Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Coda to My Last Post

Tonight, I have a bunch of technicians crawling all over the site that I am working, so I don't have time to compose a lengthy post. Instead, I will link to a couple of the august residents of my blogroll concerning Tuesday night's speaker.

I will start with the brilliant Smut Clyde, who OBS believes is asking to borrow the keys to the "Riddled" time machine in roundabout fashion.

Next up are a couple of posts at the indefinitely suspended House of Substance- "COME BACK, MR McGRAVITAS!!!" In the comments, Thunder rightly notes that Dr Pinker's veritas sux. I'd add, "Better dead than crimson."

Anyway, I enjoyed the man's lecture last night, even though some of his findings are controversial. It's nice to hear something optimistic about the "arc of history" once in a while. I generally don't moderate comments (obvious spam is an exception, though the filter picks up most of it), so anybody who wants to hurl batteries is free to do so.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: A History of Violence

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring psychologist Dr Steven Pinker of Harvard University. Dr Pinker's lecture, which covered the subject of his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, concerned the decline in violent behavior throughout human history.

Dr Pinker began his lecture by stating that (contrary to the impression one might get while watching the news) violence is in decline. The decline is not steady, it's not guaranteed, and violence will probably never disappear. This decline is occurring on all levels- from wars and genocides to the treatment of children and animals. Dr Pinker characterizes this decline as happening in a series of "Great Pacifications".

According to Dr Pinker, the first great decline in violence was the pacification processm which occurred with the end of the state of anarchy which characterized most of human existence. He referenced Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan which characterized human lives in the absence of society thusly:


Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.


The alternative view, promulgated by Rousseau (who never used the term "noble savage"), was that human nature was fundamentally sympathetic to other humans. Both Hobbes' and Rousseau's views were purely speculative.

In order to make a better determination of the nature of violence in prehistoric societies, forensic archaeologists (Dr Pinker likened them to CSI: Paleolithic) began to collect evidence of unhealed wounds in human remains. While estimates vary, Dr Pinker put the figure of death by violence in the "State of Nature" at fifteen percent. The rate today, even given the lethality of modern war and related violence, is three percent.

Ethnographic studies of hunter/gatherer or horticulturist societies suggest that the rate of violent death in these societies is 524 per 100,000 people. In contrast, even given the carnage of two world wars, the rate of death by violence in 20th Century Germany was 144 per 100,000, the rate of violent death in 20th Century Japan was 27 per 100,000 and the rate of violent death in the U.S. was 3.7 per 100,000. While warfare in "primitive" societies tends to be ritualized and less lethal than modern war, raids and ambushes make up a larger percentage of violent acts.

A second "great pacification" was named "The Civilizing Process" by Dr Pinker- involving the rise of states and the resultant "Paxes", with the Pax Romana being the best-known example (as a TV Tropes junkie, I'd refer to it as the "trope namer"). With centralized authority, the incidents of raiding and feuding are reduced- retribution tends to be handled by the state rather than through ongoing private vendettas. Dr Pinker displayed several graphs depicting the downward trend of homicides in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era (with a slight uptick in the 20th Century, with its war and genocides). Much of the period involved the consolidation of principalities and the resultant rule of law. The growth of trade also had an effect- zero sum plundering gave way to mutually beneficial trade.

The third pacification was the "Humanitarian Revolution", in which punishment by torture, mutilation, and execution began to fall by the wayside. A succinct expression of this humanist revolution is the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

In 18th Century England, there were 222 capital crimes, which dwindled down to four capital crimes by 1861. The vast majority of European countries have abolished the death penalty- Dr Pinker quipped, the Europeans have "lost their taste for death".

The humanitarian revolution also saw the end of witch-hunts, the drastic reduction in religious persecution, and the abolition of slavery and bloodsports. Dr Pinker cited the invention of printing and the subsequent increase in literacy as a major factor in the humanitarian revolution- the explosion of literacy led to the Enlightenment, in which knowledge replaced superstition, undermining the rationale for many violent behaviors. As Voltaire put it, roughly condensed: "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

Another factor in the humanitarian revolution was cosmopolitanism- with increased contact between societies, an expansion of the "circle of empathy" resulted.

The fourth pacification Dr Pinker termed the "Long Peace", which occurred after the end of World War Two. While the 20th Century is often characterized as being extraordinarily violent, the 19th Century was characterized by destructive wars beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, through the Taiping Rebellion in China, the War of the Triple Alliance in South America, Shaka Zulu's conquest of South Africa, and the American Civil War. Dr Pinker cited "atrocitologist" Matthew White's The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, which posits that World War Two, with all it's carnage, was probably 9th in the ranking of the world's worst wars from 500 BCE to 2000 CE.

The "Long Peace" of the post 1946 era was characterized by no wars between the U.S. and Russia, no use of nukes in war, no "great powers" wars since Korea, and no European wars. Before 1945, there were two new wars in Europe per year. Between 1946 and 2008, battle deaths declined as well. Dr Pinker cited Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch as an inspiration of the Long Peace- the spread of democratic governance and international community should lead to peace.

The fifth pacification Dr Pinker termed the "Rights Revolutions"- the civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, and animal rights movements led to a decrease in violence. Lynchings are down dramatically, and hate crimes legislation is working to reduce violence even further.

Dr Pinker then discussed reasons for the decline in violence. He asserted that the decline has happened to rapidly to be evolutionary. The decline in violence is due to social/institutional changes. Dr Pinker then enumerated different categories of violence and discussed the neural pathways involved in such behaviors.

His first reason for violence was rage, which is generally thought to involve the amygdala. Dominance is another reason for violence, which is thought to involve the amygdala and the insula. The rage and dominance "circuits" are distinct but similar. Revenge is believed to involve a two-step process- the first involving the amygdala, insula, and the second stage involving the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex- it's similar to the striving/seeking "circuit" and dopamine is involved, meaning that revenge is, indeed, sweet. Instrumental violence is violence as a means to an end- predation, plunder, conquest, the elimination of rivals- it involves higher cognitive functions- reasoning. Utopian ideologies, the belief that violence can lead to a greater, even unlimited, good, also involves higher cognitive functions, such as cost/benefit analysis. To use a crude proverb, one cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

Dr Pinker then described the neurology of our "better angels". Empathy involves the insula and the orbitofrontal cortex. Moral sense involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the temporoparietal junction. Reason primarily involves the frontal lobe.

Regarding social reasons for the decline of violence, Pinker cited several. Gentle commerce is one- plunder is a zero sum game while trade is a positive sum game- both parties benefit from fair trade. An expanding circle of sympathy- an "elastic" empathy that allows us to think well of the "other" makes us less likely to engage in violence with said "others". An "escalator of reason" allows people to rise above cruelty- violence is seen as a problem to be solved, not a contest to be won.

Dr Pinker then asked why so many forces push us in the same direction, and answered that violence is a dilemma- it is less of a benefit to the victor than a loss to the victim. All of the forces reducing violence improve outcomes for a vast majority of people. Dr Pinker concluded by exhorting us to examine what we are doing right, and to reassess modernity- modernity is better than nostalgia.

In the follow-up Q&A session, the Bastard was not able to get a question in edgewise in the packed house (the line for the lecture went down the block). Here's a short video of Dr Pinker being interviewed about the subject of his talk. Crack a beer or two (or six) and bask in the boozy, brainy Secret Science glow:





As an aside, back in 2009, when the lecture was still taking place at the lovely Union Hall, I joked to a reporter from NPR that the SSC would eventually have to move to Yankee Stadium. The last couple of SRO lectures convince me that our wonderful hosts, Andy and Jim (and their great, great staff) are going to have to open up a bigger venue. Once again, I can't say enough about what my great and good friends Margaret and Dorian are accomplishing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Big Green Goes Green

I'm headed down to Brooklyn (on public transportation) for tonight's Secret Science Club lecture, but I couldn't let Earth Day pass without an acknowledgement. Since I'm rushed, before I hit the subway, I'll merely post the hilarious title song from Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster, an epic kaiju film in which our favorite radioactive reptilian rumbler fights a giant turd:





Save the Earth, Godzilla implores, with the possible exception of Tokyo (we all have our blind spots)... even big green nuclear nightmares can put up a green front once in a while. **Nervously looks north...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bastard's Beloved Boston

As I New Yorker, I don't know if I'm supposed to admit it, but I love Boston. My grandfather was born and raised in Framingham, Massachusetts and he never lost his New England accent, or his taste for Moxie (a taste that I have cultivated, largely out of contrariness), throughout all his years in the Bronx. As a small boy, I lived in Waltham, Massachusetts while my father was a graduate student. I have vivid memories of visiting Old Ironsides. One of my all-time favorite books is Make Way for Ducklings, which will always remind me of the beautiful Boston Public Gardens, with its Swan Boats... and of the amphibious Duck Tours, with their repurposed landing craft. Throughout high school and college, there were trips to Boston, where I'd invariably run into religious kooks in Faneuil Hall with whom I'd engage in weird discussions (my great and good friend J-Co, who now lives in the Boston Metropolitan Area, still likes to recount an incident in which a beret-wearing proselytizer, upon hearing me opine that a lot of people get caught up in dogma while ignoring basic precepts of ethics, dramatically intoned, "This man speaketh the truth!"). On occasion, I'd get into a drunken lip lock with a tipsy charmer at the Róisín Dubh. Yeah, Boston's a great town, and the Bostonians are wonderful people.

I was relieved to hear that this year's Boston Marathon finished without a hitch after last year's horror. The stories of bombing victims returning to finish the race, some in spite of grievous injuries, were heart-warming and tear-jerking.

Yeah, I'm a New Yorker, always has been, but Boston will always occupy a large space in my heart. Love Boston, love Bostonians.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Chocolate War

I hope those of you who celebrated Easter today have gotten over your sugar hangover, because battle has been joined. There is now an, admittedly half-hearted/half-assed, War on Easter, declared by Fox News.

The "war" stems from a display erected in Daley Plaza by The Freedom from Religion Foundation, extolling **GASP** reason and the separation of church and state. Even worse, this "War on Easter" is **HORRORS!** unholy. What kind of unholy monsters would advocate for reason and the separation of church and state? What sort of monsters, indeed?

Those who would undermine the separation of church and state make the dubious assumption that their particular brand of church would be the established one. The Founders, with the horrors of the Thirty Years' War still scarring the European psyche, well knew the tyranny of established religion.

As an aside, I have to laugh at the use of the word "unholy"... almost everything on the planet is "unholy". For example, with one notable exception, hand grenades are unholy.

I think the real issue is that, for most people, the Easter eggs and bunnies, and the baskets full of candy have supplanted the religious festival to a large extent. The fundies have lost The Chocolate War so now they're throwing a temper tantrum:





Cross-posted at Rumproast.




Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lunacy on the Job

Despite the fact that I will be ribbed for this, I am happy to report that there is a loon on the premises at work. This afternoon, I found a common loon (in contrast, I'm an uncommon loon) fishing in a small body of water on site:



Here's another shot (poorly focused... I blame the phone!) to show the distinctive white breast:




Again, this is the first time I've seen a common loon on site... indeed the first time I've seen one in the area (I am very familiar with loons from the "great pond" by the family vacation home in Maine). The bird is merely stopping here in the middle of migrating to the great northern lakes, but the enchanting quality the bird lends to the site will linger for a long time in my mind.

Two loons in one week... pretty amazing!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Una Tristeza en Macondo

Now, this is a bit of sad news, the Colombian dean of letters Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez died in Mexico City today. My personal favorite work of Márquez (everybody's favorite work of Márquez) has got to be One Hundred Years of Solitude (original title Cien Años de Soledad), one of the pillars of the magical realist body of literature... Gene Wolfe described it simply as fantasy en Español: "Magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish."

One Hundred Years of Solitude struck me with its dreamy quality- the backdrop behind the saga of the Buendía family being populated with ageless gypsies privy to arcane knowledge, tragic beauties with arresting eyes, foreigners both benign and rapacious. The story is, in many ways, a microcosm of Colombia itself.

I recently started re-reading a translation of the novel while concurrently reading an edition of the Spanish original (purchased for a quarter at a library book sale). It's pretty slow-going (I used to be smarter... I recently shamed myself when I stumbled across a term paper I'd written in college about sycretism in Central American religious traditions that yo había escrito en Español) but I'm able to bask in the beauty of the language, twice. It's tempting to find traces of other works in the novel- a duel is reminiscent of Borges' El Sur, a panther eyed woman calls to mind Asturias' Hombres de Maíz). I'm taking my sweet time- this is literature to be savored.

Rest in peace, Sr. Márquez. artist, intellectual, activist... I hope that the distant afternoon that you remembered on your last day was marked by a pleasant discovery.