me (in translation, anyway, and not Fitzgerald but an actual Persian translator). I used this as a dedication for a story I wrote once. It seems to me that we cannot just take for granted that evolution has stopped and we will always be exactly as we are now. Certainly science fiction authors should be thinking at least a little about where the future could take us, not just in technological terms but in biological terms.

Years of teaching has confirmed something I strongly suspected - that as long as there is opportunity to cheat, there will be cheaters. So what can we do to eliminate the very possibility of cheating? When I was fresh out of high school, I thought that if we all had telepathy, and it was a constant thing we could not switch off and on at will, then lying would be pointless and the motivation to cheat would be permanently erased. Of course, telepathy is so out there it is more magic than even sci-fi. If there was some scientific basis for it, I could have some hope. After all, flying machines and submarines were once science fiction, sneered at by conservative minds. But other science fiction has rekindled a bit of hope. In one of James White's "Tales of Sector General" stories he describes an alien race that has an elaborate set of muscles underneath a coat of fur, and the constant movement of those muscles, creating patterns in their fur, served as a very important form of non-verbal communication that is much more elaborate than anything humans experience. It occurred to me that such a system might have the same effect - there would be no point lying because your fur patterns would give you away.

Another one that got me thinking was Greg Bear's "Darwin's Children" the sequel to his much better novel "Darwin's Radio." (A few posts back someone recommended this book to me, but I was having a very busy few weeks and forgot to thank him, though I am already familiar). The "virus children" in Bear's novel, who represent a punctuation in human evolution (a la Stephen Jay Gould's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium) had some interesting features. I wasn't so sure about the chromatophores, but their advanced pheromonal system struck me as a real possibility, and one that could potentially be accomplished through genetic engineering, rather than leaving it to random mutation. If both or vomeronasal organs and our pheromonal glands were more advanced, we might find ourselves in a position where we could no longer lie to each other, because our pheromones would give us away. It isn't a perfect solution, as pheromones do not transmit over the internet. However, most of our interactions with our fellow hominids are still face-to-face (nose-to-nose?), so it would likely make cheating much less common among future hominds.

This is rather pie in the sky thinking, but I'm a deep-time kind of person. We can tweak our institutions as much as we like, but until human nature itself changes in some substantial ways, we will always have the same problems. I don't doubt Pinker's statistics or conclusions, but I can imagine a lot of tweaks to our biology that would accomplish much without the misery and bloodshed that tends to accompany revolutions of the political kind.

Tacitus said...

Still around, but working too many night shifts. When I comment I prefer to bring the A game.

Enjoyed this post, food for thought. Sleep first though. Carpe Circadium.


locumranch said...

"Pinker’s statistics are hard to refute ..."

Not hardly.

N. N. Taleb, author of 'The Black Swan', refutes this quite handily:

Plus, there are the previously referenced graphs (applicable to Australia, the UK, USA & Brazil) which show that the recent decline in societal violence is inversely proportional to increased incarceration:

Then, there is the nonsensical progressive screed that follows (quoted below) which (1) takes the form of a most blatant 'appeal to emotion' (argumentum ad passiones) and (2) equivocates 'progressive incrementalism' as the 'almost-equal' substitute for 'enlightenment empiricism' when they are clearly non-identical concepts.

“You see? Progressivism works! We’re halfway there! Of course, if we don’t double down and fix the rest, all of our hard-won gains will be lost and we’ll all die! But Pinker’s statistics show it’s possible! So yay Pinker. And let’s embrace optimism. Step up, with confidence, spurn the gloomists and naysayers, and double down on progress!”

Sure. Go and SELL that 'unceasing growth' insanity to an Architect or Engineer who tries to put yet another floor on a 10-story structure that was designed with a single-floor foundation, even though such misplaced confidence is a recipe for cataclysm and total disaster.

For progress to continue, we need to START OVER, raze the current structure down to the bedrock, design & construct a massively improved foundation capable of supporting (bearing-up under) a truly magnificent structure and then, only then, can we hope to build well-enough to reach the stars.

How does a progressive change a light-bulb? He stands on a chair and, when he still can't reach, he stacks some books, an overturned waste basket and some odds & ends on the chair, and then he stands on that mess until he falls off, hurts himself & demands Obamacare.

Just fetch a ladder, you lazy beggar!! You can't expect to stand on wants, hopes & wishes for more than a moment and, if you truly wish to reach the highest heights, then always START AT THE BOTTOM in every endeavour.


Night shifts truly do suck. Most nocturnal ER visits are nonsense anyway (few are critical), so let's do away with them. Those few who can't wait are 'godswill', and that's good because god hasta eat same as pigs & docs.

DP said...

As for the imperfection of the Enlightenment philosophers and Abraham Lincoln its best to remember this observation by historian Will Durant:

"A man's vices are of his times, but his virtues are his own."

DP said...

Things are getting better, that much is obvious.

However, where I part company with Pinker is his assertion that this somehow changes our basic nature.

Millions of years of evolution won't be undone and permanently changed by a few centuries of increasing peace.

Civilization is a relatively recent software add on that conflicts with our basic operating system hard wired by evolution "red in tooth and claw". As Robert Heinlein observed, the average person is only six meals away from killing someone. That will always be true.

It would not take much for us to revert to our natural selves. To quote Durant again:

"Every vice was once a virtue, and may become respectable again, just as hatred becomes respectable in wartime."

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB - just as some people can defeat lie detector tests by controlling their responses to questions, I suspect that even post-humans with other autonomic responses will be able to do the same.

I would put my trust in education and cultural norms that emphasize cooperation and stigmatize violence and cheating, backed with effective institutional punishment for cheating.

My sense is that cheating increases with increased rewards and reduced risks, which is what we are seeing again today, especially with wealthy elites. Justice should be shown to be blind.

DP said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with Gray on one point - the fear of nuclear annihilation and its role in deterring conflict.

Dr. Brin, you don't refute his claim so much as declare that we should take advantage of this window of opportunity to make it permanent. True, but beside the point.

If not for nuclear weapons we would be fighting World War V or VI by now.

Alex Tolley said...

How does a conservative change a light-bulb?

He stands on a chair, but cannot reach he bulb. So he finds another chair, with the same result. The process goes on ad infinitum, with the bulb remaining unchanged.

Alex Tolley said...

Most nocturnal ER visits are nonsense anyway (few are critical), so let's do away with them.

Talk about irrational. So most people don't need ER care at night (isn't the same true during the day?). Solution presented, remove the service, so that people in genuine need of an ER are no longer served. Very compassionate. :(

DP said...

As for Pinker's statistics, I remain skeptical. How can he claim a per capita reduction in violence over time when pre-modern population statistics are either missing entirely or not much better than guess work.

We don't know the population of the Roman Empire when it fell, or how many people were killed by Genghis Khan,or how many Aztecs were wiped out by the conquistadors. Pinke's claim would have us believe that the Mongols killed fewer people per capita than the brutal Assyrians - how could we possibly know this with any certainty?

And his claim that the 20th century was part of this overall peaceful trend is frankly laughable.

Alex Tolley said...

Plus, there are the previously referenced graphs (applicable to Australia, the UK, USA & Brazil) which show that the recent decline in societal violence is inversely proportional to increased incarceration:

Doesn't look very convincing to me. Also why the very short time period?

DP said...

To show the ridiculousness of Pinker's claim that the 20th century was part of an ever increasing peaceful trend requires only a comparison with the atheistic regimes of the 20th century and the Inquisition.

As AN Wilson rightly pointed out, all of the atheistic totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (Bolshevik, Stalinist, Nazi, Maoist, Khmer Rouge, etc.) committed mass murder, democide, on a scale that ISIS can only dream about. Look up Prof. Rummel's study on democide in the 20th century. Rummel's work can be accessed via Marginal Revolution at:

What I found most interesting was the following comparisons:

"So, the famine was intentional. What was its human cost? I had estimated that 27,000,000 Chinese starved to death or died from associated diseases. Others estimated the toll to be as high as 40,000,000. Chang and Halliday put it at 38,000,000, and given their sources, I will accept that. Now, I have to change all the world democide totals that populate my websites, blogs, and publications. The total for the communist democide before and after Mao took over the mainland is thus 3,446,000 + 35,226,000 + 38,000,000 = 76,692,000, or to round off, 77,000,000 murdered. This is now in line with the 65 million toll estimated for China in the Black Book of Communism, and Chang and Halliday's estimate of "well over 70 million." This exceeds the 61,911,000 murdered by the Soviet Union 1917-1987, with Hitler far behind at 20,946,000 wiped out 1933-1945.

Discounting the 3,446,000 killed in the Sino-Japanese war prior to the start of Mao's rule, the Maoist PRC (with these new numbers for the deliberate, man-made famine during the Great Leap Forward) killed over 73,000,000 people. Over the 38 years of Maoist rule, this comes to an average of about 1.92 million per year.

The democide rate of Hitler's 12 year Reich was about 1.75 million per year. The democide rate of the 70 year Stalinist USSR was about 0.88 million per year (about half that of the Third Reich). Stalin's (and the Stalinist system's) much greater total was the result of its much greater longevity. Hitler's democide rate was smaller, but still comparable to Mao's.

The total for the three largest atheist totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (Stalinist, Nazi and Maoist) comes to approximately 160 million over 70 years. This does not include mass murder by secondary Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Khmer Rouge and other atheist totalitarians, which raises to total to an estimated 200 million innocents murdered by atheists. AN Wilson is correct, the horrors of the 20th century stem from atheism and were carried out by atheists.

By comparison, the religious equivalent - the Inquisition - was mild by comparison. From an Internet FAQ on the Inquisitions:

"How many were executed by the Spanish Inquisition? By most standards, the records of the Spanish Inquisition are spectacularly good and a treasure trove for social historians as they record many details about ordinary people. Nothing like all the files have been analysed but from the third looked at so far, it seems the Inquisition, operating through out the Spanish Empire, executed about 700 people between 1540 and 1700 out of a total of 49,000 cases. It is also reckoned that they probably killed about two thousand during the first fifty years of operation when persecution against Jews and Moslems was at its most severe. This would give a total figure of around 5,000 for the entire three hundred year period of its operation."

Compared to the ocean of blood spilled by the atheist totalitarians, the blood spilled by crusades, jihads, pogroms, inquisitions and persecutions is but a drop.

Alex Tolley said...

"Pinker’s statistics are hard to refute ..." Not hardly. N. N. Taleb, author of 'The Black Swan', refutes this quite handily

Taleb suggests, probably correctly that Pinker has misused statistics. However he hasn't disproved the Pinker's findings. That really shouldn't have been hard to do using the correct stats. So I see this as valid criticism of the methods, but not necessarily of the conclusion.

I would also be careful about trying to change human nature, rather than nurture. Suppose we reduce our violent tendencies by engineering. Then we engage in METI and unexpectedly find ourselves facing an alien invasion. Might we then be less effective in resisting?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Guys

Pinker changed one of the most important "Truths" that I grew up with

Humans are still the same - scratch one and find a caveman

His statistics show clearly that we have changed
And not by a little bit!

I have used statistics extensively in my career in engineering, the complaints about Pinker's statistics are just the picky maths guys whinging about something that effects the sixth decimal place and is irrelevant to the massive changes he has found

To Daniel's point - I agree I can't see how this could be a genetic change and I suspect that a modern human brought up in the roman times would acquire their propensity to violence

BUT we have changed - our society has changed - we are less violent
It could change back!
But if we understand what has changed we should be able to move forwards not back

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I am wondering who will qualify to be among the elites in Loci's brave new world, the ones who get to choose who will be sent to the gas chambers. Every scheme to wipe the slate clean on the scale of human society requires a modicum of genocide. What arbitrary criteria will determine who benefits and who gets wiped away?

Alex, I'm in agreement with you here, though I hope that we will find something that will make cheating much more difficult. Culture is one of the most important shapers of human lives, but culture is never monolithic. For every meme-slinger who emphasizes the better side of our nature, there will be those whose interests are better served by keeping us at each other's throats. They will always rationalize the antisocial aspects of our nature, dismissing the social aspects as polyannish nonsense, and stirring up trouble. Factionalism among the unwashed masses keeps them from effectively competing with the upper crusties.

Daniel, we have to be vert careful making statements about our evolution and human nature, until we have completely decoded all of our genomes and epigenomes. The idea that a few millennia of civilization is nothing compared to millions of years of evolution is largely correct but not entirely. We debated the assumptions that underpin evolutionary psychology when I was in grad school. It became abundantly clear that Ev Psych had a huge contribution to make to understanding our nature, but it has some issues of its own. One of those is the assumption that for humans evolution stopped in the Pleistocene. Evolution only stops when you go extinct. It is, however, a very slow process, especially so for a species that has a relatively long generation time. Still, it has been roughly 10,000 years since agriculture set us on a path to sedentism, and 6,000 since we began crowding ourselves into cities. There is no reason to assume that selective pressure has done absolutely nothing to our many gene pools in that many generations. What it has done, however, we don't know with great certainty. There are some good indicators, especially in bone densities, to show that the path toward increased neotony (not the ridiculous "feminization" notion of Loci) has been accelerating since the rise of civilization. This makes sense, to say nothing of the exercise of our frontal lobes. And while I respect Heinlein as an author, he wrote his prize-winning novels in the 1950's, and the last in the early 1980's. Our understanding of human nature has grown by leaps and bounds since his day. He was smart, thoughtful and sometimes funny, but hardly an authority to fossilize our ideas around.

Another issue, while the 20th Century dictators you bring up were quite bloody, labeling them all atheists isn't quite right. This is most obvious in the case of Hitler, who was a regular church-goer, referenced God and God's will frequently in "Mein Kampf" and proudly displayed crosses with swastikas attached. I am much less familiar with the Kmer Rouge, though in Asian Civ classes they were said to have been mostly orthodox Hindu. Also, comparing the numbers of people killed by the Spanish Inquisition (while neglecting the Inquisition in the rest of Europe and the New World) to 20th Century bloodbaths is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison. What was the population of Europe in the 16th Century compared to the 20th Century? A huge city in those times had tens of thousands of people, while cities of over a million were commonplace in the 20th, and tens of millions are commonplace early into the 21st. If there are a couple orders of magnitude difference in the total populations, then a couple orders of magnitude difference in the body counts should come as no surprise.

DP said...

PSB - "This is most obvious in the case of Hitler, who was a regular church-goer, referenced God and God's will frequently in "Mein Kampf" and proudly displayed crosses with swastikas attached."

No that simply isn't true.

It's a rather odd sort of Christian that plans to destroy Christianity.
Hitler planned to destroy Christianity, according to evidence presented at the Nuremberg Trials and a report compiled by the OSS which is now available to the public in the archives of Rutgers and Cornell universities:

THE chilling testimony of crimes against humanity by the Nazi regime in Hitler's Germany have been on the historical record since the Nuremberg war-crimes trials of 1945 and 1946. But any criminal prosecution, and especially one as mammoth as the case against Nazi Germany, consists of far more than public testimony in court. The Nuremberg trials were also built on many millions of pages of supporting evidence: documents, summaries, notes and memos collected by investigators.

One of the leading United States investigators at Nuremberg, Gen. William J. Donovan -- Wild Bill Donovan of the O.S.S., the C.I.A.'s precursor -- collected and cataloged trial evidence in 148 bound volumes of personal papers that were stored after his death in 1959 at Cornell University. In 1999, Julie Seltzer Mandel, a law student from Rutgers University whose grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp, read them. Under the Nuremberg Project, a collaboration between Rutgers and Cornell, she has edited the collection for publication on the Internet.

The first installment, published lon the Web site of the Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion (, includes a 108-page outline prepared by O.S.S. investigators to aid Nuremberg prosecutors. The outline, ''The Persecution of the Christian Churches,'' summarizes the Nazi plan to subvert and destroy German Christianity, which it calls ''an integral part of the National Socialist scheme of world conquest.''...

According to Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi leader of the German youth corps that would later be known as the Hitler Youth, ''the destruction of Christianity was explicitly recognized as a purpose of the National Socialist movement'' from the beginning, though ''considerations of expedience made it impossible'' for the movement to adopt this radical stance officially until it had consolidated power, the outline says.

DP said...


The complete OSS Nuremberg files can be found at the Cornell University law library website:

The archive's index summary can be found here:

Those files dealing specifically with the Nazi plan to eradicate Christianity can be found here:

The Nuremberg trial documentation concerning Nazi persecution of Christianity prepared by the OSS after the war is back by other historical research. For example, see Weinberg's "A World at Arms" (IMHO the best single volume history of the war):

"Secondly, all the plans for cities and towns had one common characteristic: there would be no churches in post-war Germany's urban areas. Here one can see the architectural expression of a goal close to the hearts of the leadership of National Socialist Germany. Whatever temporary accommodations might have been made in wartime to the objections of the churches to euthanasia, to the removal of crucifixes from the schools, and the maintenance of a structure of chaplains in the army, once victory had been attained in the war, the existence of Christian churches in Germany could be safely ended. And if anyone objected, the Gestapo would see to their punishment."

An historical review sums up the conclusions of the OSS report quite nicely:

"Donovan's Nuremberg report undermines the assertion, made by Feldman and so many others, that because several key Nazis had ties (however tenuous) to a church, and because the Nazis advanced insidious policies, then those insidious policies must be inherently Christian. To what extent elements of popular Christian ideology fed Hitler's Antisemitism is a separate and valid question, but the "if A then B" connection fails because insidious anti-Christian policies do not fit the syllogism above. A plan to eradicate Christianity can hardly be construed as Christian, and persons supporting such a plan can hardly be considered believers of any standing."

The OSS report and associated documentation was entered into as evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. As such is historical proof of Nazi hostility to Christianity.

DP said...


The Nazis, Hitler especially, despised Christianity as a belief fit only for weaklings, not for the coming amoral Superman (that they misread Nietzsche on this issue is besides the point). With the possible exception of Himmler and his bizarre paganism, the Nazi ruling circle was composed of atheists.

Though he called himself a Christian in Mein Kampf and in several speeches, it is well to remember that these were pronouncements for public consumption and were made by a consummate liar/politician. No politician could have hoped to get himself elected in Weimar Germany as a self proclaimed atheist. In his public pronouncement concerning his religious faith, Hitler did the sensible thing, he lied.

For his real views on the subject see his "Table Talk", surreptitiously recorded by Martin Borman and never intended for the public. These statements represent his real views (more on this below). Statements made in confidence to a circle of cronies is obviously a better indicator of the man's thinking than statement made to woo the public.

DP said...


Now, as for Hitler's Table Talk... Outside of the officially atheist Soviet Union, what politician in the 1930s would publicly admit to being an atheist? Let me repeat for emphasis, Hitler was a skilled politician and a consummate liar (the two often go together). Mein Kampf was for public consumption and expressed only those views most likely to get him elected. To really understand what such a man believes, it is necessary to view those words that were not intended for public consumption, as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper makes clear:

"We must go direct to Hitler's personal utterances: not indeed to his letters and speeches-- these, though valuable, are too public, too formalised for such purposes-- but to his private conversations, his Table-Talk. Table-Talk, like notebooks, reveal the mind of a man far more completely, more intimately, than any formal utterance."

DP said...


In Table Talk the following statements on Christianity by Hitler will be found:

The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity. Bolshevism practises a lie of the same nature, when it claims to bring liberty to men, whereas in reality it seeks only to enslave them.

Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.

Being weighed down by a superstitious past, men are afraid of things that can't, or can't yet, be explained-that is to say, of the unknown. If anyone has needs of a metaphysical nature, I can't satisfy them with the Party's programme. Time will go by until the moment when science can answer all the questions.

Christianity, of course, has reached the peak of absurdity in this respect. And that's why one day its structure will collapse. Science has already impregnated humanity. Consequently, the more Christianity clings to its dogmas, the quicker it will decline.

A movement like ours mustn't let itself be drawn into metaphysical digressions. It must stick to the spirit of exact science. It's not the Party's function to be a counterfeit for religion.

If in the course of a thousand or two thousand years, science arrives at the necessity of renewing its points of view, that will not mean that science is a liar. Science cannot lie, for it's always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge to deduce what is true. When it makes a mistake, it does 10 in good faith. It's Christianity that's the liar. It's in perpetual conflict with itself.

The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.
Pure Christianity-the Christianity of the catacombs-is concerned with translating the Christian doctrine into facts. It leads quite simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely whole- hearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics.

I adopted a definite attitude on the 21st March '933 when I refused to take part in the religious services, organised at Potsdam by the two Churches, for the inauguration of the new Reichstag.

Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity. It will last another hundred years, two hundred years perhaps. My regret will have been that I couldn't, like whoever the prophet was, behold the promised land from afar.

The fact that I remain silent in public over Church affairs is not in the least misunderstood by the sly foxes of the Catholic Church, and I am quite sure that a man like the Bishop von Galen knows full well that after the war I shall extract retribution to the last farthing. And, if he does not succeed in getting himself transferred in the meanwhile to the Collegium Germanium in Rome, he may rest assured that in the balancing of our accounts, no "T" will remain uncrossed, no "I" undotted!

Christianity is an invention of sick brains.

Duncan Cairncross said...

I accept what you say about Christianity and Hitler

BUT it does not make him an atheist - far from it -
He believed in a god or gods - not christian ones but still gods

He was just another God Botherer - just like 99% of all of the monsters in history

Alex Tolley said...

Samuel Koehne of Deakin University wrote in 2010: "Was Hitler an atheist? Probably not. But it remains very difficult to ascertain his personal religious beliefs, and the debate rages on." While Hitler was emphatically not "Christian" by the traditional or orthodox notion of the term, wrote Koehne, he did speak of a deity whose work was nature and natural laws, "conflating God and nature to the extent that they became one and the same thing..." and that "For this reason, some recent works have argued Hitler was a Deist".[128]


This supports Duncan's view that Hitler probably was not an atheist.

DP said...

Duncan, please don't use "God Botherer". It's a derogatory term not unlike the n-word.

And while you are at it please review the following 3 part video:

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I hope we are not going to spill too much pixel here over the religions values of long-dead dictators. I mentioned this because I have had Bible bangers pounding on my door since I was a kid, insisting that Hitler was an atheist and that therefore all atheists are evil (in fact, after reading Robert Jay Lifton's work with brainwashed POWs it was equally clear that these Bible bangers were using the same techniques the North Korean Army used). Even at such a young age I could tell it was a Godwin Argument - guilt by association. But guilt by association is not persuasive to those who think critically. Even if x number of atheists committed x number of atrocities, it still does not follow that all atheists are evil. Of course the argument goes the other way, too. Not all Christians are Tomas de Torquemada, either. One of the problems here is a tendency toward typological thinking. Ernst Mayr identified this as a key problem for people trying to understand biological evolution. We tend to think of everything as falling into a category and treat the category as real (reification error) instead of dealing with the variable realities of the individual members of a category. Likewise our tendency with regard to religion is to assume that all members of x religion think and act in x manner, and yet all religions are made up of highly variable, idiosyncratic human beings (or human beans, in some cases). Attempts to associate any one group of people with all things evil are therefore nothing but prejudice. That does not mean we cannot discuss averages, nor critique the logic and arguments presented by different social groups. But let us please discuss human beings in a spirit of debate rather than smear and slander. I can't say i have known a whole lot of atheists in my life, but the ones I have known are nothing like the flagrant sinners I was warned about in every church I ever attended. In fact, they rejected religion on moral grounds, from the standpoint of both a history of atrocities and the internal contradictions and anachronisms of their beliefs. I would rather avoid more pogroms.

David Brin said...

Hey Tacitus. Hi Guy. Glad UR around. As for Chief Strawman feh. Keeps refusing to suggest a thing. Almost every time that a society was razed to the ground it meant (1) vast death and suffering, (2) collapse of infrastructure, (#) a return to utter dominance by the basic human governance modality - feudalism, and (4) statis-repressive changelessness.

In other words... no "ladder."

Given that only enlightenment types have ever warned of ecological dangers in advance - and empowered us to deal with them and sometimes do things more efficiently than before, the crit that progressive systems just pile books on a chair is ironic.

Because a) no other social model ever did as well, so show us the alternative... and b) that very criticism is an example of enlightenment self-correcting systems. Go ahead and convince us of your failure mode! It is what the enlightenment trained U to do. And if you convince us... we'll get healthier and better.

Paul451 said...

I took the graph that Locumranch offered, which was meant to show the "obvious" inverse correlation between prison rates and crime rates, and out of curiosity I flipped one of the two elements. Instead of making the supposed correlation now direct (moving in the same direction) and therefore even clearer, it completely vanished. The differences became dominant over the few chance similarities.

And can I say, once again, how much I despise doctors like Locumranch. In my experience, such doctors are the ones who hurt patients. (To the point where it's now my standing rule that I don't allow arrogant doctors to treat me or my family. I'm sure "nice" doctors are sometimes incompetent, but I've never once had an arrogant doctor who was actually good. In spite of the "House" myth. And, I suspect, the house myth.)

Daniel Duffy,
"If not for nuclear weapons we would be fighting World War V or VI by now."

However, that doesn't necessarily refute Pinker's (or David's) point. A more decisive war in Eastern Europe and Russia, in place of the cold war, would have avoided a number of proxy battles due to the influence/financing by the Soviets, and the propping up of monstrous regimes by the US out of fear of Soviet-influenced socialists.

It doesn't necessarily mean that you'd have seen a bloodbath like WWI. The nature of war had changed.

"please don't use "God Botherer". It's a derogatory term not unlike the n-word."

It's very unlike the n-word.

You don't see the difference between someone raised in a religious dominated country using a term to disrespect the worst elements of the majority, and the majority using a word against people who they actually literally enslaved? One is defensive, the other is, in every sense, offensive.

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

As Robert Heinlein observed, the average person is only six meals away from killing someone. That will always be true.

That's a compelling argument for a strong social safety net and a certain level of guaranteed economic security for all citizens. Not out of altruism, but for selfish motives. Neighbors who aren't hungry, cold, and desparate are less likely to kill you.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Larry, what you said is an example of what biologists call "Enlightened Self-Interest." It should be obvious, but too many people can't seem to see past their own noses.

When I used to teach in South Central LA I would often hear students say the phrase "sharing is caring." But when I asked them about it, they said what it really means is your parents are going to take away what you want. I once had a fairly pretty young lady claim that J.P. Morgan was a true American hero because he bailed out the S & Ls during a financial meltdown, but I disagreed with her. Morgan was not stupid. I have little doubt that he understood that if the entire world economy went into a nosedive his own fortunes would lose much of their value. He was a rather crass individual, but he was not stupid. It would be nice if our bankers today shared that quality. Needless to say, the young lady failed to make much of an impression on me, though I am sure it was mutual.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul Shen-Brown: I sincerely hope we never try to eliminate the possibilities for lies and cheating. Down that path lies ubiquitous law enforcement and civilization death. If I can be caught at every lie and cheat, I'll hesitate to act upon useful information I have. If enough do that, the markets die and then we do. No thank you.

The cheaters I want to stomp are the ones too stupid to avoid getting caught. If they are crafty enough to avoid detection, they will invent useful tools to avoid our attention. I want those tools as part of the arms race between them and the rest of us tempted to use our cameras for ubiquitous law enforcement.

Besides, there is a gray area between truth and lies. There is another between good behavior and cheating. Regulations limiting the cheaters should always be reactions because anyone who thinks they can predict our future well enough to block cheaters probably suffers from delusions of god-hood. Let the gray areas alone until people demonstrate the cheats and most everyone else agrees they are cheats. That's in line with Locke's wager.

Alfred Differ said...


Sure. Go and SELL that 'unceasing growth' insanity to an Architect or Engineer who tries to put yet another floor on a 10-story structure that was designed with a single-floor foundation, even though such misplaced confidence is a recipe for cataclysm and total disaster.

For progress to continue, we need to START OVER, raze the current structure down to the bedrock, design & construct a massively improved foundation capable of supporting (bearing-up under) a truly magnificent structure and then, only then, can we hope to build well-enough to reach the stars.

Yah. I'll pass. There is an unfortunate trail that connects despicable 20th century tyrants to Enlightenment philosophers, but you have to take a number of wrong turns to get to what the likes of Hitler and Stalin believed. You have to pass through errors committed by French and Germans who came later. Popper laid out the trail and the stupidities committed by those involved.

The one you are making is one the French made after their revolution. They tried to design a society from the ground up to avoid their history. They beheaded traditions left and right and decimated their ability to educate the next generation. Look at what happened to the schools to see this. Where did innovation go?

You can't start over without killing a culture and becoming vulture food. Traditions can be killed off occasionally, but you better expect the unknown problems they solved to resurface and complicate whatever plan you had for making the world a better place.

Classical liberals know this lesson and prefer a go-slow approach with incremental adjustments to traditions. It's a hard sell in the political sense. Too often we wind up saying the proposed solution is a worse evil than the one we are suffering, thus it would be better to do nothing. We sound like allies of evil people though we are not.

Alfred Differ said...

Regarding nukes and avoided wars I don't think there are many who really understand how much the world changed. If not for nuclear weapons, the Soviets would have taken all of Germany and probably would have reached the Atlantic coast of France. There are no defensible borders on the northern plains of Europe and Russians know a harsh lesson of history taught them by the likes of Napoleon. They would not have stopped except to catch their breath unless the US had the means to force them. Since we were at war with Japan too, it seems doubtful we could have prevented the fall of Europe.

Nukes ended WWII and prevented the rise of a Eurasian hegemon that could have challenged Pax Americana. In that, they prevented the deaths of hundreds of millions later when that hegemon finally took us on. If our descendents don't understand this bit of luck they won't understand just how hellish the alt-worlds around us are. The 20th was a harsh century for many, but the death count was kept under roughly 100 million as the population surged through two billion and then tripled again before it was over. Not too shabby on a world with enough weapons to kill them all many times over.

I'll resist Daniel's narrow-mindedness mostly. I've got to go turn the spit on the BBQ. Hopefully my neighbors don't notice they are missing one of their kids.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alfred, I will have to differ with you on cheaters and stomping, here. If you only stomp the ones who are dumb enough to get caught, you are setting up a strong selective pressure that intensifies their insatiable appetite for power and perversion. Besides, if we can adjust our biology, it would no longer be a matter of heavy-handed enforcement. We already have a number of neurochemical mechanisms that encourage better behavior, if we can tweak these and dramatically increase their distribution, culture will do most of the rest. And our descendants won't know the difference - though perhaps it would result in people who have so little natural aggression that they would be easy meat for any alien species that happens along.

of course, you are welcome to takes my words with a grain of salt, or perhaps an entire carton. Both of my children are on the Spectrum, and while the cause of this epidemic is still unknown, there is at least some epigenetic component. Some of the typical personality features include compulsive honesty, a disease I have suffered from all my life. I get gray areas, but I have great difficulty inserting myself into them where it comes to honest, straightforward speech. Maybe I am an outlier, or maybe just a few deviations from the mean in this regard, but either way, my attitude is hardly typical for my species. Enjoy the barbeque!

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul: I'd argue that the strong, selective pressure already exists and it's a big part of what it means to be human. Our prime competitor in the evolutionary sense is us. Try to reduce that and you change what it means to be human. However, I'm in the camp that argues this has already happened. I like Pinker's perspective and combine it with evidence of an old genetic bottleneck to argue that xenophobia is strongly selected against in the modern era. People who spend a lot of time trading in markets and becoming dependent upon each other are out-populating the xenophobes. The best evidence for this is the size of the markets themselves.

My son is autistic, so I've learned to widen my personal definition for what makes us human. With that and what I learned through coping mechanisms, I've learned to see a lot of gray. Mostly, though, I just can't believe anyone is smart enough to anticipate the cheaters. I'm reluctant to support proactive efforts because I think supporters are guilty of monumental hubris. As a small, mostly non-political example, I'm not willing to support the efforts of my friends to establish a property rights regime for land on the Moon or asteroids. I'll respect property rights claims if I deem them credible, but I don't want to invent social institutions in a vacuum... so to speak. It is hubris to think we can anticipate the needs of property owners out there before they even get out there. Cheating will happen one day, though, and I'm prepared to put on my cleats then.

Duncan Cairncross said...


We punish the cheaters for the same reasons that we prosecute when people don't meet the building codes and buildings fall down

Because everything works better when the rules are obeyed

Not punishing the cheaters leads to overall worse consequences

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alfred, I agree completely with that whole first paragraph, except for a couple caveats. One is that while humans are most of what is driving human evolution, don't forget the pathogens. Since we discovered antibiotics they have been evolving at a frightening rate. The stronger the pressure we put on a living system, the faster it evolves to resist our pressure. PBS did an excellent series on evolution back in 2009, which would have been Darwin's (and, coincidentally, Lincoln's, birthday, but it makes no mention of the connection). If you ever have the chance, watch the episode called "The Evolutionary Arms Race." It is mostly about bacteria, but it makes some interesting points we can apply to our own evolution. Bacteria become less virulent when they depend on us being able to walk around sneezing on each other for their transmission. Bacteria that can get us through our water supply can be much more deadly because they don't need us ambulatory. When we try to kill the germs, they evolve resistance to our medicines, but when we change the conditions under which they operate, we make them tolerable to live with. By cleaning our water supply, the same species of bacteria that killed tens of thousands in Peru (cholera, in the example they gave) causes nothing more than flu-like symptoms in wealthier countries.

I think we can apply this idea to ourselves as well. Why do we have health and building inspectors? It makes it more difficult for cheaters to kill their victims through selling bad products. There's that once of prevention. Poor countries that have lax building codes and easily corrupted inspectors have a lot more death and misery.

Another thing they point out is the role of cooperation in evolution. Most people think evolution is all about competition, but the ubiquity of symbiotic relationships in nature make it pretty clear that we are seeing only half of the story (the half that a culture only a few generations from a frontier is naturally inclined to emphasize). Cooperation does not make "sheeple" as some right-wing demagogues would have us think. Learning to work together requires more brain power than learning to cheat. In most cases the cheaters are predictable. They might come up with clever ways of pulling it off (most don't, though, most are simple opportunists).

By figuratively "cleaning the water supply" we tame the cheaters, restricting them to cheating in arenas that are small scale and less damaging. That is what we do with health and safety inspections, and that is essentially what the founding fathers of the US did when they created a system of checks and balances in the federal government. This didn't stop Bush from waging an unnecessary war for the sole purpose of raising the value of his military contractor stocks, so it isn't a perfect system, but it's a hell of an improvement over monarchy!

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Duncan, I don't think Alfred is saying not to punish cheaters, he seems to be saying to not even try to anticipate and prevent them, just punish them after they have already done their damage. That's where I part with him, and the Omar Khayyam poem I clacked up at the top of this thread shows what I was thinking. I'm not bothered by the idea of changing human nature. It changes anyway. We might as well at least try to harness change for our benefit. If that means changing us in ways that make people less inclined to cheat and hurt other people, I'm all for it.

Some people are really bothered by the idea of transhuman genetic engineering. They say it is playing god and pure hubris. It seems to me that it is inevitable. Every year when I teach my 10th graders about genetics I talk about transgenics and the Green Fluorescent Protein from jellyfish that have been put in plants to make land mine detectors. Then I mention the GFP mice and the glow-in-the-dark rabbit. Someone in every class says they want a glow bunny, then usually someone else will counter that they want to glow in the dark themselves.

Some company, somewhere, is going to start offering this as a service. Some clever person will probably figure out how to add fluorescent proteins to people's skin to create glow-in-the-dark sports team logos, and will make a fortune. Vanity is worth trillions, and any technology that opens up new arenas to express our vanity is going to fly. As Darwin once speculated, sexual selection has become a stronger force acting on humans than natural selection since the rise of civilization, at least. Hopefully people will eventually get around to doing more useful things once the glow fad starts to fade.

David Brin said...

DD I avow that Saint Bomb saved my generation…and she can easily out-stay her welcome. Where Gray is a drooling fool is to NOT ascribe the Bomb and its attendant restraint to the Enlightenment.

My daughter dissected 12th century skeletons, last summer. We know very well what fraction of cave and hut and villa dwellers died of violence. It was waaaaay higher than today.

Calling Hitler & Stalin “atheists” but neglecting to call them enlightenmen-hating proto-feudalist romantics is like saying Michael Jackson could sing and dance because his last name was “Jackson”.

locumranch said...

There is a certain type of individual peculiar to western society who demand subservience with a smile & self-sacrifice from others even though they themselves are incapable of contribution, production or self-sacrifice.

Called 'Consumers' by some and 'Entitled Demanders' by others, they are incapable of moral action, bereft of gratitude and quick to condemn & forsake others despite their own obvious shortcomings.

They claim to be 'selective' about who they will allow the HONOUR of 'helping' or serving them; they contribute nothing; they are entitled to everything; and they consume more than their fair share. They are users, abusers & narcissists AND they deserve what Nature has in store for them. In fact, they have already chosen the form of their destroyer.

The fact that I recognise this does not imply that I am complicit in it (excepting in the sense of the codependent enabler). I still fight the good fight, helping others even though I am repaid in spite. Like Tacitus, I (often) work the thankless night-shift despite the documented health risks to shift workers (which include circadian disruption, depression, heart disease & up to a 10 YEAR reduction in lifespan). So, by all means, please feel free to seek aid from a more altruistic provider.

I, too, have nothing to gain from the coming democalypse (which I am both powerless to prevent and unable to avoid), yet I welcome it just the same, much in the same manner that a slave welcomes the liberating kiss of death. Indeed, it will be exceedingly horrible for all concerned (much like the living hell of the Black Death) but its effect will be BRILLIANT (assuming that some of our children survive), a blossoming Human Renaissance full of youth, vitality & freedom from suck-wits, much like the very first Renaissance that followed immediately after the above-mentioned Black Death.

Imagine it:

A young population, bursting with life, freed from preexisting obligation, wage slavery and the burden of the consumer class, pursuing their dreams in an unfettered manner, surrounded by near-infinite industrial resources provided by our post-scarcity detritus. The Golden Age of Man cometh and, with it, the Stars.


Death, Rebirth & Rebirth through Death: Happy Easter !!

Paul451 said...

"They are users, abusers & narcissists AND they deserve what Nature has in store for them."

A doctor who hates his patients is incompetent. You cannot be competent when you despise those under your care, the human mind just doesn't work like that.

Paul451 said...

And a doctor who wishes for the death of civilisation only moreso.

David Brin said...

Do my eyes deceive me? Locum finding the guts and pointing to something positive and even slightly assertive/prescriptive? If I might do the mature thing that he never does - attempting to PARAPHRASE - Let me see:

He seems to be saying that technological abundance and post-scarcity cornucopias will allow us to liberate all young people from most social or governmental or corporate dominance and restraints, freeing them to associate as they wish. Hm?

Uh... sounds like the dream shared by both libertarians and Marxists. Only instead of tearing it all down,which would automatically and immediately lead to a return of the standard human feudalism, he seems to admit that the precondition for achieving libertarian/marxist paradise is vast SUCCESS for the enlightenment's trend toward ending scarcity and its crazy-making effects.

See Peter Diamandis's book ABUNDANCE.

to which I can only answer... um... duh?

locumranch said...

Paraphrasing is not David's strong suit:

What I'm saying is that technology, technological abundance and post-scarcity cornucopias COULD liberate all young people from most social or governmental or corporate dominance and restraints, assuming the ACTIVE elimination of most social or governmental or corporate or PARENTAL dominance and restraints.

Unfortunately, the very concept of self-sacrifice, self-elimination or 'getting the-hell-out-of-the-way' of the younger generation is anathema to an entrenched progressive mentality (of either the liberal or conservative sort) who see 'The Future' as just another resource to exploit for their personal benefit, much in the same way that the typical 'entitled demander', narcissist or 'worried-well' attention-whore cannot tolerate the belief that 'The World' (in general) or any physician (in specific) does not make CARING about their petty self-centered concerns their #1 priority (especially) when that all-important concern deprives the truly ill from the attention & care that they absolutely require.

Under all of this progressive sentimentality -- this 'caring & sharing' clap-talk -- hides a domineering autocratic mentality that wishes to enslave the children of the future in perpetual servitude so they may perpetuate OUR social neurosis AND fulfill OUR desires, OUR vision, OUR dreams & OUR living-for-ever.

"Children are OUR Future", indeed -- with heavy ironic emphasis on the 'OUR' -- because too many of the 'enlightened' US insist on living OUR children's lives for them, all because we lack the perspicacity, where-with-all, courage or moral agency to 'self-extract our superfluous selves' and just allow our children to live their OWN lives.

Even in 'Earth', David reveals this autocratic agenda with the creation of an immortal Gaia-AI-Grandmother who can bully future children for all eternity as long as the children respect her apron-strings, wear their mittens & put on a sweater when she's cold.

Best ;)

DP said...

Dr. Brin - "DD I avow that Saint Bomb saved my generation…and she can easily out-stay her welcome. Where Gray is a drooling fool is to NOT ascribe the Bomb and its attendant restraint to the Enlightenment."

It wasn't any enlightenment philosophy that prevented WWIII. It was pure atavistic fear that resulted in restraint. Fear of incinerating the planet.

Even then we were lucky twice, saved on two different occasions by two Soviet officers.

During the American blockade of Cuba during the Missile crisis, Cmdr. Arkhipov prevented on his own initiative a soviet submarine from launching a nuclear torpedo against an American destroyer

Col. Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Force all by himself prevented an accidental WWII during operation Abel Archer. The sclerotic Soviet leadership mistook this resupply exercise as a preparation for a first strike on the Motherland. They were in their bunkers in the Urals when Soviet computers reported that thousands of American missiles had been launched and were about to impact Soviet military and civilian targets. Petrov asserted that it was all a mistake, and Soviet forces stood down.

We almost destroyed the world twice, one by miscalculation and again by pure accident.

If it had happened there would be no doubt that the 20th century was the bloodiest time in human history. And there would be nobody alive to make Pinker's foolish claim of ever increasing peace.

DP said...

Dr. Brin - "My daughter dissected 12th century skeletons, last summer. We know very well what fraction of cave and hut and villa dwellers died of violence. It was waaaaay higher than today."

Our habits have changed, but not our basic nature. It wouldn't take much to bring our native blood lust back to the surface.

DP said...

r. Brin - "Calling Hitler & Stalin “atheists” but neglecting to call them enlightenmen-hating proto-feudalist romantics is like saying Michael Jackson could sing and dance because his last name was “Jackson”."

Not so much romantics a pseudo-scientists. Nazism is a misapplication of Darwinism. Communism the misapplication of economics.

My rather long winded response was in reply to PSB's assertion that Hitler was a church going Christian.

Alex Tolley said...

@Daniel - much of the 20th C slaughter was due to certain events that were not inevitable. WWI was almost a mistake, WWII was a result of primarily French vindictiveness. The Russian revolution could have been averted had reforms not been stopped.

As you point out, nuclear war was averted, but it could have gone the other way.

All we have is the actual outcome. But if we could rerun history many times, we might get a better estimate of the true expected slaughter. This might offer a very different interpretation of the history of human violence based on the one historical sample.

David's anecdote about 12th C skeletons is just that, as it represents a small sample and would need to be validated. Can an archaeologist separate accidental death from murder? I'd need to see the forensic analysis.

Historical violence trends need to be examined much more fully by scholars before Pinker's hypothesis is accepted. More importantly the variables need to be understood, as conditions were certainly not static.

Jumper said...

From my reading I would guess Stalin as a pure atheist, and Hitler as mostly an atheist with mystical flights of fancy, who would use religion as many politicians do, which is with hypocrisy expeditiously. I really doubt any so-called Christian establishment contained many real believers after the Reformation. Adams, Washington, and Jefferson seem to be the models: bending their own descriptions of their beliefs rather tortuously in order to not offend the less enlightened. Much as Machiavelli said. But you gotta do what you gotta do, and it's results which make the legacy.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"David's anecdote about 12th C skeletons is just that, as it represents a small sample and would need to be validated. Can an archaeologist separate accidental death from murder? I'd need to see the forensic analysis".

Except that EVERY collection of old bones that has been analyzed shows the same pattern
The forensic analysis's have been published - the ones I have looked at have been very graphic and convincing

In addition we have the evidence from the existing hunter/gatherer societies
Incredibly high murder rates

"Historical violence trends need to be examined much more fully by scholars before Pinker's hypothesis is accepted."

Have you read his book?
Its not an unsupported hypothesis
It is a scholarly work referencing many many other large studies
The work has already been done - Pinker simply brought the existing information together

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Say hello to the Just World Fallacy.

among other references.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Totally off topic, but I just came back from taking my son to see Dreamworks' movie "Home." If you have any family members around 11 years of age, it was funny, very silly, and the plot twist was stolen from one of my favorite original Start Trek episodes (I won't name the episode or it would give it away). I could rag on it for a few elements, but they are elements an 11 year-old is unlikely to notice.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul and Duncan: I'm up for punishing cheaters and setting up rules so they can know in advance which behaviors ARE cheats. What I'm opposed to is predicting what are possible cheating behaviors before anyone has tried to do it. For example, Ponzi schemes are common misbehaviors that harm many people. Catch and punish the people involved. Watch for them before they harm people and try to block them if you can. How old is the abstracted version of the scam, though? At some point in the past, someone did it first. If before that time a pack of lawyers had suggested we write laws to make this possible cheat a criminal activity I would deny them my support. The fact that we consider such scams to be criminal today is an emergent discovery concerning the moral code to which we all contribute. Letting those lawyers design the laws in advance would be tantamount to them designing our morals. I don't care how smart they are, they aren't even a close match for what a civilization can do. I say let us do what we do best. Let us discover ourselves.

In case it helps, I'm not making this stuff up. I'm cribbing again from Hayek's later work. He distinguished between Law and Regulation in a way that most will find non-standard. Law is reserved for emergent social rules whether or not we choose to write them formally. Regulation is reserved for rules that direct the behavior of government. Since regulations can direct them to direct us, they can be quite broad. Laws tend to be restricted to enforceable constraints, but their connection to Common Law is critical to identifying them. Hayek argued that we should learn to distinguish them even if we want to use different names. Our emotional responses to each group are different enough to justify the distinction.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul: I haven't forgotten pathogens or the evolutionary impact they've had upon us. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder about 18 months ago, so I have a keen awareness of the issues of an immune system on a hair trigger looking for pathogens who either aren't there or look an awful lot like body parts I'd like to preserve. Fortunately for me, it looks like I'll survive this round with ghost pathogens. 8)

Evolution for us isn't over by a long shot. I'm light skinned. That was kinda rare not that long ago. I can digest milk fats as an adult. That was rare too. I can stay calm enough to trade with complete (human) strangers under restricted conditions. Amazing. Today at the Natural History Museum in LA I saw a kid petting the polar bear display. The bear was supposed to be scary. The kid wasn't scared by it or the strangers around him. Is that the result of genetic evolution? Maybe not, but cultural evolution matters just as much. NO ONE, including the adults, pretended they were hunters bagging a trophy either. I say 'hmpf' to anyone who thinks we aren't changing.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Okay, now for something on topic: a couple of us have made reference to the hydraulic hypothesis for human violence - the unformed notion that violence is "natural" and that we are all slaves to our instincts. For the most part I agree with Heinlein's quote that we are just sic=x meals from homicide, there are some good reasons to re-examine our assumptions on this matter.

For one, as I have mentioned before, we don't really know exactly what our instincts are. Geneticists are working on it, but we just aren't there yet. However, people have been seeing behaviors common to their own tribes and assuming they are "natural" for probably as long as there have been humans. Untested assumptions are mostly only good for giving ourselves and each other the illusion of knowledge.

On archaeological sources of information, while we could accuse Dr. Brin of giving us anecdotal evidence, his anecdote is quite typical of the archaeological record all over the world. Osteological remains that show evidence of death by violence are quite common at all levels of human social complexity (whether you are comfortable with Elman Service's old taxonomy or not).

The ethnographic data are a little more of a mixed bag, but only a little. There are a handful of band-level societies that show strikingly little interpersonal violence. One popular ethnography of the Dobe Ju'huansi written in the 1970's was subtitled "The Harmless People." Many ethnographers in those days were looking for Rousseaian cultures, and confirmation bias being what it is, they found them. But, like scientists everywhere, anthropologists are a contentious bunch who can never agree on very much without pretty compelling evidence. Others went back to those cultures and cataloged violence that earlier ethnographers had missed (intentionally or otherwise).

There is, however, an interesting case I remember that the Heinlein quote brought to my memory. There were a people called the Ik who were described by Colin Turnbull in his book "The Mountain People." During the year he spent with them, they were facing a time of unusually severe hardship. The local government had rounded them up and dumped them onto a reserve, much like the US did with its native populations. Their reservation was located next to a national wildlife refuge, where it was illegal to hunt, and poachers were typically shot. That year there was a drought on the heels of another drought year, and the people were literally starving to death. Turnbull did not note a lot of violence among them. Most of what he was behavior that we might label childish - a whole lot of jeering and generally rude behavior, and extremely cynical attitudes all around. Their social cohesion was coming apart at the seams, and yet, there were very few fights of any kind. These people were easily a meal away from homicide or less, yet homicide was not happening.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Given that our brains are modular in nature, and that they are highly trainable - not quite John Locke's naive "blank slate" but with a tendency to learn habits and norms of behavior and have difficulty breaking habits, I don't think this story is unfathomable. In societies in which the fact that every individual's survival depends on the prosperity of the group - as is the case in marginal habitats - social structures and superstructures evolve to mitigate competitive drives and focus the mind on cooperation. Even under extreme circumstances, old habits are hard to break and unthinkable acts remain unthinkable for most.

Those who are inclined to naturalize violence, to subscribe uncritically to the hydraulic hypothesis, are missing the nature of instinct. Instincts are not exactly predetermined, simple programs of the Stimulus = threat, response = violence variety. Dimitri Belyaev's silver fox experiment might shed some light here. The workers at a Russian fox farm were supposed to raise foxes for use in making fur coats, which meant that some had to be allowed to live long enough the breed and raise kits, while others would be slaughtered soon after reaching their adult size. The workers tended to kill off the more aggressive foxes, the ones that tried to bite them, while the tamer foxes that were less inclined to bite were allowed to breed. Over a period of 50 years, they turned these captive foxes into very tame, very friendly creatures. But by selecting for the tameness phenotype, a whole host of changes came along with it. They got curly tails, floppy ears and a suite of behaviors similar to lap dogs. Another change that gave Belyaev a clue to what was happening, was a change in their fur coloration. He started taking blood samples and found very low levels of adrenaline in the tamest foxes and very high levels of adrenaline in the more aggressive foxes. This shouldn't be a big shock, but the fact that adrenaline plays a role in determining fur color was.

This is a case of pleiotropy, where one gene affects many characteristics. An example that might be more familiar would be puberty in human makes. Once the gene is switched on to start producing testosterone and dumping it into the bloodstream, a cascade of changes follows. Different cells and tissues respond differently to the same hormone. So muscle cells that start receiving testosterone signals start building actin and myosin proteins, but follicle cells grow hair, and the larynx grows longer, forcing the hyoid bone down. The havoc this hormone wreaks on the central nervous system is manifold.

The point here is that the relationship between our genes and behavior is not simple or straightforward. A single gene can have multiple effects, many of which are still unknown, but none of which can entirely override our willpower, centered in our frontal lobes, which are themselves a product of both genetics and our environments. In this light, the old hydraulic hypothesis is on very shaky ground. On top of that, naturalization is really just an excuse for violence, an argument of the "everybody does it" variety.

The unexamined assumption is hardly worth thinking.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
"What I'm opposed to is predicting what are possible cheating behaviors before anyone has tried to do it."

That is exactly what I am trying to do with an FMEA
I'm trying to block the ratholes BEFORE the rats eat the cheese

If I should do that in a production environment then our legislators should definitely try and do that when they make laws or regulations

I don't see ANY reason why we should not effectively "game" our laws before they are finalized to try and prevent "cheating"

Incidentally the way legislation is made here is different from the USA

(1) Proposed legislation is put on the net
(Legislation should include a "Purpose Statement" - what it is intended to do)
Anybody can comment - in writing (net) or in person
The whole lot - legislation and comments - goes back to Parliament

The actual legislation is published (net)

Then Parliament votes on it

Duncan Cairncross said...

Further to
How we do legislation -

Is some of our legislation crap?
Damn right it is - but we are trying!

(Parliament can short circuit that process by "urgency" - and that is used far too damn often)

Jumper said...

Surely you did something preventable to bring on your auto-immune response, Alfred.

That is, of course, a joke in line with the "just world" fallacy discussed here. I wanted to add the common knee-jerk reaction I so often see among those often seen as "liberal" that health problems are a result of wrong actions of some sort or another: you ate the wrong food; exercised insufficiently or incorrectly; etc. Of course it's often true, but it is so far from "always true" as to be a bit ridiculous.

On another matter, I wonder how many here have read Hughes' "Fatal Shore" about the settling of Australia. I was impressed and indeed depressed by the brutality common at the time. The difference between then and now is striking, and indicates some sort of progress, whether localized or not.

Also, exploring criticism of Pinker, I came upon this post
where the link to Chomsky's critique of Pinker was recommended; the link here:

I should note I don't consider Chomsky as a perfect commentator; I just thought it interesting to see his view.

Anonymous said...

I think Pinker's conclusion in the book was not a change in human nature but in our education was the primal cause of diminishing violence. The basic ability of abstract reasoning across a large enough population. Enlightenment at it most basic tenet.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Pinker's book

While Pinker has assembled scholarly work, the hypotheses he presents are his interpretations of the data.

Notice that food availability is not a hypothesis, yet we know that the industrial revolution has resulted in food abundance. Why would that not be an adequate explanation of the findings, if the trends are correct. A simple test should show famines increase the homicide rate. In a related observation, it appears water shortages in the Middle east lead to wars.

We've had discussions about whether the decline in US homicide rates since the 1970's is due to abortion and/or elimination of lead in the environment. Are these minor factors, or is abortion a proxy for other resource issues. Lead similarly, as food stress reduces cognitive abilities.

Dueling facts: The claim is that hunter gathers (modern ones) have a high homicide rate, yet Chomsky states that prehistorical ones had a low homicide rate (cf Jumper's link, first minute or so). Which claim is correct?

There are plenty of critiques of Pinker's thesis and therefore IMO, this needs to be tested more carefully before accepting it as truth.

Alfred Differ said...

@jumper: Heh. My blood pressure spiked a bit there and then dropped with the next sentence. It's a good day when I learn that others understand that fallacy. 8)

Oddly enough, I DO have a plausible idea for what triggered it, but it doesn't help. Someone asked me once if Science would figure it out one day soon. I explained that to learn it we'd have to run experiments purposely triggering this thing in people who would not otherwise suffer. Their eyebrows popped with realization and they learned that some scientists aren't 'mad' in the Hollywood sense. 8)

Jumper said...

It seems we haven't seen conclusive evidence either way so far in our attempt to quantify ratios of homicide past to homicide present. Surely separation of infanticide as a separate statistical class would affect the statistics much as infant mortality affects prehistorical longevity estimates. This is all a bit depressing!

Duncan Cairncross said...

Jumper, Alex

On one side of the argument we have actual evidence
(from ancient skeletal remains)
Lots of it from all over the world

On the other side we have a small number of people who lived with tribes for less than a year

I remember one guy claiming that "his" tribe was peaceful because he only saw one murder in two years
This was from a tribe of less than 100 people!!

Nowadays a violent society like the USA has 5/100,000/year
So 100 Americans should see 0.5% of a death per year!

ALL of the actual evidence (as opposed to the feel good nonsense) says violence used to be much much worse

Jumper said...

I did find Pinker responding to criticism here worth reading:

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - let's accept the data shows a true decline in violence rates. That doesn't mean that Pinker's thesis on the reasons is correct. That is why I said that his interpretation of the data needs to be examined by scholars.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex
I agree - I'm not sold on his reason why either

But the actual fact that it is happening is mind blowing

In my youth there were three "Truths"
(1) WW3 was just around the corner
(2) Population would keep expanding until - bang!
(3) We were "just cavemen in suits"

The USSR collapsed!
Population growth slowed and stopped in developed countries
Pinker found out that we were less violent than our forefathers

The whole structure of our society changed!!

David Brin said...


Al de Baran said...

I hardly know where to begin.... Rather than address the ridiculous straw man caricature that Brin creates of Gray, or snicker at his complete incomprehension of the word "Romanticism", let’s look at what Gray really endeavored to do in his review.

Gray’s aim is to attack the notion that, because Pinker has amassed lots of numbers and data, then he must be right, Q.E.D., and those who disagree must be innumerate, or haven't read the book.

The intellectual and philosophical naïveté of this view beggars belief. Numbers, like facts, never speak for themselves. They require, first of all, competent and unbiased gathering and reporting, and second, interpretation. Numbers, like facts, also do not interpret themselves. They require human interpretation, and humans can and do reasonably disagree over interpretations.

Gray, along with other reviewers of Pinker's rose-colored Whig history of violence, indicates that Pinker's interpretation of his data (as well as the data themselves) are questionable, and that the alleged "pattern" he has discovered in history is therefore also questionable, even dubious. Many other reviewers have tackled Pinker's specific shortcomings, and Gray simply takes the larger view.

In short, all the simple-minded hand-waving about numbers, "cold figures", and facts won't save Pinker from the accusation that he has cherry-picked his data, relied dubiously on figures from the more distant past that are speculative, at best, and woven from this tissue-thin tapestry a pattern that is very much open to challenge. What is more, reviewers who are competent in the field, i.e., actual historians, have universally criticized Pinker’s book.

Now, those who, unlike Brin, actually embody the Enlightenment virtues of dispassionate reason and the weighing of evidence, rather than pay lip service to them while engaging in self-contradictory frothing at the mouth, should have a look at the following refutations of Pinker, linked or referenced in part two of my post.

siska said...
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