ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director,
Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Breaking
the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
& CEO, Aspen Institute. Former CEO, CNN, Managing Editor, TIME; Author,
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.
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.
Author, Social Intelligence
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
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:
"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.
Editor, The Economist
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Case Western Reserve University; Author, Atom
of Science for the Public Good
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.
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.
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.
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.
Consultant (and Former Editor-In-Chief and Publishing
Director), New Scientist
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.
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.
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
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
and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Moral Minds
End of ISMs
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
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.
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?
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.
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
Decline of Violence
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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