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Richard Feynman made it clear to me in his masterful book, QED: the Strange Theory of Light and Matter. The world is weird. Here’s Feynman’s elegant demonstration.

A laser beam fires photons at a half-silvered mirror. We know very well the properties of photons, and we know from the properties of laser light that the photons from a laser beam are identical to one another. Yet the observation of what happens at that mirror reveals an enormous puzzle.

Half the photons will pass through the mirror. Half will bounce off. How can this possibly be? What possible mechanism can cause identical photons to behave in such a contradictory way? The traditional quantum mechanical answer is, no mechanism at all. The real world is fundamentally random. Set up a device that will kill a cat if the photon is reflected and will spare the cat if the photon passes through, and all you can say is that half the time you’ll have a dead cat. But how? Why? Traditional quantum mechanics goes no further.

I’ve become fascinated with another approach, called many worlds (or the multiverse by David Deutsch and Brian Greene – same thing). Five recent books by five authors have raised more questions than answers, but the journey has been exhilarating.

First came Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality. He talks about many different conceptions of multiple universes, and all made for interesting reading. But the chapter I’ve returned to again and again is Chapter 8 on the Quantum Multiverse. In two long and intriguing end-notes, Greene reveals that he is a proponent of many worlds, and that there is a strong mathematical underpinning to the theory. Interestingly, just reading the text and ignoring the end notes, you might not get this impression.

Next were two books by David Deutsch. I’ve written extensively about how The Beginning of Infinity has changed my worldview. The multiverse Deutsch describes is becoming more and more a part of that view. Chapters 11 and 12, which discuss the quantum multiverse, were in many ways quite difficult, and I’ve reread them several times. They are unwavering in their dedication to the multiverse, and tell much of the story that I’ll outline below.

After Beginning of Infinity, I read Deutsch’s earlier book, The Fabric of Reality. It reads to me almost like a rough draft of Beginning of Infinity. But in chapter 2 of that book, Deutsch describes the straightforward interpretation that leads to the multiverse, including a piece of evidence that is still resonating in my head (also described below).

Next I found a book by Colin Bruce, an Oxford University colleague of Deutsch. The book is called Schrodinger’s Rabbits. Bruce draws heavily on the ideas of Deutsch and others in this book. He also touches on the profound probability problem many worlds faces, and discusses the various suggested solutions. More on Bruce’s curious book in future posts.

Finally I read a book by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw called The Quantum Universe. These authors very nearly ignore many worlds until they admit in Chapter Ten that they are essentially using the many worlds approach to obtain their results. Rather than examine the implications of this, they simply quote the oft-cited command to “Shut up and calculate!”

So what’s all the fuss about? I go back to Deutsch and his description of a device called the “Mach-Zehnder Interferometer”.

First (as Feynman describes in QED) a photon enters a beamsplitter. But now we follow the consequences of this apparently random result. In this case the photon is either transmitted (path D) or reflected (path U). Either way, it next moves to a second beamsplitter and then on to a detector.

Now things start getting weird. In every case, the photon shows up at detector 1, never at detector 2. This is due to interference – a careful accounting of how many times the photon’s phase flipped (at each reflection) or was slowed (at each transmission) shows that no photon can be detected at 2.

Wikipedia has a nice description of this if you’re interested:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mach%E2%80%93Zehnder_interferometer

The obvious question is, when you’re firing one photon at a time, what is interfering? The many worlds answer, described by Deutsch quite elegantly in chapter 2 of The Fabric of Reality, is “shadow photons.” These have all the properties of real photons, except that they cannot be detected except in their ability to create interference.

Here’s the part that blew me away. Suppose you block one path (maybe path labeled U in the diagram). Now the photon has to move through the interferometer along a single path (path D in this instance). Suddenly photons, arriving only from the lower path, show up in both detectors. But what, exactly, does it mean to “block” one of the paths?

A path is blocked if the photons along that path would be absorbed by the material in the way. OK, let’s suppose we’re using a red laser for this experiment. If we put a red filter (one that allows only red light through) on path U, then we get no effect. Understandable, since essentially adding a red filter changed the setup for red light not at all.

Now replace the red filter with a green filter. The green filter lets green photons through, but it absorbs red photons. Obviously, you’d expect half the red photons (the ones directed to the green filter) to be blocked and not make it to either detector. But now consider a red photon that does reach a detector. It must have traveled along the unblocked path.

What happens when that red photon gets to the second half-silvered mirror? Half the time it goes to detector 1 and half the time it goes to detector 2. Think how strange this is! Take the green filter away, and detector 2 falls silent. No photons reach it. But put the green filter in place and detector 2 wakes up again, catching half the photons that pass through the machine.

You might recognize this as just another instance of the double-slit experiment, and you’d be right. Everything I’m saying here about the Mach-Zehnder Interferometer works as well for the double-slit.

Consider what must be happening to this red photon when the U path is blocked by a green filter. It reaches the first beamsplitter and passes through, following the D path (if it instead were reflected, it would be absorbed by the green filter and disappear, so only half the time will we get the photon we’re interested in). Our red photon then bounces off the lower mirror and heads up to the second beamsplitter. Once there, it either passes through again (reaching detector 2) or reflects off the second beamsplitter (reaching detector 1). It’ll do each about half the time.

But if the green filter is replaced with a red filter, when our photon reaches the second beamsplitter interference effects cause it to pass only, always, every time, into detector 1. Somehow, when our red photon reached the second beamsplitter it “knew” not only that there was some object on the U path (a path that it could not have taken), but also what color that object was!

Traditional quantum mechanics would state that the color of the filter must be taken into account when deriving the entire wavefunction of the system. That’s OK when you think of a laboratory, maybe. But there’s nothing (in principle) to stop us from building a Mach-Zehnder interferometer the size of the solar system, or the galaxy. Are we to believe that the photons here, in our lab, somehow “know” what color the filter was stationed several light-hours (or even several thousand light years) away?

To me, the many worlds interpretation, in which the “shadow photons” Deutsch describes are real, makes much more sense. The shadow photons act like real photons. They react with filters exactly as real photons would, and yet they are undetectable except due to the interference effects they display. I know this isn’t in any sense proof, or even a particularly sound argument (after all, any barrier is translucent to some sort of photon). Somehow, though, for me it really makes an impact.

The Mach-Zehnder interferometer behaves exactly as if the photon really does split into innumerable photons at the first beamsplitter, with half taking the U path and half taking the D path. If there’s a green filter on the U path, all those photons are absorbed and photons on the D path enter both detectors. If there’s a red filter, instead, the photons on the U path fly straight through, meet the photons from the D path, and interfere so that only detector 1 ever records a photon. Many worlds gives us a straightforward way of understanding what happened and why.

But wait. If those shadow photons are absorbed by the green filter, can’t we detect that? Can’t we measure a temperature increase, a momentum shift, something? The answer is yes, if those shadow photons are absorbed by a green filter in our universe. But in fact no such effect has ever been found. Instead, the shadow photons are absorbed not by an object in our universe, but by a shadow filter. And if a shadow filter, there must be a shadow laboratory with shadow scientists who can now detect that shadow photon with their own shadow instruments. Taken to its logical conclusion, many worlds reveals a universe in which even we are but one instance of a vast collection. It seems utterly incomprehensible, yet that’s where the logic leads.

Now that I’ve written about the basics of many worlds, I’ll explore those logical, but utterly bizarre, conclusions in future posts. This one’s long enough already. At least in this universe.

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There’s an interesting cover article in Scientific American this month. A researcher has found a potential human ancestor in South Africa called Australopithecus sediba. This is surprising because it seemed until now that the Australopithecus to Homo transition happened in East Africa, not South Africa. It’s always the case that researchers argue for their own find to be the keystone species in some great transition, and the argument reminds me of nothing so much as the 2000 presidential election in which supporters of Gore knew that Gore got the most votes, while supporters of Bush were just as convinced that their man had the numbers. How did either side know?

Australopithecus sediba - still a small brain

But that’s not the interesting part. The most interesting statement came early in the article by Kate Wong. Here it is:

“Conventional wisdom holds that the broad, flat pelvis of australopithecines evolved into the bowl-shaped pelvis seen in the bigger-brained Homo to allow delivery of babies with larger heads. Yet, A. sediba has a Homo-like pelvis with a broad birth canal in conjunction with a teeny brain – just 420 cubic centimeters, a third the size of our own brain. This combination shows brain expansion was not driving the metamorphosis of the pelvis in A. sediba‘s lineage.” (Sci. Am, April 2012, p. 34)

Caveats are in order. No one yet knows if A. sediba is really a human ancestor. No one knows if these early findings will hold out over time. No one knows lots of things that could make this argument moot. However . . . if this holds up, it is incredibly interesting.

As Wong says, the conventional story is that our ever-expanding brains forced an anatomical change in human females, altering the pelvis in such a way to let the big-brained babies out into the world. But what if that’s not true? What if our brains could only grow as they did if our mothers were pre-adapted, purely by accident, to allow larger-brained babies to be born?

Perhaps some other pressure – a different way of walking, a different way of fighting off a predator, even sexual selection – drove our ancestors toward a new pelvis shape. Perhaps that new shape, purely by accident, allowed for larger brains. And only later did other pressures cause the brain to evolve into its larger size.

So what? So this. Maybe (just maybe) this is another example of just how tenuous is our existence. Maybe, just maybe, this is another case that shows that there is nothing inevitable about our intelligence and our consciousness. Perhaps if our ancestors hadn’t ended up, quite by accident, with large enough hips to later on let big-brained babies out, then our brains might have remained small – or, unable to respond to the pressures for larger brains, we might have become extinct.

People are often disappointed when they find that I am not of the opinion that intelligent life is common in the universe. I just think there are too many ways to survive without human-level intelligence, and (as maybe this example shows), too many unlikely accidents that led to us. Consider that life went along quite nicely for nearly four billion years without a whiff of us. Even the Earth itself spent most of its history without human-like consciousness (or, if you prefer, human-level technology). I think it quite possible that we are, in fact, alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love for ETI to exist, and I’d thrill at the discovery of a technological civilization in the stars. But the universe is not obligated to please me. We get what we get, and we make the best of it. If we are alone, that tells us something about just how precious we are. As Carl Sagan said, “If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

 

I’ve been so moved by these two books I’ve read recently – The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker – that I can’t get enough. So I’ve searched out what others have said about them. Big mistake.

In the case of Deutsch’s book, most reviewers don’t have much to say other than it is challenging. The most striking thing for me about the reaction to BoI is that so few people were moved as I was. There’s little criticism of it; mostly, people just shrug.

Pinker’s book, however, seems to appeal to a much wider audience, and as a result everyone has an opinion. Lots of them are negative. The most striking thing here, though, is that I wonder how many of these negative reviewers even bothered to read the book? Many of their criticisms are topics Pinker dealt with directly. I can’t imagine how frustrated Pinker must feel at reading these no-nothing opinions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen something written like, “I haven’t read the book, but here’s why he’s wrong.”

Possibly in response, Pinker has put out a Q and A about the book. It is very well-written, and addresses (again) these senseless criticisms, as well as the few well-thought-out criticisms of his ideas. After you read the book itself, I recommend this Q and A. I also recommend that you DON’T try to read the no-nothing comments of people who are convinced they know better.

http://stevenpinker.com/pages/frequently-asked-questions-about-better-angels-our-nature-why-violence-has-declined

As I listened for the second time to the last chapter of Better Angels, I stood on the edge of a pond. It was a gorgeous day and I had just taken a bike ride. Now I stood in one of my favorite places, watching the water and taking in the final words of this remarkable book.

A frog, which had bolted into the water on my approach, suddenly appeared again at water’s edge only inches from my feet. Floating sticks moved about nearby, indicating that a large fish had likely scared the frog back up onto the bank. The frog was suspended between twin terrors: a large bipedal predator on the bank versus a swimming menace in the murky water.

It occurred to me that all that I watched that morning at the pond, while peaceful and serene for me, was deadly serious business for the living things there. Everything – the fish jumping for insects, the turtles chasing snails and minnows, even the geese pulling up pond weed by the roots – was engaged in a life and death struggle. This frog at my feet might very well die on this day, speared on the end of a wading bird’s beak or smothered in the belly of a water snake. And no one would shed a tear.

Death for me would be a quite different affair. Were I to fall in to the pond and drown, there would be search parties, an inquest, an autopsy. If I were dispatched by a predator, whether human or mountain lion, there would be reporters, police, and paperwork. We humans have turned what was once an everyday occurrence into an officious and regulated event.

It’s important, I realize, not to put too much consciousness into the head of that frog. Do frogs understand that they will one day die? Do they even know they are alive? Maybe, maybe not. It is quite a coincidence that the one species on the planet that we know for certain is conscious of death is also the species that has done so much to avoid it.

It’s not a coincidence, of course. One could argue that death-avoidance is one of the major goals of civilization. We have no saber-toothed cats or woolly rhinos in our city parks. We have heating and cooling to protect our fragile bodies from temperature extremes. We transport ourselves at high speed, but surround our bodies with physical restraints and self-inflating pillows. We inspect food, medicine, buildings, and bridges to ensure their safety. We pay a percentage of our population to be on call any hour of the day to respond to fires, heart attacks, accidents, and violent crime. And on and on.

But it hit me, as I watched this frog, which had no choice but to live its life in constant danger of instant death, that for millions of years humans and our ancestors lived in that same state. Unlike the frog, most of these humans and pre-humans knew about death, knew that it was something to avoid, and yet also knew that they could not in any meaningful way reduce their own likelihood of sudden and often violent death. At any moment, death might come from a mysterious disease, a fierce predator, or another human. All those generations, all that fear. It’s a chilling thought.

But as Steven Pinker has pointed out, we humans have accomplished something remarkable. We’ve found a way to reduce the likelihood of violent death, from the near-certainty of animal predation in our pre-human state, to the still-dangerous likelihood of hunter-gatherer violence, to the reduced likelihood of death due to war, murder, or state violence through most of historical time,s to the extraordinarily low likelihood of violent death today.

In his very short final chapter, Pinker solidifies his findings, answers some inevitable criticisms, and finally emphasizes why this message is both uplifting and important.

Before I get to that, though, I want to quote two paragraphs that all non-theists should keep in their back pockets. Anyone who has discussed the pros and cons of religion has inevitably run into the Hitler/Stalin/Mao argument. While the self-serving inanity of the argument has been pointed out before, I find Pinker’s response to be the best I’ve encountered to this line of apologetic. Here is Pinker’s answer in full:

“Defenders of religion claim that the two genocidal ideologies of the 20th century, fascism and communism, were atheistic. But the first claim is mistaken and the second irrelevant (chapter 4). Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia, and though Hitler had little use for Christianity, he was by no means an atheist, and professed that he was carrying out a divine plan. Historians have documented that many of the Nazi elite melded Nazism with German Christianity in a syncretic faith, drawing on its millennial visions and its long history of anti-Semitism. Many Christian clerics and their flocks were all too happy to sign up, finding common cause with the Nazis in their opposition to the tolerant, secular, cosmopolitan culture of the Weimar era.

“As for godless communism, godless it certainly was. But the repudiation of one illiberal ideology does not automatically grant immunity from others. Marxism, as Daniel Chirot observed (page 330), helped itself to the worst idea in the Christian Bible, a millennial cataclysm that will bring about a utopia and restore prelapsarian innocence. And it violently rejected the humanism and liberalism of the Enlightenment, which placed the autonomy and fluorishing of individuals as the ultimate goal of political systems.”

The point of all this, of course, is that fascism and communism were disasters not because they were godless. They were disasters because they were anti-human. By ignoring the great accomplishment of individuality and reasoned discourse called the Enlightenment, both these “godless” philosophies brought forth disaster. It is much more accurate to say that it is all the anti-humanist philosophies, including monotheism, fascism, and communism, that have brought about the greatest atrocities in history.

OK, back to the ultimate value of Pinker’s magnificent book. We’ve all heard appeals to nostalgia, a wish to turn back the clock to a simpler time. All these appeals ignore the facts. The past was nasty. Disease, starvation, and early death were rampant. Living conditions were filthy, too hot, too cold, plagued with bugs, vermin, dangerous predators, and also incredibly dull. As Pinker says on page 693. “Musical recordings, affordable books, instant news of the world, reproductions of great art, and filmed dramas were inconceivable, let alone available in a tool that can fit in a shirt pocket.”

The one “moral card” remaining for those nostalgic for the past was the idea that modern life has brought with it an increase in violence – “muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation.” But as Pinker has shown in this book, this conception of a peaceful past vs. a violent present gets things precisely backward. Life is not only richer and longer today, it is far, far safer.

One more quote from Pinker, because it’s just too good not to repeat:

“The forces of modernity – reason, science, humanism, individual rights – have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence.” – p 694

We are the children of the Enlightenment that, through science, reason, and justice, has molded the world as it is today. David Deutsch and Steven Pinker (and doubtless many others whom I hope to discover next) have shown us the way to complete the work begun by our forebears. Will we continue this optimistic and wholly human path, or will we slink back to superstition, fear, and violent death? The next chapter will be written by the human reading these words.

In this next-to-last chapter Pinker gives us reason to hope, arguing convincingly that it is reason itself that has finally shown us humans a way out of the violence that plagued us for so much of our history. To really do this chapter justice, I’d have to quote nearly the whole thing. Read it, particularly the section on Reason (page 642 to 670 in my edition) even if you don’t read the rest of the book.

To completely not do justice to the subtlety and depth of the argument, I can sum it up by saying that self-control and reason grew up together, and that these two forces have utterly changed the way we human beings see one another. It is so much a change for the better, such a clear example of moral progress, that our own humility about it becomes nearly shameful.

When we realized that we could improve our lives by delaying immediate gratification, we built “muscles” of both self-control and logic. Once we were on this logical conveyor belt, there was no getting off. If I learn to put greater value in my future self, I also learn to value others who are not me.

What got the whole thing started? An excellent argument can be made that it was the birth of science that got the ball rolling. What caused the birth of science? It was part and parcel with the European Renaissance, which itself sprang from the realization that the Church, the source of ruinous crusades, torture of heretics, witch burning, and vicious wars, might actually be wrong about a few things.

Galileo and some doubting Cardinals

Once science showed the power of reason, lots of other minds caught on, and the Enlightenment began to show the world a new way. And what a way it has become.

The growth of logic and reason that began in earnest with The Enlightenment has had a startling effect on us that is today known as the Flynn Effect. We are getting smarter. The extra smarts are not pure brain power, like adding memory or processing speed to a computer. Instead, the improvement is in our ability to reason. IQ scores, which are always renormalized to 100, have been adjusted down over the years to prevent IQ inflation. Without this adjustment, the average teenager today would have had an IQ of 130 compared to her 1910 counterparts, making her smarter than 98 percent of the people alive at the time.

On the face of it (like many of the claims in this book) the Flynn Effect seems ludicrous. If people were really that smart today, we’d be living in some sort of golden age, wouldn’t we? Well, I ask you to look around. Not just at the technological and scientific achievements of our society, though these are immense and growing every day. Instead, look at where we stand morally, compared to an amazingly recent past. Now I can’t resist quoting Pinker:

“historians who take the long view have also marveled at the moral advances of the past six decades. As we saw, the Long Peace has had the world’s most distinguished military historians shaking their heads in disbelief. The Rights Revolutions too have given us ideals that educated people today take for granted but that are virtually unprecedented in human history, such as that people of all races and creeds have equal rights, that women should be free from all forms of coercion, that children should never, ever be spanked, that students should be protected from bullying, and that there’s nothing wrong with being gay.”

One final thing to say about the Flynn Effect. It is fast – much too fast to be genetic. My children will have higher IQ scores than I or my wife have. Why? Because in their world they will use their reason muscles more than I did. The same will be true of their children. And so on. We are essentially the same people who once burned witches and cut off our neighbor’s noses. Our genes aren’t changing quickly enough to make the difference. Instead, it is our ways of thinking, our social norms, our educational practices – what David Deutsch would call our memes – that are evolving. This is both frightening – for we could certainly slip back into our destructive patterns – but also uplifting. We chose to escape from our collective terror, and we can choose to go further still.

Certainly things are far from perfect. We can all look around and see cruelty, waste, stupidity, immoral attitudes toward others, and of course violence. But the point is we can see it. We can see that it’s wrong for girls to be sold on the black market as sex slaves. We can see that it’s wrong for gay people to be denied equal rights. We can see that everyone deserves an education, fair trials, protection from thugs and dictators. It was only an eyeblink ago that people didn’t see these things – or, at any rate, not enough people saw them. Less than 200 years ago, slavery was open and accepted everywhere. Less than 100 years ago, women in the US couldn’t vote or hold office. Less than 50 years ago, homosexuals were not just reviled, they were thrown in prison! Today, we all (or almost all, I’m not entirely sure about Rick Santorum) see that these things are wrong.

I also can see that there are things we – I – do that undoubtedly will be seen as evil by our even more rational, and even less violent, descendants. Our treatment of animals, particularly as food, is an obvious example. A less obvious one is our willy-nilly approach to combining our genes to make new people – “What do you mean you never tested your genetic compatibilities? Are you crazy?” But such thoughts only make me more convinced than ever that we are moving in the right direction, we are making the world better, one tiny step at a time. We are living in a golden age – and it’s getting more golden all the time.

One chapter to go!

Chapter Eight is a tough chapter. It’s not much fun reading about human weakness, and recognizing at least some of those weakness in yourself. Pinker discusses five demons: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. The section on revenge is particularly chilling, more so because Pinker follows his descriptions of studies showing how much humans enjoy revenge with an airtight argument describing how revenge must evolve in a social creature.

The most depressing of the demons, though, has to be ideology. Pinker describes experiment after experiment that shows how easily swayed we humans are by the opinions of others. It’s as if we’re always looking around for validation, trying to make sure that we’re on the right track. Do you approve? Do you approve of me? Am I doing what I ought? It’s not hard to see how this tendency can lead to some of the worst atrocities in history.

Pinker begins the chapter by turning the traditional question about violence on its head. Who are the most violent members of our society? Prepare yourself, you’re not going to like this. It isn’t 20-something men. It isn’t teenagers. It is two-year-olds.

Pinker quotes Richard Tremblay: “Babies do not kill each other, because we do not give them access to knives or guns. The question . . . we’ve been trying to answer for the past 30 years is how do children learn to aggress. [But] that’s the wrong question. The right question is how do they learn not to aggress.”

We are all wired for violence. Our task is to overcome it.

Fortunately, after this depressing chapter Pinker moves into chapter nine, describing how we can.

 

Before moving into Pinker’s final three chapters, I wanted to compare his favored explanation for the rights revolution to what David Deutsch said in The Beginning of Infinity. I don’t know if either has ever commented on the other, but I find great common ground between them, particularly here.

Deutsch talks about his “principle of optimism”: All evil is due to a lack of knowledge. Problems are inevitable, but they are soluble. All triumphs are temporary, and only progress is sustainable.

Now consider Pinker’s thoughts at the end of Chapter 7 of Angels.

“If I were to put my money on the single most important exogenous cause of the Rights Revolutions, it would be the technologies that made ideas and people increasingly mobile. The decades of the Rights Revolutions were the decades of the electronics revolutions: television, transistor radios, cable, satellite, long-distance telephones, photocopiers, fax machines, the Internet, cell phones, text messaging, Web video. They were the decades of the interstate highway, high-speed rail, and the jet airplane. They were the decades of unprecedented growth in higher education and in the endless frontier of scientific research . . .”

My childhood began in the middle of this technological revolution, when TV was still the big three (plus PBS, see below) and computers were made of vacuum tubes and filled entire rooms. But we were going to the Moon and the planets, and Spock and the Professor on Gilligan’s Island were everybody’s favorite characters (OK, Mary Ann, too).

One of the strongest messages of Pinker’s book is that simple solutions to complex problems are almost always incomplete. So I’d like to offer my own crackpot and woefully incomplete theory for a little part of the Rights Revolution, at least as I experienced it. My explanation: Big Bird.

Wha?

I grew up with Sesame Street. In the days before cable, daytime TV was either PBS (Electric Company, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Sesame Street), or else utterly boring soap operas. Ugh!

As opposed to the uniformly white faces on the soaps, Sesame Street gave me Gordon and Susan. How could I fear or dislike black families when Gordon and Susan were like kind surrogate parents to all the assorted monsters and little kids who passed by their stoop? Sesame Street gave me Grover, kind-hearted and empathetic. Grover knew that everyone deserved to be heard and respected. And Sesame Street gave me Big Bird, Big Bird who insisted that his elephantine friend Snuffy was real despite the disbelief of others.

Sesame Street taught me so completely how to treat others that, whenever I saw boorish behavior, I am still tempted to ask, “Didn’t you ever watch Sesame Street?” After spending so much time in the world of Sesame Street, where even monsters are treated as individuals, it wasn’t so hard to see that women, minorities, and gays deserved to be treated at least as well.

WWBBD?

Now I don’t claim that Sesame Street made a significant dent in the rate of violence of my generation. As Pinker has taught me, that’s too easy an answer. But wouldn’t it be great if, when a politician or a business leader does or says something that we all know just isn’t the Big Bird and Grover way, we could assign them some remedial Sesame Street watching? Just a thought.

Pinker identifies six trends in the reduction of violence. Each has the potential to raise the ire of one or another group. Too bad.

1) The Pacification Process

The myth of the noble savage is deeply ingrained and difficult to escape. We’ve all seen and heard about Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, and so on living in harmony with nature and one another until Western Man arrives to bust it all up. Pinker shows that people living in non-state societies are far more likely to die of violence than those living in societies with strong, centralized governments (the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes). The conclusion won’t be the only one that runs afoul of politically correct ideas.

2) The Civilizing Process

This conclusion is less politically incorrect and more just plain unbelievable. Could it really be that cities in virtually every period in history were more dangerous than today? With school shootings and murder-suicide in the headlines nearly every day, people just don’t believe the numbers. But they’re all there – homicide rates have been falling for a thousand years, and the overall trend is still down. This is complex chapter with fascinating discussions of the United States and the culture of honor that still may dominate in certain places (they don’t call them “red states” for nothin’), keeping the homicide rate high. There’s also a challenging discussion of the 1960s and the temporary peak in homicide that arose from that era of rebellion, showing again that Pinker can honk off the left and the right equally. But the overall message is both clear and startling. Horrible crimes are news precisely because they are rare.

3) The Humanitarian Revolution

This chapter covers some of the most revolting events in history – human sacrifice, the burning of witches, the torture of heretics, the slave trade. Here Pinker very much mirrors David Deutsch’s thoughts. It was to a great extent the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment that slew these horrible human traditions. Religious people will object that it was the pacifying effects of religion that led to, for instance, the abolition of slavery. A difficult argument to make when for so many years it was religion that was used to justify slavery, witch burning, and so on. Pinker also shows that the counter-enlightenment movements of the 20th century such as nazism, fascism, and communism led to the atrocities of that century, not (as so often is claimed) the enlightenment itself. If you read nothing else in the book, read this chapter. I think it will convince you, as it convinced me, that we must never again allow those who deny reason to wield power over the rest of us.

4) The Long Peace

Another chapter, another seemingly crazy claim. Could the 20th century, with its two world wars, really have been less violent than previous centuries? For two reasons, yes. First, those two terrible wars killed large numbers of people, but the world held more people in this century than at previous times. When couched as a question of percentages, we see that previous atrocities matched or even surpassed the 20th century for body count. Second, after the end of World War II the world entered a period of unprecedented peace. Yes, there were wars, but they were minor compared to the bloodletting of the past. Remember that Pinker’s argument is never that violence has vanished, only that it has declined. Warfare is no exception. A word of warning – don’t be lured in to the easy explanations, such as the advent of nuclear weapons, to explain the long peace. Pinker shows why this and similar arguments don’t work. We really do seem to have entered a new era in which much of the world sees war as a failure.

5) The New Peace

OK, you might be thinking by this time. Organized warfare is down. But surely genocide, terrorism, and even climatic catastrophes have in a sense taken their place. The numbers argue otherwise. Believe it or not (and so many won’t), genocide and even terrorism are actually down over the past two decades. The chapter is again deep and rich, with a challenging discussion of Islam as a force in the world today, again guaranteed to raise many hackles. Pinker is guardedly optimistic here, recognizing the many violent influences still at play in the world today, but also seeing that there is reason for hope.

6) The Rights Revolutions

Hope is the best word to describe the next chapter. The explosion of rights in our recent history is one of the most uplifting stories told in the book. Consider that in 1948 Strom Thurmond ran for president on an avowedly segregationist platform. In 2002, only 54 years later (less than a single lifetime), Trent Lott praised Thurmond’s campaign, and was forced to resign. Women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights are described in turn. As a confirmed meat eater, the animal rights section was particularly tough for me. I almost had to put down my jerky. Almost.

These six chapters (2 through 7 in the book) constitute the bulk of the text, and present deeply challenging and often counter-intuitive ideas. I’ve blown through them here because I want to get to the deeper explanations, where I find Pinker’s reason and optimism powerful, affirming, and persuasive. As I said, this overview is not intended to convince anyone. That’s what the book is for. Read it.

Ten chapters, 696 pages (not counting preface or endnotes). The first time through the book, I was dazzled, trying to grab what gems I could as they flew past me. This second time through, as I read along with the audio, I’m looking for organizing principles. Pinker himself gives me a good one in the introduction.

The book is about historical trends (six of them) which cover the middle chapters of the book, inner demons (five in number) that lead to violence and are covered in chapter eight, better angels (four) that mitigate against it in chapter nine, and historical forces (five) that, in the end, Pinker believes are the best explanation for the trends. I think that the trends themselves will be the biggest revelations for most people – though Pinker is hardly the first to notice trends toward non-violence, for most people I’m betting the trends Pinker writes about don’t seem as if they could possibly be real.

However, as David Deutsch taught me, it isn’t the facts that are most important, but rather the crafting of the explanations of these facts. It is there that we create new knowledge. I’ll spend most of my time here, in the book’s final chapters, to try to truly understand what Pinker is telling me about the nature of the world.

But first I’ll zip through the trends themselves, not in an attempt to convince anyone, but just to get you to explore for yourself the  evidence Pinker presents. That will begin with my next entry.

Lots of people will never believe you. They’ll call you naive, an egghead. They’ll say you’ve got your head in the sand, or that you’re just looking for a way to make yourself feel better.

But even with this warning, you absolutely should read (or, as I did, listen to) The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker. When you do, you will encounter what was to me a surprising and simple truth – across the board, and in widely disparate parts of the world, violence is lower than it has even been in our history (or prehistory) as a species. Why? That’s the hard part.

It is quite a daunting book , both in length (every reviewer seems compelled to mention this) and in subject matter. The descriptions of battlefield death and state-sponsored torture will make you wince. If you’re a meat lover like me the section on factory farms will make you think perhaps more than you’d like. (I’m still eating meat, though. The human mind is a fascinating thing.) if you spank your children (I don’t), if you believe in God (I don’t), or if you despise capitalism (I don’t any more) you’ll find much to make you angry, uncomfortable, or both.

The cover of the book. Notice the Abraham and Isaac allusion. And I didn't even know about the cover until I had already begun it.

While Better Angels is not quite as life-changing as Beginning of Infinity, that may be simply because I read David Deutsch’s book first. In fact, as I listened to Pinker’s 35-hour marathon, I was again and again struck by the parallels between the two works. Most important among these is that both these books are intensely optimistic, sharing the view that reason itself is the greatest of human attributes.

Over the next few days I’ll be writing about little bits of this book at a time. There’s so much there that I could be at it for a very long while. But don’t wait for my final word. By all means read the book yourself, and tell me what you think of it.

More to come soon . . .

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
March 2012
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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