February 8, 2015

Review Corner

What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.
I had always considered Steven Pinker to be a pointy-head Harvard Professor, but his Wikipedia entry says "He is a Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind." Remarkably devoid of phrenology.

But his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a masterful work. He collects, analyzes, and communicates voluminous amounts of data from wide-ranging sources and varying disciplines to assemble a comprehensive look at violence from cavemen to 21st Century city dwellers. It does the whole concept of scholarship proud.

The graph stunned almost everyone who saw it (including me-- as I mentioned in the preface, it was the seed that grew into this book). The discovery confounds every stereotype about the idyllic past and the degenerate present. When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.

It ranges broadly through history, anthropology, economics, genetics, and philosophy -- but there is always a foundation of supporting data. The first and longest portion on the book is dedicated to convincing the skeptical that the world you see on CNN every night (every night you're stuck in a n airport anyway) is less violent than the pastoral settings of indigenous peoples or pre-industrial country life. He describes an illustration from "the 15th -century German manuscript The Medieval Housebook, a depiction of daily life as seen through the eyes of a knight."
In the detail shown in figure 3-5, a peasant disembowels a horse as a pig sniffs his exposed buttocks. In a nearby cave a man and a woman sit in the stocks. Above them a man is being led to the gallows, where a corpse is already hanging, and next to it is a man who has been broken on the wheel, his shattered body pecked by a crow. The wheel and gibbet are not the focal point of the drawing, but a part of the landscape, like the trees and hills.

Ah, the good old days. And this was a huge step up from the hunter-gather societies. The city of Boulder is thick with those who wish we could return to those peaceful days when indigenous Americans roamed an unspoiled land to hunt buffalo and worship mother Gaia. Trouble is they had 100x the murder rate. In some pre-historical societies studied a member had a 50-50 chance of meeting death at the hands of another human as from natural causes -- all before discoveries in hygiene and medicine reduced natural causes.
The same kind of long division has deflated the peaceful reputation of the !Kung, the subject of a book called The Harmless People, and of the Central Arctic Inuit (Eskimos), who inspired a book called Never in Anger. 72 Not only do these harmless, nonviolent, anger-free people murder each other at rates far greater than Americans or Europeans do, but the murder rate among the !Kung went down by a third after their territory had been brought under the control of the Botswana government, as the Leviathan theory would predict. 73

In the concluding chapters, Pinker offers several reasons for the downward slope of the violence curve. I think most ThreeSourcers would agree with most of the reasons; enlightenment values score highly.

The largest reduction comes from Hobbs's Leviathan and is bad news for our Anarchist friends. The Sheriff and courts clean up Dodge. Murder rates fall by magnitudes, but not without cost.

When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats.

The book is not political. Prof. Pinker takes a couple gratuitous swipes at President Bush, but I assume that is in his contract at Harvard.

Pinker does not spike the football, but one could easily use this as a celebration of Progressivism. The greatest gains have been made in Western Europe. The U.S. South (and West) were slower to drop and still lag behind. The sphere of protection and empathy was expanded from tribe to race to all races to homosexuals to animals. Are we all heading to Denmark and just at different locations on the path?

The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance.

That is a difficult consideration for me but I want to repeat that that is not an explicit thesis. Halfway through, I read a Denver Post article on coyote-killing competition. You don't have to be on the PETA board to be discomfited by that. Is there an optimal level of civilization (and homicide?) Most accept liberty's requiring trade-offs in safety. Perhaps that is part.

More appreciated 'round these parts, the second act of the Civilizing and Pacifying process was what the economist Samuel Ricard called "Gentle Commerce."

You have an incentive, moreover, to anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy. 38 A good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be.

Pinker is a Psychologist, and the last chapters evaluate his theories experimentally. Many of the studies make very interesting reading: student/paid guinea pigs who were told to skip a meal given two radishes and having to sit in front of a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and try solve unsolvable puzzles. Sadism has just moved from the fields to the Ivory Tower.

The data in the final chapter comes mostly from studies like these and fMRI scans. I found it interesting but am skeptical of both processes. There's a bit of Jonathan Haidt style, more real world data (and Pinker quotes Haidt extensively). But my skepticism led me to find that a weak finish to a strong -- and important book.

Five stars -- its small flaws are overwhelmed by its important contributions.

UPDATE: Pinker has the lead story on Cato Letters. Hat-tip Facebook friend Brad.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at February 8, 2015 10:17 AM

The opening pull quote gave me the misimpression that the author was suggesting modern urban life to be safer than modern rural life. I would have disputed that, but I see him comparing the modern to the bygone, or the ancient. I conclude this is a direct result of Prosperitarianism, not Progressivism. Progressivism is an unfortunate byproduct of Prosperitarianism - as life becomes easier and overall wealth becomes greater, there is a natural tendency for some to agitate for the "sharing" of that wealth. By force, if necessary.

Posted by: johngalt at February 9, 2015 2:49 PM

Furthermore, the chart labeled "Figure 2-4" (Amazon 'Look Inside') shows that the homicide rate in "Ten largest American cities, 1990" is roughly ten times that of the U.S. as a whole in 2005. Something about big city life is inherently homicidal. Higher density? Higher rate of state dependency?

Posted by: johngalt at February 9, 2015 2:54 PM

You see Progressivism as redistribution. I am suggesting a package deal to include gay rights, enforcement of animal protection -- Denmark! For what it is worth, Prof Pinker barely subdivides progressive liberalism from the classical liberalism we all cherish.

We've reduced the homicide rates by magnitudes, but the lowest is in Western Europe. To a good Prog, that's the ultimate destination. "The more and quicker the US can be made like Western Europe the better" is the best definition of Progressivism I can do in one sentence.

Large "blue" cities are more violent than "red" country. But the Progressive Northeast is less violent than the South and West. If there were one datum I'm apt to question is West vs. East. But measuring Murder/100,000 if Lafayette has a few it rivals New York. But this presents a continuum of South -> North -> Europe which slopes down just like time. The very definition of Progressive.

More state dependency causing violence? Denmark.

I have never had a good answer for USA crime rates. Pinker points out if you suggest genetics, Australia was settled by criminals yet has one of the lowest rates in the world. The US and Columbia are huge statistical outliers for their level of GDP.

To re-re-iterate, this entire discussion is ginned up by me because I found it of interest to ThreeSourcers. I imagine the author would say "Really? That's what you got out of it?" or "Are there any more Cheetos® left?"

Posted by: jk at February 9, 2015 4:46 PM

Redistribution and authoritarianism (enFORCEment of animal protection) are the poison pills of modern liberalism. Without their penchant for collectivism I'd prolly be a liberal.

RE: More violence in the west than east - Compton is in the west.

RE: Denmark and Australia's relatively lower homicide rates - They have no demagogues running around yelling into bullhorns "Black Lives Matter!" while ignoring the scores of blacks murdered in Chicago et. al. every weekend. Homogeneity tempers discontent.

Posted by: johngalt at February 9, 2015 5:10 PM

I completely agree. Are we willing to explicitly say freedom is worth an extra 10 murders per 100,000 people (the difference between Denmark and Texas?)

I am. The end of the Road is not Denmark but Huxley's Brave New World. But I felt called to explicitly state that.

Posted by: jk at February 9, 2015 5:16 PM

I'm willing to take that trade too, but I posit it is a false dichotomy. Restore urbanites' freedom to armed self-defense and then let's see how many murders there are.

Posted by: johngalt at February 10, 2015 4:21 PM

I'm in. And End the Drug War. But I still suspect we don't get to the Western Europe 1/100,000.

Posted by: jk at February 11, 2015 10:37 AM

"An armed society is a polite society." R.A.H.

Posted by: dagny at February 11, 2015 12:15 PM

4.7/100000 today. Not too bad. Others not reaching the magical standard of western Europe:

Canada 1.6
Finland 1.6
Belgium 1.6
Norway 2.2
Cuba 4.2

We could strive to be at least as non-homicidal as the communist dictatorship of Cuba I suppose. The global average in 2012 was 6.2/100000.

And the most homicidal places on Earth? Honduras at 90.4 and Venezuela at 53.7/100000. Central America has 4 of the bottom 6.

Posted by: johngalt at February 11, 2015 2:54 PM

3.1 for the Centennial State. I thought the difference was greater. Thought those crazy Republicans in Texas were in double digits, nut your link has them about 5.

Screw it, that's close enough to Europe.

Posted by: jk at February 11, 2015 7:36 PM

Texas was 5.9 in 2000, but down to 4.4 in 2012. I'd like to see a breakdown within the state data. Where are the "hot spots" I wonder? Houston? Dallas?

Side note: In a taped address to open the Grammys President Obama claimed that "nearly one in five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape." That must depend on your definition of "attempted rape" because the FBI data on "forcible rape" is much lower:

California - 20.6/100,000 (0.0206%, or 1 in 4854)
Texas - 29.6/100,000 (0.0296%, or 1 in 3378)
Colorado - 40.7/100,000 (0.0407%, or 1 in 2457)

(Shame on you, Colorado.)

Posted by: johngalt at February 12, 2015 11:52 AM | What do you think? [11]