Pinker on the decline of violence

I finally got around to watching Steven Pinker's TED talk on the decline of violence.

He describes some theories as to why violence has declined which I summarize as follows.

Hobbes: peace-keeping governments
Other: life is more valuable
Wright: positive-sum interactions
Singer: empathy

It was a nice touch having a large black-and-white picture of Pinker behind him on the stage. If human-against-human death is considered "violence", so should death by government which would add another 100 million for the 20th century. That would probably only double that little blue blip on the graph shown.

My own thoughts lie mainly along Wright's, though all of the above reasons are probably true in part. We live in a much more interdependent networked world in which violence doesn't pay.

Here I'm brainstorming, but I believe polycentrism is a key also. Alpha males have always sought to climb to the top of social hierarchies. The more such hierarchies there are, the more alpha males can co-exist without violence. I had a boss a few years ago who was absolutely ruthless when it came to socio-political maneuvering within the hierarchy at a certain teaching hospital in Boston. He became the department chair and kept that position for many years. He was both competent and fair, but he wasn't going to let anyone challenge him, and he had no mercy for weakness. I could imagine that if he still lived in his native South America, he might have instead pursued politics, and rather than merely keeping his challengers from getting a promotion, he'd be jailing them and silencing the press. In the US, his fierceness was channeled into something productive, something constrained by the decidedly non-violent machinations of an academic medical center.

In an open society, there are all sorts of institutions and networks alpha males can climb. One can be CEO or Oracle, another can be Senator of Massachusetts, and yet another can be quarterback for the New England Patriots. Even institutions with a decidedly egalitarian bent--such as a commune--are ladders to climb. (And I bet the most popular guy at the commune still gets the hottest chicks whereas the omega male gets none.) In less developed societies, there is only one Big Man, and all the wannabe Big Men fight for the coveted position. Modern society forces Larry Ellison to run a multi-billion dollar company that makes useful software rather than wage war in order to achieve alpha status.

More brainstorming: what about sports, video games, and movies? All channel violent urges into non-violent activities. The usual criticism is the other way around, i.e., that they foster violence, but I wonder if they actually allow people to get their kicks and then go about the business of non-violent living.

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Death by Violence

IIRC Pinker includes wartime deaths in WWI/WWII in his figures. These constitute an uptick against the secular trend but the trend is down.

I'm not convinced polycentrism is a good hypothesis. China was a unified empire for centuries and experienced the most violent period in its history during the "Warring States" epoch which was an unlimited struggle for power between multiple competing rulers.

I think Christianity has to be given some credit. Also, greater availability of sustenence provided by the rise of free markets and trade.

Three possible factors that

Three possible factors that come to mind:

1. At one time, great wealth was more easily transported. If you sacked a town, you could carry off significant part of the town’s valuable stuff- gold, silver, slaves, exotic foreign gewgaws, etc. when you left. It no longer works that way, because in our much wealthier and more productive society a far greater percentage of the total wealth is in the form of things like buildings, factories, service industries, and so on. If you want to exploit that sort of wealth you need to actually stick around and maintain control of the area, since you can’t just put a steel mill or an IT office on your longship and sail away. Thus, the sort of large-scale banditry that plagued many societies is no longer practical.

2. The average person has far greater potential scope for advancement through work or trade today, and if a person wants to improve their material well-being there are many honest opportunities to do so. In past societies, social position was more static and the lack of technology and capital meant there just wasn’t much wealth to be earned. You weren’t going to work extra shifts on the farm in order to save enough money to go to college and get an MBA. You were stuck. If you wanted more wealth, you stole it, which would sometimes mean killing for it.

3. Most people lived on the edge of subsistence for most of history, and it wasn’t hard for bad luck to push them over the edge if there was a crop failure or some army came marching through and looted the granaries or burned the fields. Virtually no one in the First World will ever experience a situation where they might seriously consider robbing or killing a neighbor or joining a gang of roving bandits to escape death by starvation, but historically many people did.

Simply having to live with the knowledge that you and your neighbors might someday face such a situation would probably encourage potentially dangerous tension- I never have to look at the guy who lives next door and think, "If we have another bad harvest, it might be him or me."

The world is as dangerous as it ever was

Killing has become more sanitary and more efficient.

Alpha males

"Alpha males have always sought to climb to the top of social hierarchies."

Did you know the whole "alpha male" theory has been abandoned by the fellow who formulated it?

Doesn't matter

Okay, we can rephrase it then:

People have always sought to climb to the top of social hierarchies.

Alpha males or no alpha males... it still holds. However, some of the status seekers I observe (aka manufactured frauds) are inclined to induce embarrassment (from me) on their behalf.