i’ve pretty much finished reading pinker’s The Better Angels — i’ll admit to you right now that i skimmed chapter 8, “Inner Demons,” so i’ll have to go back and give that a proper read — and i’ll also say right now that it’s an amazing book! definitely worth a (full and attentive!) read. and i agree with steve sailer that pinker is really, really thorough and covers everything you could imagine that might be related to violence.
except human biodiversity.
pinker is obviously no blank slater, so he knows that evolution has shaped human behavior. but, at least as far as i could see, he doesn’t give much cred — not in this book anyway — to the fact that different populations might differ in average behavioral patterns including violence — differ because of their different evolutionary histories. recent evolutionary histories. pinker seems to be hooked on the idea of human nature rather than human natures, and that’s too bad.
he does mention cochran and harpending’s ideas about human evolution accelerating since the start of the agricultural revolution (’cause there’s more people!) — and he brings up the “warrior gene” (MAO-A) and gregory clark’s work — but then he sets them aside saying [kindle locations 13807-13817]:
“So while recent biological evolution may, in theory, have tweaked our inclinations toward violence and nonviolence, we have no good evidence that it actually has. At the same time, we do have good evidence for changes that could not possibly be genetic, because they unfolded on time scales that are too rapid to be explained by natural selection, even with the new understanding of how recently it has acted. The abolition of slavery and cruel punishments during the Humanitarian Revolution; the reduction of violence against minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals during the Rights Revolutions; and the plummeting of war and genocide during the Long Peace and the New Peace, all unfolded over a span of decades or even years, sometimes within a single generation. A particularly dramatic decline is the near-halving of the homicide rate during the Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s. The decay rate of that decline, around 7 percent a year, is powerful enough to drag a measure of violence down to 1 percent of its original level over just two generations, all without the slightest change in gene frequencies. Since it is indisputable that cultural and social inputs can adjust the settings of our better angels (such as self-control and empathy) and thereby control our violent inclinations, we have the means to explain all the declines of violence without invoking recent biological evolution. At least for the time being, we have no need for that hypothesis.”
we aren’t talking about “time scales that are too rapid to be explained by natural selection.” pinker pointed out himself (referencing eisner) that the pacification of england (and a couple of other nw european countries) started as early as the 1300s — maybe even earlier — hard to know for sure ’cause the records don’t go back farther. (but, as jayman once said, the fact that we actually have records for england and these other european countries that go back as far as they do says something about those populations right there!)
the 1300s to pinker’s humanitarian revolution (basically the enlightenment) of the 1700s? that’s four hundred years right there — plenty of time for evolution to have happened (see also here for example [pdf]) — especially if the selection pressures for these more soft and squishy, as opposed to nasty and brutish, behaviors had been there. which i think were, thanks to the roman catholic church’s bizarre requirement that catholics outbreed — a practice that medieval nw europeans seem to have jumped upon with (comparatively) great enthusiasm (see “mating patterns in europe” series in left-hand column below ↓) — eventually anyway.
furthermore, while the anglo-saxons in england were still marrying their cousins in the 500-600s, to the dismay of st. augustine (the one who went to england), my guess is that their outbreeding project was probably well underway by the 800s thanks to pressure from the church and secular authorities (e.g. see first note here). definitely by 1000 to be really conservative. so the evolutionary time period we’re talking about is probably actually seven hundred, or even nine hundred, years long. p-l-e-n-t-y of time for natural selection to have worked its magic.
what were these selection pressures that resulted in nw europeans going all soft and squishy? well, because of the church’s various bans on close marriages (which were also backed by many nw european secular authorities), the degree of genetic similarity between close and extended family members in nw european populations was reduced, so inclusive fitness payoffs were similarly reduced for these populations. since there was no longer sooo much to be gained genetically by helping your second-cousin-once-removed, clans — and clannish behaviors — disappeared in england and other parts of nw europe. being successful in life — and, most importantly, reproduction — thus depended more on your alliances with neighbors and friends rather than your extended family. and it was these behavioral patterns — along with gregory clark’s bourgeois, middle class traits — that were increasingly selected for in nw medieval european populations. more and more over the period, it paid off less and less to be brutal and cruel to your unrelated neighbors — why would anybody cooperate with you if you were brutal and cruel to them? — so eventually nw medieval europeans chilled out. they became more individualistic — and universalistic in their thinking/sentiments. until — voilà! — we got the enlightenment. which DIDN’T happen anywhere else but in nw europe — where people had been outbreeding (relatively speaking) for several hundreds of years.
even if i’m wrong, which is
impossible pretty likely, it remains a fact that this pacification process started in nw europe, really with the english, and not anywhere else in the world (except maybe in some pockets here and there). and THAT requires explaining — which i don’t think that any of pinker’s social, cultural or rational explanations do. why england? why nw europe? what was so different there?
previously: “violence around the world”
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