Saturday, April 14, 2007

A period of silence

It's going to be very quiet here for the next few weeks, as I have to be away.

However, sometime in early May, I should be back.

In the meantime, you may wish to read and consider Steven Pinker's thought-provoking article 'A History of Violence' (which originally appeared in The New Republic but has fortunately been reprinted by the good people at Edge).

Pinker, quite rightly, argues that in many ways the history of violence is not one of (simply) increasing (or purely innate) barbarity, and he points out that on many different timescales trends in violence have been (over the long term and with several qualifications that I don't want to go into right now) quite positive. (This obviously depends to some extent on where you are...and when you're there. Furthermore, in some places at several times in the past--or the present, for that matter--these trends can be reversed.)

He concludes:

Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?" From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.

Indeed, it would, and I think this shift in emphasis--while small--is important.

It so happens that while he was working on this piece, I contacted Pinker to discuss an earlier and far more brief comment he had made in response to an Edge question. What resulted was a very fruitful exchange on the topic of violence.

In many ways, for the last twenty years or so, some historians have increasingly been coming to similar conclusions regarding violence as those reached by some of the anthropologists, psychologists and evolutionary theorists that Pinker cited in his original comments about 'optimism' regarding violence. (Much of the statistical basis for this historical work is presented in an excellent article by Manuel Eisner on long-term trends in European violence. More information on that is available here.) Partly for this reason, the work of Norbert Elias--in particular his notion of a 'civilising process'--has become far more significant in the historiography of crime and violence (though not an uncontroversial one). He has certainly played a central role in much of my own writing on those topics.

I am pleased to see that some traces of my input are visible in Pinker's final article, not least since his views on violence and evolutionary psychology have been increasingly influential to the ways I have come to think about violence in recent years.

Being able to return an intellectual favour is a fine, if rare, experience.

A recent version of my own thoughts on the history of violence--one which seeks to bring together social, cultural and biological perspectives and which also presents a lot of the qualifications that I didn't mention earlier--can be found in an article of mine which has just recently seen the light of day, 'The Limits of Culture? Society, Evolutionary Psychology and the History of Violence', which appears in the current issue of Cultural and Social History (Vol. 4, no. 1, 2007: pp. 95-114).

And that should be enough reading to keep you occupied until I return.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Beach reading

At the Independent, Boyd Tonkin recently interviewed Ian McEwan about his new book On Chesil Beach.

The result is intriguing and very effectively whets the appetite for reading it.

More than that, though, McEwan's observations on things such as the balance between culture and biology or the place of science in shaping one's view of the world are well worth reading.

In particular, one senses a continuation of the themes McEwan discussed in his contribution to the excellent and thought-provoking book The Literary Animal, where he noted:

Literature flourishes along the channels of this unspoken agreement between writers and readers, offering a mental map whose north and south are the specific and the general. At its best, literature is universal, illuminating human nature at precisely the point at which it is most parochial and specific.

From the interview:

"So there have to be two elements running side by side," McEwan continues. "One is that, this is particular: these are characters frozen in history, limited by psychology, by class, by private experience. But on the other hand, this is a universal experience that is differently dressed up by different people at different times." Youth always has to cross that line, even if it would no longer run through the starched sheets of a marriage bed in a dowdy Dorset hotel.

A further excerpt emphasises that his turn toward science was more than a momentary gesture, and illuminates at least a couple of the places (and ways) in which science and literature meet:

"Among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style," he says with a tinge of scorn. "You're not a paid-up member unless you're gloomy." But when it comes to climate change, he finds (quoting the Italian revolutionary Gramsci) that scientists can combine "pessimism of the intellect" with "optimism of the will". "Science is an intrinsically optimistic project. You can't be curious and depressed. Curiosity is itself a sure stake in life. And science is often quite conscious of intellectual pleasure, in a way that the humanities are not."

He loves the spirited playfulness evident in places such as John Brockman's celebrated website Edge, where "neuroscientists might talk to mathematicians, biologists to computer-modelling experts", and in an accessible, discipline-crossing language that lets us all eavesdrop. "In order to talk to each other, they just have to use plain English. That's where the rest of us benefit." Science may also now "encroach" on traditional artistic soil. McEwan recently heard a lecture on the neuroscience of revenge, in which the rage to get even - that inexhaustible fuel for tragedy and comedy alike - illuminated parts of the brain via "real-time, functioning MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. What was demonstrated was that people were prepared to punish themselves in order to punish others: negative altruism."

(A quick search dug up this brief article concerning research on the psychology of revenge, which is also interesting.)

Monday, April 09, 2007

The revolting middle-classes

It might just be because I've been getting ready for a conference on J. G. Ballard, but this article on the Ministry of Defence's vision of the future certainly caught my eye:

"The middle classes could become a revolutionary class, taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx," says the report. The thesis is based on a growing gap between the middle classes and the super-rich on one hand and an urban under-class threatening social order: "The world's middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest". Marxism could also be revived, it says, because of global inequality. An increased trend towards moral relativism and pragmatic values will encourage people to seek the "sanctuary provided by more rigid belief systems, including religious orthodoxy and doctrinaire political ideologies, such as popularism and Marxism".

Shades of Millennium People, perhaps...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Making nice (while also making us sick)

Right on time for Easter, Christopher Hitchens considers the recently concluded power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.

He raises a difficult question: how much praise do people deserve for putting out fires which they themselves were instrumental in helping to set?

Which is a good question. As is this one:

So, what did all those Irishmen and Irishwomen (and Englishmen and Englishwomen) get killed for? Mostly, if the truth be told, they were slaughtered for no reason at all, or murdered by gangs bent on extortion and profit, or simply gunned down or blown up because they were, say, walking to the wrong school at the wrong time. I repeat: There is nothing in the latest Northern Irish agreement that was not easily available to both sides way back in 1967 or '68. And in the meantime, a whole province of a European country has been subjected to terror, clerical madness, and economic and social retardation that will take yet more decades to repair.

All accurate enough, and, indeed, there are few things more maddening than either undeserved praise or hypocritical, theatrical self-righteousness.

On the other hand, I also find myself thinking of a different question: in the face of all the gruesome misery that Hitchens reminds us, to what extent does the simple fact that this particular fire seems well on the way to being finally snuffed out make the questions how? and by whom? (however vomitous) of secondary importance?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Here it goes again

The spirit of Tapeheads lives on.

I know I'm catching up on this somewhat late, but still.

This video (by OK Go) has made me smile. Enjoy it if you haven't already.

Time out of mind

A fascinating article by Carl Zimmer is reposted from the NYT at on the topic of animals, memory and foresight. It's well worth reading.

An excerpt:

"We tested squirrel monkeys to see if they could anticipate the future, and to our surprise it looks like they could," said Dr. William Roberts, a comparative psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. He and his colleagues ran a test in which they offered squirrel monkeys a choice between one piece of date or four. Not surprisingly, the monkeys took four.

But the scientists then began to take away water from the monkeys before they offered the choice. If the monkeys took four pieces, the scientists kept the water away for three hours. If the monkeys took one, the scientists returned the water in half an hour. The monkeys learned to choose one date. Even though they were not thirsty at the time, they anticipated becoming thirsty in the future. (If the scientists stopped withholding water, the monkeys went back to picking four pieces of dates instead of one.)

Smart monkeys.

What strikes me, as it so often does with articles like this, is what seems to be increasing evidence that the characteristics that we take as so fundamentally human (like morality) are shared--at least in more rudimentary forms--with other animals.

And this is something I find not only fascinating, but also deeply moving.

(For a more extended discussion of this topic, see primatologist Frans de Waal's excellent book, The Ape and the Sushi Master. )

A lesson in applied evolutionary biology

At the New York Times, J. C. Bradbury looks into a phenomenon that, in the eyes of many of its fans, has 'ruined' baseball. In particular, he's referring to the sudden and vast increase in home runs, something that has often been blamed on the spread of performance-enhancing drugs:

To many baseball fans the game has been ruined — hallowed records toppled, managers playing less small ball as they wait for that three-run homer.
Now, it's been years since I've seen a major league game (the same number of years that I've lived in Germany, in fact), but this is a discussion I remember going on in the 90s. (Indeed, it seems to be a perennial complaint that the game has been spoiled by something. Baseball fans seem to be more attached than most to the idea of a 'golden age'.)

Anyway, whether the game's actually gotten worse or not, Bradbury has an interesting explanation for the changes in its dynamics:

The origin of the modern home run era can in fact be traced to the expansion of the league. In the 1990s, Major League Baseball grew to 30 teams from 26 — the Marlins and the Rockies joined in 1993, the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks in 1998. The influx of inferior talent filling those new roster spots fundamentally altered the competitive environment: it allowed elite players, especially hitters, to excel.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, an avid baseball fan, hypothesized that in competitive environments, as the variance of the quality of participants shrinks, opportunities for great performances diminish. For most of its history, the major leagues were progressively populated by better and better baseball players — through natural population growth, racial integration and immigration — which meant that opportunities for achievements like hitting .400 were decreasing. As superior players replaced the weakest ones, even the very best had fewer chances at turning in remarkable performances.

Expansion abruptly reversed the trend; today, the variance in quality of major league pitchers, based on E.R.A., is at an all-time high. By letting in the riffraff for baseball’s elite to exploit, expansion increased the likelihood of great achievements. Without even bringing steroids into the discussion, it is no surprise that some already fine hitters performed even better after the early 1990s.


In the expansion era, home runs per game are up 30 percent over the previous decade, strikeouts 15 percent and hit batters a whopping 70 percent. All are likely the result of expansion’s dilution of pitching talent.

Without denying the scourge of steroids (and without having thought about it all that much) this seems convincing to me. Indeed, the dialectical relationship between mediocrity and excellence seems obvious when you think about it...and not only with regard to baseball.

Nonetheless, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I can attest that in baseball--unlike in nature--being an adorable loser seems to be an adaptive strategy.

After all, as an article from today's NYT points out, despite having a grim record--their last World Series win was in 1908, their last World Series appearance was in 1945--they've been successful in other ways:

On Forbes magazine’s 2006 assessment of franchise values, the Cubs ranked fifth among baseball’s 30 clubs at $448 million, with revenue of $179 million and a $7.9 million operating profit. (The team had been valued at $247 million in 2001, representing 12 percent annual growth.) ... [T]he Cubs are expected to fetch $600 million or more. In 2002, the Boston Red Sox were sold for a league-record $660 million to a group led by John Henry.
Winning, so it seems, ain't everything.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

It doesn't grow on trees...does it?

Since it's April 1st, I thought I'd mention one of my favourite hoaxes, which occurred fifty years ago today.

The year is 1957. The culprit, the BBC, who convinced -- through the reassuring and authoritative voice of David Dimbleby -- a seemingly large number of viewers that spaghetti is harvested from trees.

As the BBC reported at the time:

Spaghetti is not a widely-eaten food in the UK and is considered by many as an exotic delicacy.

Mr Dimbleby explained how each year the end of March is a very anxious time for Spaghetti harvesters all over Europe as severe frost can impair the flavour of the spaghetti.

He also explained how each strand of spaghetti always grows to the same length thanks to years of hard work by generations of growers.

This is believed to be one of the first times the medium of television has been used to stage an April Fools Day hoax.

Please note, this is within living memory...when spaghetti could be referred to as an 'exotic delicacy'.

Only months later, Harold Macmillan would tell the British people they had 'never had it so good'...

Sort of puts things in perspective, dunnit?