Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Quotable Pinker

For the final post of Steven Pinker week, I've compiled all the quotes from The Better Angels of Our Nature that didn't fit within the more structured pieces I've posted. It's a lot, I know, but every one of these is an explosion of thought.

Even with the decline in homicides, killings of relatives stayed about the same. That's because "…family members get on each other's nerves at similar rates in all times and places" (p. 64).

"Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer" (p. 64).

"A Leviathan can civilize a society only when the citizens feel that its laws, law enforcement, and other social arrangements are legitimate, so that they don't fall back on their worst impulses as soon as Leviathan's back is turned" (p. 79).

Violence among the lower classes and people in isolated areas continues to exceed the newer norms for violence levels. Why? "…elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call 'self-help.' … another name for vigilantism, frontier justice, taking the law into your own hands…" (p. 83). "Most homicides…are really instances of capital punishment, with a private citizen as the judge, jury, and executioner" (as opposed to as a means to a practical end, such as during a robbery).

"Herders all over the world cultivate a hair trigger for violent retaliation" because their wealth has feet and is highly stealable. Herding and mountainous/hilly areas go together because you can't grow other crops there. (Pinker was discussing Ireland and Scotland, as well as parts of the American South, but this also made me think of Afghanistan and Pakistan, p. 101.)

Pinker refutes the Freakonomics hypothesis that U.S. crime declined as a result of legalized abortion  in the early 1970s. " the years since 1973, the proportion of children born to women in the most vulnerable categories -- poor, single, teenage, and African American -- did not decrease, as the freakonomics theory would predict. It increased, and by a lot" (p. 120). He also points out that women who have abortions are more likely to be the ones who would have made good mothers, while the ones who bear their babies are more likely to be disorganized, immature, and fatalistic. Parenting isn't what causes criminals (as Pinker demonstrated in The Blank Slate, it's genes and possibly peer environment -- growing up in a high crime area, perhaps, but not bad parenting.

One chapter opens with this quote from Voltaire: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

"Something about mature, literate states eventually leads them to think the better of human sacrifice" (p. 136).

"In most of the world, institutionalized superstitious killing, whether human sacrifice, blood libel, or witch persecution, has succumbed to two pressures. One is intellectual: the realization that some events, even those with profound personal significance, must be attributed to impersonal physical forces and raw chance rather than the designs of other other conscious beings. A great principle of moral advancement, on a par with 'Love thy neighbor' and 'All men are created equal' is the one on the bumper sticker: 'Shit happens'" (page 139).

"Other than at times of existential threat, the extent of [military] conscription is a barometer of a country's willingness to sanction the use of force" (p. 255).

"no two countries with a McDonald's have ever fought in a war" (p. 285)

"Countries with an abundance of nonrenewable, easily monopolized resources have slower economic growth, crappier governments, and more violence" (p. 311) Resources concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the monopolizer. Civil wars are more likely in countries with large populations, mountainous terrain, new or unstable governments, oil exports and large proportions of young males.

"No one found much romance in the frumpy institutions of the Civilizing Process, namely a competent government and police force and a dependable infrastructure for trade and commerce. Yet history suggests that these institutions are necessary for the reduction of chronic violence, which is a prerequisite to every other social good" (p. 313).

"Each of the pathways to nuclear terrorism, when examined carefully, turns out to have a gantlet of improbabilities" (pp. 371-372). One expert counted 20 obstacles to executing a nuclear attack; even with a 50-50 chance at each one, the aggregate odds are 1 in a million.

"In 1924, 91 percent of the students in a middle-American high school agreed with the statement 'Christianity is the one true religion and all peoples should be converted to it.' By 1980, only 38 percent agreed" (p. 392). Still 38 percent! But quite a decline.

The crime decline of the 1990s may have been "as much a product of the feminist antirape campaign as the other way around… it was the feminist campaign against assaults on women that helped to deromanticize street violence, make public safety a right, and spur the recivilizing process of the 1990s" (p. 403).

Infanticide was common. "Until recently, between 10 and 15 percent of all babies were killed shortly after they were born, and in some societies the rate has been as high as 50 percent" (p. 415). In Europe in the Middle Ages, there were an average of 5.1 births among wealthy families, 2.9 among the middle class, and 1.8 among the poor. Then Pinker quotes an expert who followed those stats with this dry conclusion: "There was no evidence that the number of pregnancies followed similar lines" (p. 425).

Startlingly to me, Pinker presents hypotheses from biologists and anthropologists that postpartum depression and "baby blues" may be an evolutionary advantage rather than a malfunction. Mild depression makes people more realistic, decreasing human's innate optimism bias. Depression is more common in women who lack social support, had a complicated delivery or a sick baby, are unemployed, or whose men are unemployed (p. 418).

The risk of a child being abducted by a stranger in the U.S. is 100 per year out of 50 million children. "The writer Warwick Cairns calculated that if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you'd have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years" (p. 446). "...more than twice as many kids are hit by cars driven by parents taking kids to school as by other kinds of traffic, so when more parents drive their children to school to prevent them from getting killed by kidnappers, more children get killed" (p. 446).

"A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs" (p. 477).

"There is a reason that the literal meaning of cosmopolitan is 'citizen of the world' and the literal meaning of insular is 'of an island.' Societies that are marooned on islands or in impassable highlands tend to be technologically backward. And morally backward too" (p. 478).

"The victims of a conflict are assiduous historians and cultivators of memory. The perpetrators are pragmatists, firmly planted in the present. Ordinarily we tend to think of historical memory as a good thing, but when the events being remembered are lingering wounds that call for redress, it can be a call to violence." The Alamo, Lusitania, Maine, Pearl Harbor, 9/11… we're urged to remember them all, right? "...the Balkans are a region that is cursed with too much history per square mile" (p. 493).

" the attempt to understand harm-doing, the viewpoint of the scientist or scholar overlaps with the viewpoint of the perpetrator. Both take a detached, amoral stance toward the harmful act. Both are contextualizers, always attentive to the complexities of the situation and how they contributed to the causation of the harm. And both believe the harm is ultimately explicable. The viewpoint of the moralist, in contrast, is the the viewpoint of the victim. The harm is treated with reverence and awe. It continues to evoke sadness and anger long after it was perpetrated" (pp. 495-496).

Psychologist R.F. Baumeister calls this the myth of pure evil. "The mindset that we adopt when we don moral spectacles is the mindset of the victim. Evil is the intentional and gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, perpetrated by a villain who is malevolent to the bone, inflicted on a victim who is innocent and good" (p. 496).

Scientists are "bound to be seen as 'making excuses' or 'blaming the victim'" (p. 496).

"We read of an atrocity…, shake our heads, and ask, "How could people do these things?' We refuse to accept obvious answers, like boredom, lust, or sport, because the suffering of the victim is so obscenely disproportionate to the benefit to the perpetrator. We take the victim's point of view and advert to a conception of pure evil. Yet to understand these outrages, we might be better off asking not why they happen but why they don't happen more often" (p. 510).

"Violence is a problem not of too little self-esteem but of too much, particularly when it is unearned. Self-esteem can be measured, and surveys show that it is the psychopaths, street toughs, bullies, abusive husbands, serial rapists, and hate-crime perpetrators who are off the scale" (p. 520).

"Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process" (p. 528). "Feuding and anarchy go together" (p. 538).

"...empathy is too parochial to serve as a force for a universal consideration of people's interests… Its head is turned by cuteness, good looks, kinship, friendship, similarity and communal solidarity" (p. 591). It can be spread by taking other perspectives, but that change is small and may be ephemeral. "To hope that the human empathy gradient can be flattened so much that strangers would mean as much to us as family and friends is utopian in the worst 20th-century sense, requiring an unattainable and dubiously desirable quashing of human nature" (p. 591).

"The elevation of parochial values to the realm of the sacred is a license to dismiss other people's interests, and an imperative to reject the possibility of compromise" (pp. 676-677).

"When cosmopolitan currents bring diverse people into discussion, when freedom of speech allows the discussion to go where it pleases, and when history's failed experiments are held up to the light, the evidence suggests that value systems evolve in the direction of liberal humanism" (p. 691).


Part 7 of Steven Pinker Week at Daughter Number Three.

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