Friday, August 30, 2013

Good News! Good News!

On Monday I finished Steven Pinker's latest book: "The Better Angels of Our Nature", subtitled "Why Violence Has Declined", 829 pages. It took about 3 weeks to read. It is amazing to me that, even retired, there were 1-3 day stretches when I did not read any of the book. So much other interesting stuff to read online, yay economics!

In the first chapter of the book, he lays out what he's going to do:

  1. He's going to convince us that all types of violence have been declining precipitously, with curves looking like reverse hockey sticks.
  2. He's going to explore explanations for this fact.
So chapters 2-7 have chart after chart after chart of statistics showing that all forms of violence -- interstate wars, civil wars, genocides, and inter-individual violence such as murder -- have been going down, down, down, particularly since the end of World War 2. There is of course also an encyclopedia of all the forms of violence that humans have invented -- very chilling to say the least.

One interesting point, someone might object, but what about the genocides we still have going on? The word "genocide" did not even exist until the war crime trials after WW2. Throughout most of history, genocide was basically "OK". Now, we still have them in decreasing numbers, but we recognize them as bad.

We forget how, prior to say the US Bill of Rights, cruel and unusual punishments were the norm rather than the exception. There are some chilling descriptions of instruments and techniques of torture. And, while we may have stepped backwards somewhat in now justifying torture, at least it is now generally considered to be bad. We forget that public executions used to be festive events to which you took your children. And that dueling, bear-baiting and other blood sports were also very popular.

The thing that Pinker finds to best correlate with the declines is the invention of the printing press, and the Enlightenment that followed. He also speculates that part of the reason for the Middle Eastern Islamic countries' backwardness is that they banned Arabic printing presses well into the 18th century for a variety of reasons.

Also during this time, the Rule of Law, implemented by strong central governments (named Leviathan by Hobbes) became stronger and stronger as true national governments were created. And "gentle commerce" also had a civilizing effect.

The final chapter of this section, chapter 7, looks at the Rights Revolutions: from Civil Rights for blacks, to Women's Rights, to Gay Rights, and to Child and Animal Rights. Each one learned strategy and tactics from the earlier ones. I've been so pleasantly surprised at how the whole Gay Rights thing has just kind of passed a tipping point and now seems to be pretty much a done deal -- except of course for red state foot-dragging, which I am sure will continue indefinitely.

Ha ha, he defines a scale of societies that goes from Western European to blue states to red states to 3rd world dictatorships.

Other interesting FFTKAT:

  • Most of the "icemen" found preserved from 10s of 1000s of years ago have some kind of injury likely inflicted by another human.
  • The notion that medieval knights were anything vaguely resembling chivalrous is totally disabused.
  • Prior to World War 1, there was much writing and sentiment on the nobility of war and martial virtues. A lot of these writers were Romanticists. The senseless carnage of WW1 put an end to that.
  • The 60s did represent a step backward in decreasing violence as many societal strictures were loosened. But things started moving in the right direction again in the 90s. The Romantic movement of the late 19th century was also a step backward.
  • Pinker disagrees with the "Freakonomics" theory that violence started downwards 18 years after Roe vs Wade because there were far fewer unwanted (male) children born to enter their violent years at age 18. Several other statistics show that the math doesn't work.
  • Pinker feels that the protection of children may have gone too far. He seems to have enjoyed dodgeball as a kid, and is sorry that is now mostly being banned :-(
  • Surprising to me, since the 90s people have mostly quit spanking children.
Chapter 8, "Inner Demons" looks at the causes of violence behavior in the human mind. Firstly, there is the Moralization Gap. We all have horribly myopic vision in conflicts: both sides completely overestimate their offense and hurt and completely underestimate their culpability in the situation. This is why Leviathan and the Rule of Law are so important. They introduce a 3rd party, i.e., The Law, to view things impartially.

Getting into actual brain structure, we are shown:

  • the Rage circuit;
  • the Seeking system -- I think this would formerly have been the Pleasure system;
  • the Fear circuit;
  • the Intermale Aggression or Dominance system. These 4 systems are in all mammals.
  • the frontal cortex, which receives input from the components of all 4 systems above, and also has some control over these systems.
Next, a fine list of roots or types of violence, which engage these systems in varying ways:
  1. Predation. Violence as a means to an end.
  2. Dominance. Not confined to just males.
  3. Revenge. Lots of discussion of The Prisoner's Dilemma here. Also a discussion of practical steps to end long running real world conflicts.
  4. Sadism. Apparently an acquired taste??? Torturer's initially want nothing to do with it, but grow a taste for it???
  5. Ideology. This is the one that really drives the body counts through the roof. The Nazis, the Communists in Russia and China both killed millions or 10s of millions.
Finally this chapter dismisses the notion of Pure Evil. The atrocities that occur can be explained without invoking any such concept.

Chapter 9, "Better Angels", looks at the parts of our mind and culture that control and mitigate the sources of violence in the previous chapter. These are:

  1. Empathy. Pinker says that the recently discovered mirror neurons don't really play that big a part here. FFTKAT, "empathy" the word has only been around since 1904, and didn't really start meaning "sympathy" and "compassion" until the 1940s
  2. The expanding circle of sympathy: from kin to babies, fuzzy animals, to the needy.
  3. Self-control. It's actually a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And it can become tired from its being used. Self-control and deferred gratification are strongly correlated with every measure of individual success.
  4. Oxytocin -- the "cuddle hormone".
  5. Moral sense; this is one of the more interesting discussions, see below.
On moral sense, the modern Western view sees as the most important moral issues fairness, justice, the protection of individuals, and the prevention of harm. The older, religious approach had lots of other issues as well: loyalty, respect, obedience, asceticism, and regulation of bodily functions like eating, sex and menstruation.

Three different organizations of moral concerns are presented. The first by Schweder:

  1. Autonomy -- the rights of individuals;
  2. Community -- the responsibilities of the individual to tribes, clans, families, etc.
  3. Divinity -- the world has a divine essence, so we must protect bodies from degradation and contamination.
The second organization by Haidt splits #1 and #2 above into 2 categories and renames #3, for a total of 5:
  1. Fairness/Reciprocity;
  2. Harm/Care;
  3. In-group Loyalty;
  4. Authority/Respect;
  5. Purity/Sanctity.
Pinker likes best the 4 relational models of anthropologist Allen Fiske -- note, order different than 1st 2 systems, with each model being more advanced than its predecessor:
  1. Communal Sharing or Communality; resources, ceremony, myths shared; oxytocin based.
  2. Authority Ranking; your basic hierarchy/pecking order; testosterone based.
  3. Equality Matching; tit-for-tat and the silver and golden rules; based on many high order brain functions.
  4. Market Pricing/Rational-Legal; civilization and the Rule of Law.
Fiske attributes the increasing civilizing of the world on the older, hormone-based models being increasing replaced by the the newer, higher order function models.

So regardless of the grouping, morality consists of following the rules and conventions of that domain. Weird is the case where you apply one relational model to a resource ordinarily governed by another. Rather than being perceived as wrong, it would be perceived as shocking or disingenuous -- "like a diner thanking a restaurateur for an enjoyable experience and offering to have him over for dinner at some point in the future (treating a Market Pricing interaction as if it were governed by Communal Sharing)." Taboos come from resources that are considered sacred, which may not be traded for anything -- like someone offering to buy your child. Three kinds of tradeoffs:

  1. Routine -- occurring within a single relational model;
  2. Taboo -- pitting a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another;
  3. Tragic -- pitting 2 sacred values against each other, i.e., Sophie's Choice.
Politics is reframing Taboo tradeoffs as Tragic tradeoffs. And political ideologies are defined by which relations are emphasized. Liberals only care about Fairness/Reciprocity and Harm/Care; conservatives care about everything.

Pinker discounts any recent biological evolution in the decline in violence. The Warrior Gene hypothesis -- that a low activity version of a gene that controls MAO-A (which breaks down neurotransmitters in the brain) makes people more violent -- is shown to be pretty weak.

The Flynn Effect -- that IQs have been increasing by 3 points a decade for as long that they have been measured -- is identified as a helpful influence. Studies of it have shown that the increase is mostly in abstract reasoning. 100 years ago, people would refuse to think abstractly -- they were too grounded in the real things around them, in their farms or villages. Plus, the average person now understands and uses dozens or 100s of abstract concepts that used to be confined to academia. Pinker wonders, could there be a moral Flynn Effect?

Ha ha, a study is cited that shows that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives. Well, of course!

Finally, chapter 10 (phew!). Factors that have not contributed to decreasing violence, or that could have increased violence but did not are discussed. Then there is a big discussion with the Prisoner's Dilemma transformed into the Pacifist's Dilemma. At face value, preemptively attacking your neighbors wins, game theory-wise. The factors opposing this: Leviathan; gentle commerce; feminization (women in more positions of power); the expanding circle of sympathy (books really help this, and surprisingly fiction more than non-fiction); and the increasing use of reason.

He finishes up refusing to make any predictions for the future, but the outlook is definitely one of optimism. So, as in the title, good news! I highly recommend this book. Despite its length, it really is a very easy read.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

We Now Return To Our Regularly Scheduled Program

Almost 2 months without a blog post, what a slacker I've been. Well, we've been having a beautiful mild summer, highs mostly in the high 70s to mid 80s. So I've had lots of nice walks and bike rides. In addition to the 61 mile ride on July 4 in Raleigh, I did a 70 mile ride with my friends Tim and Ed on the Little Miami Bike Trail a few Sundays ago.

This past Sunday I did a 50 mile ride (49.8). It was longer than I expected, I made a wrong turn east of Georgetown. I was on Crumbaugh Road, which I had not planned on, and I'd stopped in the shade at the top of a hill to try to check the map on my phone -- which I have trouble using when biking because of the outdoor light and no reading glasses. I heard 2 male voices talking and thought, "I'll ask them for directions". They were in a small apple orchard and seemed surprised to see someone walking a bicycle towards them. They gave me directions (left at the end onto 460 to the Georgetown bypass), but the funny thing was, one of them was Graham Rowles, who coached my son Adam's U-14 soccer team and was active in LYSA for the years I was (and beyond). First soccer run-in I'd had in a while, I used to get them all the time.

Just after turning off of Newtown Pike onto Johnson Mill Rd, saw this interesting dam. I'd never seen one constructed like this.

But, there are really two reasons that the blog is late:
  1. I had been anticipating the new Charles Stross novel so much, and then didn't really like it that much. What to do?
  2. I read my 1st evolutionary psychology book in quite a while: Stephen Pinker's latest, and it was 829 pages. Generally an easy and very informative read, but still, 829 pages is a fair amount. But, finished yesterday, yay!
So, first, the new Stross novel is "Neptune's Brood". It is set in the same universe as his earlier "Saturn's Children", but 2500 years later. Like the earlier one, it has no (biological homo sapiens) humans in it, just our android children.

One of the reasons I was psyched for this book was the fact that most of its plot centers on economics, which, along with music, has been my avocation since I retired. And there is some interesting stuff there. First, 3 kinds of money:

  • fast money, aka cash;
  • medium money, aka stocks, mutual funds, etc;
  • slow money, which is what is used to fund expansion to new star systems. It takes years to cash, as it must be validated by both the issuer and a certifying agency, both in different star systems, with no FTL communication.
There's also the realization that slow money represents a form of Ponzi scheme. I think I've mentioned that at some level, all investments are Ponzi schemes. If nobody wants to buy your investment, it's worthless. So you have to keep bringing new money into the system.

The heroine of the book is a nun/accountant/historian. She's an expert on financial scams, particularly those involving the development of FTL travel, which does not exist. She's looking for a "sister" of hers who has gone missing, possibly with a legendary financial instrument. The search takes her to interesting places and includes a run-in with pirates/insurance agents/branch bankers. It is the normal inspired zaniness you expect from Charles Stross.

So I think the 1st thing that kind of disappointed me was the heroine. She is definitely a "hero with feet of clay", who soldiers on and won't give up her quest -- but still, just somehow too timid in outlook.

And the 2nd disappointing thing was the ending. I think everything got wrapped up, but, still it seemed to end too abruptly. I reread the last 20 pages and still felt that way. But, I have found this to not be uncommon in Science Fiction.

So of course, I highly recommend the book. I probably need to get a little less information on future content I'm interested in to avoid getting myself over-anticipating a release.

I think I'll cover the Pinker in another post.