[Jason] Thanksgiving and violence

by Abhishek

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Jason Calacanis <jason@calacanis.com>
Date: Fri, Nov 28, 2008 at 12:51 AM
Subject: [Jason] Thanksgiving and violence
To: jason@binhost.com

Team Jason,

Apologies for not sending a missive to you guys in weeks–you deserve
better. I've been suffering from a little writers block, and I feel
that sending you guys anything less than a perfect 3,000+ word email
would be a let down.

Also, I've been crushed with my day job at Mahalo.com and some
business travel (was in Japan, it was very successful). Right now I'm
locked down polishing off the details of Project A–a new product
which that Mahalo is launching in December. We think we've created the
right product for our troubled times, and the progress made over the
past month by our tech team has been nothing short of amazing (thanks
guys). There are many smart folks with lots of knowledge that are un –
or underemployed right now and who are looking to make some extra
scratch. Project A should help them. I'm going to be looking for some
beta testers in a week or two and I'll be pinging some of you (if
you're smart, like helping others, and have time on your hands you'll
really like it).

However, my thoughts today are with our brothers and sisters in Mumbai.

Yesterday the PTSD from 9/11 kicked in and I found my jaw clinching
and back tightening as I watched the horrible scenes of buildings
burning while clearly shaken reporters tried to make sense of the
chaos. The flashbacks were vivid for me, as I've never really gotten
over that fall day in New York. Terrorism is designed to terrorize,
and our job is to carry on in the face of such evil. I've learned that
after I spent a couple of years obsessing over September 11th. It's a
simple thought I know, but often I wish it never happened. Had that
same wish for the people of Mumbai today when I woke up. A simple
thought, a simple wish.

We live in the safest, most prosperous time in the history of
humanity, which is exactly why these terrorist do what they do. They
are trying to fight the overwhelming wave of democracy, understanding,
empathy and love that is sweeping the planet. Perhaps violence will
never go away completely, but violent people are a dying breed lashing
out trying to rise above the noise.

I've attached an essay from Edge.org by Steve Pinker (with an
introduction by JBrock) that states the case for our peaceful times
better than I ever could. There's a video link from TED at the bottom
(read the essay first, then watch the video). Suggest forwarding
Pinker's essay around this Thanksgiving to help people get some

Stay strong Mumbai, better days are coming.

all the best,



by Steven Pinker


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

—John Brockman

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


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 mostunderappreciated 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 likeJosé 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
withaxemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a
contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest
thatpre -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, StephenLeBlanc, 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 BarbaraHarff, 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 atAbu
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
cognitiveneuroscientists 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 thempreemptively , 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

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 themillennia , 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, à 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 combinepre-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.

[First published in The New Republic, 3.19.07.]

Video of Mr. Pinker's dicussion at TED: