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Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion

I’m so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about twenty-five years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe it does today. Of course many people–perhaps a majority of people in the world–will still cling to their religion with the sort of passion that can fuel violence and other intolerant and reprehensible behavior.  But the rest of the world will see this behavior for what it is, and learn to work around it until it subsides, as it surely will.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that we will need every morsel of this reasonable attitude to deal with such complex global problems as climate change, fresh water, and economic inequality in an effective way. It will be touch and go, and in my pessimistic moods I think Sir Martin Rees may be right: some disaffected religious (or political) group may unleash a biological or nuclear catastrophe that forecloses all our good efforts. But I do think we have the resources and the knowledge to forestall such calamities if we are vigilant.

Recall that only fifty years ago smoking was a high status activity and it was considered rude to ask somebody to stop smoking in one’s presence. Today  we’ve learned that we  shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to prohibit smoking altogether, and so we still have plenty of cigarettes and smokers, but we have certainly contained the noxious aspects within quite acceptable boundaries.  Smoking is no longer cool, and the day will come when religion is, first, a take-it-or-leave-it choice, and later: no longer cool–except in its socially valuable forms, where it will be one type of allegiance among many. Will those descendant institutions still be religions?  Or will religions have thereby morphed themselves into extinction?  It all depends on what you think the key or defining elements of religion are. Are dinosaurs extinct, or do their lineages live on as birds?

Why am I confident that this will happen?  Mainly because of the asymmetry in the information explosion.  With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working. For every well-publicized victory–the inundation of the Bush administration with evangelicals, the growing number of home schoolers in the USA, the rise of radical Islam, the much exaggerated “rebound” of religion in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to take the most obvious cases–there are many less dramatic defeats, as young people quietly walk away from the faith of their parents and grandparents.  That trend will continue, especially when young people come to know how many of their peers are making this low-profile choice.  Around the world, the category of “not religious” is growing faster than the Mormons, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam, whose growth is due almost entirely to fecundity, not conversion, and is bound to level off soon.

Those who are secular can encourage their own children to drink from the well of knowledge wherever it leads them, confident that only a small percentage will rebel against their secular upbringing and turn to one religion or another.  Cults will rise and fall, as they do today and have done for millennia, but only those that can metamorphose into socially benign organizations will be able to flourish.  Many religions have already made the transition, quietly de-emphasizing the irrational elements in their heritages, abandoning the xenophobic and sexist prohibitions of their quite recent past, and turning their attention from doctrinal purity to moral effectiveness.  The fact that these adapting religions are scorned as former religions by the diehard purists shows how brittle the objects of their desperate allegiance have become.  As the world informs itself about these transitions, those who are devout in the old-fashioned way will have to work around the clock to provide attractions, distractions—and guilt trips—to hold the attention and allegiance of their children.  They will not succeed, and it will not be a painless transition. Families will be torn apart, and generations will accuse each other of disloyalty and worse: the young will be appalled by their discovery of the deliberate misrepresentations of their elders, and their elders will feel abandoned and betrayed by their descendants.  We must not underestimate the anguish that these cultural transformations will engender, and we should try to anticipate the main effects and be ready to provide relief and hope for those who are afflicted.

I think the main problem we face today is overreaction, making martyrs out of people who desperately want to become martyrs.  What it will take is patience, good information, and a steady demand for universal education about the world’s religions.  This will favor the evolution of avirulent forms of religion, which we can all welcome as continuing parts of our planet’s cultural heritage. Eventually the truth will set us free.

President & CEO, Aspen Institute. Former CEO, CNN, Managing Editor, TIME; Author, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

Print As a Technology

I am very optimistic about print as a technology. Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution, and consumer product. That is why I appreciate the fact that many Edge forums are transformed into books, and it's why I hope someday that there is a gorgeous Edge Magazine that I can flip through and touch. Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures onto pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the internet.

Psychologist; Author, Social Intelligence

Transparency is Inevitable

I live in a bowl-shaped valley on the edge of the Berkshire hills in New England. The prevailing winds come from the southwest. As it happens, a coal-burning electric plant sits in the dip next to the Holyoke Range at the southern edge of the valley, perfectly placed to fill the air with its unsavory mix of particulates — the plant is a dinosaur, one that due to various regulatory loopholes has been able to dodge costly upgrades that would make its emissions less toxic.

Nobody seems to mind. True, the head of pulmonary medicine at the local medical center bemoans the toll of the plants' particulates on the respiratory tracts of those who live in the valley, particularly its children. But those who operate the Mt. Tom power plant blithely buy carbon-pollution credits that let it avoid the expense of upgrading its scrubbers.

The indifference of those of us whose respiratory systems routinely become inflamed, I'm convinced, is due in large part to a failure in collective awareness. As we join the throngs in the waiting room of the local asthma specialist, we make no connection between our being there and that smokestack, nor between our own use of electricity and the rate at which that smokestack belches its toxins.

I'm optimistic that, one day, the people in my valley will make the connections between the source of our electric power and its role in the inflammations in our lungs — and more especially our children's lungs. More generally, I believe that inexorably the world of commerce will surface the invisible toll our collective habits of consumption wreak on our environment and our health.  

My optimism does not hinge on the promise of some new technological fix or scientific breakthrough. Rather my hope stems from the convergence of market forces with off-the-shelf possibilities from an oft-ignored field that has already reshaped our lives: information science.

"Ultimately, everybody will find out everything," as a saying at the Googleplex has it – Google's corporate headquarters harboring perhaps the world's densest aggregate of specialists in data mining and other applications of information science. Information science, the systematic organization and meta-knowing of all we know, has been steadily increasing the sheer quantity of what each of us can find out.

One branch of this science, medical informatics, has transformed medicine by making available in an instant to the physician treating a patient a vast array of background data on his condition, history, prognosis and best treatment.

One of the more hopeful applications of information science would be something we might call "consumer informatics," which would do something akin to what is being done for medicine, but for the marketplace: make visible the elusive links between what we buy and do and the impacts on our body and on nature of the processes that support these activities.

Take, for example, the hidden costs of a t-shirt. The book Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everday Things deconstructs ordinary products into the chemical impacts their manufacture has had. Chemical by-products of textile dyes include chlorine, chromium and formaldehyde; because cotton resists coloring, about a third of the dyes fail to adhere and so end up in wastewater.  There are correlations between high levels of dye run-off in groundwater and rates of leukemia in local children.

For that reason Bennett & Company, a supplier of clothes to companies like Victoria's Secret and Polo.com, has formed a partnership with the dye works that supplies its plants in China. The partnership allows the clothes manufacturer to ensure that the wastewater from the dyes it uses will go through a series of cleansing pools before returning to the water supply, rather than simply being dumped.

Here's the challenge for information science: quantify the environmental and health impacts of the standard processes used in manufacturing goods. Then tag a given product on a store shelf with the relative merits of the impacts it has had, so that consumers can weight its virtue into its value. Let us know which t-shirt has what consequences.

Some mechanics of that challenge may be less daunting than they seem at first glance.  For one, all large retailers now use an electronic tagging system for inventory control. This lets a store manager know the history of every item on its shelves, including the factory where it was made. One next step would be to document the manufacturing practices at that factory, and so to tag the item with its environmental/public health legacy. This, of course, would require the assist of industry insiders, failing cooperation from the company itself.

The global diamond industry offers a rough model via its Kimberly Process, which requires nations that export diamonds to document that the stones were not "blood diamonds," mined in a war zone. Imperfect as that system may be in practice, it stands as a demonstration that an industry can tag a specific item from its source as better or worse on a criterion of virtue.

Here market forces may assist, encouraging companies to provide such information in the interests of competitive advantage. Some marketers have long touted product virtues in marketing. For example, Cascade toilet paper claims manufacturing methods that use 80% less water than the industry average and use no chlorine; some energy providers offer an option to purchase electricity from renewable sources like wind power. That's a bare beginning, one which lets a company select the criterion for the virtue of a given product rather than having it be evaluated more objectively.
If companies themselves do not take such steps, there are alternatives. Already anyone can go into a store and, using a Palm Pilot to scan the bar code, be whisked to a website that could reveal information about that product's level of virtue, say in terms of toxic chemicals unleashed during its manufacture.

But for such a website to have both credibility and teeth demands a sustained collaboration between information science and engineers, chemists, physicists, environmental scientists, public health and other medical specialists — to name but a few disciplines — as well as manufacturers. The mass of data potentially would be immense; information science sorts out the signal from the noise, or re-organizes noise into signal.

That task may be daunting. But I feel optimistic that through a sustained effort in consumer informatics, we're heading to the day we will be able to vote with our wallets every time we go shopping.

Science Editor, The Economist

Malthus was wrong

When I was growing up, the problem at the heart of every environmental question was human population growth. If there aren't many people around, what they do matters little. If there are lots, even careful living is likely to have bad environmental consequences. At that time, the Earth's population was about three billion. It has now doubled to six. Not, on the face of things, great grounds for optimism.

The population curves in the newspapers and television programmes of my youth went relentlessly upwards. That was because they had only one, exponential, term. A real population curve, however, is logistic, not exponential. It does not rise indefinitely. Eventually, it reaches an inflection point and starts to level off. That is because a second term in the form of lack of space, lack of resources, disease or direct conflict between individuals stabilises it by matching the birth and death rates. And that was the fate the environmentalists of the 1970s predicted for humanity.

Such pessimism, however, failed to take account of the demographic shift that all populations (so far) have undergone as they have enriched themselves. For the negative exponent is starting to show up, and its cause is not lack of space or resources, nor yet is it conflict or disease (even AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis make only a small difference in global terms). Instead, it is the thing that the doomsters feared most after population growth — economic growth.

As a quondam evolutionary biologist, I find the demographic transition in response to higher living standards hard to explain. On the face of things, better conditions should lead to larger families, not smaller ones. However, it is impossible to argue with the facts, and the facts are that the rate of population increase is dropping, and that the drop is correlated with increases in personal economic well-being.

Perhaps the answer lies in the old idea of r and K selection. Indeed, the terms r and K come from variables in two-term logistic equation that describes real population dynamics. K-selected species, people may remember from their college ecology classes, have few offspring but nurture them lovingly. Those that are r-selected have lots, but display a Devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to their issue's survival. The crucial point is that K-selected species live in safe, predictable environments, while r-selected ones live in unsafe, unpredictable ones. If the individuals of a species were able to shift opportunistically between r and K strategies in response to shifts in the environment, then something like the demographic transition in response to wealth might be the result.

None of this means that the eventual human population of, say, ten billion will be easy for the planet to support. But such support will not be impossible, particularly as it is also the case that economic growth in rich countries is less demanding of natural resources for each additional unit of output than is the case for growth in poor countries.

Malthus was wrong to observe that population increases geometrically while the resources available to support it increase arithmetically. It was an understandable mistake. It flies in the face of common sense that population growth will actually slow down in the face of better resources. But that is what happens, and it might yet save humanity from the fate predicted for it by the Club of Rome.

Curator, TED Conference

Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View

Paradoxically, one of the biggest reasons for being optimistic is that there are systemic flaws in the reported world view. Certain types of news — for example dramatic disasters and terrorist actions — are massively over-reported, others — such as scientific progress and meaningful statistical surveys of the state of the world — massively under-reported.

Although this leads to major problems such as distortion of rational public policy and a perpetual gnawing fear of apocalypse, it is also reason to be optimistic. Once you realize you're being inadvertently brainwashed to believe things are worse than they are, you can... with a little courage... step out into the sunshine.

How does the deception take place?

The problem starts with a deep human psychological response. We're wired to react more strongly to dramatic stories than to abstract facts. There are obvious historical and Darwinian reasons why this should be so. The news that an invader has just set fire to a hut in your village demands immediate response. The genes for equanimity in such circumstances got burned up long ago.

Although our village is now global, we still instinctively react the same way. Spectacle, death and gore. We lap it up. Layer on top of that a media economy that's driven by competition for attention and the problem is magnified. Over the years media owners have proven to their complete satisfaction that the stories that attract large audiences are the simple human dramas. Rottweiler Savages Baby is a bigger story than Poverty Percentage Falls even though the latter is a story about better lives for millions.

Today our media can source news from 190 countries and 6 billion people. Therefore you can be certain that every single day there will be word of spectacularly horrifying things happening somewhere. And should you get bored of reading about bombs, fires and wars, why not see them breaking live on cable 24/7 with ever more intimate pictures and emotional responses.

Meta-level reporting doesn't get much of a look-in.

So for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. If you believe Robert Wright and his NonZero hypothesis, this is part of a very long-term and admittedly volatile trend in which cooperation eventually trumps conflict. Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter gatherer societies? Approximately 30%. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.

In fact, most meta-level reporting of trends show a world that is getting better. We live longer, in cleaner environments, are healthier, and have access to goods and experiences that kings of old could never have dreamed of. If that doesn't make us happier, we really have no one to blame except ourselves. Oh, and the media lackeys who continue to feed us the litany of woes that we subconsciously crave.

Physicist, Case Western Reserve University; Author, Atom

Renewal of Science for the Public Good

I am optimistic that after almost 30 years of sensory deprivation in the field of particle physics, during which much hallucination (eg. string theory) has occurred by theorists, within 3 years, following the commissioning next year of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, we will finally obtain empirical data that will drive forward our understanding of the fundamental structure of nature, its forces, and of space and time. 

My biggest optimism is that the data will be completely unexpected, forcing revisions in all our carefully prepared ideas about what will supplant the Standard Model of elementary particle physics. Since 1975 or so, every single experiment done at the microscopic forefront has been consistent with the predictions of the Standard Model, giving little or no direction to what lies behind it, what is the origin of mass, why there are three families of elementary particles, why some quarks are heavy, and why neutrinos are very light.

Yes, neutrino masses were discovered, but that was no big surprise, and no insight at all into their origin has been obtained thus far. With empirical data, theoretical particle physics might once return to the days when the key to distinguishing good theory from bad was how many empirical puzzles the theory might resolve, rather than how fancy it might look.

I am also completely optimistic that within what I hope will be my lifetime we will unlock the secret of life, and finally take our understanding of evolutionary biology back to that remarkable transition from non-biological chemistry to biology. Not only will we be able to create life in the laboratory, but we will be able to trace our own origins back, and gain insight into the remarkable question of how much life there is in the universe. We will surely discover microbial life elsewhere in our solar system, and I expect we will find that it is our cousin, from the same seed, if you will, rather than being truly alien. But all of this will make living even more fascinating.

Senior Consultant (and Former Editor-In-Chief and Publishing Director), New Scientist

The Sunlight-Powered Future

I'm optimistic about…a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10ˆ20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.

Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10ˆ20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year. The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else. How can we not be optimistic? We don't have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough from the energy systems we are entrenched in now to the ones we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there.  

Can it be done? I'm lucky that as a writer I get to meet some of the world's brightest scientists each year, and I know that out there are plenty of radical new ideas for a future in which sunlight is turned straight into the forms of energy we need. Here are just three of my favourites out of scores of great ideas. First, reprogramming the genetic make-up of simple organisms so that they directly produce useable fuels (hydrogen, for example). That will be much more efficient than today's fashionable new bioethanol programs because they will cut out all the energy wasted in growing a crop, then harvesting it and then converting its sugars into  fuel. Second, self-organizing polymer solar cells. Silicon solar cells may be robust and efficient but they are inevitably small and need a lot of energy to make. Self-organizing polymer cells could be ink jetted onto plastics by the hectare, creating dirt cheap solar cells the size of advertising hoardings. Third, there's artificial photosynthesis. Nature uses a different trick from silicon solar cells to capture light energy, whipping away high-energy electrons from photo-pigments into a separate system in a few thousand millionths of a second. We are getting much closer to understanding how it's done, and even how to use the same principles in totally different nano-materials.

But what of the pessimist's view that we can are just too entrenched in our current energy systems to change? There is a world-wide boom in investment in green technology already under way. And there are many transition technologies coming into operation that enable practice runs for more radical genome reprogramming and creation of new nano-structures. Although the consensus view is that the sunlight-powered future won't be taking over until 2050, I'd place an optimistic bet that one of the many smart ideas being researched now will turn out to be an unforeseen winner much earlier.

Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Five Minds for the Future

Early Detection of Learning Disabilities or Difficulties

When, at John Brockman's urging, I don the hat of "scientific optimism," I think of the early detection of learning disabilities or difficulties, coupled with interventions that can ameliorate or even dissipate these difficulties. In the near future we will be able to use neural imaging techniques to determine which infants or toddlers are at risk of having problems in reading, writing, calculating, spelling, mastery spatial relations, mastering social relations, and the like. (We may even have genetic markers for these risk factors). And I believe that the more specific the detection of the disorder (i.e. which kind of reading problem, what sort of social deficit), the more likely that we can ultimately devise interventions that directly address a particular problem.

But as soon as I have unloaded this optimistic view, another less happy scenario immediately floods my consciousness. The same means of early detection can so easily be put to malevolent purposes. First of all, we won't just determine deficits that can be addressed, but also ones that cannot be addressed. Second, we run the risk of stigmatizing children from birth—"Oh, you are destined to be illiterate," or "you'll never be likeable, because of your social deficits." Moreover, we will be likely soon to turn not just to deficits, but to efforts to produce the perfect child—to enhance perfectly adequate capacities through genetic, neural, or pharmacological interventions. Not only does this seem to go against human nature and fate as we have known it; it will also privilege further those who are already privileged.

Thus, challenging the spirit of The Edge Annual Question, I think that to speak to science apart from its use and its users, its misuse and its misusers, is simply naïve. And so, I have to add some political remarks.

In recent years in the United States, we have seen ample examples of how science can be distorted for political purposes. In this context I recall a remark made to me several years ago, by John Gardner, the great American civic leader (no relation). Gardner said "There've never been so many young people in America involved in public service, community service, social entrepreneurship, and other efforts to promote the common good." But, Gardner added somberly, "This commitment won't add up unless these young people become involved in the political process. Because while they may be helping dozens or even hundreds of individuals, laws are being passed that harm thousands or millions of persons."

After the election of November 7, 2006, I feel a shade more optimistic about America. More young people are engaged in politics, and more idealistic youths are running or considering a run for office. America will be in better shape when the leaders and graduates of organizations like Teach for America or City Year meld their sense of public service with political involvement. And this realignment should benefit the rest of the world as well. And, most important for the Edge community, such individuals may be able to help ensure that science and technology—never good nor evil in themselves—will be put to benevolent purposes.

Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Moral Minds

The End of ISMs

Racism, Sexism, Species-ism, Age-ism, Elitism, Fundamentalism, Atheism. These –isms, and others,  have fueled hatred, inspired war, justified torture, divided countries, prevented education, increased disparities in wealth, and destroyed civilizations.  For some, they represent ideas to die for. For others, they represent ideas to destroy.  Though the targets differ, there is a single underlying cause: a brain that evolved an unconscious capacity to seek differences between self and other, and once identified, seek to demote the other in the service of selfish gains. It is a capacity that is like a heat sensing missile, designed to seek and destroy. It achieves its ends by exceptionally clever tactics that involve an ever escalating arms race between demoting the other to the level of a pestilent parasite while raising the self and its accompanying brethren to the level of  virtuous saints. This is the bad news.

The good news is that science is uncovering some of the details of this destructive capacity, and may hold the key to an applied solution. My optimism: if we play our cards correctly, we may see the day when our instinctive prejudice toward the other will dissolve, gaining greater respect for differences, expanding our moral circle in the words of Peter Singer.  Here's the playbook, building on several recent ideas and scientific findings:

1. Decide what is fair by living under a veil of ignorance.

The late political philosopher John Rawls argued that every human being will default to a selfish position, a bias that grows out of survival instincts, and in current evolutionary parlance, the biasing of genetic kin. To avoid such biases and achieve impartiality, we must imagine a set of principles that would apply while ignorant of others' political affiliations, wealth, age, gender, and religious background. As a device, the veil of ignorance works wonders because it feeds into our selfishness. Let's say that I think university professors should obtain the highest salaries, while athletes should obtain the lowest.  I can only entertain this principle of income distribution if I would be satisfied in a world where I was the professional athlete making the lowest salary. The veil of ignorance guarantees impartiality. Teach it to your children, friends, colleagues, and enemies.

2. Recognize the universality of our moral intuitions.

Peel away the explicit rules of action handed down by such institutions as religion and government, and one finds a common moral code. Those with a religious background tend to believe that abortion is wrong and so too is euthanasia.  Atheists see life through a different lens. Remove the doctrinal rules and our intuitive moral psychology propels us ¾ our species that is ¾ to decide what is morally right or wrong based on general principles concerning the welfare of others and our own virtues.  If the Protestant and Catholic Irish can see past their religious beliefs, empathize with the other, recognize their shared underlying humanity and settle into peaceful co-existence, why not other warring factions?

3. Be vigilant of disgust!

The most virulent of human emotions is disgust. Although disgust was born out of an adaptive response to potential disease vectors ¾ starkly, things that are normally inside but are now outside such as vomit, blood, and feces ¾ it is a mischievous emotion, sneaking into other problems, alighting, wreaking havoc on group structure, and then spreading. Throughout the history of warfare, every warring group has tagged their enemy with qualities that are reminiscent of disease, filth, and parasites. The imagery is overwhelming, beautifully designed to trigger the rallying cry. Though the destruction of 6 million Jews by the Nazis was made possible by an extraordinary advertising campaign, it was made all the more possible by the carefully crafted manipulation of disgust: in the Nazis'  hands, the Jews were vermin, dirty, diseased, and thus, disgusting. Wouldn't we all be better off without disgust? What if we could remove this emotional card? 

Would we knock the sails out of our efforts to denigrate the other?  Intriguingly, there are some people who never experience disgust and don't recognize it in others, even though they experience and recognize all of the other familiar emotions ¾ sadness, happiness, fear, surprise, anger. These people are carriers of the genetic disorder Huntington's Chorea. Though they suffer from significant deterioration of the motor systems, they are disgust-free. So too are carriers that are pre symptomatic. Although we don't know whether patients with Huntington's are immune to the nefarious propaganda that might come their way should someone wish to foist their prejudices upon them, my hunch is that science will confirm this relationship. And if that is the case, perhaps modern molecular techniques will one day find a way to cure Huntington's, but along the way, work out a method to crank down or turn off our disgust response, while preserving our motor systems.

This is a playbook for today. It is not a final solution. It provides, I believe, a breadth of hope that someday we may see greater peace in this world, greater respect for the other.

Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, The Blank Slate

The Decline of Violence

In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."

As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.

Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the twentieth century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags). The most thorough is James Payne’s The History of Force; other studies include Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization, Martin Daly & Margo Wilson’s Homicide, Donald Horowitz’s The Deadly Ethnic Riot, Robert Wright’s Nonzero, Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle, Stephen Leblanc’s Constant Battles, and surveys of the ethnographic and archeological record by Bruce Knauft and Philip Walker.

Anyone who doubts this by pointing to residues of force in America (capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, sex slavery in immigrant groups, and so on) misses two key points. One is that statistically, the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. The other is that these practices are, to varying degrees, hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial. In the past, they were no big deal. Even the mass murders of the twentieth century in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union probably killed a smaller proportion of the population than a typical hunter-gatherer feud or biblical conquest. The world’s population has exploded, and wars and killings are scrutinized and documented, so we are more aware of violence, even when it may be statistically less extensive.

What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question—"Why is there war?" instead of “Why is there peace?" There have been some suggestions, all unproven. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan—"a common power to keep [men] in awe"—has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us. Payne suggests that it’s because for many people, life has become longer and less awful—when pain, tragedy, and early death are expected features of one’s own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. Wright points to technologies that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. Singer attributes it to the inexorable logic of the golden rule: the more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over those of other sentient beings. Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I."

My optimism lies in the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, that is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate, and that we can identify those forces and perhaps concentrate and bottle them.  




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