Archive for September, 2011

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Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Today’s article is an interview of synergic scientist Stuart Kauffman. It was originally posted at Salon.com on November 19th of 2008. Kauffman agues that we should see the ceaseless creativity of nature as sacred.


God Enough

Interview of Stuart Kauffman by Steve Paulson

Biologist Stuart Kauffman has plenty of experience tilting at windmills. For years he’s questioned the Darwinian orthodoxy that natural selection is the sole principle of evolutionary biology. As he put it in his first book, “The Origins of Order,” “It is not that Darwin is wrong but that he got hold of only part of the truth.” In Kauffman’s view, there is another biological principle at work — what he calls “self-organization” — that “co-mingles” with natural selection in the evolutionary process.

A physician by training, Kaufmann is a widely admired biologist; in 1987, he was a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award. He’s also one of the gurus of complexity theory, and for years was a fixture at the Santa Fe Institute, the renowned scientific research community. A few years ago, he moved to the University of Calgary to set up the Biocomplexity and Informatics Institute.

If this sounds heady, it is. And getting Kauffman to explain his theory of self-organization, “thermodynamic work cycles” and “autocatalysis” to a non-scientist is challenging. But Kauffman is at heart a philosopher who ranges over vast fields of inquiry, from the origins of life to the philosophy of mind. He’s a visionary thinker who’s not afraid to play with big ideas.

In his recent book, “Reinventing the Sacred,” Kauffman has launched an even more audacious project. He seeks to formulate a new scientific worldview and, in the process, reclaim God for nonbelievers. Kauffman argues that our modern scientific paradigm — reductionism — breaks down once we try to explain biology and human culture. And this has left us flailing in a sea of meaninglessness. So how do we steer clear of this empty void? By embracing the “ceaseless creativity” of nature itself, which in Kauffman’s view is the real meaning of God. It’s God without any supernatural tricks.

Kauffman is now approaching 70, and his advancing age may partly account for the urgency he seems to feel in grappling with life’s ultimate questions. When I spoke with him, I found him in an expansive mood as we ranged over a host of big ideas, from the prospects of creating life in a test tube to the need for a sacred science.

You’ve suggested we need a new scientific worldview that goes beyond reductionism and incorporates a religious sensibility. Why?

The first thing to say is that the current scientific paradigm has done extraordinarily good work for at least 350 years. The reigning paradigm of reductionism takes a little bit of explaining.

It goes back to the Greeks in the 1st century A.D., and then it explodes at the time of Newton, who had three laws of motion and a law of universal gravitation. With Newton comes the idea of a deterministic universe. In fact, he took himself to be doing the work of God. The theistic god who reached into the universe and changed its course gave way during the Enlightenment to a deistic god, who wound up the universe at the beginning and let Newton’s laws take over. It was the clockwork universe.

So the idea is that if you understand the laws of the universe, you can plug in all the variables and predict what the outcomes will be.

Exactly. It finds its clearest explanation in the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, at the time of Napoleon, who said if you knew the masses and velocities of all the particles in the universe, then you could compute the entire future and past of the universe. As the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg says, once all the science is completed, all the explanatory arrows will point downward from societies to people to organs to cells to biochemistry to chemistry to physics.

And if you can explain the laws of physics, Weinberg thinks you can explain everything else.

Right. He also says we live in a meaningless universe. Those are the fruits of standard reductionism. And the majority of scientists remain reductionists. It’s comforting in that the entire universe is seen to be lawful; we can understand everything, from societies to quarks. Yet a number of physicists, including Nobel laureates Philip Anderson and Robert Laughlin, feel that reductionism is not adequate to understand the real world. In its place, they talk about “emergence.” I think they’re right.

Can you explain what emergence is?

There are things that we just can’t deduce from particle physics — life, agency, meaning, value and this thing called consciousness. The fact is that we can act on our own behalf and make choices. So agency is real. With agency comes value. Dinner is either good or bad. There’s consciousness in the universe. We may not be able to explain it, but it’s true. So the first new strand in the scientific worldview is emergence.

And that new scientific view has no room for reductionism?

Right. In physics, and in the meaningless universe of Steven Weinberg, there are only happenings. Balls roll down hills but they don’t do anything. “Doing” does not exist in physics. Physics cannot talk about values because you have to have agency to have values. So let’s talk about agency for a moment.

You and I are having an interview right now. We’re acting on our own behalf and we’re changing the world as we do so. The physicist Philip Anderson has a charming way of putting it. He says if you doubt agency, just look at the anguished expression on your dog’s face when you say, “Come.” When I used to call my sweet dog, who died recently, he would give me a sidelong glance. I think he was thinking, “Well, I’ve got more time here.” Finally, I’d say, “Come, Windsor!” And he’d come.

I don’t doubt agency in my dog Windsor. And once you’ve got agency — and I think it’s sitting there at the origin of life — then you’ve got food or poison, which I call “yuck” and “yum.” And once you’ve got food or poison, it is either good or bad for that organism. So you’ve got value in the universe.

Are you rejecting Weinberg’s famous comment? “The more we comprehend the universe, the more pointless it seems.”

I profoundly believe that Weinberg is wrong. I also happen to think that Weinberg is utterly brilliant. He’s one of the best defenders of the pure reductionist stance. But once you’ve got agency, you’ve got meaning. This is the beginning of a change in our scientific worldview. Agency is real, so meaning is real in the universe. Value is real, at least in the biosphere. And these things can’t be talked about by physicists.

So the reductionist model breaks down when we’re talking about how life evolves.

Absolutely. This idea is frightening at first, but then utterly liberating. For 3.8 billion years, the biosphere has been expanding from the origin of life into what I call “the adjacent possible.” Once we’re at levels of complexity above the atom, the universe is on a unique trajectory. It’s doing something that it’s never done before.

To take one example, I argue that the evolutionary emergence of the human heart cannot be deduced from physics. That doesn’t mean it breaks any laws of physics. But there’s no way of getting from physics to the emergence of hearts in the evolution of the biosphere. If you were to ask Darwin, what’s the function of the heart? he would have said it’s to pump blood. That’s what Darwin meant by adaptation. But there may be other causal consequences of the heart, or any other part of you, that are of no functional significance in the current environment, but may become useful in a different environment.

Isn’t this called a Darwinian pre-adaptation?

Yes. And when a pre-adaptation happens, a new function comes to exist in the biosphere and can change the history of the planet. We just don’t know ahead of time what the relevant selective environments are. This is just stunning when you think about it. We cannot say how the biosphere will evolve.

The same is true for our technologies, our economy, our culture. We didn’t have the faintest idea what would happen with the invention of writing or the invention of tractors. These were Darwinian pre-adaptations at the technological level. This is the creativity of the universe that we’re participating in right now. We literally don’t have the faintest idea what the biosphere is going to invent in the next million years, or what technology is going to invent in the next 40 years. Who foresaw the Web 50 years ago?

It seems that one of your big goals is to explain the origin of life. You have devoted much of your career to trying to work out a science of self-organization. Can you explain this?

It’s harder than you think. I wrote a whole book, “The Origins of Order,” and I very carefully never defined self-organization. My own life work asks if there might be laws of self-organization that are sources of order in biology quite apart from natural selection. For most biologists, the only source of order is natural selection. But we don’t need DNA or RNA to get molecular reproduction. People have already made self-reproducing systems. Reza Ghadiri at the Scripps Research Institute took a string of amino acids and used it to replicate itself.

But the second part has to do with self-organization. I worked out a mathematical theory, which says if we have a large enough diversity of molecules and chemical reactions, so many reactions will be catalyzed that you’ll get some form of collective autocatalysis popping out of the soup. The mathematics has been proved, but it still needs to be shown experimentally. For years, I’ve been probing laws of self-organization that co-mingle with natural selection, and give rise to the order we see. And we’re not very far, experimentally, from creating life all on our own.

One of the great mysteries of science is consciousness. Virtually all scientists assume the mind is formed by neural circuits in the brain, while religious traditions typically see a direct connection between the human mind and God. Do you accept either of those views?

Nobody has the faintest idea what consciousness is. In the Western tradition, St. Augustine said the human mind is directly connected to the mind of God. The dualism of Descartes distinguished between mental substances and physical substances. Now, contemporary neurobiologists and computer scientists believe that if you have a sufficiently complex computing system — like neurons or logical gates in a computer — then it would become conscious.

But I’ll tell you my own bias. I think it’s possible the mind is associated with quantum mechanics. Now, a good physicist will say, “That’s just nonsense. Quantum behavior will disappear in 10 to the minus 15th second, so it can’t happen.” Well, there are recent theorems in quantum computing that say that’s not necessarily so. The question is, Can you get sustained quantum coherent behavior at body temperature in something like neurons? Nobody knows.

Are you saying there’s no way that computer scientists in the future will be able to reproduce the human brain? That computers will not be able to create consciousness?

Roger Penrose wrote a book called “The Emperor’s New Mind.” He looked at this argument for artificial intelligence, and he said it’s just bunk. I think he’s right. I’ve fallen in love with the idea that consciousness has something to do with being poised forever between the quantum world of possibilities, where nothing actual happens, and the transformation of that — whether it’s the collapse of the wave function or decoherence, where something actual happens in the world.

If this is related to consciousness, it provides an intellectual framework in which we can understand the mind acting on matter. Quantum mechanics is astonishing because it’s not causal. It just happens. Maybe the mind is acausal. Maybe the mind is non-algorithmic. I don’t want you to take this very seriously. It’s just Stu Kauffman getting old and thinking weird things. But it may be true. And even if my arguments are right, it still doesn’t tell us what consciousness is. I don’t have any idea. Nor does anybody else, including the philosophers of mind.

You call yourself a secular humanist. But you also say we need to reinvent the sacred. What do you mean by that?

Once one gets beyond reductionism, it leads to a radically new scientific worldview, which changes our place in the universe as human beings. We are not meaningless chunks of particles spinning around in space. We are organisms with meaning in our lives, and the way the biosphere will evolve is ceaselessly creative. The way the economy evolves is ceaselessly creative in ways that cannot be predicted ahead of time. That’s why five-year plans don’t work. The same thing for human culture.

OK, we can’t predict what’s going to happen. But I’m still trying to figure out why you invoke religious language. Why do we need a new understanding of God and the sacred?

First of all, because of global communications and commerce, a global civilization of some kind is emerging. But there’s also a natural retreat by some people into religious fundamentalism, and people are killing each other. So I think a shared sacred space across all of our traditions will lead us to coalesce around a sense of what is sacred; for example, all life on the planet and the planet itself. I hope we can find our way to a global ethic, beyond just the love of family, a sense of fairness, and a belief in democracy and free markets.

Historically, God has had a very specific meaning, particularly in the Western tradition. It refers to an all-powerful, transcendent reality. Can you take such a loaded word and give it a new meaning?

Maybe. I have a very explicit reason for wanting to use the word “God.” It’s the most powerful symbol humanity has created. We have been worshiping God or gods at least since the sacred earth mother 10,000 years ago in Europe. In the Abrahamic tradition, our sense of God has evolved. For example, the Israelites, 4,500 years ago, had Yahweh, who was a ferocious warrior, a law-giving God. That’s a very different god than the one that Jesus spoke of, a God of love. So our sense of God just in the Abrahamic tradition has evolved.

The question is whether we choose to take our most powerful, invented symbol and use it in a new way to mean the creativity in nature itself. Is it more astonishing to believe in a God who created everything that has come to exist — planets, galaxies, chemistry, life and consciousness — in six days? Or is it even more astonishing and awesome to believe what is almost certainly the truth: namely, that all of this came to be all on its own? I think the second.

Most scientists talk about the origins of the world strictly through naturalistic means. Why are you so determined to invoke “God”?

“God” carries with it a sense of awe, reverence and wonder that no other symbol carries. It’s a choice. Can we give up the creator God — the all-powerful, omnipotent, all-loving God who confronts us with the problem of evil — and instead find reverence for a ceaseless creativity in the unfolding of nature? I think we can.

I also feel parts of the religious person’s sense of awe. I sense the solace that prayer to a transcendent God brings. But I don’t believe in a transcendent God. I do believe in this new scientific worldview.

Forget the “God” word for a second and just try to feel yourself as a co-creating member of the universe. It changes your stance from the secular humanist lack of spirituality to a sense of awed wonder that all of this has come about. For example, I was sitting on my patio and started thinking about the trees around me. I thought I’m one with all of life. If I’m going to cut down a tree, I better have a good reason. It’s not just an object. It’s alive. Then I thought about the river I’m sitting next to. I can dam the river if I want to. But I’m going to change the ecosystem downstream from it and change the planet.

So even without talking about God, this new scientific worldview brings with it a sense of membership with all of life and a responsibility for the planet that’s largely missing in our secular world. In a materialist society, being spiritual is — if not frowned upon — what you do in the privacy of your own mind because there’s something flaky about it for those of us who don’t believe in God.

It sounds like your God is equivalent to nature.

I’m saying God is the sacredness of nature. And you can go a step beyond that. You can say that God is nature. That’s the God of Spinoza. That’s the God that Einstein believed in. But their view of the universe was deterministic. The new view is that evolution of the universe is partially lawless and ceaselessly creative. We are the children of that creativity. One either does or does not take the step of saying God is the creativity of the universe. I do. Or you say there is divinity in the creativity in the universe. If we can’t transform our secular humanist, consumerist worldview into one in which we have this sense of responsibility, awe and wonder for the planet and all life, then we can’t invent a global ethic. Yet we need it to create a transnational, mythic structure to sustain the global civilization that’s emerging.

You are Jewish, but you’ve said you can’t accept the God of Abraham. Have there been occasions in your life when you wish you could?

Sure. I don’t believe in God, but I seem to thank Him a lot. It’s not logical but it feels right. Of course, Jews don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. I’m almost 70 and have lived a lot more than half my life. Death is frightening. It would be wonderful to be able to believe in a heaven so that when I die, I could see my daughter who was killed 20 years ago. I wish I could, but I don’t. I think when I die, I die. But it would be nice to believe the other.

Your daughter Merit’s death must have been a wrenching experience. Did that pull you in a religious direction?

In one sense. There’s an ancient Aramaic prayer that’s perhaps 5,000 years old. It’s the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. When Merit died, it mattered enormously to me as a non-observant Jew, but a member of the Jewish community, that the Kaddish be said for my daughter.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that Neanderthals buried their dead. They aren’t even in the direct lineage of Homo sapiens. Why did they bury their dead? The need to reach out in these spiritual directions is antique in us. You can see it in the struggle that’s going on right now among religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalist Islam is appalled at the materialism and secularism of the West. Some kind of awakening to the spiritual part of being human seems to me just essential. And this goes beyond where science can go.

You don’t accept traditional beliefs about God. But are you carving out a different space from atheists, especially the scientists who are atheists?

I absolutely am. Take Richard Dawkins‘ book “The God Delusion.” It’s a very good book. And I know Richard, and he lays out the atheist case well. It appeals to the billion or so of us who do not believe in a supernatural God, and who’ve hidden in the corners, particularly in the United States, where religion is so widely adhered to. But it will do no good whatsoever in bridging the gap between those who do believe in some form of God and the secular humanists like Dawkins and myself who do not. We need something else.

Well, Dawkins does not want to bridge that gap. He wants to convince those religious believers that they’re wrong.

Absolutely. But I think Richard is wrong. Not that there’s a supernatural god. I think that there’s something else. I think the creativity in nature is so stunning and so overwhelming that it’s God enough for me, and I think it’s God enough for many of us if we think about it. You see, Richard’s view, and those of the new atheists, is simply not going to reach out and persuade those who hold to the standard Abrahamic religious views to consider something else. Whereas I hope what I’m saying may help create a new kind of sacred space.

Copyright ©2011 Salon Media Group, Inc.

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Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

From the 2007 SynEARTH Archives. Reposted from The Edge. [First published in The New Republic, 3.19.07.]


A History of Violence

Steven Pinker

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: 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.In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.

At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of notions like progress, civilization, and man’s rise from savagery and barbarism. Recently, however, those ideas have come to sound corny, even dangerous. They seem to demonize people in other times and places, license colonial conquest and other foreign adventures, and conceal the crimes of our own societies. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like JosÈ Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.

To be sure, any attempt to document changes in violence must be soaked in uncertainty. In much of the world, the distant past was a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, and, even for events in the historical record, statistics are spotty until recent periods. Long-term trends can be discerned only by smoothing out zigzags and spikes of horrific bloodletting. And the choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion.

Yet, despite these caveats, a picture is taking shape. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.

At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

Political correctness from the other end of the ideological spectrum has also distorted many people’s conception of violence in early civilizations—namely, those featured in the Bible. This supposed source of moral values contains many celebrations of genocide, in which the Hebrews, egged on by God, slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one’s parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Hebrews, of course, were no more murderous than other tribes; one also finds frequent boasts of torture and genocide in the early histories of the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Chinese.

At the century scale, it is hard to find quantitative studies of deaths in warfare spanning medieval and modern times. Several historians have suggested that there has been an increase in the number of recorded wars across the centuries to the present, but, as political scientist James Payne has noted, this may show only that “the Associated Press is a more comprehensive source of information about battles around the world than were sixteenth-century monks.” Social histories of the West provide evidence of numerous barbaric practices that became obsolete in the last five centuries, such as slavery, amputation, blinding, branding, flaying, disembowelment, burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, and so on. Meanwhile, for another kind of violence—homicide—the data are abundant and striking. The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply—for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.

On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.

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.

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. In any case, human nature has not changed so much as to have lost its taste for violence. Social psychologists find that at least 80 percent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don’t like. And modern humans still take pleasure in viewing violence, if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games, and hockey.

What has changed, of course, is people’s willingness to act on these fantasies. The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that European modernity accelerated a “civilizing process” marked by increases in self-control, long-term planning, and sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. These are precisely the functions that today’s cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex. But this only raises the question of why humans have increasingly exercised that part of their brains. No one knows why our behavior has come under the control of the better angels of our nature, but there are four plausible suggestions.

The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Eisner and Elias attribute the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And, today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.

Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. 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.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people’s moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, ‡ la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that
“there but for fortune go I”.

Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.

But the phenomenon does force us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man’s inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.


Once again, Steven Pinker returns to debunking the doctrine of the noble savage in the above piece based on his lecture at the recent TED Conference in Monterey, California.

This doctrine, “the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like JosÈ Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”),” he writes. “But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”

Pinker’s notable talk, along with his essay, is one more example of how ideas forthcoming from the empirical and biological study of human beings is gaining sway over those of the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation. —JB

STEVEN PINKER is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His most recent book is The Blank Slate.