How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.

 

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The 25th of May

Today marks the May Revolution of Argentina, a national holiday commemorating the start of the eight-year war of Argentine independence. Inspired by the revolutions of the United States and France, Argentina would ultimately become of one of modern history’s earliest republics, setting in motion a series of other independence movements throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The above painting, by Chilean artist Pedro Subercaseaux, depicts the “open cabildo”, or assembly, that occurred on May 22, 1810 and led to the decision to establish a new government. Continue reading

Conceptual Progress

It is easy to take values like freedom and democracy for granted, and that speaks volumes about how good we have it (at least in some parts of the modern world). For the overwhelming majority of human history, across almost every society, ideas like individual liberty, human rights, and equality were not even conceived, let alone practice.

In the approximately 200,000 years that homo sapiens have existed, only in the last three thousand or so years did such concepts even emerge, and even then they were quaint ideas limited in scope and agree — the ancient republics of Athens and Rome still had slavery and the disenfranchised women, as did the republics of the United States and France.

We are fortunate to live in a time when we have higher aspirations and ideals to live up to. People speak of realism versus idealism, but at least better values and principles exist to be attained, if even only conceptually. It was not that long ago that the very idea that slavery was morally monstrous, that women were fully humans, that children warranted rights, and that people should have a say in their governance, simply did not exist in the minds of even the most heightened intellectuals, let alone the largely impoverished and illiterate masses.

We have come a very long way as a species, even if we have an even longer ways to go.

Brazil’s Forgotten WWII Contribution

Fun history fact: Brazil actively participated in the Second World War, and in some respects played a relatively significant role. Joining the Allied cause in 1943 — one of the few independent states outside of Europe or the European sphere of influence to do so — Brazil assembled a force of over 25,000 men and women to fight in the Mediterranean Theater under U.S. command: the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF). Continue reading

One of the Deadliest Wars in History You Never Heard Of

One of history’s deadliest conflicts in proportional terms is the little known War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War, fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and an alliance of Argentina, the Empire of Brazil, and Uruguay.

Resulting in over 400,000 deaths in total, it is Latin America’s deadliest war, though it caused the most suffering for Paraguay: in addition to losing a large chunk of its most resource-rich territory, the country may have lost 60 to 90 percent of its total population, including 70-90 percent of males. Continue reading

How Cicero’s Political Campaign is Still Relevant Today

What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.

For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading

The World Has Never Been More Peaceful

Over at Slate, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, two leading proponents of humanity’s moral progress, make their provocative case as to why the world is far safer and less violent than ever before.

First, they explain why the vast majority of people think the world is in an historically worst state than it really was. A lot of it comes down to human psychology.

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.

The rest of the article lays out a comprehensive, case-by-case explanation for why violence has generally declined in every form, from large-scale conflict to homicide to child abuse. It is a lot more data than I can present spare to go over here, but I will highlight some key points.

Homicide. Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars. And in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s, which flattened out at the start of the new century, resumed in 2006, and, defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present.

England, Canada, and most other industrialized countries have also seen their homicide rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. Though numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012.

The global average, to be sure, conceals many regions with horrific rates of killing, particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. But even in those hot zones, it’s easy for the headlines to mislead. The gory drug-fueled killings in parts of Mexico, for example, can create an impression that the country has spiraled into Hobbesian lawlessness. But the trend line belies the impression in two ways.

One is that the 21st-century spike has not undone a massive reduction in homicide that Mexico has enjoyed since 1940, comparable to the reductions that Europe and the United States underwent in earlier centuries. The other is that what goes up often comes down. The rate of Mexican homicide has declined in each of the past two years (including an almost 90 percent drop in Juárez from 2010 to 2012), and many other notoriously dangerous regions have experienced significant turnarounds, including Bogotá, Colombia (a fivefold decline in two decades), Medellín, Colombia (down 85 percent in two decades), São Paolo (down 70 percent in a decade), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (an almost two-thirds reduction in four years), Russia (down 46 percent in six years), and South Africa (a halving from 1995 to 2011). Many criminologists believe that a reduction of global violence by 50 percent in the next three decades is a feasible target for the next round of Millennium Development Goals.

In short, murder is a rarity in a large proportion of societies, and is rapidly declining in most of the remainder of the world. The few places with a relatively high murder rate by today’s already lower standards, are generally doing better than they have historically, with the long-term trend continuing downward.

What about violence towards women, who for much of human history and in most large societies, fared poorly in every sphere — politically, economically, and socially. The writers admit that the data are harder to come by, but they do point to an encouraging and historically unprecedented global trend.

In 1993 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and polling data show widespread support for women’s rights, even in countries with the most benighted practices. Many countries have implemented laws and public awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor killings, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities. Though some of these measures are toothless, and the effectiveness of others has yet to be established, there are grounds for optimism over the long term. Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

To be sure, women still have a long way to go until they are accorded more rights, dignity, and sociopolitical equality. But at least the world seems to be moving in that direction, and today’s seemingly idealistic advocacy campaigns are tomorrow’s momentous paradigm shifts, if the historical precedent holds.

Violence Against Children. A similar story can be told about children. The incessant media reports of school shootings, abductions, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, date rape, and sexual and physical abuse make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise: Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past. In a review of the literature on violence against children in the United States published earlier this year, the sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported, “Of 50 trends in exposure examined, there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimization, bullying, and sexual victimization.”

Similar trends are seen in other industrialized countries, and international declarations have made the reduction of violence against children a global concern.

Nowadays, we take it as a given that children are innocent and vulnerable members of society that must be protected at all costs. In many societies throughout history, children were regarded as inherently degenerate, and treated accordingly — corporal punishment and strident exploitation were the norm. In the developed world and much of the developing world, children enjoy both greater rights and more social support.

Democratization. In 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that “liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19thcentury: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there … but which has simply no relevance to the future.” Moynihan was a social scientist, and his pessimism was backed by the numbers of his day: A growing majority of countries were led by communist, fascist, military, or strongman dictators. But the pessimism turned out to be premature, belied by a wave of democratization that began not long after the ink had dried on his eulogy. The pessimists of today who insist that the future belongs to the authoritarian capitalism of Russia and China show no such numeracy. Data from the Polity IV Project on the degree of democracy and autocracy among the world’s countries show that the democracy craze has decelerated of late but shows no signs of going into reverse.

Democracy has proved to be more robust than its eulogizers realize. A majority of the world’s countries today are democratic, and not just the wealthy monocultures of Europe, North America, and East Asia. Governments that are more democratic than not (scoring 6 or higher on the Polity IV Project’s scale from minus 10 to 10) are entrenched (albeit with nerve-wracking ups and downs) in most of Latin America, in floridly multiethnic India, in Islamic Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Even the autocracies of Russia and China, which show few signs of liberalizing anytime soon, are incomparably less repressive than the regimes of Stalin, Brezhnev, and Mao.

To be sure, democracies of all shades and degrees are not without their problems; state violence and repression can and do still persist at all levels and forms, albeit to varying extents. But once again, it is all about the relative and historical picture, and by that token most denizens of the world are immeasurably freer and less oppressed than ever, even if that is still a tenuous gain. Indeed, the very concepts of consent of the governed, human rights, civil liberties, etc. were practically nonexistent in most of human history.

Genocide and Other Mass Killings of Civilians.The recent atrocities against non-Islamic minorities at the hands of ISIS, together with the ongoing killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq, and central Africa, have fed a narrative in which the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust and genocides continue unabated. But even the most horrific events of the present must be put into historical perspective, if only to identify and eliminate the forces that lead to mass killing. Though the meaning of the word genocide is too fuzzy to support objective analysis, all genocides fall into the more inclusive category of “one-sided violence” or “mass killing of noncombatant civilians,” and several historians and social scientists have estimated their trajectory over time. The numbers are imprecise and often contested, but the overall trends are clear and consistent across datasets.

By any standard, the world is nowhere near as genocidal as it was during its peak in the 1940s, when Nazi, Soviet, and Japanese mass murders, together with the targeting of civilians by all sides in World War II, resulted in a civilian death rate in the vicinity of 350 per 100,000 per year. Stalin and Mao kept the global rate between 75 and 150 through the early 1960s, and it has been falling ever since, though punctuated by spikes of dying in Biafra (1966–1970, 200,000  deaths), Sudan (1983–2002, 1 million), Afghanistan (1978–2002, 1 million), Indonesia (1965–1966, 500,000), Angola (1975–2002, 1 million), Rwanda (1994, 500,000), and Bosnia (1992–1995, 200,000). (All of these estimates are from the Center for Systemic Peace.) These numbers must be kept in mind when we read of the current horrors in Iraq (2003–2014, 150,000 deaths) and Syria (2011–2014, 150,000) and interpret them as signs of a dark new era. Nor, tragically, are the beheadings and crucifixions of the Islamic State historically unusual. Many postwar genocides were accompanied by splurges of ghastly torture and mutilation. The main difference is that they were not broadcasted on social media.

The trend lines for genocide and other civilian killings, fortunately, point sharply downward. After a steady rise during the Cold War until 1992, the proportion of states perpetrating or enabling mass killings of civilians has plummeted, though with a small recent bounce we will examine shortly.

Granted, any number of people killed in warfare, especially noncombatants, is a travesty. But as morbid, not to mention logistically difficult, as historical comparisons of death rates may be, fewer deaths even when deaths occur points to steadier smaller and less brutal conflicts, and overall less suffering than there otherwise would be. Today’s civilians are literally several thousand times less likely to be targeted in today’s wars than they would have been in the mid-20th century.

And thankfully, the wars that usually form the backdrop to such mass killings are increasingly rarer and less deadly than ever:

War. Researchers who track war and peace distinguish “armed conflicts,” which kill as few as 25 soldiers and civilians caught in the line of fire in a year, from “wars,” which kill more than a thousand. They also distinguish “interstate” conflicts, which pit the armed forces of two or more states against each other, from “intrastate” or “civil” conflicts, which pit a state against an insurgency or separatist force, sometimes with the armed intervention of an external state. (Conflicts in which the armed forces of a state are not directly involved, such as the one-sided violence perpetrated by a militia against noncombatants, and intercommunal violence between militias, are counted separately.)

In a historically unprecedented development, the number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945, and the most destructive kind of war, in which great powers or developed states fight each other, has vanished altogether. (The last one was the Korean War). Today the world rarely sees a major naval battle, or masses of tanks and heavy artillery shelling each other across a battlefield.

[…]

Though the recent increase in civil wars and battle deaths is real and worrisome, it must be kept in perspective. It has undone the progress of the last dozen years, but the rates of violence are still well below those of the 1990s, and nowhere near the levels of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s.

The author’s conclude that, overall, every kind of violence has declined in most of the world, and political and economic freedom is steadily, if tenuous, continuing apace. Again, this is all based on general global trends and comparisons to humanity’s depressingly poor precedent in these areas.

None of this is to say that the multitude of grave problems humanity still faces should not be taken seriously and addressed accordingly. Far too many people continue to suffer and die at the hands of other people in all sorts of wars, often beyond clear-cut violence — look at economic exploitation for example, or the costs of environmental degradation.

But to deny that humanity has not nonetheless made some measurable progress is both empirically unfounded and morally counterproductive. The more we see, acknowledge, and learn from our progress, the more we can keep it going. If we remain mired in fear, cynicism, misanthropy, and despair, it will be much harder to improve our condition and those of our fellow humans.

Let us celebrate how far we have come as a species without being complacent. Let us see our incredible potential for moral progress and continue pushing the boundaries further. For all our flaws and problems, we have come to far to give up now.

What are your thoughts?

The People Who Have Died in War the Last 600 Years

Even a cursory understanding of human history betrays our horrifically violent past. But the following chart from Our World In Data paints an even more vivid picture of both the frequency and cost of war over the last six centuries alone. (For a larger and zoomable version, click here.)

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Continue reading

The U.S. Civil War Was Always About Slavery

It is hard to believe that so many Americans doubt that slavery was the central cause of the U.S.’ deadliest conflict, considering that the Confederacy and its members said as much explicitly and clearly.

First up is the state that started the Civil War, South Carolina:

…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

Other states followed suit, often in much clearer terms. Consider Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…

Louisiana:

As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.

Alabama:

Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republi­can party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new princi­ples, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.

And Texas:

…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….

As early as 1858, then-Mississippi Senator — and future President of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis threatened secession if the institution of slavery were to be threatened:

I say to you here as I have said to the Democracy of New York, if it should ever come to pass that the Constitution shall be perverted to the destruction of our rights so that we shall have the mere right as a feeble minority unprotected by the barrier of the Constitution to give an ineffectual negative vote in the Halls of Congress, we shall then bear to the federal government the relation our colonial fathers did to the British crown, and if we are worthy of our lineage we will in that event redeem our rights even if it be through the process of revolution.

As The Atlantic points out, slavery was not just a $3.5 billion-asset to the South — its most valuable by far — but considered the bedrock of the region’s culture, society, and war of life.

If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slaveholder and non-­slaveholder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.

Many Southern elites even fantasized about extending a slave-based empire across the Americas, especially Cuba, Mexico, and Central America. Numerous Southern publications echoed these sentiments as well, both leading up to and throughout the course of the conflict. Slavery was not a fringe position in the South — it was part and parcel of its cultural identity, social order, and economic power. And many Southerners felt aggressive enough about it to want to expand the institution well beyond U.S. borders, let alone allow it to be contained or threatened.

In short, the U.S. Civil War was an inevitable, even logical, outcome of having one-half of the country steadfast in its commitment to a barbaric and increasingly polarizing ideology. Slavery was incompatible with America’s ostensible values of liberty and the consent of the governed, and it formed the crux of the country’s debate about what sort of place it was going to be. One way or the other, it was going to be challenged, and given the aforementioned attitudes towards the practice, it was always going to be violent.

Source: The Atlantic