As we concluded our last post, we were taking a brief glimpse at just how ugly human behavior can be, not as an aberration, but in normative terms. In other words it was normal to burn cats for entertainment, and to have executions as public spectacle that involved limb smashing, rending, and disembowelment.
Some pretty frightening behavior occurs today, but it is not considered normal. The Taliban throwing acid in the faces of little girls who want to go to school gains them lots of approbation. And of course there is always a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy type running around torturing and massacring innocents. But we want these sick individuals to stay exceptions, not to become the rule.
So an important point to the change in attitudes toward violent behavior is how deeply is it rooted. Will the veneer of civilization fall of as soon as the controls are let loose?
First there are complaints about specifics of Pinker’s argument.
John Gray, Prospect, 21 September 2011 — Issue 187
No doubt we have become less violent in some ways. But it is easy for liberal humanists to pass over the respects in which civilisation has retreated. Pinker is no exception. Just as he writes off mass killing in developing countries as evidence of backwardness without enquiring whether it might be linked in some way to peace in the developed world, he celebrates “recivilisation” in America without much concern for those who pay the price of the recivilising process. Focusing on large, ill-defined cultural changes—a decline of the values of respectability and self-control in the 1960s, for example, which he tells us resulted from the influence of “the counterculture”—his analysis has a tabloid flavour, not improved by his repeated recourse to not always very illuminating statistics.
In the bloggingheads.tv interview (Science Saturday: War and Peace, Science Saturday, Bloggingheads.tv, 3 October 2011) the slightly obtuse John Horgan doesn’t like the idea that our pre-historic ancestors were more violent and warlike than we are today.
Even the most caustic review (Gray- sighted above) does not argue with the basic premis. It just tends to argue against specific parts of it that disturbs their current world view. If you don’t like Western colonialism, you say that they slow decline of violence is illusionary. If you like the idea of returning to a pristine primal state you argue that there is not enough evidence –easy to do given the difficulty of detailed finds of that age. If you are forecasting the collapse of modern society, you point to supposedly new trends in violence, and ignore the overall statistics.
Tyler Cowen comes closest, and what he is really doing is modifying the theory.
Tyler Cown, Marginal Revolution, 11 October 2011
The 17th century was much more violent than the preceding times, as was the early 19th century, albeit to a lesser extent. Perhaps the distribution is well-described by “long periods of increasing peace, punctuated by large upward leaps of violence”, as was suggested by Lewis Richardson in his 1960 book on the statistics of violent conflict? Imagine a warfare correlate to the Minsky Moment. In the meantime, there will be evidence of various “great moderations,” though each ends with a bang.
However, these occasional eruptions in large scale violence in the most peaceful parts of the world can simply be explained by the observation that any counter trend against the normal process of pacification need to be very powerful to go against the trend. It takes a combination of unusual violence combined with an unusually violent man at the top, Hitler, to get World War 2 started – particularly as the other Europeans had given him everything he had asked for up to Poland.
The same goes for most explanations for why we are more peaceful. Most of them tend to focus on specific causal agents: Centralized state government, the Leviathan if you will being a common one.
In one of the most original sections of the book (e.g., p.656), Pinker postulates the greater reach of reason, and the Flynn effect, working together, as moving people toward more peaceful attitudes. He postulates a kind of moral Flynn effect, whereby our increasing ability to abstract ourselves from particulars, and think scientifically, helps us increasingly identify with the point of view of others, leading to a boost in applied empathy…
Given that the private returns to supporting violence are rare — most of the time — and violence has been nationalized, people will have incentives to invest in greater empathy and to build their self-images around such empathy. This empathy will be real rather than feigned, but it also will be fragile rather than based in a real shift in cognitive and emotive faculties; see 1990s Mostar and Sarajevo or for that matter Nagasaki or British or Belgian colonialism (Cowen – sited above).
The other alternative, pondered by rejected by Pinker, is that we are biologically becoming less violent. He rejects this theory. To some degree the science is not advanced enough to really make this point in any case. It would have to be at the level of the selection of allele traits, much the way dogs are bred for specific traits, but in this case less systematically. I don’t have a big problem with the idea that certain useful allele traits will propagate within a population. But “violence” as a behavior, is a lot more complicated than cold weather adaptations found within Eskimos, or light colored skin in northern climes to help with absorbing vitamin d. But even here it has to be conceded that most of the adaptations by the Eskimos are cultural, and that they’re allele adaptations do not take them very far from the more cosmopolitan portions of the population.
Regardless of the exact mechanisms, it is fairly clear that over the very long term, people have found that peacefulness is more effective than violence. The trend goes all the way back to the last ice age. A trend that strong would require a major event to permanently reverse itself.
However just as obvious, there are frequent temporary reversals of the trend. But groups such as the Mongols, the Aztecs, the Soviet Union, and the Nazis tend to draw a very strong reaction from the more peaceful groups. In time they have to either modify their behavior, or fall back into the dust heap of history. On social levels you have some fluctuations, such as the greater prevalence for violence in the Southern United States as opposed to New England or the Mid West. But even within the bounds of these variations the trend continues.
So where do I think this leaves us?
The likely first reaction of economic strife will not be an immediate turn to violence by all groups within the population. The small villagers in England robbing innocent passersby (as in John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass) would be an unusual reaction. People who are already used to violence, gang members, criminals, are likely to be dangerous. Their numbers can seem quite large when they all come out at once. As noted of the recent British Riots
Omri Ceren, Commentary, 9 October 2011.
Cultural decency matters, and moral fortitude matters, and social cohesion matters. And Britain is thoroughly hosed:
Three-quarters had a previous caution or conviction, Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show, and those with a criminal record averaged 15 offenses. This showed “existing criminals were on the rampage,” said Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke. The justice system needed changes “to ensure both effective punishment and reform to tackle reoffending,” he said. “I am dismayed to see a hardcore of repeat offenders back in the system.”
The case is slightly stated, as a venture through the links will show that one-fourth of the people arrested had 10 or more previous offences. So obviously they were the initiators, with the rest being some variety of hangers-on.
But while we certainly have some very violent people around, it is not likely that everyone will become as violent as the hard-cases.
So my intuition is that even in the very worst case of economic (or otherwise) form of collapse, many people will choose to slowly dwindle away, or possibly turn suicidal, in the face of severe adversity. Very few people have the life skills to survive outside of our modern economy. But very few of them have the propensity to take up a life of violent crime.
Certainly there will be rioting, but as even the British rioters found, the previously police reliant are capable of defending themselves if given the proper incentive. And the rioters are likely to be badly outnumbered.