In my debates with some theists over the nature of human morality I am sometimes accused of being utopian. Of only seeing a good side to human nature. Ignoring the history of violence and persecution.
Maybe it’s just a matter of my critics finding a balanced view of human nature impossible. However, I reject their criticism because I have in fact written about the human nature and intuitions, such as the “then vs us” intuition, which have motivated negative examples of human activity.
Still, these critiques have put me in admirable company – Steven Pinker has received similar unwarranted criticism. Particularly in the publicity surrounding his new book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
I have a copy and look forward to reading it. His earlier books are impressive and this has certainly had excellent reviews.
Pinker argues, and provides evidence for his argument, that human violence has declined. He is not claiming this trend is inevitable or that it cannot be reversed. Just that it is a fact of recent history.
The Guardian recently published an interview with Pinker about his findings. You can read it at Steven Pinker: fighting talk from the prophet of peace. This included a table from the book that impressed me. it was a list of the 21 worst atrocities (conflicts or tyrannies) in human history. Pinker recalibrated these, to express the number of victims in terms of an equivalent 20th Century population.
I have listed the data below in order of the recalibrated death tolls. It certainly provides some food for thought. (And, incidentally put’s paid to the simplistic ideologies which blame all wars and atrocities on either religion or atheism).
||Death toll (20C equivalent)**
||An Lushan revolt
||Middle East slave trade
||Fall of the Ming dynasty
||Fall of Rome
||Annihilation of the American Indians
||Atlantic slave trade
||Second world war
||Mao Zedong (mostly government-caused famine)
||British India (mostly preventable famine)
||Thirty years’ war
||Russia’s “time of troubles”
||First world war
||French wars of religion
||Congo Free State
||Russian civil war
||Chinese civil war
*Median/mode of figures cited in encyclopaedias or histories. Includes battlefield and civilian deaths
**Deaths were calculated against global population at time, then scaled up to mid-20th century level
One of the figures from Pinker’s new book also illustrates his main point. This is his Figure 5.3: 100 worst wars and atrocities in human history.
Perhaps we are getting better?
Posted in atheism, belief, philosophy, politics, religion, SciBlogs, science, Science and Society
Tagged American Native Indians. slavery, Congo Free State, History, India, Mao Zedong, Middle East, Pinker, SciBlogs, Steven Pinker, Timur
Anyone interested in this question (and aren’t most of us) could not do better than watch the videos coming out of the Origins symposium. With a mission statement of “Exploring Questions at the Edge of Knowledge: From the Universe to Humanity” this has got to be fascinating.
Add to this the high calibre of the participants. These include names like Lawrence Krauss, Steven Weinberg, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Andrei Linde, Richard Dawkins, Alan Guth, David Gross, Alex Vilenkin, Peter Ward, Steven Pinker, VS Ramachandran, Paul Davies, Patricia Churchland, AC Grayling, J. Craig Venter, Frank Wilczek, and many more.
The Symposium Sessions include:
- The Universe, Multiverse, Physical Laws
- The Galaxies, Planets, Life
- Origin of species, Evolution, Human Origins
- Consciousness, Complex Cognition, Language to Culture, Cooperation, Morality and Institutions.
The Science Network is currently uploading videos – pretty efficient seeing the Symposium occurred over April 3 – 6. Currently five videos are online (introductions and panel on “How Far Can we go Back?”)
I know what I will be watching over the next week or so.
Posted in agnostic, agnosticism, atheism, belief, creationism, culture, Darwin, Dawkins, diversity, evolution, faith, god, intelligent design, Krauss, religion, science, supernatural, superstition, tradition
Tagged Churchland, Davies, Grayling, Gross, Guth, Hawking, Krauss, Linde, Pinker, Ramachandran, Venter, Vilenkin, Ward, Weinberg, Wilczek
I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Very interesting book.
I thought this section quoted below on the gene-centred theory of evolution is enlightening. Many people interpret this idea wrongly. I know I did for 30 years – as I refused to read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene thinking it was a justification fro a selfish society (see Dealing with Dawkins).
This is particularly relevant to the discussion of purpose.
But almost everyone misunderstands the theory. Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes. With the exception of the fertility doctor who artificially inseminated patients with his own semen, the donors to the sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners, and other kooks, no human being (or animal) strives to spread his or her genes. Dawkins explained the theory in a book called The Selfish Gene, and the metaphor was chosen carefully. People don’t selfishly spread their genes: genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains”. “By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends and children, the genes buy a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal o£ the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all, but about health and lovers and children and friends.
The confusion between our goals and our genes’ goals has spawned one muddle after another. A reviewer of a book about the evolution of sexuality protests that human adultery, unlike the animal equivalent, cannot be a strategy to spread the genes because adulterers take steps to prevent pregnancy. But whose strategy are we talking about? Sexual desire is not people’s strategy to propagate their genes. It’s people’ strategy to attain the pleasures of sex, and the pleasures of sex are the genes’ strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don’t get propagated, it’s because we are smarter than they are. A book on the emotional life of animals complains that if altruism according to biologists is just helping kin or exchanging favors, both of which serve the interests of one’s genes, it would not really be altruism after all, but some kind of hypocrisy. This too is a mixup. Just as blueprints don’t necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don t necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is to build a selfless brain. Genes are a play within a play, not the interior monologue of the players.
Posted in atheism, belief, creationism, Darwin, Dawkins, evolution, intelligent design, religion, science
Tagged How the Mind Works, Pinker, Steven Pinker, The Selfish Gene
Why do theists seem to require ceremonies and yet atheists seem to have no need of them? Similarly, most theists seem to join a church or have a community while atheists are not exactly clamouring to organise themselves. Humanist and similar organisations do not appear to receive the support that we might expect from the proportion of humanists, free-thinkers and other non-religious people in the population.
Perhaps the non-religious just aren’t interested on organising, After all they don’t feel the need to worship anything.
However, Steven Pinker offers an interesting explanation involving the role of ceremony in religion. In a seminar at Harvard University in 2003 Pinker discussed the science of religion with Richard Dawkins and Keith Rose (here is an mp3 file of the seminar). He suggested that religion uses ceremony to reinforce belief and solidarity within the community.
Posted in agnostic, agnosticism, atheism, belief, creationism, diversity, intelligent design, religion, supernatural, superstition
Tagged Pinker, Steven Pinker
Many theists see moral positions as being defined by “God’s Law.” They argue for the objective existence of a morality revealed by ancient religious scriptures. However, they have the problem of how to select and interpret scriptures to find moral principles relevant to today’s world. Inevitably different interpretations abound
Posted in agnostic, agnosticism, atheism, belief, Bible, Christianity, diversity, evolution, intelligent design, religion, science, Shermer, supernatural, superstition, theology
Tagged ethics, Heath Ledger, morals, Pascal Boyer. Haidt, Pinker