The phenomenon of public intellectuals is not new. In science there were Robert Boyle and Thomas Edison, for example, who went around giving shows of their gadgets and discoveries, and whose note extended beyond a tiny upper crust of society. But our rapid-media age has accelerated and exaggerated this phenomenon. Once dubbed a public intellectual, the fortunate honorees are credited with expert knowledge in almost any area upon which they wish to pontificate. That they usually are not really qualified in many of these areas is probably correct, but it may be equally correct that in many areas there aren't really any experts no matter how formally qualified they may seem to be (to wit: economists).
One of the inductees into the Hall of Science Oracles these days is Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist. His recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that society has been steadily evolving more peaceful ways of living, starting with the Hobbesian brutality of hunter-gatherers and leading to our own serene societies today (note: several nations we might name need not apply). A central point is that there has been a trend in which the probability of dying by violence has been declining.
Our comments here are reactions to extracts and the publicity the book's story-line has been getting and some comments we have heard from the author on interviews. Some reviews seem to have been uncritically laudatory while others have been more negative, but the subject is inherently more one of opinion than actual science in the proper sense of the term, given the vagaries and subjectivity of data chosen to be included, not to mention what one means by our 'nature'.
Still, to claim long-term trends that even extend to human evolution (or, at least, the hundreds of thousands of years of cultural evolution), is to make a strong claim. Can one forgive a bit of acknowledging but then essentially dismissing, by an author born in 1954, a few years after Hitler and one year after the death of the arch-pacifist Stalin, for seeing things as being basically serene? Even then it's hard to argue for the triumph of our better nature in the face of napalm in Viet Nam, gassing of Kurds, holocausts in Mao's Great Leap Forward in China, and in Laos, the former Yugoslavia and in Sudan, the Iran-Iraq war, and, well, you can flesh out the list for yourself. Our better nature on display for all to see!
I've just been reading books by Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), a Soviet journalist who wrote sobering novels including Life and Fate, and Everything Flows, about Hitler, but mainly Stalin and Lenin and what happened during their era. Despite pulling no punches about what happened, Grossman nonetheless has a positive almost Pinkeresque view that human goodness and the drive for freedom will eventually win out. He attributes this to local, individual acts of kindness and generosity, if not, as Pinker does, to societal structures.
Grossman originally trained as a physicist and his books often refer to things in science. One of his characters in Everything Flows has a different view, proclaiming proclaims that whereas physics has its fundamental law of the Conservation of Energy, human life has its law of the Conservation of Violence:
"History is simply a molecular process. Man is always equal to himself, and there is nothing that can be done with him. There is no evolution. There is one very simple law, the law of the conservation of violence....Violence is eternal, no matter what is done to destroy it...it can only change shape...can be embodied in slavery or the Mongol invasion. It wanders from continent to continent. Sometimes it takes the form of class struggle, sometimes of race struggle....sometimes it is directed against colored people, sometimes against writers and artists, but, all in all, the total quantity of violence on earth remains constant. Thinkers mistake its constant chaotic transformations for evolution and search for its laws. But chaos knows no laws no evolution, no meaning, and no aim."Grossman lived through the Soviet horrors of the mid-20th century, when such subjects were being discussed by eyewitnesses to untold horrors, an era chronicled by other famous authors as well, of course (And as far as trends go, there hadn't seemed to be that much angelic progress from Dostoyevsky (House of the Dead, 1860)). These horrors are still in living memory (if not Pinker's). And what of this velvet evolution as manifest, say, in the nonjudicial imprisonment in Burma, China, or Palestine, imposed by former oppressed people apparently not learning the appropriate progressive lesson from their better nature. Not to worry, the numbers are small, and let's not count these events (except maybe the interrogation beatings?) as 'violence'.
All acknowledged jealousy about who gets to be rewarded as a public intellectual aside, Pinker's thesis seems simplistic or naive in many ways, anthropologically and otherwise. His book title is from Lincoln's phrase from his 1861 inaugural address at the beginning of the Civil War, right before the 'better angels of our nature' led to one of the worst and most systematic slaughters in human history (though we didn't invent scorched earth tactics).
The idea of our 'nature' is rather vague. One can't dispute that we are capable of kindness and peaceful coexistence, just as we're capable of violence. Culture affects behavior, and its structures can encourage or discourage internal or external violence, and so on. Culture obviously reflects and plays upon, the various types of behavior and responses our brains make possible. But violence like other aspects of our behavior is largely based on perception, emotion, and so on, and there is not serious evidence that we are 'naturally' violent or 'peaceful' independent of circumstances.
It is plausible or even likely reasonable, though rather unprovable in terms of anything that counts as science, that societies of millions, or billions of people, and a world increasingly interconnected by increasingly rapid travel and communication, may dampen individual-on-individual violence, or systematic lethal conflict to local areas or battlefields that spare major population areas. By itself that is certainly good. Of course, the effect would to have had to have arisen after, say, Hiroshima and Dresden and some communities in Sudan, etc. I guess we've civilized since we, as state policy, scourged so many Amerindian tribes. One has to decide whether the percent who die that way, rather than, say, the number or the way they die, is the cogent kind of data.
But given that world-war savagery and holocausts did involve large scale slaughter, in living memory (if not Pinker's), and that there are increasing numbers of nuclear weapons at the ready, one has to be rather glib to assert that the push of a single button can't unleash previously unknown horrors. Even then, in terms of percent killed, the number may be smaller than his (disputed) estimates of life in hunter-gatherer bands or some mythical biblical massacres. It is rather vacuous to attribute that smaller number to our 'better angels', even if it were statistically true that massive conflict's casualties in the millions are only a small percent of the whole and we have evolved culturally so we'll never again melt cities.
And, if at least part of the explanation for declining numbers of deaths is the better-angels idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and the deterrent effect of knowing that nuclear weapons could obliterate us in even a single tit-for-tat push of those buttons, that's not exactly a paean to an angelic nature. Does anyone seriously believe that can't happen? Would a MAD event be dismissed as just another quirky blip on the curve, or if it occurs would someone (else, or even Dr Pinker himself, if he survives) exploit the moment to write a revision and explain why our lesser angels suddenly took charge again?
Why would anyone believe that there was such a 'curve' of any scientific value? It may be good marketing, but seems rather superficial to argue that we've become a species of kindly pacifists--especially if one chooses a blind eye to systematic inequities in which we are guilty of participating right now. Or even to argue that only European culture, in particular, has been wise enough to do that. If that's our nature, and other cultures are as old as Europeans, why hasn't their nature asserted itself? If you think very seriously about world affairs today it's rather difficult to perceive any difference in our emotional responses, even if we're not (all) dropping bombs on each other.
For example, what about the increasing inequality in the world, that puts more people in poverty than ever in history? What about the 'better angels' that lead us to have two or more cars apiece, and huge TV sets, while millions starve? Or investment bankers banking bonuses in the millions in New York while the streets of New York are palpably inhabited by hordes barely making ends meet? What kind of wingless angels are responsible for that? Or for the systematic pillage of the quality of life, if not the lives themselves, of indigenous people the world over? Or the random slaughter by suicide bombers because--speaking of angels!--of religion.
The law of the Conservation of Energy doesn't say that energy always has the same form. A hot object can diffuse its energy into cooler surroundings. Likewise violence takes many forms. This is soft violence, the entropic spread referred to as the Conservation of Violence. A hot war can diffuse its violence into a surrounding favela. If you were starving you might consider that to be a form of degrading violence. Is it unfair to suggest that if you are a well-paid professor making the lecture circuit to promote your book, and you want to sell glib ideas, it may not be in your interest to see that diffused violence for what it is?
Conservation of Violence is only a rhetorical device, and we're not here suggesting it literally as any sort of 'law', but it makes as much sense as a potential guide to thinking about human life. Our point is not just a critique of a popular science book but of the tendency to accept, as science, assertions that go far beyond appropriate criteria, a common point that we try to make on MT.
For example, why not take as a working argument about human 'nature' that if culture keeps us from struggling for dominance by physical slaughter, we weaken and disperse the weaponry from lead bullets to bullets of trade and banking agreements and the like, that have a slower, but chronic effect on many more people. That by making violence masquerade as normal business, by passing laws that make it legal, we are imposing even more violence upon our species? Of course, given the misery that most people have had to live in, perhaps especially since the invention of stratified agricultural societies, maybe there really isn't anything new under the sun. Perhaps it is mechanization and industrialization that were the blip, a few centuries or milennia of concentration of violence, heated to the point where entropy has come in temporarily to cool the temperature. We're playing with fire to congratulate ourselves as if we've finally learned to cool our otherwise innate tempers.
This, perhaps is just what the law of Conservation of Violence would predict.