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October 6, 2011
Is Violence History?
By PETER SINGER
THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE
Why Violence Has Declined
By Steven Pinker
Illustrated. 802 pp. Viking. $40.
It is unusual for the subtitle of a book to undersell it, but Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” tells us much more than why violence has declined. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard who first became widely known as the author of“The Language Instinct,” addresses some of the biggest questions we can ask: Are human beings essentially good or bad? Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse? Do we have grounds for being optimistic about the future?
If that sounds like a book you would want to read, wait, there’s more. In 800 information-packed pages, Pinker also discusses a host of more specific issues. Here is a sample: What do we owe to the Enlightenment? Is there a link between the human rights movement and the campaign for animal rights? Why are homicide rates higher in the southerly states of this country than in northern ones? Are aggressive tendencies heritable? Could declines in violence in particular societies be attributed to genetic change among its members? How does a president’s I.Q. correlate with the number of battle deaths in wars in which the United States is involved? Are we getting smarter? Is a smarter world a better world?
In seeking answers to these questions Pinker draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics and sociology. Nor is he afraid to venture into deep philosophical waters, like the role of reason in ethics and whether, without appealing to religion, some ethical views can be grounded in reason and others cannot be.
The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.
Pinker assumes that many of his readers will be skeptical of this claim, so he spends six substantial chapters documenting it. That may sound like a hard slog, but for anyone interested in understanding human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor.
Pinker begins with studies of the causes of death in different eras and peoples. Some studies are based on skeletons found at archaeological sites; averaging their results suggests that 15 percent of prehistoric humans met a violent death at the hands of another person. Research into contemporary or recent hunter-gatherer societies yields a remarkably similarly average, while another cluster of studies of pre-state societies that include some horticulture has an even higher rate of violent death. In contrast, among state societies, the most violent appears to have been Aztec Mexico, in which 5 percent of people were killed by others. In Europe, even during the bloodiest periods — the 17th century and the first half of the 20th — deaths in war were around 3 percent. The data vindicates Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, life is likely to be “nasty, brutish and short.” In contrast, a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been. Pinker calls this the “pacification process.”
It’s not only deaths in war, but murder, too, that is declining over the long term. Even those tribal peoples extolled by anthropologists as especially “gentle,” like the Semai of Malaysia, the Kung of the Kalahari and the Central Arctic Inuit, turn out to have murder rates that are, relative to population, comparable to those of Detroit. In Europe, your chance of being murdered is now less than one-tenth, and in some countries only one-fiftieth, of what it would have been if you had lived 500 years ago. American rates, too, have fallen steeply over the past two or three centuries. Pinker sees this decline as part of the “civilizing process,” a term he borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias, who attributes it to the consolidation of the power of the state above feudal loyalties, and to the effect of the spread of commerce. (Consistent with this view, Pinker argues that at least part of the reason for the regional differences in American homicide rates is that people in the South are less likely to accept the state’s monopoly on force. Instead, a tradition of self-help justice and a “culture of honor” sanctions retaliation when one is insulted or mistreated. Statistics bear this out — the higher homicide rate in the South is due to quarrels that turn lethal, not to more killings during armed robberies — and experiments show that even today Southerners respond more strongly to insults than Northerners.)
During the Enlightenment, in 17th-and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, another important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, dueling and extreme forms of cruel punishment. Voices even began to be raised against cruelty to animals. Pinker refers to this as the “humanitarian revolution.”
Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.
Since 1945, we have seen a new phenomenon known as the “long peace”: for 66 years now, the great powers, and developed nations in general, have not fought wars against one another. More recently, since the end of the cold war, a broader “new peace” appears to have taken hold. It is not, of course, an absolute peace, but there has been a decline in all kinds of organized conflicts, including civil wars, genocides, repression and terrorism. Pinker admits that followers of our news media will have particular difficulty in believing this, but as always, he produces statistics to back up his assertions.
The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)
What caused these beneficial trends? That question poses a special challenge to an author who has consistently argued against the view that humans are blank slates on which culture and education draws our character, good or evil. There has hardly been time for the changes to have a basis in genetic evolution. (Pinker considers this possibility, and dismisses it.) So don’t the trends that Pinker chronicles prove that our nature is more the product of our culture than our biology? That way of putting it assumes a simplistic nature-nurture dichotomy. In books like “How the Mind Works,”“The Blank Slate” and “The Stuff of Thought,” Pinker has argued that evolution shaped the basic design of our brain, and hence our cognitive and emotional faculties. This process has given us propensities to violence — our “inner demons” as well as “the better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln’s words) — that incline us to be peaceful and cooperative. Our material circumstances, along with cultural inputs, determine whether the demons or the angels have the upper hand.
Other large-scale trends have paralleled the decline in violence and cruelty, but it is not easy to sort out cause and effect here. Are factors like better government, greater prosperity, health, education, trade and improvements in the status of women the cause or the effect of the decline in violence and cruelty? If we can find out, we may be able to preserve and extend the peaceful and better world in which we live. So in two chapters on human psychology, Pinker does his best to discover what has restrained our inner demons and unleashed our better angels, and then in a final chapter, draws his conclusions.
Those conclusions are not always what one might expect. Yes, as already noted, the state monopoly on force is important, and the spread of commerce creates incentives for cooperation and against violent conflict. The empowerment of women does, Pinker argues, exercise a pacifying influence, and the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge. But he also thinks that the invention of printing, and the development of a cosmopolitan “Republic of Letters” in the 17th and 18th centuries helped to spread ideas that led to the humanitarian revolution. That was pushed further in the 19th century by popular novels like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Oliver Twist” that, by encouraging readers to put themselves in the position of someone very different from themselves, expanded the sphere of our moral concern.
To readers familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology and its tendency to denigrate the role reason plays in human behavior, the most striking aspect of Pinker’s account is that the last of his “better angels” is reason. Here he draws on a metaphor I used in my 1981 book “The Expanding Circle.” To indicate that reason can take us to places that we might not expect to reach, I wrote of an “escalator of reason” that can take us to a vantage point from which we see that our own interests are similar to, and from the point of view of the universe do not matter more than, the interests of others. Pinker quotes this passage, and then goes on to develop the argument much more thoroughly than I ever did. (Disclosure: Pinker wrote an endorsement for a recent reissue of “The Expanding Circle.”)
Pinker’s claim that reason is an important factor in the trends he has described relies in part on the “Flynn effect” — the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that ever since I.Q. tests were first administered, the scores achieved by those taking the test have been rising. The average I.Q. is, by definition, 100; but to achieve that result, raw test scores have to be standardized. If the average teenager today could go back in time and take an I.Q. test from 1910, he or she would have an I.Q. of 130, which would be better than 98 percent of those taking the test then. Nor is it easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen most do not require a good vocabulary or even mathematical ability, but instead test powers of abstract reasoning. One theory is that we have gotten better at I.Q. tests because we live in a more symbol-rich environment. Flynn himself thinks that the spread of the scientific mode of reasoning has played a role.
Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution. Among the wide range of evidence he produces in support of that argument is the tidbit that since 1946, there has been a negative correlation between an American president’s I.Q. and the number of battle deaths in wars involving the United States.
Reason also, Pinker suggests, moves us away from forms of morality more likely to lead to violence, and toward moral advances that, while not eschewing the use of force altogether, restrict it to the uses necessary to improve social welfare, like utilitarian reforms of the savage punishments given to criminals in earlier times. For reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality. We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them. (Pinker quotes a famous sentence from the 18th-century philosopher William Godwin: “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”) That morality can be grounded in some commitment to treating others as we would like them to treat us is an ancient idea, expressed in the golden rule and in similar thoughts in the moral traditions of many other civilizations, but Pinker is surely right to say that the escalator of reason leads us to it. It is this kind of moral thinking, Pinker points out, that helps us escape traps like the Cuban missile crisis, which, if the fate of the world had been in the hands of leaders under the sway of a different kind of morality — one dominated by ideas of honor and the importance of not backing down — might have been the end of the human story. Fortunately Kennedy and Khrushchev understood the trap they were in and did what was necessary to avoid disaster.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline. But what of the future? Our improved understanding of violence, of which Pinker’s book is an example, can be a valuable tool to maintain peace and reduce crime, but other factors are in play. Pinker is an optimist, but he knows that there is no guarantee that the trends he has documented will continue. Faced with suggestions that the present relatively peaceful period is going to be blown apart by a “clash of civilizations” with Islam, by nuclear terrorism, by war with Iran or wars resulting from climate change, he gives reasons for thinking that we have a good chance of avoiding such conflicts, but no more than a good chance. If he had been able to see, before his book went to press, a study published in Nature as recently as August of this year, he might have been less sanguine about maintaining peace despite widespread climate change. Solomon Hsiang and colleagues at Columbia University used data from the past half-century to show that in tropical regions, the risk of a new civil conflict doubles during El Niño years (when temperatures are hotter than usual and there is less rainfall). If that finding is correct, then a warming world could mean the end of the relatively peaceful era in which we are now living.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics,” “The Expanding Circle” and “The Life You Can Save.”
Group of 500 residents want Govt to stick to plans to build rehab centres
By Robin Chan
A GROUP of 500 residents in Mountbatten are fighting back against their neighbours' opposition to plans for rehabilitation centres for the elderly to be built in their estate.
In what appears to be a twist to the not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) syndrome, they have petitioned the Government to stick with its plans to build the centres in the void decks of Blocks 10 and 11 on Jalan Batu.
Made up mostly of elderly folk, the group includes residents who live in these two blocks. Their petition comes about a month after a group of 130 residents had petitioned for the facilities to be located elsewhere.
The second group made their move fearing that the authorities would drop the plans or build a centre over a communal fountain - as the first group had suggested - where many like to gather.
Some of them were also frustrated by the first petition, and believe it came from younger neighbours who did not want their void deck to be used, even though it would take up only about 30 per cent of the space.
'The younger ones don't understand,' said contractor A. Samat, 68, who lives in Block 10. 'It seems that some younger residents nowadays can only think of themselves.'
Housewife Gurdip Kaur, 55, whose son has been going to a temporary rehabilitation centre at Block 12 after being injured in a car accident, agreed. 'There are more old folk here than children,' she told The Straits Times. 'If the Government is doing something nice for us, we should let them.'
If built, the new centres will be about nine times the size of the temporary one, and have equipment to aid recovery from stroke or Parkinson's disease.
The neighbourhood rift had started last month, when about 130 residents who live in Blocks 10 and 11 submitted a petition to Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan. Their concerns included the safety of children playing at the void decks, construction noise, and the likelihood of the resale price of their flats dropping.
They then proposed alternative venues for the centres: a nearby waste-bin collection centre, a central fountain next to Block 10, or the void deck of Block 1 or 14.
But the ceilings at Blocks 1 and 14 are believed to be too low to accommodate the centres, while the fountain is a popular gathering place for residents. The other blocks do not have void decks.
The petition not only fuelled national debate over the Nimby syndrome, but also angered other Jalan Batu residents who wanted the centres built in the void decks.
Hearing their concerns, retired businessman Michael Tan and a few friends in the neighbourhood began to gather support for the pro-centre petition. Said the 72-year-old, who has lived there for 16 years: 'The old folks here are unable to speak for themselves and the estate, so somebody has got to do something.'
The signatories include residents of Blocks 10 and 11, but it is not known how many of them live in these two blocks.
Mr Lim, their MP, has submitted both petitions to the Ministry of Health, which he said is still reviewing the case. He said the Government would take into account the views of the 'silent majority' as well.
For older residents like Madam Teh Kar Gim, 84, the greatest fear is that the fountain gets removed.
Said her neighbour Madam Kong Mei Lan, 74: 'It is such a nice place. Why would they want to build a centre right over that?'
MAY: About 40 people submit a petition against plans for a 260-bed nursing home facing three blocks of flats on a football field at Bishan Street 13. The Ministry of Health is still considering the feedback.
MAY: Residents in Jalan Batu oppose plans for a rehabilitation centre in the void decks of Blocks 10 and 11. Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan tells contractors to stop work. MOH is reviewing the feedback.
FEBRUARY: Residents of Blocks 860 and 861 in Woodlands Street 83 petition against an eldercare centre planned in the void decks. MOH says construction will go ahead after considering the feedback.
FEBRUARY: Toh Yi Drive residents object to the building of studio apartments for the elderly in their neighbourhood. The Housing Board later says construction will go ahead.
It is well understood how we have shaped these wolves: our ancestors would have favoured those that were friendly and useful to humans, so eventually creating the domestic dog of today. But less well studied is how this relationship changed us. Shipman argues that those humans who showed the right skills and sensitivity to manage wolves outlived and out-bred those who tried to go it alone; the result is a world of dog-lovers. Domestication runs two ways.
She claims that three giant leaps in human development were all about this animal connection: our mastery of stone tools (to kill or cut up these animals); our development of language and eventually writing (to communicate information about animal habits and habitats); and our domestication of other species. Together these laid the foundation for modern societies.
This is a bold hypothesis, and among the evidence she presents is also a great deal of speculation. But there are at least some cases where the results of these connections are clear – such as our alliance with the cow. DNA profiles suggest that 10,000 years ago, the vast majority of humans were lactose intolerant – genetically incapable of digesting milk beyond infancy. Yet in Europe and those areas colonised by Europeans, 95 per cent of the population now can (and do) happily consume dairy products into their dotage. So in these cow-rearing lands, humans with the ability to digest milk spread at the expense of their fussier cousins. In effect, just as we have bred cows for high milk yield, so they have “bred” us to digest this milk (and therefore to have a reason to care for them). And if we have evolved lactose tolerance through our interaction with the bovine, it is not crazy to think we might also have evolved a fondness for dogs, or a predilection for observing the behaviour of predators.
How Britain and France redrew the map of the Middle East to satisfy their own interests
The story of how Britain and France carved up the Arab world between them after the first world war has often been told but James Barr’s new book, A Line in the Sand, adds some spice to the usual accounts of this decisive moment in the history of the Middle East. It was a cynical act of imperial greed. When they spoke of “independence” for the Arabs – which under the postwar Mandate system they had pledged to help the Arabs achieve – what the British and the French really meant was “liberation” from Turkish rule – but certainly not freedom to run their own affairs. They paid lip service to President Woodrow Wilson’s principles of national self-determination but their real intention was to redraw the map of the Ottoman empire’s Arab provinces to suit themselves. Weakened by the war and confronted by the rising power of the US, Britain and France were concerned above all to protect their own vital interests.
The French had over the centuries established a protectorate over Christian communities in the Ottoman empire. In addition, their commercial interests included large investments in Ottoman roads, railways, ports and shipping companies, as well as utilities and banks. On the eve of the war, some 90,000 Ottoman children from elite families were learning French and absorbing French ideas at French school. In Lebanon the Maronite patriarch was a central figure in France’s client network. For many influential Frenchmen, Syria and Lebanon constituted a Levantine extension of France itself. Bringing these territories under French rule seemed a legitimate spoil of war, whether the natives agreed or not.
British interests were essentially threefold: first, to control the output and disposal of Iranian and Mesopotamian oil (as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1912 Winston Churchill had taken the decision to switch the fleet from coal to oil); second, to control Palestine as a buffer for the defence of the Suez Canal and Egypt, and also because in 1917 Arthur Balfour, then foreign secretary, had pledged British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”; and third, to control the land and sea routes to India, through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea or down the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean.
Barr’s account of how the territorial carve-up was first agreed by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot – and how the “line in the sand” was finally drawn to satisfy rival French and British interests – is lively and entertaining. He has scoured the diplomatic archives of the two powers as well as the private papers of most of the leading officials of the time in search of the telling phrase, and has come up with a rich haul that brings his narrative to life.
He has thrown some light on hitherto unexplored corners. Sykes’s father, Sir Tatton, was obsessive about milk pudding and maintaining his body at a constant temperature. In the heat of Baghdad, as they were creating the new state of Iraq, Gertrude Bell quarrelled with her boss Arnold Wilson (“There are days when I would knife him if I could.”). David Lloyd George, the prime minister, had a perfect understanding of the ambitious young Churchill (“He would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises.”).
In 1921 Churchill, then colonial secretary, summoned British Middle East experts to a conference in Cairo to decide to put the Emir Faysal, whom the French had thrown out of Syria, on the throne of Iraq. But Churchill himself seems to have spent less time at the conference than at the pyramids with his painting kit. The British agent in Somaliland, Sir Geoffrey Archer, stole the show when he arrived with two young lions bound for London Zoo. At a party at the British residency the lions broke loose and nearly caught the pet Marabou stork of the high commissioner, General Edmund Allenby.
The French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, with whom Lloyd George had to bargain over who would get what of the Ottoman provinces, was “a stout, bald man whose snowy white moustache gave him a close resemblance to a walrus”.
Barr’s argument is that Britain and France, victors in the first world war, became rivals – even enemies at times – as they continued to squabble over spheres of influence after the second world war. Where, in my view, he somewhat overshoots the mark is to suggest that the Balfour Declaration itself was only issued “to ward off the inevitable French pressure for an international administration once Palestine had been conquered” from the Turks. There were many other compelling reasons for Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild, notably the British hope that American Jews would influence the US in favour of the Allied war effort. Barr even argues, not very convincingly, that the reason Zionist terrorists such as the Stern Gang and the Irgun were able to get some weapons and financing from France, to enable them to carry out the devastating attacks which eventually forced Britain out of Palestine, was because the French wanted to get even for the way Britain had helped Syria and Lebanon secure their independence. This might be stretching the story of Anglo-French rivalry in the Levant a shade too far. But it makes for enjoyable reading.
Patrick Seale is author of ‘The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East’ (Cambridge University Press)
A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, by James Barr, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 464 pages