Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Spirit of Christmas

a bit late, but I think still relevant :)
Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Spirit of Christmas

Are we inherently bad? Or is it dysfunctional institutions run by elites for their benefit that make us so?

There have been a number of stories about an event that happened one hundred years ago this month and has taken on an almost mythic significance in the intervening years. I'm referring to the "Christmas Truce" of 1914 during World War One.

I'm sure my readers know the story, but to review- World War One commenced in Europe in August, 1914 - "the guns of August" - and people who had known a century of relative peace from large-scale military conflict suddenly found themselves almost inexorably marching to war all over the continent for rather incomprehensible reasons. Making matters worse was that military technology had changed more in the past century due to mechanization than ever before in all of human history. Across the Atlantic, the Americans had fought arguably the first highly mechanized war in their Civil War, and European military leaders had studied that conflict, but studying was far different than planning and strategizing. The planners were used to wars fought on horseback with cannons and bayonets and were unprepared for the new weapons and tactics, and the soldiers and officers on the ground  were unprepared for poison gas, brutal trench warfare, artillery shells and machine gun fire. Both sides dug in their trenches and were unable to budge, and thousands were frequently slaughtered just to gain a few feet of bare, muddy ground.

The first Christmas came around five months later, and the tired and weary German, French, Belgian and English soldiers didn't particularly feel like killing one another in the cold and the mud, especially since the average person had little idea about what they were fighting about, and certainly had no personal beefs with the soldiers in the opposing trenches. During the century of peace, many had even traveled widely in each others' countries. They had all seen the wonders of new technologies, and there was a sense that the world had been brought closer together. Ideas about the "brotherhood of man" competed alongside ideas of national glory on the battlefield. The average enlisted man had more in common with the enemy in the opposing trench than generals and politicians back home for whom the muck and blood and cold and death were just abstractions, and the territories and the trenches were just meaningless lines on a map.

So, in a famous incident during Christmas in that first year of the conflict, peace broke out in the midst of war. German and English soldiers, particularly, decided to forget about what they were "supposed" to do, and decided to behave like human beings, singing carols, playing soccer, bartering goods, even getting each others' contact info to keep in touch after the war.

It was only the fifth month of what was then known simply as the Great War. Both sides longed for home. The men felt death looming in the trenches where they watched their friends die. The soldiers wielded monstrous weapons: flamethrowers, chlorine and mustard gas, machine guns that could shoot 500 rounds a minute. More than one million lay dead already. 
But on Christmas Eve in 1914, an incredible scene began to unfold. The faint sounds of carols drifted from the muddy, half frozen and blood-splattered trenches British and German soldiers had been occupying that night. “All is calm, all is bright,” was sung in both English and German. The soldiers hugged the chopped-off tops of pine trees, which were ornamented with candles and paper lanterns. Paper lights festooned heavy artillery, ammo boxes, crates of food rations, and the wooden beams that kept the trench walls in place. 
“Merry Christmas” was yelled out in a German accent. “Frohe Weihnachten” followed in a Scottish accent. The opposing trenches were so close that the words could be heard easily. Lighted trees began to rise over the lip of the German furrows. British soldiers watched through their periscopes.
The Christmas Truce (Jacobin)
The relaxation of hostilities spread, and what has come to be called the “Christmas truce” took hold. Soon, soldiers were holding joint burial services for the dead. They began trading goods. British soldiers had been given holiday tins of plum pudding from the king; German soldiers had received pipes with a picture of the crown prince on them; and before long the men were bartering these holiday gee-gaws that celebrated the enemy’s royals. Eventually, soldiers prayed and caroled together, shared dinner, exchanged gifts. Most famously, there were soccer matches at various locations, played with improvised balls. 
The truce mostly held through Christmas and, in some cases, even to the New Year. It took senior officers’ threats for fighting to resume, and such comprehensive battlefront peacemaking never happened again during the Great War. Courts-martial were brought against those involved later in even brief Christmas truces to retrieve the dead. 
The Christmas truce was an extraordinary event, not just in World War I but in the history of warfare. But its familiarity and fame—just last month, a short film dramatizing the episode, produced by the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, created a sensation in the U.K.—should not lead us to ignore less dramatic instances of cooperation and trust-building across battle lines during World War I. Indeed, these more modest episodes may be the key to understanding how, in our own day, we might work to lessen political violence and hostility, even among the most bitter enemies.
The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce (Robert Sapolsky, The Wall Street Journal)
As might be expected with any story passed down through generations, new narrative threads emerge, much like the recently discovered letter written by General Walter Congreve, who described the act as “one of the most extraordinary sights anyone has ever seen.” 
When British and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land, it “was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”
The most enduring image out of the cease-fire is the impromptu game of soccer that apparently occurred between enemies. And although historians continue to debate whether a soccer match ever took place — Congreve’s letter doesn’t actually mention a game of soccer — the public has embraced the symbolic possibility that tired soldiers sought a respite from hellish war with something as leveling as soccer.
Did German and British troops really stop fighting and play soccer 100 years ago? (PBS)
1914-1918 was more than just a date written in my school exercise book. It provided the backdrop to my childhood.I later realised that this war was the most important event of the 20th Century. It carried the seeds of the next war while heralding the Soviet era and American hegemony since Europe had pressed the self-destruct button.
In 1992, I learned from Yves Buffetaut's book, Battles of Flanders and Artois, that enemy soldiers on opposing sides fraternised with each other over the Christmas period of 1914. I read that some French soldiers applauded a Bavarian tenor, their enemy a German, on Christmas Eve while others played football with the Germans the next day.

Joint burials also took place in no man's land with Masses read in Latin. Soldiers visited each others' trenches to compare working conditions. Some evenings when the Scotch whisky had been flowing, soldiers fell asleep in the opposite trench and left the following day, apologising to those who "lived" there.

I neither wanted nor was able to believe any of that. This was so contrary to the war I had learnt about at school, full of suffering, selflessness, and courage in the face of the enemy.
How France has forgotten the Christmas truce soldiers (Christian Carion, BBC)

But what interests me is that the Christmas truce is an ideal example of the idea that people don't naturally want to kill another. It was an ideal example that war was not inherent in human nature. Those soldiers did not want to be there - they were compelled to do so by the hierarchical, authoritarian structures of the time - the government, the army, etc. Plus, they had been indoctrinated in the romantic glory idea of war -that sacrificing for ones country was good and glorious - dulce et decorum est, and all that. And the media in the respective countries constantly whipped up hatred.

There was nothing "natural" about the war at all. People didn't want to fight - they wanted peace.

In fact, when they got there, the soldiers did everything they could to avoid killing one another. When the "adults" weren't looking, both sides cooperatively worked out ways in which they could appear to be fighting without actually risking their lives. They shot over one anothers' heads. They overshot with artillery. This infuriated the commanders. It was only when the higher-ups came around that they had to really fight, but they warned one another in a myriad of clever ways.
I remember a note written by German soldiers which reached the French trench and was reported by a Second Bureau officer.This message, written in rudimentary French, warned French soldiers that a colonel was due to visit their trench and they would have to open fire at about 2pm. So it would be a good idea to duck at about that time. However, it would definitely not prevent them from having a drink as planned at 5pm. It was signed: "Your fond German comrades."
How France has forgotten the Christmas truce soldiers (BBC)
There tended to be a lull in the fighting during meals. Those pauses existed for the simple reason that no one, on either side, wanted to interrupt dinner to kill or be killed. But these lulls began to be used as ways to send signals to the other side. As the British historian Tony Ashworth writes in his book “Trench Warfare 1914-18,” ritualizing these pauses made it possible to communicate through contrasting behavior. So the soldiers would make a point not just of shooting less frequently during dinner: They would let the guns thunder until the stroke of 6 p.m. and then go utterly silent until 7 p.m., every day. And if the other side started doing the same, they had essentially negotiated a narrow truce: no fighting during dinner. Similar truces evolved from lulls in fighting during horrible weather, when everyone’s priority became avoiding hypothermia. 
[...] The system of “live and let live” would spread further. One side might get their best sniper to put a bullet into the wall of an abandoned house near enemy lines. Then he would do it repeatedly, hitting the same spot. What was being communicated? “Look how good our guy is. He could have aimed at you, but chose not to. What do you say to that?” And the other side would reciprocate with their best sniper. What had just started? An agreement to shoot over each other’s heads.
The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce (Wall Street Journal)

Without the constraints - the officers in charge who must enforce discipline, the generals and military commanders who were charged with "winning" the war, and most of all the politicians back in their respective countries' national capitals playing geopolitics over territories and making pointless alliances  - none of those solders would have any personal stake or interest in being in a muddy, lice-ridden trench and killing people whom they were told were "the enemy." In fact, the authoritarian power structures had to take extraordinary measures to keep soldiers fighting on both sides and hating one another enough to kill:
These "overspills" took the top brass by surprise. They attempted to restore order by moving "contaminated" units, as one senior officer described them at the time. Some Scottish volunteers were sent home after two weeks of drinking tea and playing football with the Germans.
No-one faced the firing squad for fraternisation as too many men had been involved.

However, fraternisation and particularly its memory, from a French perspective, had to be broken. Had an entire population not been raised to surrender its young to the "field of honour" when the time came? All this work had been undone in the space of an evening by singing from the opposite trench, the sound of a harmonica or bagpipes, or a candle lit to guide those walking unarmed through no man's land.

The newspapers in Great Britain and Germany gave accounts of the phenomenon of fraternisation. Photographs were posted by the press on the banks of the Thames.

In France, not a word was written on the subject. The newspapers had become tools enabling the army and authorities to spread propaganda.In the country that had given the world human rights, the press was no longer free.There was no question of fraternisation being covered in newspapers which were in the pay of a government run by Raymond Poincare whose home town was acquired by Germany in 1870.
Such truces emerged repeatedly during World War I, and just as often, the brass in the rear would intervene by rotating troops, threatening courts-martial and ordering savage raids requiring hand-to-hand combat—all to shatter any sense of shared interests between enemies. And still the truces would start up again. 
Mr. Ashworth describes various steps in these soldiers’ development of a psychological portrait of each other. First, once mutual restraint emerged, they could conclude that their enemy was rational and responded to incentives to hold fire. This prompted a sense of responsibility in dealing with them. Initially, this was a purely instrumental impulse, self-serving cooperation to prevent retaliation. 
With time, however, this sense of responsibility developed a moral tinge, tapping into the soldiers’ resistance to betraying those who dealt honorably with them. It occurred to them that: The other side didn’t want dinner disturbed any more than we do; they also don’t want to fight in rainstorms; they also have to deal with brass from headquarters who screw up everything. A creeping sense of camaraderie emerged. 
This produced something striking. The war machines in Britain and Germany spewed typical propaganda about the enemy’s subhuman nature. But in studying diaries and letters, Mr. Ashworth observed surprisingly little hostility toward the enemy expressed by trench soldiers; the further from the front, the more hostility. In the words of one front-line soldier, “At home one abuses the enemy, and draws insulting caricatures. How tired I am of grotesque Kaisers. Out here, one can respect a brave, skillful, and resourceful enemy. They have people they love at home, they too have to endure mud, rain and steel.” 
Feelings of “us” and “them” were always in flux. If someone was shooting at you, they were certainly Them. But otherwise, soldiers on both sides were likely to think that the more formidable Them was the rats and lice, the mold in the food, the cold or the comfortable officer at headquarters who seemed, in the words of one soldier, an “abstract tactician who from far away disposes of us.”
The sun set and the officers, with Gen. Smith-Dorrien’s words echoing in their minds, gave the order to return to the trenches. They couldn’t let the men gain the confidence to openly question the chain of command. The brass couldn’t let the lower ranks see that they were stronger than the higher ranks — the minority. 
The next day was Boxing Day. The calm lingered, but more than 100 soldiers were dead by end of the day. The officer-directed fighting commenced. Troops from both sides were ordered to fire on the people they played soccer with, exchanged presents with, showed photos to, only hours before.
These soldiers killed people with whom they had far more in common than those who were ordering them to fight. They were mostly poor and working class. The generals in the rear had titles like “sir” and “lord.” They owned large estates. They were collaborators with robber barons, kings, and other heads of state. They lived in worlds the fighting men only read about.

The Christmas Truce is one of the major events used by those who argue that it is institutions that drive people to war, not human nature. Without all of these institutions - the military, the officers, the government, the press; the rigid hierarchical structures that trap us all in their web, people are naturally kind and benevolent. The Christmas Truce revealed that, when those things were stripped away, human nature was peaceful, not violent. And people did everything they could to assert their true, nonviolent and cooperative natures in the face of the force of those malignant, authoritarian structures  in charge. In turn, those structures did everything they could to assert their authority and keep people killing one another. Those structures had to compel people from the top down, because people didn't want to fight since they were the ones dying and only the sociopathic elites were the real beneficiaries:
These men were fighting in a war that served none of them. It was an imperialist war, a war among the world’s most powerful nations to re-divide the world, a war to ensure the collection of bank debt. They knew it was only a matter of time before they, too, would meet the same fate as the so many others who had already lost their lives. 
What was it all for? So the rich could stay rich? In their mind’s eye, the soldiers could see their significant others, their parents, their children, their brothers and sisters, tucked away in warm homes, next to their own Christmas trees. The enlisted ranks couldn’t fight in these conditions. So they didn’t.
The Christmas Truce (Jacobin)

It is those political, economic and social structures that were responsible for the slaughter of millions of innocents who did not have to die.

This is essentially the modern version of the Rousseau ideal. That it is the human society and institutions, not human nature itself, that is at the root of the misery, violence and poverty that we see everywhere today. The economic institutions that play us against one another for money and jobs. The scarcity and poverty mentality in which some have more than they can spend in a hundred lifetimes, while others must labor their entire lives for nothing, while still others go without even the basics like food and shelter. Or nationalism (aka 'patriotism' in the US) which teaches us that our country is better and other countries are the enemy and must be fought for whatever reason (e.g. 'freedom'). Or religions that teach us that we have the one true religion and unbelievers must be slaughtered to please our god (e.g. the Islamic State). There are innumerable examples of these tribal beliefs. 

"Man is born free but is everywhere in chains" asserted Rousseau; chains of tradition, of custom, of nationalism, of religion. Stripped of those illusions and compulsions, we would be much better off, he argued. The "state of nature" was peaceful, and violence was a social product. Rousseau looked at tribal cultures in North America without sophisticated governments like those in Europe and found natural man meek and mild and not driven to murder; it was only nation-states that made people violent with their wars and competing ideologies.

These institutions only benefit the elites of society - kings, emperors, politicians, capitalists. They want them to continue. The common man is not served by them at all. We are all constrained for their benefit, throwing our lives away to build their fortunes, and dying to enforce their territorial ambitions. We must constantly be convinced that this is all good and necessary by indoctrination from above, and if we can't be convinced, we will be coerced at the point of a gun or by some other means such as starvation and necessity. All of these sociopolitical structures are backed by violence. If you are drafted, you must go or face prison. If you do not pay taxes, you go to jail and your assets will be seized. If you protest, the police will douse you with tear gas and beat you with billy clubs. If you refuse to work for the capitalist's profit, you will starve. And so on.

Theoretically, according to the Rousseauian optimists, these malignant institutions can be changed or, ideally, eliminated. Furthermore, if we got rid of these institutions and the power they have over us, we would have a more peaceful and just world. People are naturally good and cooperative, and once we consign all these artificial thought viruses to the trash heap, the thinking goes, we will be able to go back to true human nature like those troops in 1914 who wanted brotherhood, not violence and mayhem. Furthermore, such people promote and emphasize human peacefulness, empathy, playfulness, and cooperation, and downplay human aggression and violence. They believe that we are forever being pushed away from our natural inclinations by hidebound social, religious and economic institutions.

This school has a number of proponents. They study anthropology and see few examples of naturally occurring war, particularly among hunter gathers who have little in the way of possessions and are "fiercely" egalitarian. They consistently point out that we are descended from peaceful, promiscuous bonobos as much as violent, misogynist chimpanzees. And they emphasize human cooperation and empathy rather than violence and greed. They tend to lean toward weak-state or stateless political ideals like libertarianism and anarchism, or cooperative economic systems like socialism/communism. They tend to favor economic structures that emphasize cooperation instead of violence or coercion.


The opposite idea has been aggressively promoted in recent years. According to this view, humans are naturally aggressive and violent, and in the absence of human institutions will naturally kill one another. They argue that violence will naturally increase without some sort of power over us keeping things under control, adjudicating disputes peacefully, and maintaining basic social order.

Furthermore, they argue that these power structures have, in fact, not made the world more violent, but rather have caused the  world to become more peaceful over the intervening centuries. They argue that in the natural state of hunter-gatherers, small groups are in a permanent state of conflict with other hostile tribes over resources and territory. Furthermore, jealously and violence are rife, and with no one to keep the peace or punish violators, anyone can do whatever they want to anyone else. Might makes right and the strong rule. Tit-for-tat is the order of the day keeping cycles of violence snowballing until bodies litter the ground. No private property also means no technological improvement.

They point to the numerous raids, conflicts, captives and slaves taken by "primitive" peoples. Rather than the noble savages of Rousseau, hunter-gathers are portrayed as even more violent than most industrial societies today. They point to people like the Aché, who have a higher homicide rate than modern urban ghettos, and the Yanomami, where men who kill the most people are the most reproductively successful, and wives and children are chattel who are beaten mercilessly.
They point to ancient skeletons riddled with signs of damage from weapons like cut marks and blows to the skull. They point out that the homicide rate in Medieval Europe was orders of magnitude higher than today. They point out all the wars and conflicts in recorded history, as well as the arbitrary justice meted out by despotic rulers as a mater of course. They point out that torture was once commonplace, as were brutal methods of execution like crucifixion and being burned alive. They point out that ancient texts like the Bible and the Iliad are chock full of slaughter on a scale that we would find unimaginable today, including of women and infants. 

For example, when presented with the story of the Christmas truce, a proponent of this view could also point out this story which also appeared on the BBC the same week as the Christmas Truce article and told the following stories which took place during Victorian times:
Unlike his brothers-in-arms, [James King] didn't die in the killing fields of the Crimea. No, Pte King fell in Hampshire, in the long-forgotten Battle of Christmas Dinner.

You'd be forgiven for never having heard of it. It wasn't the bloodiest. It wasn't the lengthiest. It wasn't the most significant. But it was certainly the weirdest. One side, stood the British Army. On the other… Actually, that was the British Army too.
Hostilities broke out Christmas Day in 1859. The 24th Regiment of Foot and the Tower Hamlets Militia had been sharing a barracks in Aldershot. They'd eaten their Christmas dinner, served, as was the custom, by the officers, who had then left the troops to their own devices. 
When the soldiers mingled afterwards, replete and content, talk turned to the meal they'd just scoffed. The Tower Hamlets Militia had dined on beef and pudding, washed down with a pint of beer each. Ours was better, sniffed the men of the 24th, who'd eaten goose.
The row began harmlessly enough, but, in the way of these things, it soon escalated. Voices were raised. Words were exchanged. There was a push. Then a shove. Mops and brooms were commandeered as weapons. Somebody lobbed a few rounds of coal.
Someone lobbed a few back. Salvos of coal were exchanged. There was a great crash of glass. Then, with the mood darkening, some of the 24th went to fetch their rifles, and began loading them. 
Pte King had been singing Auld Lang Syne with his pals when a volley of fire erupted from across the parade ground. "I am shot," he cried, then collapsed. 
"I felt for the wound, but could not find it," Pte George Sawyer told the inquest into King's death, "and told him he was only larking, but a comrade pulled up his shirt, which was bloody, and then we saw a little hole, bleeding slowly." 
The guns blazed for up to 10 minutes, and when they fell silent, almost every window in the block was smashed, and the walls, doors and windows were peppered with bullet holes.
Or, another example of human nature:
For quite some time, there had been bad blood between the Poles and Austrians of Hazleton. That regrettable state of affairs wasn't helped by the decision of some dastardly Austrians to pack dynamite into the house where the happy couple would return as husband and wife. 
The fuse was about to be lit when one of the Austrians felt a sudden pang of conscience and let slip that the best man's speech wasn't going to be the most charged part of the afternoon. 
As the guests scarpered, the house exploded. When the smoke cleared, the furious reprisals began in a frenzied fire-fight. 
A dozen were shot, and many more injured by lunging knives and thwacking clubs. Somewhere amid the melee, the groom was killed. 
So all things considered, maybe the headline in the Middlesbrough Daily Gazette didn't really convey the jaw-dropping turmoil of the day: Lively Conflict at a Wedding. 
Victorian Strangeness: Four Christmas incidents (BBC)

It's a bit harder to blame these on human institutions. In these stories, people are naturally aggressive and quarrelsome even over trivialities, form into warring tribes (different regiments of the same army or different families and ethnic groups), and bodies end up on the ground without any political coercion whatsoever.

This was the view articulated by Thomas Hobbes, who used it to justify the hegemonic powers of the state over the common people. In Hobbes' formulation, the natural state of society was conflict - over women, property, resources, etc.  In Hobbes words, it was "a warre of all against all," and people agreed to submit to a central authority to keep things under control. That is, they voluntarily surrendered a bit of their liberty, and invested a ruling authority with coercive power (to jail, to tax, etc.) in order to prevent this natural state of permanent conflict and allow people to cooperate enough to have an advanced society with private property. This led to less, not more interpersonal conflict. Hobbes called this authority the Leviathan, after a monster from the Old Testament.

The ruling authorities naturally do not want conflicts among the people they rule. Conflicts would cause the society to become less wealthy. So, when there is a unitary ruler and resources flow to the top, paradoxically that authority is highly motivated to keep the peace and does so, unlike where there are no rulers. The authority imposes peace through a justice system, laws, courts, police, army, militia, etc. This leads to advanced and fairly stable societies, from ancient kingdoms to empires like Rome and the Islamic caliphates, to the emergence of nation-states like China, France or England. These governments allowed more people to do more things peacefully than ever before and thus humans were able to achieve their potential.

Proponents of "Leviathan Theory" say that we have gained a great deal in return. It has led to vast trading networks and complex economies that have led to an unprecedented rise in living standards, plentiful food, and longer life spans for most of humanity. They point out that the average person has less of a chance of dying from violence than ever before in our species' history, and point to nation states and centralized institutions as the fundamental cause. Coercion is a necessary precondition for civil order and private property, and private property is a precondition for prosperity. Otherwise, they say, we would be still living in the stone age.

And they argue that even though World War One led to slaughter on an unprecedented scale, when you look at percentage of casualties compared to the number of people alive at the time, the trend toward dying from violence is still down from previous centuries despite the power of mechanized warfare and militaries made up of millions of recruits. Even more optimistically, they point out that our attitudes toward violence have become even more mild in recent years. Ideas of dying gloriously on the battlefield are no longer fashionable, and people are less likely to see wars as noble thanks to depictions in the media. Indeed, anti-war protests commonly greet marches toward war by politicians today in capitals around the world. As we get richer, we have more to lose from fighting and more to gain from cooperation, they argue. We are moving away from zero-sum games and toward positive sum games thanks to these institutions.

Furthermore, they argue that, paradoxically, it is our very prowess at war that has made war recede into the background. Since we have become so good at killing one another, the thinking goes, we no longer do it as often since it would destroy both sides - a sort of Christmas Truce on the level of entire nations. A nuclear war would wipe out humanity, so large nation states are now in permanent standoff mode leading to unprecedented peace.

And they come armed with a massive array of statistics to bolster their cause. Throw in whatever you want including World War Two and the Holocaust; as a percentage your odds of personally dying of violence are still less than during the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, Late Antiquity, the Classical World, or Biblical times. And they say that this means we are becoming much more peaceful through trade, literacy, economic cooperation, travel, communication, and so forth.

Yes, there is some coercion, but it is a necessary evil for all the good things gained by political stability; and besides, with the democracy and human rights revolutions, coercion is less arbitrary and unjust than ever before, and barbarities like torture are on the wane. Human rights have been extended to more and more people, and ethnic hatred, while still there, is less common in a globalized world. We're making continual progress along this path, they argue, and things like the world wars, holocausts, genocides, crime, and today's low-level conflicts are just bumps on the road  to a more just and peaceful world. The trend is clear, they say. Get rid of institutions, and we are back to conflict and chaos.
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. … The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”

As troubling as the recent headlines have been, these lamentations need a second look. It’s hard to believe we are in greater danger today than we were during the two world wars, or during other perils such as the periodic nuclear confrontations during the Cold War, the numerous conflicts in Africa and Asia that each claimed millions of lives, or the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that threatened to choke the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and cripple the world’s economy.

How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness. Cohen laments the “annexations, beheadings, [and] pestilence” of the past year, but surely this collection of calamities is a mere coincidence. Entropy, pathogens, and human folly are a backdrop to life, and it is statistically certain that the lurking disasters will not space themselves evenly in time but will frequently overlap. To read significance into these clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking, a world of evil eyes and cosmic conspiracies.

Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And as the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks.

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? As Bill Clinton likes to say, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

To be sure, adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it. Let’s examine the major categories in turn.


An evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits. It would calibrate our national and international responses to the magnitude of the dangers that face us. It would limit the influence of terrorists, school shooters, decapitation cinematographers, and other violence impresarios. It might even dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.
The World Is Not Falling Apart (Steven Pinker, Slate) Never mind the headlines. We’ve never lived in such peaceful times.

Such people tend to be apologists for the current power structure.  They tend to be believers in progress, in all its forms - technical, social, economic, etc. They tend to excuse manipulative and exploitative power structures that keep us doing things we don't want to do and play us against one another because in their calculus it's still a net gain for most people.

They also have their favorite anthropologists like Napoloeon Chagnon, and Jared Diamond who claimed that primitive peoples are "in a constant state of war." They like historians like Ian Morris and Niall Ferguson, political scientists like Francis Fukuyama, and economic historians like Douglass North and Daron Acemoglu, who argue that powerful modern western institutions are the root cause of prosperity, and thus a net good for all. They point to books like War before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley and War in Human History by Azar Gat to make their case that people are naturally violent, and that the past was much poorer and much more violent before the rise of coercive power structures and nation states. They also point to the work of primatologists like Richard Wrangham, author of Demonic Males about how chimpanzees are naturally violent, aggressive and territorial and will attack and kill any chimp in their territory if they outnumber him by a factor of 4-1.


So what fascinates me is how this centuries old fundamental battle over human nature continues to be fought even today, hundreds of years later. There are two sides, each with their own  view, and each side has their own preferred books, papers, academics and scholars, research, and other pieces of evidence to bolster their side, and it seems as though they are constantly taking past one another. It's worth noting that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau ever left Europe or had direct contact with any people outside it. Despite a century of research from numerous anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, forensic scientists, economists, political philosophers,and so forth, we are still no closer to a resolution than those two men who wrote centuries ago.

For example, on team Bonobo is is Sex at Dawn author Christopher Ryan, who points to the works of Frans de Waal, Robert Sapolsy and others. He is very critical of modern institutions and how they make us go against what he believes is human nature, making us frustrated, sick, and mentally damaged. Such people tend to have a benevolent view of human nature emphasizing people's natural cooperative instincts and contend that while total and complete nonviolence is unrealistic, there is nothing "natural" about violence and conflict. People do not naturally want to fight and kill one another, they argue. Conflicts are caused by elites for their own aggrandizement, or over scarce resources due to overpopulation, overexploitation and inequality. World War One is a prime example of elites slaughtering their own people for essentially meaningless reasons, and the Christmas Truce is a prime example what people would do in the absence of those institutions. They prefer the philosophy of Hobbes the stuffed tiger to that of Hobbes the English philosopher.

The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim -- and Why We Should Be Inspired This Week (Johann Hari, The Huffington Post)

A Friendly Species (Slate) An anthropologist finds cooperation, not savagery, throughout the Pacific Islands.

101 - Doug Fry (Anthropologist of Peace) (Tangentially Speaking)

Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914 (Patrick F. Clarkin)

No, War Is Not Inevitable (Discover)

They point out things like this letter from Christopher Columbus about so-called "primitive savages":
All the people on this island and all the others I have found or have learned of go naked, men and women alike, just as their mothers bear them, although some women cover themselves in one place with a leaf from a plant or a cotton garment which they make for the purpose.
They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they that way inclined, not because they are not well built and of fine bearing, but because they are amazingly timid. They have no other weapons than those made from canes cut when they are in seed, to the ends of which they fix a sharp stick; and they dare not use them, for many times I have happened to send two or three men ashore to some town to speak to them and a great number of them have come out, and as soon as they see the men coming they run off, parents not even waiting for children, and not because any harm has been done to any of them; on the contrary, everywhere I have been and have been able to speak to them I have given them some of everything I had, cloth and many other things, without receiving anything in exchange; but they are simply incurably timid.

The truth is that, once they gain confidence and lose this fear, they are so lacking in guile and so generous with what they have that no-one would believe it unless they saw it. They never refuse to give whatever they have, whenever they are asked; rather, they offer it willingly and with such love that they would give their hearts, and whether it is something of value or of little worth, they are happy with whatever they are given in return, however it is given.

By far the most famous member of team Chimpanzee has been Steven Pinker. Pinker has been at the center of defending institutions as beneficial despite their obvious flaws and downsides. Conservative authors tend to support Pinker's views. Yes, we had two world wars and the holocaust and so forth, they argue, but if you put yourself in the shoes of the average person, we've never had it so good. Institutions are a big part of that, they contend. To make their case, they emphasize how violent the past was in contrast to the present, and argue that absent these power structures we would be more violent. They emphasize modern scientific thought and economic development, and the resulting increase in living standards for much of the developed world. They have their own favorite anthropologists and historians. They would point out this, also from Columbus' same letter:
"So I have found no monsters, nor heard of any except on an island here which is the second one as you approach the Indies and which is inhabited by people who are held in all the islands to be very ferocious and who eat human flesh.35 These people have many canoes in which they sail around all the islands of India robbing and stealing whatever they want; they are no more malformed than the others except that they wear their hair long like women and they carry bows and arrows made from the same cane stems with a small stick at the end for want of iron which they do not have. They are ferocious with these other people who are excessively cowardly, but I take no more account of them than of the rest."
"These are the people who have relations with the women of Matinino, which is the first island on the way from Spain to the Indies, and on which there are no men.36 These women do not behave like women but carry bows and cane arrows like those I have already described, and they arm and protect themselves with plates of copper, of which they have a great deal."
Hobbes Was Right: Anarchy Sucks (Pieria)

The War over War (Social Evolution Forum)

The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism (Social Evolution Forum)

Study suggests violence is an evolutionary adaptation (Boston Globe)

Chimps Are Naturally Violent, Study Suggests (Live Science)

And even in modern times, both sides have plenty of incidents to points to. When the Egyptian state broke down, violent gangs took over the streets. In lawless areas of Mexico, violent drug gangs rule slaughtering indiscriminately. Street gangs rule by violence and kill their enemies in failed states all over the world, and rough tribal justice rules in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes looting and rioting breaks out even in Western democracies. They look inside prisons and ghettos and see violence divorced from any institutional coercion (except, their opponents would argue, poverty).

Not so fast, says the other side. They point out how people tend to cooperate in the aftermath of a tornado or hurricane such as the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. They point out how the media enforces dark views of human nature that plays into the hands of elites. They point out that the rioting after hurricane Katrina was greatly exaggerated for political purposes. They point out how people pull together in conflict zones.  As Ryan points out, no one ever got PTSD from helping someone.

It reminds me of economic conflicts as well. People are naturally greedy, claim capitalist boosters, taking almost perverse pleasure in pointing out incidents where people go to great lengths to benefit themselves and their families even when it is discouraged or they are told to profess altruistic ideals like the brotherhood of man. People's natural impulse is to look for personal profit, say capitalists and free marketeers. By allowing that sort of behavior without any constraints, we will all be made better off through the invisible hand, they argue.

But others argue that every day people do things to help one another without any expectation of reward. They return lost wallets. They donate food and volunteer at food banks. They babysit for their neighbors. They run into burning buildings to rescue pets. Nobody asks their kids to reimburse them for the cost of raising them, after all. We are not just self-interested rational calculating machines like we are assumed to be by economists. They point to gift economies, communes, and hunter-gatherer cultures. We want meaningful work and good relationships as much as riches and profit, they say, but our system forces people and institutions to behave in certain destructive ways.

The surprising truth about what motivates us (Daniel Pink, TED)

In short, your view of the government and politics tend to follow from your view of human nature. This will inform a lot of what we will need to do in the next century.

So these are two fundamental ideas of human nature. Are they irreconcilable? How can humans be both angels and devils simultaneously? I don't have a dog in this fight. I know what I want to believe, but I like to keep an open mind. Instead, I prefer to grab a handful of popcorn and watch the fight from the sidelines. I do point out evidence that seemingly supports both sides, and like most things, I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Each side makes valid points that need to be considered and taken seriously.

Obviously I am not going to resolve it here. I'm just as conflicted as everyone else. As usual, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It is obvious that we harbor violent tendencies. And it is equally true that people are often friendly and cooperative without any coercion involved. But what does that mean? Do we need political institutions? I think we do need some of them, but I think others we would be better off without. Scale matters too. I'm not sure we will ever have a definitive view of human nature that will answer all our questions and solve the above conflicts. So it seems like the descendants of Hobbes and Rousseau will continue quarreling for quite some time.

Lets just hope it doesn't turn violent.

BONUS: For further reading, see this free e-book War and the Noble Savage by Gyrus.
Over the past decade or so, works such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization have attacked the idea that indigenous and prehistoric societies were more peaceable than modern states. This brief study surveys this recent literature, digging beneath polarized surfaces using less publicized anthropological scholarship. The debate’s age-old frame, emerging from an opposition between Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” and Thomas Hobbes’ vision of primitive life as “nasty, brutish and short,” is analyzed afresh, and related fields, such as studies of chimpanzee violence, are reviewed. Also included is a look at the closely entwined recent controversy over whether tribal cultures have an ecological record as spotless as that often attributed to them.

Always at stake is the inevitable drama of Progress: has the modern world degraded human freedom and the environment, or does it represent an emancipation from millennia of conflict and ignorance?


  1. I read your blog regularly for pieces exactly like this and see that you don't get many comments. Having done blogs myself, I know that this can sometimes be discouraging and may lead you to believe your impact isn't what you would want it to be. Let me dissuade you of that belief and encourage you in your work. It is greatly appreciated and anticipated.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate it. It's often surprising to see what gets a response.

  2. As you say, it's probably a combination of the two. As social mammals, we evolved to be cooperative with our in-group (reciprocal altruism) and exploitative toward our out-group. Of course, since in-groups and out-groups aren't permanent fixtures but ever-shifting boundaries, both behaviors are manifested simultaneously.

    1. But, note that most violence today is among people who know each other. As criminologists say, your odds of being killed by a stranger are almost nil, and 90+ percent of homicides are by people whom you know. And what of workplace/school shootings? Are they not part of your in-group?

    2. I would dispute the claim that "most violence today is among people who know each other." Although it's probably true for interpersonal violence, I think the scale of interpersonal violence is dwarfed by inter-group violence (e.g. civil wars, state vs. state wars), which are often fought along sectarian lines (take, for example, the war in Syria), in which case you clearly have the in-group/out-group dynamic.

      As for the interpersonal case, well, funny you mention workplace/school shootings, because these are often suicidal gestures, and a contributing factor to suicide is failed social belonging. So it seems plausible that workplace/school shooters may feel socially excluded, in which case their co-workers/fellow students (previously their in-group) become their out-group. Note that I'm not saying failed social belonging explains all interpersonal violence.

      Human nature is complex, and even if we're generally predisposed to cooperate with our in-group, there may be situations that lead to exceptions.

  3. Good post. But a little surprised to not see Wisconsin native John McCutcheon's wonderful song Christmas in the Trenched linked here.

  4. Analysis might benefit from separating the issue into two questions and one follow-up. Is there a fundamental human nature? What is the proper place of coercion? Does the answer to the first question necessarily determine the answer to the second? My guess is that you (and Pinker, and everyone else) either accept coercion or not, and then create/cherry pick stories to support that position. The relationship between the stories and your pet policies is a rhetorical one, not a logical one.

    1. Picking facts to fit the hypothesis is always a problem, and you always need to be sensitive to it.


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