Saturday, December 24, 2011

Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?

A few more thoughts on how the steady evolution of human norms toward peacefulness, self-control and respect for life tracked by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature could go wrong.

One weakness in Pinker's analysis of our social evolution, as far as I can tell so far, is that while he sometimes identifies an adverse trend, or an adverse offshoot of a positive trend, he doesn't consider the potential dangers that such trends might pose. Stephen J. Gould, as I recall, recounted the story of a moose-like creature for which natural selection favored the growth of ever-larger antlers, which attracted females of the species. Competition led to the antlers growing to absurd height and weight, which ultimately, or so the hypothesis went, led to the species' extinction.  While Pinker is careful to stipulate that the positive behavioral developments he tracks are not products of biological evolution, could not social evolution go off-track in similar ways?

Take, for example, the trend toward cherishing and protecting children. After surveying the horrific physical and mental punishments to which adults used to routinely subject children, Pinker approvingly tracks the growth of an ethic of fostering children's healthy development, guarding their safety, and, in a word, cherishing them. He notes with approval some astonishingly rapid changes in attitude in recent years -- first against beating and even spanking them, then against countenancing bullying.  Then, suddenly, Pinker turns to a way in which how this development has gone awry: "the historical increase in the valuation of children has entered its decadent phase."  The next several pages channel Lenore Skenazy, freelance author and advocate for what she calls free-range kids, who's recently made a career of chronicling American parents' insane overprotectiveness.  As Pinker summarizes:
Children are not allowed to be outside int he middle of the day (skin cancer), to play in the grass (deer ticks), to buy lemonade from a stand (bacteria on lemon peel), or to lick cake batter off spoons (salmonella from uncooked eggs). Lawyer-vetted playgrounds have had their turf padded with rubber, their slides and monkey bars lowered to waist height, and their seesaws removed altogether...(Loc. 9870).
Pinker moves on to consider the national obsession with kidnapping, its statistical absurdity, and its dreadful inhibiting effects on children's freedom of movement.  His conclusion:
The movement over the past two centuries to increase the valuation of children's lives is one of the great moral advances in history. But the movement over the past two decades to increase the valuation to infinity can only lead to absurdities (Loc 9829).
And there Pinker leaves it. But might these "absurdities" be dangerous?  Can children who never get to play outside or unsupervised, never make friends spontaneously, never take physical risks, never cope with others' aggression on their own, etc. etc., prove less adaptive than children who grow up in cultures that "cherish" them less?   This leads back to a question I raised in a prior post: could a society that evolves too far ahead of others toward peaceableness, empathy, and self-control at the same time evolve toward laziness, lack of resilience and drive, lack of a capacity for self-defense or dealing with conflict?   Might it not either be conquered outright, or dominated more subtly, or simply out-performed in the economic sphere?

In a similar vein, Pinker more approvingly than not notes the extreme aversion to war that has developed in European countries in recent decades, to the point where their troops are often not combat-ready:
As big as the change in American attitudes toward war has been, the change in Europe is beyond recognition...In February 2003 mass demonstrations in European cities protested the impending American-led invasion of Iraq, drawing a million people each in London, Barcelona, and Rome...Even the war in Afghanistan, which aroused less opposition in Europe, is being fought mainly by American soldiers. Not only do they make up more than half of the forty-four nation NATO military operation, but the continental forces have acquired a certain reputation when it comes to martial virtues. A Canadian armed forces captain wrote to me from Kabul in 2003:
During this morning's Kalashnikov concerto, I was waiting for the tower guards in our camp to open fire. I think they were asleep. That's par for the course...the Germans have already abandoned the towers several times. the first time was when we got hit by rockets. The remaining instances had something to do with it being cold in the towers.. (Loc 5922).
Pinker documents in detail the extent to which American society is more violent than that of Western Europe, with higher rates of homicide and all forms of violent crime, a comparatively enormous prison population, a long and zealously guarded tradition of private gun ownership, etc. It would seem that the more violent nature of American society is connected in some way to the U.S.'s role as the world's dominant military power, with a military presence in more than 100 countries and a unique role as world's policeman. What if America  were as peaceable as Europe?  Would prospects for humanity's continued turn away from war be strengthened or weakened?  Are these questions addressed at a later point in Pinker's book? Stay tuned.

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