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Oct 29, 2011      `

And now for a stiff dosis of - statistical - optimism


   "Almost all of history is nothing but a series of horrors."

   "Enjoy and give pleasure, without doing harm to yourself or to anyone else -
that, I think, is the whole of morality.

   -- Chamfort

Actually, I am neither very fit nor do I feel particularly optimistic about much, but I am always interested in learning things, and there are quite a few things that I do believe that I would like to be mistaken about.

One of the things I would like to be mistaken about that I am quite certain I am not is that the 20th century was by and large, and both in spite and because very great advances in science and technology, a cruel and warring age in which several hundreds of millions lost their lives unnecessarily, often also in cruel and degrading ways.

Here is a statistical table that I used in the context of discussing problems of morality, that was compiled by professor Rummel and was published in his Death by Government. It lists only the numbers of civillians - that is: not soldiers - killed by their governments in the 20th century:

Dictator Ideology Country Years Deaths
Joseph Stalin Communist Soviet Union 1929-1953 42,672,000
Mao Tse-tung Communist China 1923-1976 37,828,000
Adolf Hitler Fascist Germany 1933-1945 20,946,000
Chiang Kai-shek Militarist/Fascist China 1921-1948 10,214,000
Vladimir Lenin Communist Soviet Union 1917-1924 4,017,000
Tojo Hideki Militarist/Fascist Japan 1941-1945 3,990,000
Pol Pot Communist Cambodia 1968-1987 2,397,000
Yahya Khan Militarist Pakistan 1971 1,500,000
Josip Broz Tito Communist Yugoslavia 1941-1987 1,172,000







In fact, as I explained in Professor Rummel's website about democide and genocide, professor Rummel collected many more of these statistics, and has a quite interesting and useful site, though indeed not one that may incline you to happiness:

Freedom, Democracy, Peace;
Power, Democide, and War

Also, since Death by Government, professor Rummel did more research, and found reasons to substantially increase some of the numbers in the above table, notably the deaths caused by Mao Tse-tung.

Even so, professor Rummel's message is that all is not lost, and indeed he himself is a strong propounder of the thesis that democratic government is an effective cure of death by government, and he has also evidence for that thesis, of various kinds, for which I refer you to his website, linked above.

I have now arrived at my title, which was caused by a reading of a fairly long but interesting talk by professor Steven Pinker, who teaches psychology at Harvard University, and who lectured on the following subject for the Edge organization:

A History of Violence

I have written before about the Edge organization, in 2006, under the last link, mostly in Dutch, and it has a lot of material that is probably of interest to the more intelligent and higher educated segment of the population.

But to Steven Pinker and violence. As I said, the link A History of Violence is the record of a fairly long (140 Kb html) but interesting talk and some questions and answers at the end of it, in which Pinker presents a lot of statistical evidence in charts to the effect that presently, and indeed the last 60 years or so, "the times they are a'changing" (as Bob Dylan sung):

The trajectory has been, to be sure, bumpy, but in the first decade of the 21st century, we are actually living in a time that even in comparison to recent decades is comparatively peaceable. In fact, one could almost say that the dream of the 1960s folk singers is coming true: the world is putting an end to war.

If you are inclined to disbelieve this, as you may very well be - and to a considerable extent should be, rationally speaking, since the world news tends to be far from disposing one to believe we live in a peaceful and pacifying world - consult Pinker's lecture, or read on to get some quotations with a few comments interspersed.

I quote in the order in which they appear in the text, and the whole lecture, including quite a few statistical charts that I will not quote, has this epigraph:

What may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history is that violence has gone down, by dramatic degrees, and in many dimensions all over the world and in many spheres of behavior: genocide, war, human sacrifice, torture, slavery, and the treatment of racial minorities, women, children, and animals.

This justifies my title - "And now for a stiff dosis of - statistical - optimism" - and I should add immediately that Pinker justifies his epigraph in his lecture, supposing that his figures and charts are mostly correct, as I suppose they are.

I start quoting from about half way in his lecture, after 18 charts have been shown, that list the declines in violent deaths, homicides, judicial torture, executions in the US, abolitions of the death penalty in Europe, abolition of slavery (illegal everywhere - since 1980(!)), the 100 worst wars in the past 2500 years, the decline of wars and of deaths in wars, and more:

Historians who have tried to track genocide over the centuries are unanimous that the notion that the 20th was "a century of genocide" is a myth. Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, their The History and Sociology of Genocide, write on page one, "Genocide has been practiced in all regions of the world and during all periods in history."
To give some examples: if Old Testament history were taken literally, there were genocides on almost every page; the Amalakites, Amarites, Canaanites, Hivites, Hitites, Jevasites, Midianites, Parazites and many other. Also, genocides were committed by the Athenians in Melos; by the Romans in Carthage; and during the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the European wars of religion, and the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Australia.

Quite so: Homo sapiens is a murderous totalitarian ideological ape, often, but indeed also not necessarily so - the species does also have a, sometimes, rational mind, and powers of empathy and cooperation, the latter not necessarily moved by kindness, but by calculation and shared self-interest. (If you and I try to cooperate, chances are we profit more than if you and I try to exterminate each other - and we are each of us smart enough to be successful at both.)

As Pinker argued in the first half of his lecture that I did not quote, there has been a rather remarkable decline in human violence, over the centuries, which raises a question:

So what are the immediate causes of the Long Peace, and what I call the new peace (that is, the Post-Cold War era)? They were anticipated by Immanuel Kant in his remarkable essay, "Perpetual Peace" from 1795, in which he suggested that democracy, trade and an international community were pacifying forces. The hypothesis has been taken up again by a pair of political scientists, Bruce Russett and John Oneal, who have shown that all three forces increased in the second half of the 20th century. In a set of regression analyses, they showed that all of them are statistical predictors of peace, holding everything else constant.
So now more countries in the world discriminate in favor of disadvantaged minorities than discriminate against them.

More specifically, then:

The key question now is: Why has violence declined over so many different scales of time and magnitude? One possibility is that human nature has changed, and that people have lost their inclinations towards violence. I consider this to be unlikely. For one thing, people continue to take enormous pleasure, and allocate a lot of their disposable income, to consuming simulated violence, such as in murder mysteries, Greek tragedy, Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games and hockey.

Indeed, it may be remarked that dramas, movies, video games and sports are ways to enjoy vicarious violence, which very well may decline the urge to commit real violence.

A more likely possibility is that human nature comprises inclinations toward violence and inclinations that counteract them—what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature." Historical circumstances have increasingly favored these peaceable inclinations.

What are the parts of human nature that militate toward violence? I count five, depending on how you lump or split them.

There's raw exploitation, that is, seeking something that you want where a living thing happens to be in the way; examples include rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals. There’s nothing particularly fancy in the psychology of this kind of violence other than a zeroing out of whatever inclinations would inhibit us from that kind of exploitation.

There's the drive toward dominance, both the competition among individuals to be alpha male, and the competition among groups for ethnic, racial, national or religious supremacy or pre-eminence.

There's the thirst for revenge, the kind of moralistic violence that inspires vendettas, rough justice, and cruel punishments.

And then there's ideology which might be the biggest contributor of all (such as in militant religions, nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and communism), leading to large-scale violence via a pernicious cost- benefit analysis. What these ideologies have in common is that they posit a utopia that is infinitely good for infinitely long. You do the math: if the ends are infinitely good, then the means can be arbitrarily violent and you're still on the positive side of the moral ledger. Also, what do you do with people who learn about an infinitely perfect world nonetheless oppose it? Well, they are arbitrarily evil, and deserve arbitrarily severe punishment.

I count four (not "five"), but in any case, these four are awful enough in their consequences, and indeed the last paragraph gives a good summary of a totalitarian type of reasoning that is fit to justify any atrocity.

What of optimism?

Now let's turn to the brighter side, our so-called better angels.

They include the faculty of self-control: the ability to anticipate the consequences of behavior, and inhibit violent impulses. There’s the faculty of empathy (more technically, sympathy), the ability to feel others' pain. There’s the moral sense, which comprise a variety of intuitions including tribalism, authority, purity, and fairness. The moral sense actually goes in both directions: it can push people to be more violent or less violent, depending on how it is deployed. And then there is reason, the cognitive faculties that allow us to engage in objective, detached analysis.

Now we face the crucial question: Which historical developments bring out our better angels? I'm going to suggest there are four.

The links are to terms in my Philosophical Dictionary. To continue with Pinker's answers:

The first implies that Hobbes got it right: a Leviathan, namely a state and justice system with a monopoly on legitimate use of violence, can reduce aggregate violence by eliminating the incentives for exploitative attack; by reducing the need for deterrence and vengeance (because Leviathan is going to deter your enemies so you don't have to), and by circumventing self-serving biases. One of the major discoveries of social and evolutionary psychology in the past several decades is that people tend to exaggerate their adversary's malevolence and exaggerate their own innocence.

Indeed - though it seems to me to have less to do with Hobbes than with the sort of society based on civil laws and indeed a state and police to maintain them, rather than on Hobbes' authoritarian government to prevent civil wars.

The second pacifying force is identified by the theory of "Gentle Commerce." Plunder is a zero-sum or even a negative sum game: the victors' gain is the loser's loss. Trade, in contrast, is a positive-sum game. (We will hear more from both Leda and Martin that reciprocal altruism, such as gains in trade, can result in both sides being better off after an interaction.) Over the course of history, improvements in technology have allowed goods and ideas to be traded over longer distances, among larger groups of people, and at lower cost, all of which change the incentive structure so that other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Actually, from my point of view, this is not so much about blessings of business or trade, nor about reciprocal altruism, though both enter as well, as on the clear mutual benefits of free cooperation - and indeed also, as Pinker says, to there being more and more to cooperate for, and to exchange with one another, namely as fruits of human technology and science.

A third pacifying force is what Peter Singer called the "Expanding Circle," although Charles Darwin in first stated the idea in The Descent of Man. According to this theory, evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy. That's the good news; the bad news is that by default, we apply it only to a narrow circle of allies and family. But over history, one can see the circle of empathy expanding: from the village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to more recently to other races, both sexes, children, and even other species.

Again, from my point of view it looks similar but a bit different: Indeed empathy plays a role, and indeed both empathy and morality tend to be limited in ordinary men to their own groups - for which reason it seems to me more likely that the modern ideas of a rule of law, first clearly stated by Montesquieu and in the Federalist Papers, as indeed the authors of the papers themselves clearly saw and said (and I quote here not from Pinker but from the Wikipedia):

According to Federalist 1:

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

Pinker himself is somewhat doubtful about the expanding circle of empathy, and remarks

This just begs the question of what expanded the circle. I think one can argue that the forces of cosmopolitanism pushed it outward: exposure to history, literature, media, journalism, and travel encourages people to adopt the perspective of a real or fictitious other person. Experiments by Daniel Batson and others have shown that reading a person’s words indeed leads to an increase in empathy, not just for that person, but also for the category that the person represents.

Historical evidence includes the timing of the Humanitarian Revolution of the 18th century, which was preceded by the Republic of Letters, the great increase in written discourse. Similarly, the Long Peace and Rights Revolutions in the second half of the 20th century were simultaneous with the "electronic global village."

Again, I don't say "no", for clearly more reading, more education, and more knowledge of how other people live will help, but it seems to me that the ideas of the rule of law and the separation of church and state, and the ideas of division of powers and of mutual checks and balances, are more important for peaceful societies than a rise in empathy and benevolence.

Pinker sees it a bit differently, and has as his fourth angelic force:

I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an "escalator of reason." As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

I for my part tend to go with my earlier more institutional and legalistic explanation, that I prefer as explanations over increases in average benevolence or enlightenment, mostly because institutional frameworks are more important for what people do and don't do than their own inclinations.

In any case, I have given you a part of Pinker's reasons for qualified optimism concerning the present state of the world. He concludes his talk with this paragraph:

I argue that despite impressions, the long-term trend, though certainly halting and incomplete, is that violence of all kinds is decreasing. This calls for a rehabilitation of a concept of modernity and progress, and for a sense of gratitude for the institutions of civilization and enlightenment that have made it possible.

I do not know whether he is right, and I tend to doubt waffle about "modernity and progress", but Pinker's arguments and statistics are quite interesting, and may provide some hope to some: Even if the human world by and large is a mess, it is - statistically - less of a mess and is on average more civilized, and indeed also with more real knowledge and more scientific understanding and technological power and artefacts, than it was ever before.

Also, by and large these are the products of The Enlightenment and of science, and - alas - the work of an enlighted minority of the most gifted, rather than of the majority who indeed also do most of the work to keep all fed and clothed.

P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.
-- Oct 30, 2011: Corrected some typos and inserted some missing words and some links.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.  Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam/ with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.

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