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Humans and Violence
Mike Treder   Jun 30, 2007   Responsible Nanotechnology  

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker asserts that: “Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.”

This is a highly promising analysis, and Pinker marshals impressive evidence to make his case. Today I’ll examine a few points from his essay in more detail, and then consider the conjunction of these trends with the projected impacts of advanced nanotechnology.

After citing studies that show a remarkable reduction in violence “visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years,” Pinker addresses the probable reaction of his audience: Can this really be true?

The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important?

Partly, it’s because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.

Partly, it’s an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society.

Partly, it’s the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.

And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.

That’s a powerful set of arguments and it fits well with my own interpretation of history and anthropology. In general, human societies today are substantially “better” than at any time in the past: we are smarter, cleaner, healthier, more tolerant, and more humane than even a few generations ago, and the farther back you look, the more striking are the changes.

But if this is so, as it certainly seems to be, the next question is—why? As Pinker says:

The other major challenge posed by the decline of violence is how to explain it. A force that pushes in the same direction across many epochs, continents, and scales of social organization mocks our standard tools of causal explanation. The usual suspects—guns, drugs, the press, American culture—aren’t nearly up to the job. Nor could it possibly be explained by evolution in the biologist’s sense: Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favor the genes for meekness quickly enough.

I’m not sure that’s true. As Nicholas Wade points out in a recent New York Times article:

Historians often assume that they need pay no attention to human evolution because the process ground to a halt in the distant past. That assumption is looking less and less secure in light of new findings based on decoding human DNA. . .

The emerging lists of selected human genes may open new insights into the interactions between history and genetics. “If we ask what are the most important evolutionary events of the last 5,000 years, they are cultural, like the spread of agriculture, or extinctions of populations through war or disease,” said Marcus Feldman, a population geneticist at Stanford. These cultural events are likely to have left deep marks in the human genome.

So we should not dismiss the possibility that natural selection can play a role in behavioral and societal changes over the course of a few thousand years. Maybe we are improving as a species not only at the social and cultural level, but at the biological level as well.

Pinker uses the last half of his essay to examine possible reasons, beyond genetics, for the steep and steady decline in violence. Among the four major options he suggests, one is the development of strong governmental structures—“a state with a monopoly on violence”—as a deterrent to individual and collective aggression.

This is where the widespread deployment of desktop manufacturing becomes a worry. Unless effective restrictions are in place to prevent dangerous weaponry from proliferating throughout populations, then we may be faced with a true “democratization of violence.” The removal of the state’s monopoly on force conceivably could plunge civilization into anarchy.

Even more unsettling as a proposed explanation for the continuing decline in violence, when considered in the context of a new economic paradigm brought about by molecular manufacturing, is the assumption that humans value other humans for utilitarian reasons. Pinker says:

As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

This calculation may lose force if desired goods become cheap and easily acquired, if human labor loses almost all value, and if the need for trust and cooperation dissipates. I’ll leave the nasty implications to you for grim contemplation.

But let’s try to end on a more hopeful note.

Pinker proposes that: “The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years.” He cites studies that demonstrate this point—that no matter where you look, there is a clearly detectable curve to the downward trend of violence.

Pinker calls it a “fractal phenomenon,” but I think that’s not quite the right term. Or, at least, it could be suggested that what he is describing is an exponential curve: no matter where you look, you see the same bend in the line. Of course, that suggests that eventually, perhaps soon, the curve will approach the vertical, arriving at a singularity.

Elsewhere (unconnected to CRN) I have written:

There is much to be happy about, including a century-long trend toward increased freedom and democracy, amazing advancements in health care and longevity, and far higher standards of living for most of the world’s people. There is absolutely no reason to believe that these positive trends will not continue. In fact, it can easily be shown that the rate of increase in our overall goodness and caring for each other has been steadily accelerating.

Not only are we headed toward a technological singularity, but also toward a healthy lifespan singularity, a free democratic singularity, and an economic and cultural singularity.

Maybe, just maybe, that is true.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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