Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker: A Book Review, Part 1

I have just finished Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

I think it is a masterpiece of scholarship and research, combining the fields of psychology, history, political science, anthropology, economics, and statistics to contribute a hopeful affirmation about the progress the world has made to reduce violence and to improve quality of life.

My favourite scholarship is the type which combines multiple fields in this way!  

In these posts I would like to briefly summarize the book, and to reflect about ways to apply some of Pinker's insights to the practice of psychotherapy.

I see there has been mostly strong praise for this book among critics, but predictably there has been some controversy.    Cultural groups which still have strong authoritarian, communal, tribal, sexist, or fundamentalist values may find some of Pinker's conclusions to be critical of their way of life.  Mind you, he does show that in almost all such subcultures, such as conservative groups in the U.S., there have been positive changes, for example towards affirming rights for previously disenfranchised groups.  It is just that these changes usually lag a decade or two behind such changes in the rest of the population.  An attitude about women's rights or gay rights that would have been called "liberal" in 1970 would be considered a norm in many conservative groups today. 

Pinker shows that most elements of religious belief and practice have had negative impacts on rates of violence and war, due in part to causing an ingroup mindset, which tends to undervalue the human worth of non-believers, therefore facilitating maltreatment of those with a different faith.    Also most religions have a type of authoritarian structure, including about the concept of divinity itself.  The notion of an afterlife can not only model infinite punishment ("hell") as a supposedly fair possibility for an individual based on offenses such as "disbelief" but could encourage such an attitude of infinite punishments in approaching other individuals or cultures.  Conversely, with infinite reward ("heaven") in the picture, perhaps with simple criteria such as "belief" to be the ticket of entry, this could be experienced as a license to engage in many destructive acts during life while minimizing the relative value of earthly justice.

Other critics question his statistics, but here I think he has been very impressively thorough.  His statistics do not at all imply that violence has miraculously disappeared in modernity, and very clearly do not imply that the most horrific possibilities of violence -- such as the scale of events which happened in World War II -- cannot happen again.  In fact, his discussion of statistical power-law distributions modeling violent conflict gives rise to great concern:  based on this distribution, one can expect an arbitrarily large and devastating conflict to occur in the future, since this type of distribution is "tail heavy" statistically.  His analysis does give reason to be hopeful, though--the underlying causations and probabilities which become the parameters of these statistical patterns are themselves declining.

An example of a power-law distribution is the length of words that would be generated on a typewriter if one were to type on the keys and the spacebar randomly.  Typing the spacebar would separate individual words.   The length of the word would represent the magnitude of  (or loss of life from) a violent conflict. With this analogy, a conflict happens every time the spacebar is pressed. One could see that short, small conflicts would be most common, but that longer, larger conflicts could happen periodically, though less frequently, in a random pattern.  It is disconcerting that this type of distribution can have an infinite expected value, representing total destruction of the population.  As we know, this is actually a possibility in the nuclear age.

But Pinker's thesis also shows that the parameters of this imaginary typewriter are changing--with time, the typewriter is gaining more and more keys (just like Microsoft keyboards!).  This causes the relative risk of pressing the spacebar to gradually decrease with time   Also, metaphorically, Pinker is showing that the information content of each key is increasing, so to speak, causing fewer keys to need to be pressed at all.    Just as with computer keyboards, we are even developing ways to interact without using keyboards at all (e.g. with mice, or voice commands).  The mechanisms he shows for these changes in risk parameters are increased education, intelligence, an expanding circle of empathy, an expanding force of reason, improved human rights (e.g. for women, racial minorities, and people having different sexual orientations), free and fair trade,  and improved stable government (what he calls the "leviathan").

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