A history of Violence by Steven Pinker

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A History of Violence

by Steven Pinker

In this article Steven Pinker notes that the human taste for violence has in fact been decreasing over the centuries.  Extraordinarily cruel spectacles that were considered fine entertainment not very long ago, are found to be completely disgusting today by the majority of earth's inhabitants.  (Think Michael Vick)

Pinker notes that this fact is not widely appreciated, largely because we buy into a romanticized view of natural human beings, courtesy of philosophers like Rousseau, Ortega, etc, as well as scientists like Gould.  The common idea among them is that human beings are naturally moral, noble, and peace loving, and that civilization corrupts that instinct.

But Pinker observes that empirical studies tell a different story, and that in fact a precipitous decline in the taste for blood is observed in 17th century Europe.

Pinker notes that archaeological studies of tribal violence are now allowing anthropologists to quantify the relationship between ancient, midieval and modern times, and the differences are extraordinary.  Some provisional results based on quantitative studies are:

  • Typical tribal societies experienced 20 times the deaths from warfare than was experienced during the 20th century.

  • The frequency of death by murder fell in England from 24/100,000 in the 1200's to .6/100,000 today.

  • In the 20th century, the death rate as a result of interstate conflict has fallen sharply, and for any given conflict the likelihood of negotiated settlements has risen dramatically.

If these claims are really accurate, why do most people believe otherwise?  Pinker's answers are reminiscent of Gilbert's.  Specifically:

  • We estimate the likelihood of events by how easy it is to recall examples, and it easy to recall examples of violence because that is what is reported most in the news. 

The truly fascinating question, though, is why violence has declined so much.  Pinker offers four possible explanations:

  • Hobbesian answer:  Life in the state of nature really is nasty, brutish and short.  Hobbes argued that violence declines when people agree to give the state a monopoly on violence.

  • Materialist answer:  When life sucks, people are more likely to take on the risk of violence.  But when life is basically pretty cooshy, it's not worth it.

  • Robert Wright's answer:  The logic of nonzerosumness means that people are generally more valuable to you alive than dead.

  • Peter Singer's answer:  We have always had a small capacity for empathy, but in tribal living it was only appropriately administered to close relations.  In complex society more people resemble family (for the reasons given by Wright.)

Why Men Rape

by Thornhill and Palmer

In this controversial article, Thornhill and Palmer provide a biological explanation of rape behavior.  Specifically, they claim that rape exists as a behavior today because there was a time in the past when it a successful reproductive strategy.  This claim is, of course, empirical in nature, but the author's have been roundly criticized on moral grounds in a fairly predictable way.  You should be able to relate this article in interesting ways both to Gladwell and Groopman's arguments concerning human resiliency as well as the social significance of claims that women and men have different cognitive capacities.

According to T&P, the common sociological claim that rape is not about sex, not natural, and is an inherently learned behavior just doesn't hold up to empirical inquiry.  The data they select are

  • Most rape victims are women of childbearing age.

  • In many cultures rape is treated as a crime against the victim's husband.

  • Rape victims suffer less emotional distress when they are subjected to more violence.

  • Rape takes place not only among human beings but also in a variety of other animal species.

  • Married women and women of childbearing age experience more psychological distress after a rape than do girls, single women or women who are past menopause.

Social scientists regard culture, everything from eating habits to language as an entirely human invention, one that develops arbitrarily. According to that view, the desires of men and women are learned behaviors. Rape takes place only when men learn to rape, and it can be eradicated simply by substituting new lessons. Sociobiologists, by contrast, emphasize that learned behavior, and indeed all culture, is the result of psychological adaptations that have evolved over long periods of time. Those adaptations, like all traits of individual human beings, have both genetic and environmental components. We fervently believe that, just as the leopard's spots and the giraffe's elongated neck are the result of aeons of past Darwinian selection, so also is rape.

The basic rationale for this is fairly straightforward.  Under primitive living conditions the best reproductive strategy for human males is to inseminate as many women as possible.  Reproduction is easy for men; it's women who are compromised by the developing fetus.  Women get no evolutionary advantage at all from having sex with multiple men.  Although a male deciding to care for one female and a few of his offspring may increase the likelihood of their survival, it does not seem to be the optimum strategy.  This view is now commonly used within evolutionary psychology to explain the observed differences between male and female sexual behavior.

It’s important to understand that none of this has to do with what people consciously desire.  People in our society have most of their sex with the express purpose of not reproducing.  However, it is still the case that the desire to have sex exists because it tends to result in babies.  The authors say:

Remember, none of the foregoing behavioral manifestations of evolution need be conscious. People do not necessarily have sex because they want children, and they certainly do not conduct thorough cost-benefit analyses before taking a partner to bed. As Darwin made clear, individual organisms merely serve as the instruments of evolution. Men today find young women attractive because during human evolutionary history the males who preferred prepubescent girls or women too old to conceive were outreproduced by the males who were drawn to females of high reproductive potential. And women today prefer successful men because the females who passed on the most genes, and thereby became our ancestors, were the ones who carefully selected partners who could best support their offspring. That is why, as the anthropologist Donald Symons of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has observed, people everywhere understand sex as "something females have that males want."

The Mating Game

The authors note that humans and animal have elaborate mating rituals that serve evolutionary purposes.  Males expend a great deal of energy, and often risk injury with by fighting with other males, in displaying their masculine qualities to highly selective females.  The idea behind rape, of course, is that it allows the male to avoid all this.  So if you think of courtship rituals and normal mating practices as a kind of cooperative relationship that benefits the species, you can see rape as a form of cheating or defection.

But though most male animals expend a great deal of time and energy enticing females, forced copulation. rape. also occurs, at least occasionally, in a variety of insects, birds, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, marine mammals and nonhuman primates. In some animal species, moreover, rape is commonplace. In many scorpionfly species, for instance. insects that one of us (Thornhill) has studied in depth. males have two well-formulated strategies for mating. Either they offer the female a nuptial gift (a mass of hardened saliva they have produced, or a dead insect) or they chase a female and take her by force.

The authors note that it is possible that rape is not actually an adaptation in humans at all- in other words that it is not exist because it is a successful strategy, but only because it was a side effect of other adaptations.  If this is the case, then the genes that cause men to rape do not exist because rape contributes to fitness, but because the other things these genes cause contribute to fitness.

Rape and Violence

The authors note that while we are inclined to think of rape as an inherently violent behavior, the evolutionary theory would predict that rapists should typically not try to injure their victims, since this would diminish its effectiveness as a reproductive strategy.  They believe that this prediction is born out by evidence that the majority of rape victims do not experience other gratuitous forms of violence.

Psychological Pain

The authors also note that the extreme psychological pain that rape causes in women can make sense in evolutionary terms.  Specifically, if psychological pain is an adaptation that helps people guard against circumstances that reduce their reproductive success, then the pain of rape should be extraordinary.  Women who conceive as a result of rape may also be physically injured, and is unable to choose an appropriate mate by the normal courtship rituals. 

Protecting Women

T&P argue that the evolutionary perspective provides prescriptions for avoiding rape that the sociological perspective does not. Regarding the education of men they suggest that:  

A program might start by inducing the young men to acknowledge the power of their sexual impulses, and then explaining why human males have evolved in that way. The young men should learn that past Darwinian selection is the reason that a man can get an erection just by looking at a photo of a naked woman, why he may be tempted to demand sex even if he knows that his date truly doesn’t want it, and why he may mistake a woman's friendly comment or tight blouse as an invitation to sex. Most of all, the program should stress that a man’s evolved sexual desires offer him no excuse whatsoever for raping a woman, and that if he understands and resists those desires, he may be able to prevent their manifestation in sexually coercive behavior. The criminal penalties for rape should also be discussed in detail.

Young women also need a new kind of education. For example, in today's rape-prevention handbooks, women are often told that sexual attractiveness does not influence rapists. That is emphatically not true. Because a woman is considered most attractive when her fertility is at its peak, from her mid-teens through her twenties, tactics that focus on protecting women in those age groups will be most effective in reducing the overall frequency of rape. Young women should be informed that, during the evolution of human sexuality, the existence of female choice has favored men who are quickly aroused by signals of a female’s willingness to grant sexual access. Furthermore, women need to realize that, because selection favored males who had many mates, men tend to read signals of acceptance into a woman’s actions even when no such signals are intended.

They go on to say that this has obvious implications for the way women choose to dress in various situations. Provocative dressing is primitively received as sexual readiness.

The Evolution of Evil

by Duntley and Buss

In this article D&B provide a naturalistic account of evil as the imposition of fitness costs on others. The basic idea is that the vast majority of things that people call “evil” are ways of putting other people at risk of harm so that you may accrue some benefit. In evolutionary terms, the concept of a fitness cost is ultimately about decreasing a person’s reproductive potential.

Why Humans Inflict Harm on Other Humans
According to the authors the answer to this question is that we are all competing with each other to reproduce. Harming our competitors in any number of ways, physical, psychological and social, can give us an advantage in this competition.
Killing as Prototypically Evil
Obviously there can be a huge reproductive advantage to killing someone. Not only do you eliminate this person from the pool of competitors, but you may substantially reduce the fitness of those who rely on him or her as well. Of course, there are significant risks involved in killing people as well, so the authors emphasize that killing (like rape) is by no means always beneficial to the killer, only that it has been often enough to be preserved in our behavioral profile.
The Functions “Evil” and “Good” Evaluations
As they see it, the evolutionary purpose of the category of “evil” serves to protect us from being harmed by others. The degree of evil correlates roughly with the perceived willingness of an individual to do harm for little personal benefit. (‘Good” by contrast, identifies the willingness to bestow benefit at an unusual risk of personal harm.) So, for example, a person who kills people for entertainment purposes would be expected to be regarded as far more evil than a person who kills for money or for political reasons. This is not because we have any respect for those motives, but because such motives make them less likely to be a threat to any given individual.
The intentional aspect of good and evil evaluation also makes sense from this perspective. The formation of intentions is causally linked to successful action. We are not inclined to tag as ‘evil’ harms that are not intended, because they are generally unlikely to be repeated.
The Exploitation of Evil
Once we have evolved a tag that identifies other as evil, we are susceptible to manipulation by others who use this tag to create fear and specific behavioral responses, such as war. The authors cite Dawkins approvingly in identifying religions as coming to power through the process of identifying other groups as evil.
Alternative Perspectives
Like Thornhill and Palmer, Duntley and Buss criticize sociologists for their failure to be empirical when studying violence. Specifically they reject the common claims that
1. Violence is never an effective way to get what one wants.

2. Evil stems from an inability to control one’s impulses.

If either of these were really the case, then the existence of violence would be very almost incomprehensible in evolutionary terms.

A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil

by Philip Zimbardo
Zimbardo’s paper raises the question whether evil is dispositional or situational in nature. On the dispositional view, a certain kind of person has a disposition to behave evilly while others do not. On the situational view, everyone has the capacity for evil if given the proper incentive.
Zimbardo is a situationalist, and he thinks that the tendency to accept dispositional explanations of evil can be explained by the success of dispositional explanations in more mundane circumstances. He thinks that the dispositional analysis also permits us to believe that we are immune from evil behavior, which may contribute to our well-being.
Milgram’s Experiments. (p.6)

The Effects of Deindividuation (p.7)

Dehumanization (p.9)

The Stanford Prison Experiment

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