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View Full Version : John Horgan on war in Slate (and Steven Pinker on slates, blank and otherwise)


claymisher
08-05-2009, 01:09 AM
John Horgan has a new decline of war piece in Slate. John Quiggin notes a certain linguist revising his positions:

Over at my blog a couple of days ago, we were discussing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a book which I thought was much below the standard of his earlier work, though no worse than the average book about the ‘nature-nurture’ controversy. In particular, I thought his discussion of war and violence was hopelessly confused, putting forward a Hobbesian view of violence as the product of rational self interest as if it was consistent with the genetic determinism that was the central theme of the rest of the book.

Now, via John Horgan at Slate, I’ve happened across this broadcast by Pinker at TED (which, by the way I’ve just discovered and is excellent). The broadcast has a transcript which is great for those of us who prefer reading to listening.

In this piece, Pinker appears to me to change sides almsot completely, from pessimist to optimist and from genetic determinist to social improver. Not only does he present evidence that war and violence are declining in relative importance, his explanation for this seems to be entirely consistent with the Standard Social Science Model he caricatured and debunked in The Blank Slate. He’s still got a sort of rational self-interest model in there, but now Hobbes is invoked, not for his ‘nasty, brutish and short’ state of nature, but for his argument that the Leviathan of social order will suppress violence to the benefit of all.


-- http://crookedtimber.org/2009/08/05/is-this-the-same-steven-pinker/

The Horgan piece: http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2224275

Francoamerican
08-05-2009, 06:04 AM
John Horgan has a new decline of war piece in Slate. John Quiggin notes a certain linguist revising his positions:



-- http://crookedtimber.org/2009/08/05/is-this-the-same-steven-pinker/

The Horgan piece: http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2224275

The Blank Slate is full of such inconsistencies. Pinker wants to have his evolutionary cake and eat it too!

Me&theboys
08-05-2009, 01:09 PM
John Horgan has a new decline of war piece in Slate. The Horgan piece: http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2224275

As usual, Horgan has a tendency to see what he wants to see in the data. I obviously have not read the report yet since it has not been released, but it sounds rather like apples to oranges to compare war as we define it now to war among hunter gatherers. I think that omits a lot of violence and aggression that probably qualifies as war among hunter gatherers but does not qualify as war in the modern sense. Also, I seem to recall John saying in an earlier diavlog that the official counts do not include genocide.

I wish Horgan would discuss the following kinds of issues instead:

1) can we ever reach the point where there are no cultures/environments that are conducive to war and what would it take to get there?
2) how do we end all those deaths due to violence and aggression that do not meet the definition of war? (Personally, I'd like to see Horgan focus on violence and aggression generally. Why his persistent focus on war if it's truly such small fry compared to general violence and aggression, as the data suggest?)
3) what part does a convincing threat of retaliation play in the recent decrease in war? (see this week's diavlog and related research on vengeance and violence and retaliatory threat)
4) to what degree will global threats such as water scarcity, global warming, and extreme gender imbalances in the population, etc. continue to produce cultures/environments amenable to war? It seems naive to assume that, because we enjoy a set of circumstances today that are conducive to peace, such peace will continue even if the circumstances change.
5) if the end of war is dependent upon a set of circumstances we happen now to enjoy, circumstances that are very vulnerable to change, rendering the end of war temporary, what is the point of proclaiming we have ended it? (this is more of a rhetorical question, I suppose)
6) can we really ever impose the level of global social control over cultures and societies that would be necessary to permanently prevent war?
7) Is it really possible to permanently prevent war as long as there are innate tendencies toward violence and aggression (which is not disputed) that come to the fore when circumstances are favorable to its expression?

thprop
08-05-2009, 01:27 PM
As usual, Horgan has a tendency to see what he wants to see in the data. I obviously have not read the report yet since it has not been released, but it sounds rather like apples to oranges to compare war as we define it now to war among hunter gatherers. I think that omits a lot of violence and aggression that probably qualifies as war among hunter gatherers but does not qualify as war in the modern sense. Also, I seem to recall John saying in an earlier diavlog that the official counts do not include genocide.

I wish Horgan would discuss the following kinds of issues instead:

1) can we ever reach the point where there are no cultures/environments that are conducive to war and what would it take to get there?
2) how do we end all those deaths due to violence and aggression that do not meet the definition of war? (Personally, I'd like to see Horgan focus on violence and aggression generally. Why his persistent focus on war if it's truly such small fry compared to general violence and aggression, as the data suggest?)
3) what part does a convincing threat of retaliation play in the recent decrease in war? (see this week's diavlog and related research on vengeance and violence and retaliatory threat)
4) to what degree will global threats such as water scarcity, global warming, and extreme gender imbalances in the population, etc. continue to produce cultures/environments amenable to war? It seems naive to assume that, because we enjoy a set of circumstances today that are conducive to peace, such peace will continue even if the circumstances change.
5) if the end of war is dependent upon a set of circumstances we happen now to enjoy, circumstances that are very vulnerable to change, rendering the end of war temporary, what is the point of proclaiming we have ended it? (this is more of a rhetorical question, I suppose)
6) can we really ever impose the level of global social control over cultures and societies that would be necessary to permanently prevent war?
7) Is it really possible to permanently prevent war as long as there are innate tendencies toward violence and aggression (which is not disputed) that come to the fore when circumstances are favorable to its expression?

All these problems are male problems. In the modern world, the male traits that worked in the past are not very useful - and on balance detrimental to society. We need to get more women involved in running things. Maybe even ban men.

I say this as a male who played rugby for over twenty years and am willing to admit that we are morons. I am afraid that one day, women will figure out that they are better off without us.

The biggest issue in Islamic fundamentalism is the role of women. Everything that they hate about modernity revolves around the rights and equality of women.

You want to solve war and crime - you have to change men.

bjkeefe
08-05-2009, 01:30 PM
John Horgan has a new decline of war piece in Slate. John Quiggin notes a certain linguist revising his positions:

Just for the record, I'm not sure how recent this "revision" is by Pinker. He gave a talk at TED (http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html) about this in March 2007.

I don't know the history of Pinker's positions on this, nor have I followed your links yet, but I thought I'd throw that out there.

Also, I hope no one is finding it horrifying that a scientist may be changing his opinions in reaction to new data, further research, increased awareness, or whatever.

popcorn_karate
08-05-2009, 01:40 PM
shit like that is almost like a form of misogyny in that you apparently put women on such a pedestal that you can't even see that they are actual human, quite a lot like you.

sad, really.

graz
08-05-2009, 01:40 PM
All these problems are male problems. In the modern world, the male traits that worked in the past are not very useful - and on balance detrimental to society. We need to get more women involved in running things. Maybe even ban men.

I say this as a male who played rugby for over twenty years and am willing to admit that we are morons. I am afraid that one day, women will figure out that they are better off without us.



Your instincts about men may have been unduly influenced by too much time in the scrum. It also reads like a guy who is looking to score points (is this trait exclusive to men?) - with women.
And your idealism about the female of the species makes me wonder how many you have interacted with? They are not the answer either, even if they would do just fine without us. The cause may just be lost.

popcorn_karate
08-05-2009, 01:51 PM
I never read Pinker as a "genetic Determinist". The whole point of "The Blank Slate" is that Nature is real and has effects, just as the environment does.

He was explicitly rejecting the morons that thought you could raise a boy the same way as a girl, and you'd end up with two androgynous people. Its a moronic view that gripped the social sciences for a while, and has thankfully been put to rest. To cast the alternate extreme view, that the environment has no effect, as Pinker's is dishonest.

claymisher
08-05-2009, 02:49 PM
Just for the record, I'm not sure how recent this "revision" is by Pinker. He gave a talk at TED (http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html) about this in March 2007.

I don't know the history of Pinker's positions on this, nor have I followed your links yet, but I thought I'd throw that out there.

Also, I hope no one is finding it horrifying that a scientist may be changing his opinions in reaction to new data, further research, increased awareness, or whatever.

I'm perfectly happy for folks to come up with all the hypothesis they can come up with. Just-so stories don't bother me at all. Where else do you start from? I'm even happy to have people like Pinker write polemicals like TBS, even if only to create an eblem for an idea that's mostly correct (that caveat disqualifies "The Bell Curve"). So yeah, changing your mind is a-ok. Hell, I think it's perfectly sane to believe competing ideas simultaneously -- sometimes you get the answer before you can show your work and sometimes your competing ideas were compatible all along.

Back to the just-so stories -- it's fine to play around with them, but when people start taking them too seriously they make idiots of themselves. A friend of mine, an aspiring novelist, is always coming up with evopsych explanations. It used to drive me crazy because she took them way too seriously but I didn't want to shoot her down because she obviously enjoys it, and I don't know for sure but I think it's part of her creative spark. So I came up with a game I call evolutionary psychology dialecticism. When you think up an evolutionary story to explain some behavior, you or your friend come up with another story that explains the exact opposite behavior. It's fun for the whole family! I do it more or less automatically whenever Bob Wright starts talking.

Anyhoo, if anyone's interested in the Pinker deal be sure to check out the comments at the CT post. CT delivers the comedy!

When the facts change, I change my ideas – what do you do?

I change my thinly veiled rationalisation

bjkeefe
08-05-2009, 02:54 PM
[...]

Nice.

Anyhoo, if anyone's interested in the Pinker deal be sure to check out the comments at the CT post. CT delivers the comedy!

dsquared rules.

(That's Daniel Davies, who blogs at CT (http://www.crookedtimber.org/author/daniel/) and elsewhere (http://d-squareddigest.blogspot.com/) and elsewhere (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/danieldavies).)

thprop
08-05-2009, 02:58 PM
Your instincts about men may have been unduly influenced by too much time in the scrum. It also reads like a guy who is looking to score points (is this trait exclusive to men?) - with women.
And your idealism about the female of the species makes me wonder how many you have interacted with? They are not the answer either, even if they would do just fine without us. The cause may just be lost.
I did spend a lot of time in scrums (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrum_%28rugby%29) - I played prop (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rugby_union_positions#1._Loosehead_prop_.26_3._Tig hthead_prop). For some reason, people call an unorganized mass of people in close proximity a scrum. The reality is that the scrum is tightly organized with 14 pages in the Law Book (http://www.irb.com/lawregulations/laws/index.html) (see Law 20) governing it. A scrum collapse can lead to catastrophic injuries. We try to avoid that. Real damage happens in rucks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_rugby_union#Ruck) (Law 16) and mauls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_rugby_union#Maul) (Law 17).

My response was flippant - but the point was serious. Traits which are more closely associated with women (cooperation, working for the good of the group, etc) are often more useful in a modern society than those associated with men (aggressiveness, individualism, etc). This is not to say that we only need the first and not the latter. But we can use more of the first and less of the latter. A lot of problems in the world are a result of men trying to see whose dick is bigger. Usually, they are both too small to be of much use.

In a Science Saturday (http://brainwaveweb.com/diavlogs/19925) with John Horgan, Richard Wrangham (http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~primates/) contended that the delineation of male and female roles was the result of cooking our food. I think it is time to wipe out that line completely. We have made progress - but not enough.

I went to dinner last year with a Navy friend of mine. He brought along a Marine friend. I told the Marine that I wanted to see what he thought of an idea I had. I also said he should wait until I had completed the describing the idea before punching me. I said that the Army recruited by appealing to standard male values while the Marine Corps appealed to more feminine values. His face was turning red and steam was about to come out of his ears when I continued the explanation. The Army says "Be all you can be" and "An Army of one". An appeal to individualism. The Marines have kept the same campaign for years - "The few, The proud. The Marines." All about the group. Nothing about the individual. He said he saw my point but would make it differently. And he did not hit me.

bjkeefe
08-05-2009, 03:02 PM
I did spend a lot of time in scrums (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrum_%28rugby%29) - I played prop (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rugby_union_positions#1._Loosehead_prop_.26_3._Tig hthead_prop).

Ah, now it all becomes clear: your job was "to support the hooker."

;^)

claymisher
08-05-2009, 03:23 PM
A lot of problems in the world are a result of men trying to see whose dick is bigger. Usually, they are both too small to be of much use.

That's what she said!

Me&theboys
08-05-2009, 06:47 PM
I played prop (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rugby_union_positions#1._Loosehead_prop_.26_3._Tig hthead_prop)

Well, most of that wikipedia site was beyond me, but at least now we know what "thprop" stands for.

Ocean
08-05-2009, 07:50 PM
Your instincts about men may have been unduly influenced by too much time in the scrum. It also reads like a guy who is looking to score points (is this trait exclusive to men?) - with women.
And your idealism about the female of the species makes me wonder how many you have interacted with? They are not the answer either, even if they would do just fine without us. The cause may just be lost.

You shouldn't discourage thprop from keeping his line of thought. He is in the right path, even if he's wrong.

thprop
08-05-2009, 08:02 PM
Well, most of that wikipedia site was beyond me, but at least now we know what "thprop" stands for.
You may want to learn more about rugby before December 11 - the date that Invictus (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1057500/) will be released. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar.

The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa's rugby team to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.

graz
08-05-2009, 08:30 PM
Well, he clarified his thoughts and I have no real disagreement. As for your thought:He is in the right path, even if he's wrong.

Pardon me, I'm only a man... so could you spell that out for me? (wink).


http://www.amystevensonline.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/03/photohemanshirt.jpg

Ocean
08-05-2009, 09:12 PM
Well, he clarified his thoughts and I have no real disagreement. ...

I'll keep this part of your comment.

I'm only a woman...