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The Better Angels of Our Nature

Why Violence Has Declined

Steven Pinker

The Bible is one long celebration of violence. When the world population was 4, one of them was murdered - a rate of 25%, higher than anywhere today.

No sooner do men and women begin to multiply than God decides they are sinful and that the appropriate punishment is genocide. The next major figure in Bible is Abraham, who is about to sacrifice his son Isaac at God's command until an angel stops him. The message being that the cardinal virtue is obedience to divine authority not reverence for human life.

Isaac's son Jacob has a daughter, Dinah. Dinah is kidnapped and raped, and the rapist asks to buy her for his wife. Dinah's brothers explain that an important moral principle stands in the way of this transaction - the rapist is uncircumsized. They make a counter-offer. If all the men in city cut off their foreskins, they can have Dinah. While the men are nursing their bleeding penises, the brothers invade the city, massacre the men and carry off the women and children. Better do this than have their sister treated like a whore, as they explain to their father. Shortly after they reiterate their commitment to family values by selling their brother Joseph into slavery.

The Israelites wind up as slaves to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Moses begs the P to let his people go. God, being omnipotent, could have softened P's heart. Instead he chose to harden it, which then gives him a reason to afflict the Egyptians with a series of afflictions, culminating in the murder of their first-borns. God follows this massacre with another when he drowns the pursuing Egyptian army.

The Israelites got bored waiting for Moses to get his commandments, and some of them made mistake of worshipping a statue of a calf. So God told Moses and his brother Aaron to kill 3000 of their companions. God gives them strict instructions as to how sacrifices are to be prepared. Aaron and sons use wrong incense, so God burns them to death

In Deuteronomy, God gives explicit instructions as to how Israelites are to deal with neighbours who fail to accept them as overlords- kill the men, abduct the cattle and women. And since they won't be keen on loving if you've just killed off the rest of their family, cut off their hair, lock them up for a month then rape 'em

David becomes a famous king, and forefather of Jesus. Kills tens of thousands of people, adds a beautiful woman to his harem by sending her husband off to get killed. But he finally does something which God thinks is wrong - he orders a census. To punish him for this lapse, God kills 70,000 of his citizens.

The Bible depicts a world that to us is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, murder and rape members of their own people. Civilians, including children, are slaughtered indiscriminately. Women are bought sold and used like sex toys. God tortures and massacres hundreds of thousands of people for trivial reasons. These atrocities are not isolated events. They involve all the leading characters of the Old Testament, and occur continuously throughout the plot. According to the biblical scholar Raymond Schwager, the Hebrew Bible specifically enumerates 1.2 million deaths from mass killings. This excludes the half million dead listed in Chronicles 2 war between Judah and Israel as historically implausible. If you added in deaths from Noah's Flood you're probably talking about another 20 million.

The good news is that most of it didn't happen. No evidence of a world wide flood 5000 years ago, or a incinerated cities. No mention in Egyptian writings of the departure of a million slaves, which you'd think they would have noticed. And if there was a Davidian empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millenium BC, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it.

Although the writings are fictitious, they reflect current attitudes. Whether or not the Isarelites engaged in genocide, they thought it was a good idea. They saw nothing wrong with slavery, raping captives, or cruel punishments such as stoning or hacking people to pieces.

Religious people today compartmentalize their beliefs. They profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy of which we should all be grateful.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene asked readers to imagine animals as "survival machines"

To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not it's own child or a close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is inclined to hit back. This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them. Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of the environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same or different species.

Violence in nature is simply the default - not just predators and parasites, but also infanticide, cannibalism, lethal combat. But violence is not random - it's not because of mindless blood lust etc. It has evolved as strategy, deployed only where expected benefits outweigh the costs, because other survival machines are inclined to hit back. But competition is inherent. Survival machines that can elbow their competitors away from finite resources like food water or desirable mates will out-reproduce their competitors, leaving the world with survival machines which are best suited for such competition.

Murderous chimpanzees. When a group of males meet an isolated chimp from another group: if it's a receptive female they will groom her and try to mate. If it's a female with a baby they will attack her and kill and eat the baby. If it's a male they will savagely kill him - two will hold him down while the others bite off his balls and rip out his trachea.

The reduction of homicide by government control. Though imperial conquest and rule can be brutal, they do reduce endemic violence among the conquered. This rule has applied from Roman Empire to British Empire. Blood feuds common before rule of law; lawlessness makes raiding a viable choice. But predictable government encourages roads and trade and gives people a stake in social stability.

No inevitable timeline of social progression toward less violence. It's due to mode of social organization. If a state breaks down, as in Somalia today, it reverts to tribalism. All these pre-government states operate more like protection rackets, in which a powerful Mafia boss offers protection from hostile neighbours and each other. In his interest to minimise unproductive violence among his flock/herd.

One of the tragic ironies of second half of 20th Century is that when the colonies in developing world freed themselves from European rule, they often slid back into tribal warfare, this time intensified by modern weapons and the freedom of young men to defy tribal elders.

Pol scientist Ted Robert Gurt analysed English court and county records, and found that homicide rate went down from 110 homicides per 100,000 people per year in 14th Century Oxford to less than 1 per 100,000 in mid-20th Century London. Same thing applied across Europe, though Scandinavia a couple of centuries after England, and Italy didn't get serious about it until mid-19th Century.

Interesting trends. Throughout, men responsible for 92% of killings, and were most likely to kill when in their 20's. In earlier centuries, rich and poor killed at about same rate. But as the homicide rate began to fall, it dropped far more precipitously among the upper classes than the lower. rate of domestic killings (where killer related to victim) stays similar throughout - family members get on each other's nerves at same rates in all times and places. Macho violence among acquainted males is ruled by contests for dominance that are more sensitive to circumstances. How violent a man has to be to keep his place in the pecking order varies.

In Middle Ages, sex less discrete. People were publicly naked or part dressed more often. Prostitutes were openly available; in many English towns the red light district was called Gropecunt Lane. Other words have passed from polite usage. No longer call a dandelion a pissabed, a heron a shitecrow, or the windhover a windfucker. Similar changes in etiquette - a knife at the table lost its sharp point, and when fork introduced, it became impolite to use the knife for anything but cutting. (Some societies today still frown on using knife to get stuff onto fork).

Changes in Middle Ages. Consolidation of political units accelerated with invention of gunpowder weapons and standing armies that could only be maintained by a large bureaucracy and revenue base. A guy on a horse with few ragtag peasants no match. But for a king turf battles between knights were a nuisance because peasants and productivity destroyed instead of contributing to revenues. Second change was economic. Feudal system based on land and was a zero-sum game - if you wanted to add to your resources, your best option was to take it off someone else. Reinforced by Christian teaching that money was evil. But growth of commerce, better roads, banking and credit meant that your trading partner is more valuable to you alive than dead. The state first forced the knights to disarm, then took control of the violence. Instead of paying off the victim's family as in old days, a killer or rapist answered to the king's courts, and paid fines or had lands confiscated. The victim got moral satisfaction, but the king got the money.

It's now the poor who are violent. The upper and middle classes use the legal system while the lower classes DIY. Much of their violent crime is, from the point of view of the perpetrator, the pursuit of justice. Most common motives are retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful partner and other acts of revenge. Most of the homicides are capital punishment, with the perp as judge, jury and executioner.

Question conventional dogma - that violence is a lack of morals, or a sickness, or it's because they're poor, or angry at society.

Among Western democracies, US the anomaly. US rate has stayed up at rate common in less lawful countries like Albania. Every other country trended down over 20th Century, but not US.

Not just because US has more guns. Even if you subtract the firearms-related killings, US still exceeds rest of the West. Thing to remember is, that when it comes to violence, America is three countries. One part of US is similar to Europe. This area is New England and a band of northern states right across to the Pacific, including Utah. Has nothing to do with climate; it reflects the immigrants who settled these lands. They have a homicide rate around 3 per 100,000. Second group of southern states like Arizona and Alabama have rates around 8 per 100,000, comparing unfavorably with South American ones. Then there's Louisiana, with 14 (nearly as bad as Papua New Guinea which has 15), and off-the-chart District of Columbia, with 30, which makes it as dangerous as southern parts of Africa. These two places are outliers mainly because high proportion of African Americans.

Homicide rate for white Americans (1976-2005) is 4.8; for blacks 36.7. And not because get arrested more - same gap appears in anonymous surveys asking about violence suffered or afflicted on others. And southern whites are more violent than northern whites; southern blacks are more violent than northern blacks.

Commentators (Roth, Eisner) suggest that once the state has pacified its populace down from 100 per 100,000, additional reductions depend on how people accept the legitimacy of government, its laws and the social order. One suggestion (Peter Spierenburg) was that democracy 'came too early' in America. In Europe first the state disarmed the people and claimed a monopoly over violence, then the people took over the apparatus of the state. But in America the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms. Especially in southern states, very keen on posses, vigilante groups, lynch mobs, and of course, individual rights. Homicides in south were treated lightly if the killing was "reasonable", and most killings were in that they resulted from a personal dispute or even that they were just the kinds of people that kill each other.

South pervaded by culture of honor. They commit same level violence in robberies, but outkill in those sparked by quarrels. Several studies confirm this basic cultural attitude.(Nisbett and Cohen) set up experiment designed to insult and rile students, then measured stress hormone levels and observed subsequent behaviour. Marked difference between north and south - southerners got really angry at slight, had elevated cortisol levels, and behaved more aggressively over next few minutes.

Nisbett and Cohen suggested that due to people who had originally settled the south - primarily displaced sheep herders from Ireland and Scotland. Herders everywhere have hair-trigger reactions for violence, because their assets can be stolen in an eyeblink if they are not watchful or prepared to defend them. But more than that, herders occupy the marginal land, usually out of reach of authorities, and justice is DIY.

Marriage as a predictor of decline in violence. A famous study tracked 1000 low-income Boston teenagers for 45 years and found two factors predicted whether a delinquent would avoid a life of crime - getting a stable job and marrying a woman he cared about and supporting her and her children.

Sizeable uptick in crime rate in 1960's seems to question the Civilizing Hypothesis. Pinker refutes Freakonomics suggestion of unwanted babies being aborted before they grew up to be the crime wave of future. His alternative suggestion was that it was all due to the overthrow of conventional authority in 60's - perhaps sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock'n'roll were a very bad thing for civilization, as the old fogies held.

Why were cultures so brutal in the past? Why the gruesome tortures, by both state and religious authorities? Pinker suggests that pain and death common in ancient world. The world was full of dangers and nasty surprises. Natural to ask what sort of god would create such a world? Obviously it was a sadistic god, one that liked to see people bleed and suffer. So if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, it makes sense to be proactive and give them the sacrifices they need.

But this died out, in Israel about 600 BC, in Greece, Rome, China a few centuries later. Perhaps the authorities noticed that it didn't seem to make any difference, or perhaps a more affluent and predictable life made people value others' lives more highly. Human sacrifice and witch-burnings examples of harm resulting from people pursuing ends that come from figments of their imagination. But also that flying an airliner into a skyscraper will earn you 72 virgins in heaven. Or that you can escape an eternity in hell only by accepting jesus as your saviour, and so there is a moral imperative to coerce others into accepting this belief and silencing anyone who might sow doubt about it.

A broader danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge those beliefs and you challenge their dignity, standing and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. When people organize their lives around beliefs, and then find others are doing just fine without those beliefs, or worse, credibly rebut them, they look like fools. Because they have no rational evidence with which to persuade skeptics, the faithful are then liable to react with rage.

The Age of Reason in 17th Century writers began to insist that beliefs be justified by experience and logic. This undermines the principle of forcing people to change their beliefs at the point of a sword. They pointed out that our eyes can be fooled by optical illusions such as an oar that appears broken at the water's surface, or a cylindrical tower that appears to be square at a distance, so why should we trust our beliefs about even less concrete subjects.

The big problem with certainty of belief identified even in 1500's, with debate over Calvin burning the heretic Michael Servatus. "Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are. Calvin says they are wrong and wishes to judge them , and so do they. Who shall be the judge? Who made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should kill? He says he has the Word of God and so do they... In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree."

Francis Bacon, often credited with the principle that beliefs must be grounded in observation, wrote of a man who was taken to a place of worship and shown a painting of sailors who had escaped shipwreck by paying their vows. The man was asked if that didn't prove the power of gods. "Aye" he replied "but where are the paintings of those who were drowned after paying their vows?"

Many politicians and preachers defended slavery, citing the bible's approval of the practice, the inferiority of the African races, the value of preserving the Southern way of life, and a paternalistic concern that freed slaves could not survive on their own. But these rationalizations withered under intellectual and moral scrutiny. Intellectually hard to justify one person owning another; moral revulsion stimulated by books such as Uncle Tom's Cabin that gave first person narrative of what it was like to be a slave. The book depicted wrenching episodes where mothers separated from their children, and Tom being beaten to death for refusing to whip another slave.

The history of the treatment of debtors illustrates the mysterious process by which violence has declined in every sphere of life. We have gone from enslaving and executing debtors to imprisoning them and then to seizing their assets to repay the debt. But even seizing assets is a form of violence, even though most people don't think of it that way. And so that has been declining as well. In many places a debtor's house, car, retirement fund and spouse's assets are protected, and when a person declares bankruptcy, he can write off all the debts with impunity. In the old days, critics would have said this would have been the end of the world (of capitalism), because it depends on debts being honored. But the commercial ecosystem has devised workarounds. An entire category of violence evaporated, and mechanisms that carried out the same function materialized, without anyone planning the process.

In the span of just over a century, cruel practices that had been part of civilization for millennia were suddenly abolished. The killing of witches, the torture of prisoners, the persecution of heretics, the execution of non-conformists and the enslavement of foreigners went from the unexceptional to the unthinkable. Most people today have no desire to watch a cat burn to death, let alone a man or a woman. In that regard we are different from our ancestors of a few centuries ago, who relished such spectacles. Several suggested explanations for these basic attitude changes, but many of them have timing problems - they don't coincide with the changes. One of the few major social changes that occurred early enough was invention of printing and rise of literacy. Pinker suggests that this gave new perspectives and that this was the first step in feeling compassion for (non-kin) others. He singles out first-person-narrative novels that exercised the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, and to question the assumed 'natural' way of doing things. The process continues today - a generation ago had Alex Haley's Roots; today's has Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy which attacks female genital mutilation. Edward Glaeser suggests that rise of cities led to liberal democracy because provided wide range of groups who had incentive to limit the power of absolute monarchs. The Enlightenment - a whole different way of thinking. Starts with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that we are fallible. Therefore, we should seek good reasons for believing things. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, are all recipes for error, and should be distrusted as sources of knowledge. Use reason to make sense of the world. We can never prove anything, we can only express confidence that we have the best explanation so far. Reason lets us infer that others may be superficially different but like us in fundamental ways. As in Merchant of Venice "(Is) not a Jew fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, warmed and cooled by the same summers and winters...?" From this comes understanding of a universal human nature, and that means we are all capable of reasoning. This in turn is a place for morality. If you ask someone to behave in a way that suits you, you have to expect the same from him - you can't appeal to any special privileges. Morality then is not some set of arbitrary rules dictated by a deity who will punish you if you step out of line.. Nor is it the custom of any particular tribe or culture. We all have a lot of potential violence - survey found most people have at some time fantasized about killing someone who has upset them. Usually suppressed, but one situation parallels other primates. Chimpanzees lethal attack if come across isolated male of another troop - they will rip him to pieces. Similar eruption in police or armies. Common trigger - opponent outnumbered 3 or 4 to one. London Times Review London Times Review

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