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.

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