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Human Nature’s Pathologist - Comments

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 1 by keyfeatures

As always with Pinker the neurohormonal rewards come thick and fast.

Dreamy...

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 19:33:07 UTC | #893959

davidpercival's Avatar Comment 2 by davidpercival

This is as clear as mud. Is he saying that we have evolved genetically over the last few thousand years so that violence is less a part of our make up than it was then?

Or is he saying that because social conditions have improved over the period (give or take a bit of geonicide) we are less likely to be violent?

Is he moving from the "human nature" thesis towards the "nurture" line?

It seems to me what has happened is that when there was little or no central authority there tended to be more violence in one sense because various groups were seeking to assert themselves over their neighbours, over resources or whatever they were short of. When there was a strong authority such as the Pax Romano or the Pax Brittanicus, peace existed within their area of control. When anyone contested this they were subject to extreme, very organised violence.

When there is not shortages why would we fight? Of course during nearly all of history there has been a desperate struggle to have enough food and shelter to survive, hence conflict. If we can control our environment collectively there is a possibility that we can have a world society at peace with itself but while we have a capitalist society whose ethos derives from exploitation it is difficult to believe we will see this imminently.

The lesson seems to me is that we are all capable of violence but whether it is expressed or not depends on the society in which we find ourselves. We are equally capable of kindness and altruism. Again, whether that comes to the fore depends on circumstances.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:06:30 UTC | #893965

Piero's Avatar Comment 3 by Piero

Comment 2 by davidpercival :

This is as clear as mud. Is he saying that we have evolved genetically over the last few thousand years so that violence is less a part of our make up than it was then?

How about reading the book before you comment?

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:21:22 UTC | #893968

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 4 by Premiseless

I find some of his conclusions about violence per se rather blinkered. The complexities of societies now are far grander and this 'violence' has mutated many forms in relation to what might now be considered the norm of human lifestyle as compared to any time in history. He's taking a component and comparing like for like. To render someone redundant or beyond valid competition is now far less linked to direct homicide than at any time in history. The picture is more sophisticated. On that score I cannot reasonably agree we are any less violent since I measure this by the language of empathy and altruism, which I consider equally more sophisticated and therefore more indirect, but nonetheless lacking in great measure.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:24:41 UTC | #893970

ogdentree's Avatar Comment 5 by ogdentree

There’s one thing Pinker doesn't mention while surveying the violence mankind has committed in the last several centuries:

Why was it done?

There’s all the difference in the world between violence that’s cruel and other violence. The first is evil, the second often isn’t. The reason for violence is one of the major differences between morality and nature, the latter of which includes culture, psychology and genetics. Neglecting this distinction — which is paramount in matters of morality — apparently causes Singer to consider the Holocaust no more horrifying than the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. The horrors of mankind have everything to do with why we commit terrible acts, and nothing to do with how often or under what conditions we do them.

Also, does Pinker adhere to the traditional definition of “violence” as wholly physical, or does he allow for the subtle social and economic violence recognized by modern European thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Étienne Balibar? Does Pinker cherry-pick evidence to present the most recent apology of modernism and things as they are?

One more point:

Given the capacity of present-day weapons to kill untold millions, the measure used to support Pinker’s point — that of a decline in violent deaths in relation to overall population — can be rendered invalid by one swift destructive strike.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:38:25 UTC | #893976

showmeproof's Avatar Comment 6 by showmeproof

Absolutely great book. It was refreshing to look at the data of the decline of violence. It is truly something to be optimistic about and something the media should jump on. The modern media tantra 'if it doesn't bleed, it doesn't lead' needs to go and it would be wise to replace it with the whole picture.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:41:23 UTC | #893977

showmeproof's Avatar Comment 7 by showmeproof

Comment 4 by Premiseless :

I find some of his conclusions about violence per se rather blinkered. The complexities of societies now are far grander and this 'violence' has mutated many forms in relation to what might now be considered the norm of human lifestyle as compared to any time in history. He's taking a component and comparing like for like. To render someone redundant or beyond valid competition is now far less linked to direct homicide than at any time in history. The picture is more sophisticated. On that score I cannot reasonably agree we are any less violent since I measure this by the language of empathy and altruism, which I consider equally more sophisticated and therefore more indirect, but nonetheless lacking in great measure.

You obviously haven't read the book.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:43:13 UTC | #893978

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 8 by Premiseless

Comment 7 by showmeproof :

You obviously haven't read the book.

It's the assertion that violence has reduced! How can one quantify the increasing complexities of what mutates into competition for food, partners, land etc without also considering why violence is not just categorised by homicide? The violence has mutated into human zoo statistics - psychological violence!

If this is what the book says touche. Otherwise I like to keep it small and concise with my violently reduced limited resources. This way I find I've read many books, indirectly, without picking up a single volume. If the book is a good book, I find I'm thinking along the same lines whether I know it or not and vice versa - which is also in books by Nobel winners! :)

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:54:58 UTC | #893981

showmeproof's Avatar Comment 9 by showmeproof

Comment 5 by ogdentree :

There’s one thing Pinker doesn't mention while surveying the violence mankind has committed in the last several centuries:

Why was it done?

There’s all the difference in the world between violence that’s cruel and other violence. The first is evil, the second often isn’t. The reason for violence is one of the major differences between morality and nature, the latter of which includes culture, psychology and genetics. Neglecting this distinction — which is paramount in matters of morality — apparently causes Singer to consider the Holocaust no more horrifying than the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. The horrors of mankind have everything to do with why we commit terrible acts, and nothing to do with how often or under what conditions we do them.

Also, does Pinker adhere to the traditional definition of “violence” as wholly physical, or does he allow for the subtle social and economic violence recognized by modern European thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Étienne Balibar? Does Pinker cherry-pick evidence to present the most recent apology of modernism and things as they are?

One more point:

Given the capacity of present-day weapons to kill untold millions, the measure used to support Pinker’s point — that of a decline in violent deaths in relation to overall population — can be rendered invalid by one swift destructive strike.

Read the book and your questions will find answers. Pinker doesn't claim that the trends will continue. He rather shows you where multiple lines of evidence point and shows us where we are now in relation to history. He concedes that dramatic events can unfold and send the graphs in the opposite direction. He also gives us reasons why he is optimistic that we won't go down that route and argues for working towards peace by understanding the decline of violence.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 20:56:23 UTC | #893982

showmeproof's Avatar Comment 10 by showmeproof

Comment 8 by Premiseless :

Comment 7 by showmeproof :

You obviously haven't read the book.

It's the assertion that violence has reduced! How can one quantify the increasing complexities of what mutates into competition for food, partners, land etc without also considering why violence is not just categorised by homicide? The violence has mutated into human zoo statistics - psychological violence!

If this is what the book says touche. Otherwise I like to keep it small and concise with my violently reduced limited resources. This way I find I've read many books, indirectly, without picking up a single volume. If the book is a good book, I find I'm thinking along the same lines whether I know it or not and vice versa - which is also in books by Nobel winners! :)

Pinker goes through multiple lines of evidence. Homicide rates, war deaths, war-related deaths (famine etc), civil-wars, the rights revolutions including civil, women's, childrens...and even animals. He doesn't think violence has one cause. He spends 800 pages explaining the complexities of violence and that all different types of violence have decreased over time. This is a very thorough book. Like I said, read the book and your questions will find answers or you will be pointed in the right direction to look in his notes and bibliography.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 21:01:04 UTC | #893984

davidpercival's Avatar Comment 11 by davidpercival

Some of the comments say only people who have read the book can comment but I suspect as the book has only just come out there are very few that have. However, this article has been put on the site and those of us that have not read it are surely entitled to say something based on what the article says.

When I commented it was as clear as mud I was of course referring to the explanation given in the article.

Perhaps it would be more helpful if those that have read the book clarified its meaning for us if it has been misreprented in the article.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 21:07:42 UTC | #893985

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 12 by Neodarwinian

The book is massively laced with evidence from many sources ( unfortunately, social science sources mainly ), though, understandably, the West is covered the best. Many graphs from both descriptive and quantitative statistics. Too soon to comment in depth here ( I am almost finished ) as I need to think about the massive amount of material I have gone through. Still, I am glad I live in this day and age in the West and not in 1311!

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 21:24:12 UTC | #893990

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 13 by keyfeatures

Comment 8 by Premiseless :

The violence has mutated into human zoo statistics - psychological violence!

The very fact you can now be concerned about psychological violence rather than people being burned at the stake, hung drawn and quartered, mashed over the head with balls and chains etc is evidence that society is now less violent. Of course there is still violence but the levels are greatly reduced.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 22:36:54 UTC | #894000

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 14 by BanJoIvie

Here is an edge lecture in which Dr Pinker lays out much of the material upon which this book is based. It really is extensive, quite well supported, and full of interesting surprises. Many of our perceptions and presumptions about violent trends in history are revealed by research to be simply wrong. It's an hour-and-a-half I heartily recommend to anyone tempted to take exception to the book's thesis from a brief description such as the one in this article.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 22:53:17 UTC | #894003

potteryshard's Avatar Comment 15 by potteryshard

Having just finished the book, I can attest that it is well-researched and makes a profound argument. I tend to agree with Dr. Pinker; violence has reduced in the civilized parts of the world. (Which apparently doesn't include the southern US...) Of course I was prepared to accept this notion after having read "The Selling of Fear" a couple of years ago.

I think that the reason that so many of us are having difficulty believing that violence is declining is that society seems to be getting ruder; This may be a manifestation of the ever-present dominance drive in a society that is justifiably becoming less tolerant of physical violence and mental trauma. If you can no longer strike out against annoyances, you can still shun them.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 23:04:43 UTC | #894005

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 16 by BanJoIvie

Comment 2 by davidpercival

This is as clear as mud. Is he saying that we have evolved genetically over the last few thousand years so that violence is less a part of our make up than it was then?

Or is he saying that because social conditions have improved over the period (give or take a bit of geonicide) we are less likely to be violent?

Is he moving from the "human nature" thesis towards the "nurture" line?

Short answer, no, he is not saying any of these things. Well, sort of the second option, I suppose, but his thesis is not really that individual human nature has changed in any way. He merely documents through fairly exhaustive research, that by almost any measure we can actually calculate and trace human violence has massively declined from historical levels - contrary to popular perception that the modern era is the most blood-soaked in human history.

He postulates numerous intersecting historical and cultural trends that can be evoked to explain this decline, but is careful to point out that this historical trend does not mean that violence will necessarily continue to decline into the future. In fact the trends could easily reverse. The many threatds of thought are really fascinating and difficult to effectively summarize. I think you'd enjoy the lecture I linked to in comment 14.

When there is not shortages why would we fight? Of course during nearly all of history there has been a desperate struggle to have enough food and shelter to survive, hence conflict.

This is actually one of the ideas I remember Dr. Pinker refuting. It seems that the idea of scarcity creating conflict, and therefore violence, has very little historical support. Jockeying for control of resources and the wealth they produce, yes, but not so much fighting for scraps in lean times. Consider, for example that the great depression did not lead to civil war in the US, and that the two great wars which bookended that period were fought over political ideologies and ethnic/national/tribal rivalries.

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 23:15:30 UTC | #894010

BigJohn's Avatar Comment 17 by BigJohn

Why is the Kindle edition $4.99 more than the hardcover? I get no hardcover. I don't even get any pages. When these publishers can contain their greed I may buy a copy of this book. Which means, of course, that I will never read it.

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 00:12:24 UTC | #894022

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 18 by Premiseless

Comment 13 by keyfeatures :

Comment 8 by Premiseless :

The violence has mutated into human zoo statistics - psychological violence!

The very fact you can now be concerned about psychological violence rather than people being burned at the stake, hung drawn and quartered, mashed over the head with balls and chains etc is evidence that society is now less violent. Of course there is still violence but the levels are greatly reduced.

What is the low down on what the book os proposing? Less expenditure on military? Less likelihoods of religious end of world scenarios? Better feel goods for the 1%?

What is it getting at that we need to be aware of? What is it saying to us that is of relevance?

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 08:35:04 UTC | #894063

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 19 by AtheistEgbert

This is a deeply deluded thesis in my view. It's not violence that is important, but human evil. As far as I'm concerned, we're as evil as ever, and the last century of history supports my view. Really disappointed that so many intelligent people are supporting this thesis, including some of the most respected atheists I've met.

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 11:59:13 UTC | #894082

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 20 by keyfeatures

Comment 18 by Premiseless :

What is the low down on what the book os proposing? Less expenditure on military? Less likelihoods of religious end of world scenarios? Better feel goods for the 1%? What is it getting at that we need to be aware of? What is it saying to us that is of relevance?

Always beware subjective translators. One step away is enough to introduce errors in cognition.

What do I take away from it? The genetics of the superorganism do not change significantly over humanly comprehensible timescales but the memetics demonstrate cheering new tricks.

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 12:19:52 UTC | #894088

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 21 by BanJoIvie

Comment 19 by AtheistEgbert

This is a deeply deluded thesis in my view.

Somehow I'm more inclined to give weight to the massive research and exhaustive data that Dr. Pinker has marshalled and presented in his work than I am to your subjective "view." Particularly when you open with the ludicrous notion that a massive, across the board decrease in all forms of violence in societies worldwide somehow doesn't matter because "in your view" people are just as "evil" as ever. You then back up this odd notion up by simply asserting that the twentieth century supports your view, even though Dr. Pinker's data directly challenges this idea. Pinker makes a very compelling case that the twentieth century was the most peaceful in recorded human history, and your bare opinion to the contrary seems insufficient to dismiss his work. Pinker's implication is not that we have somehow changed our fundamental nature, but that mechanisms are developing which have encouraged societies as a whole to curb the worst human excesses.

If, as you say, human "evil" remains fundamentally unchanged, then surely the fact that we evil humans have still managed to severely the curtail the acts of violence we perform (by almost every conceivable measure) is a very significant phenomenon, worthy of serious study. Might we not wish to understand the mechanisms whereby these decreases have occurred in order to magnify their success and avoid reversals? Surely we can do more than simply throw our hands up at the unchanging nature of human evil with the implication that it makes no difference whether we live under violent circumstances or relatively peacful ones, since "evil" matters more than personal safety.

Given that so many intelligent and respected people are "supporting" Dr. Pinker's thesis, which seems so obviously deluded in your view, have you considered that you may not actually understand what you are so blithely dismissing?

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 15:09:39 UTC | #894114

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 22 by BanJoIvie

Comment 18 by Premiseless :

What is the low down on what the book os proposing? Less expenditure on military? Less likelihoods of religious end of world scenarios? Better feel goods for the 1%? What is it getting at that we need to be aware of? What is it saying to us that is of relevance?

I'd suggest you start with the lecture I linked to in comment 14 if you want a meaningful summary of the work. It really is too complex to give a clear take-away in an chat post.

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 15:13:20 UTC | #894115

blitz442's Avatar Comment 23 by blitz442

Comment 21 by BanJoIvie

Given that so many intelligent and respected people are "supporting" Dr. Pinker's thesis, which seems so obviously deluded in your view, have you considered that you may not actually understand what you are so blithely dismissing?

Have you considered that AtheistEgbert is nothing more than a professional contrarian? He arrogantly and incorrectly thinks that he possesses a superior sense of objectivity to the "mindless sheep" that he feels populate this site, and he seeks to demonstrate this by reflexively disagreeing with whatever seems to be the majority.

Therefore, the frequency of the accuracy and value of his opinions may be more along the lines of the proverbial broken clock.

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 15:34:45 UTC | #894120

LaurieB's Avatar Comment 24 by LaurieB

I just finished reading the book last week. It's a real page turner. I couldn't put it down. I also went to Pinker's book signing in Harvard Square and my favorite part of the evening was the question and answer segment. The book had just been released that morning so I was only 80 pages into it by the time the event started.

One question/statement from a woman in the audience caught my attention that night when she claimed that rudeness has increased in our society these days and she couldn't reconcile that situation with the premise of Pinker's book. Pinker answered something to the effect that if rudeness is all we have to deal with then we're doing something right.

I was comforted by his account of the 1960's rights revolutions, including children's rights, gay rights, animals' rights and in particular women's rights. In my own lifetime I can say that in the year 2011 in America, women are safer and enjoy more rights, freedom, opportunity, and access to justice than ever before. This is always brought back to me when I reflect on the lives of third world women that I know who endure rape, physical beatings, humiliation, and they have no control over their own reproduction. This causes me no end of sadness and frustration. I would have liked to tell that other woman in the audience about how good we have it here and that not only do we women have it good compared to many third world women but that it seems clear that in times past physical brutality and rape were a constant threat. I hope she went on to read the book and especially chapter 7, The Rights Revolutions for a sobering account of the brutality that was for us women and also for children, homosexuals, animals, and racial minorities a daily occurrence. Those who are stuck on a perceived erosion of etiquette are missing the bigger picture that is presented in Pinker's book.

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 15:55:16 UTC | #894125

                                   ike's Avatar Comment 25 by ike

Is he moving from the "human nature" thesis towards the "nurture" line?

That boring debate still exists?

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 16:15:18 UTC | #894130

quarecuss's Avatar Comment 26 by quarecuss

Haven't read this book yet but did read his entertaining The Stuff of Thought. Especially enjoyed the parts about "rudeness", scatology, "fuck", seven taboo words you, at one time, couldn't say on TV and so on. Could it be that the more aceptable, widespread and intense the 'taboo' violent language becomes in public discourse, the less physically violent we become?

In a related vein, surely he must say something in the new book about the sheer intensity and massive killing potential of modern weaponry being exponentially increased? The incidence of violent acts has decreased because their well-publicized potential is so awful? The more terrible the consequences, the more they act as a deterrent to violence. The more we live on the knife edge of self-extinction the more cautious we become?

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 16:42:42 UTC | #894136

quarecuss's Avatar Comment 27 by quarecuss

@ike

love the cloud finger!

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 16:46:31 UTC | #894137

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 28 by keyfeatures

An intelligent optimist. Pinker is a rare treasure.

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 17:37:57 UTC | #894142

Stafford Gordon's Avatar Comment 29 by Stafford Gordon

Has there been an overall decline of religion over the centuries? And if so, does it correlate to the decline in violence?

After all, as we learn more about our origins, and our horizons widen, surely we should know better than to resort to fisticuffs?

There's only one human race, as anyone with two brain cells to rub together now knows, so that should be one cause for dispute done away with.

Anyway, we're all in this together, what ever "this" might turn out to be. Although, as Laurence Kraus so cogently put it, ultimately "We're all fucked!"

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 18:29:38 UTC | #894150

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 30 by Premiseless

The first few hundred humans could not possibly have imagined 36 million per year dropping dead from disease and hunger alone. When the man with the powerpoint presentation arrived they just said,"We don't do percentages, 36 million can't hide so easily behind a character on our keyboard."

Tue, 29 Nov 2011 18:37:50 UTC | #894153