Thursday, July 23, 2009

Genetic pacification?

Steven Pinker has an article up on the secular decline in violence (hat tip to Mangan’s):

But from the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Many conventional histories reveal that mutilation and torture were routine forms of punishment for infractions that today would result in a fine. In Europe before the Enlightenment, crimes like shoplifting or blocking the king's driveway with your oxcart might have resulted in your tongue being cut out, your hands being chopped off, and so on. Many of these punishments were administered publicly, and cruelty was a popular form of entertainment.

We also have very good statistics for the history of one-on-one murder, because for centuries many European municipalities have recorded causes of death. When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

Pinker concludes: “our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, 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.”

For starters, I dislike hearing the first person plural and the present tense when neither is intended. By ‘we’, Steve Pinker seems to mean the European world. And by ‘modern times’ and ‘modern Europe’ he seems to mean the postwar era—not London, Paris, and Amsterdam as they exist today. Beyond this singularity in space and time, ‘we’ enter another world where people—usually young males—still turn violent for reasons ‘we’ find strange, even pathological.

This point is, in fact, raised by Pinker:

… Manuel Eisner attributes 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 contraband.

In addition to the emergence of central authority, Pinker considers other explanations: the increasing value placed on human life; the rise of the market economy and the interdependency it creates; and the ‘expanding moral circle’—“The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs.”

These other explanations are actually related effects. The market economy has expanded because we’ve behaved in ways that make expansion possible. For instance, we no longer see violence as a legitimate way to settle disputes. We no longer use theft and intimidation as means of self-aggrandizement. And we no longer look up to violent charismatic ‘big men’ as role models.

And yes, we value human life more for the same sort of reason that we’ve become less violent. Ditto for our expanding moral circle.

Oops, that ‘we’ again. For most humans, little has changed since time immemorial. ‘They’ trust only close kin and long-time friends. ‘They’ kill over questions of honor and loss of face. And 'they' admire men whom we consider to be thugs.

But there has been change in some regions, like the European world, East Asia, and parts of South Asia. For the historical economist Gregory Clark, the ultimate reason is the rise of the State and its monopoly on the use of violence. This monopoly created a new set of selection pressures. What had once been rewarded in the struggle for existence was now penalized. And vice versa.

Clark points out that aggressive males are rewarded with reproductive success in simple clan-based societies. Among the Yanomamö, a horticulturalist people of Amazonia, significantly more children are fathered by men who have committed homicide than by those who have not. Among the Ache, a hunter-gatherer people of Paraguay, ‘homicidal’ men do not have more offspring but more of their offspring survive.

In contrast, aggressive males are penalized in settled societies with central authority, either through lower reproductive success or through removal from the population, e.g., through imprisonment, execution, and banishment. Such societies have much lower rates of violent death for all causes, including war.

Clark documents this secular decline in violence with respect to England. In the centuries after imposition of central authority, male homicide fell steadily from 1150 to 1800, there being a parallel decline in blood sports and other violent practices (cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, public executions) that were nonetheless legal throughout almost the whole period. Clark ascribes this behavioral change to the reproductive success of upper- and middle-class individuals whose heritable characteristics differed statistically from those of the general population, particularly with respect to male violence. Although initially a small minority in medieval England, these individuals grew in number and their descendants gradually replaced the lower classes through downward mobility. By 1800, such lineages accounted for most of the English population (Clark, 2007, pp. 124-129, 182-183; Clark, 2009).

This pacification of society did not occur uniformly throughout England. Endemic violence persisted until the 18th century in the northern border regions, where any encounter with non-kin, however innocent, could lead to violence. “In a world of treachery and danger, blood relationships became highly important. Families grew into clans, and kinsmen placed fidelity to family above loyalty to the crown itself.” Disputes were settled through payment of blood money or turned into long-running feuds (Fisher, 1989, p. 628).

Clark has been criticized for failing to explain why the market economy spread so easily from England to other parts of Europe and then to the whole world. The answer is that many of these other regions had undergone the same behavioral evolution for the same reason: the emergence of strong states that monopolize the use of violence. Elsewhere, where this evolution has begun more recently, or not at all, the market economy has been less successful. It works only when strong-armed regimes ensure respect for life and property.

This is something that economic libertarians fail to grasp. Yes, the market economy is generally associated with peaceful and respectful human relations. But the line of causality doesn’t run in the direction they think it does.


Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2007.

Clark, G. (2009). The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England,

Fischer, D.H. (1989). Albion’s Seed. Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1989, pp. 621-632.

Pinker, S. (2009). Why is there peace? Greater Good Magazine, April.


Tod said...

The low point of violence in Britain (1900 I believe) seems a little late for violent death to be the primary factor in the different survival rates. Religious belief must have played a part in the later period at least. The Calvinist emphasis on big families could have been important.

If it is true that testosterone/ prenatal testosteronization reduces resistance to infectious disease then the urbanized epidemics that took place from the
Middle Ages to modern times would lead to disproportionate mortality those with a taste for violence, ie the testosteronized.

Moreover aggressive men would tend to join the army where death from disease was extremely common. I believe WW1 was the first war where deaths from enemy action outnumbered deaths from disease. Peacetime barracks were also breeding grounds for disease, the Boer war soldiers died like fies.

Peter Frost said...

Clark links behavioral change in the British population to the steady demographic expansion of the upper and middle classes. Originally a small minority of the total population, they became the 'new majority' by having larger families with a higher survival rate. Negative factors (e.g., execution, imprisonment)were also part of this process of population replacement, but it's difficult to quantify them.

This process of population replacement came to an end in the 19th century. When factory capitalism replaced cottage industries, the middle class began to expand their labour force by hiring workers, instead of by having larger families.

WW1 was a disaster, and not just for Great Britain. It was a war that started over nothing and settled nothing. And millions died ... for nothing. If there were any selective effects, they would have been in the wrong direction.

Tod said...

"WW1 was a disaster, and not just for Great Britain. It was a war that started over nothing and settled nothing. And millions died ... for nothing".

As soon as their strength made it feasible Germany tried to attain the status of hegemon in Europe; after Germany's 2nd run at hegemony (WW2) things were indeed settled. According to John Mearsheimer trying to dominate the other great powers was the only sensible thing to do.

"Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to become hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive."

Compare;- When you stop "pushing the envelope", other people will push it in the opposite direction.

To get back on topic
Gunnar Heinsohn: babies win wars

"Throughout the 1400s, outbreaks of bubonic plague and pressure from conquering Muslim armies reduced Europe's population to 40 million from 70 million. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII responded to the crisis by decreeing the death penalty for "persons of both sexes who by accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offenses, slay infants yet in the mother's womb (or who) hinder women from conceiving." Midwives, who were also experts in birth control and abortion, were prosecuted and killed.

The results were immediate, producing fertility rates as high as in Gaza or Niger today. By 1510, the number of male births in England had almost doubled. After 1500 and right up to 1914, West European women raised on average about six children, twice as many as during the Middle Ages."

Tod said...

Biomolecular archaeology of ancient tuberculosis in Britain and Europe
"[In] Europe, it is not until the late- and post-Medieval periods that TB increases in frequency – in Britain the London Bills of Mortality indicate up to 25% of people died from the infection in the 1780s and 1790s"

Peter Frost said...


Wilhelmian Germany had dreams of becoming a great European power. For most Germans, however, this didn't involve claims to other people's territory. There was a radical element, however, that wanted to annex much of the Russian Empire to create a new 'Wild West' for German colonization.

This radical element was able to rise to power after the destruction of Wilhelmian Germany in 1918. I realize that many historians equate Kaiser Wilhelm with Adolf Hitler, but I think this moral equivalence is flawed, to put it mildly. In 1914, Germany was the last great power to mobilize its army. In 1939, it was the first.

re: Babies win wars.

Yes, the increase in Europe's population after 1500 was due not just to falling death rates but also to rising birth rates. But I don't think the Catholic Church should take credit for this increase. The surge in birth rates was actually strongest in Protestant England and Holland. The main reason was a shift to family-based cottage industry in an expanding market economy. These early industrialists could expand their workforce only by having larger families. Birth rates slackened with the advent of factory capitalism in the 19th century, when industrialists could meet their labour needs by recruiting workers.

Tod said...

For sure the Kaiser was no Hitler, Bethmann-Hollweg was more to blame and even he did not want war. But that rather supports offensive realism; Germany was a potential hegemon and ended up at war with the same powers - despite the differing objectives of the leadership - in WW1 and 2. States see each other as threats and - in self defence - build military capacities that increase mutual distrust. That perspective explains a lot but Mearsheimer admits the strongest evidence against it is that Germany never seriously considered doing what it could have done: attack France in 1905 (when Russia was in chaos and the British army was very weak.

The surge in birth rates was actually strongest in Protestant England and Holland That is a convincing counter-argument.

Maybe the Protestant thoelogical innovations found in those areas - an emphasis on fertility and hard work as a path to salvation - came as the result of cottage industry making Catholicism - with its celibacy and many Feast days - maladaptive.