Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Are Humans Getting Better?

MELBOURNE – With daily headlines focusing on war, terrorism, and the abuses of repressive governments, and religious leaders frequently bemoaning declining standards of public and private behavior, it is easy to get the impression that we are witnessing a moral collapse. But I think that we have grounds to be optimistic about the future.

Thirty years ago, I wrote a book called The Expanding Circle, in which I asserted that, historically, the circle of beings to whom we extend moral consideration has widened, first from the tribe to the nation, then to the race or ethnic group, then to all human beings, and, finally, to non-human animals. That, surely, is moral progress.

We might think that evolution leads to the selection of individuals who think only of their own interests, and those of their kin, because genes for such traits would be more likely to spread. But, as I argued then, the development of reason could take us in a different direction.

On the one hand, having a capacity to reason confers an obvious evolutionary advantage, because it makes it possible to solve problems and to plan to avoid dangers, thereby increasing the prospects of survival. Yet, on the other hand, reason is more than a neutral problem-solving tool. It is more like an escalator: once we get on it, we are liable to be taken to places that we never expected to reach. In particular, reason enables us to see that others, previously outside the bounds of our moral view, are like us in relevant respects. Excluding them from the sphere of beings to whom we owe moral consideration can then seem arbitrary, or just plain wrong.

Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature lends weighty support to this view.  Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics, and sociology to argue that our era is less violent, less cruel, and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.

The decline in violence holds for families, neighborhoods, tribes, and states. In essence, humans living today are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than their predecessors in any previous century.

Many people will doubt this claim. Some hold a rosy view of the simpler, supposedly more placid lives of tribal hunter-gatherers relative to our own. But examination of skeletons found at archaeological sites suggests that as many as 15% of prehistoric humans met a violent death at the hands of another person. (For comparison, in the first half of the twentieth century, the two world wars caused a death rate in Europe of not much more than 3%.)

Even those tribal peoples extolled by anthropologists as especially “gentle” – for example, the Semai of Malaysia, the Kung of the Kalahari, and the Central Arctic Inuit – turn out to have murder rates that are, relative to population, comparable to Detroit, which has one of the highest murder rates in the United States. In Europe, your chance of being murdered is now less than one-tenth, and in some countries only one-fiftieth, of what it would have been had you lived 500 years ago.

Pinker accepts that reason is an important factor underlying the trends that he describes. In support of this claim, he refers to the “Flynn Effect” – the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that since IQ tests were first administered, scores have risen considerably. The average IQ is, by definition, 100; but, to achieve that result, raw test results have to be standardized. If the average teenager today took an IQ test in 1910, he or she would score 130, which would be better than 98% of those taking the test then.

It is not easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen the most do not require a good vocabulary, or even mathematical ability, but instead assess powers of abstract reasoning.

One theory is that we have gotten better at IQ tests because we live in a more symbol-rich environment. Flynn himself thinks that the spread of the scientific mode of reasoning has played a role.

Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This, in turn, leads to better moral commitments, including avoidance of violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that improved during the twentieth century.

So there are grounds to believe that our improved reasoning abilities have enabled us to reduce the influence of those more impulsive elements of our nature that lead to violence. Perhaps this underlies the significant drop in deaths inflicted by war since 1945 – a decline that has become even steeper over the past 20 years. If so, there would be no denying that we continue to face grave problems, including of course the threat of catastrophic climate change. But there would nonetheless be some reason to hope for moral progress.

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  1. CommentedSergio Mayorga

    1. Even though reason makes it possible to solve problems and to plan to avoid dangers, it is a fact that stupid people reproduce at far higher rates. I witness this starkly as I live in a developing country.

    2. Humans may have been getting smarter since 1910. This trend has surely stopped since the surge of Facebook, and is in reverse now. More and more people trifle away their time and their talent perusing banalities and making meta-meta-...-meta-comments.

  2. Portrait of Peter Singer

    CommentedPeter Singer

    Correction by the author:
    The column states that the Semai people of Malaysia have a murder rate comparable, in proportion to population, to that of Detroit.
    I have since been contacted by Professor Robert Dentan, an anthropologist who has carried out extensive research on the Semai, and whose information was used by Bruce Knauft in an article that in turn is referenced in Steven Pinker's book. On the basis of the information supplied by Professor Dentan, and after consulting Professor Knauft, I withdraw the comment about the Semai. The evidence of homicide among the Semai is anecdotal and insufficient to support the conclusion that they have a murder rate comparable to that of Detroit, or anywhere else, for that matter.

  3. CommentedNijaz Deleut Kemo

    Yes, if you are representative of 1% of the worlds population, for sure you are living - getting better. But, what if you do represent 99% of the population (cca. 7 billion). Therefore, OCCUPY MOVEMENT in Spain, U.S.A. and around the globe have made good point, and answered on your wrong thesis, my dear prof. Singer. After all, long time ago Marx said:"The task is not just to understand the world (i.e. neo-colonialism/imperialism) but to change it", and John Cage said:"We can't change our minds (the collective consciousness) without changing the world." So, two dangerous developments in the world still overshadow everything else: first, there are real threats to "Getting Better" for homo sapiens - since 1945 we do have nuclear weapons, and second is, of course, environmental catastrophe (lost habitats, species, natural resources, all since 1850). Simply, our question is not "Are Humans Getting Better?" Why? We do know that science is all about establishing cause and effect. This is why there is a "scientific method" at all. Because it is so easy to fool ourselves (that we are getting better) regarding what causes what to happen in the real world today (i.e. unemployment rate in the Mediterranean countries - cradle of the civilization). Therefore, many problems in the physical world are not amenable to laboratory investigation, or theoretical lamenting. Global warming is only one of them, my dear professor.

  4. CommentedNijaz Deleut Kemo

    NO, MY DEAR PROF. DO NOT USE STATISTIC, OR CONSIDER THIS ONE ONLY ON POPULATION RISE:
    1850................................................ 1 BILLION
    2012................................................ 7 BILLION
    NEXT ONE ON GEOGRAPHICAL REPRESENTATION
    ASIA, AFRICA................................20TH CENTURY AND TODAY (BEGINNING OF 21ST), AND
    EUROPE...........................................19/20TH CENTURY.
    SO MY QUESTION IS: HOW MUCH INDIVIDUALS (PER CAPITA) SUFFERED ON A 1% RATE FOR BOTH PERIODS AND TERRITORIES.
    MY ANSWER IS THAT OUR WAY OF LIVING AND WORKING; I.E. BARBARIANISM, SLAVERY AND COLONIALISM DID THAT. NEO-COLONIALISM IS DOING THAT ONLY 40 YEARS, SO FAR. SO, WE MUST WAIT AND SEE WHAT WILL BE, OUR NEW-NEXT STATISTIC !?

  5. Commentedjohn scanlon

    It is not clear you if stipulate improved individual reasoning for such causes or improved cultural reasoning. The article seems like a case for the former as having a major bearing of our improved outcomes as opposed to the wonderous cultural evolution over time being inherent now in both our institutions (e.g. law & order, concepts of democracy, education), or just plan society & language. It is our advancing cultural progress and conventions which may in large lead to many of our progressive outcomes. Where is the split if any on culture vs individual leading to such outcomes ? Can we go in different directions ('backwards', 'sideways'), and what cultural pressures would lead us there ? Enjoyed the article - thank you.

  6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Kropotkin’s book ‘Mutual Aid’ had huge number of evidences that proved the theory that societies from ancient times including in the case of animals, both for the wild and the timid to have prospered with one helping the other to face adversities; it is not reason alone that has mattered for people to come together for survival, it is something beyond reason. The survival of the fittest theory and natural selection on the other hand stands the testimony of times that genetic patterns have helped the stronger, farer or more beautiful and attractive to progress than the less endowed ones; truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.
    In today’s world with so many stimuli around us, we have the challenge of rational attention to these stimuli and perhaps due to paucity of time and interest to so many we take the route of rational inattention. This has an impact to our decision making every day. The ability to reason may have improved, but we have other influences that could make us vulnerable and we must be aware that a plethora of information that we are fed with, only a small percentage would end up with a testing of hypothesis with a high probability of success.

    In a world that has to survive and sustain millions of products, services and ideas to which consumers must be attracted to, it is again more than what reason can deliver.

    Whether we are getting better of or worse, again time will tell as yardsticks would keep changing.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Interesting article.
    And I share the writer's optimism about the future, as we truly have a cognitive function that we can use for our benefit.
    But we are not doing this consciously yet.
    We can consider human evolution as the development of the Ego.
    We were separated from other animals with the appearance of our Ego, that introduced self awareness, feeling of unique individuality, and the desire for self fulfillment, even at the expense of others beyond necessities.
    This "maximum pleasure/minimum pain" software drove us up to the present moment, where this egoistic development seems to have run into a dead end.
    We evolved into a closed, integral, totally interconnected and interdependent human system, where our egoistic software turned us into cancer cells, suddenly destroying ourselves and the environment.
    We cannot measure this through murder statistics, we need to look at the total picture with the breakdown of almost all human institutions starting from the family unit up to national and international levels.
    And outside of human society we have devoured our environment and now threaten to cause irreversible damage that can seriously threaten even our survival.
    We have a very unique cognitive function, our ability of self analysis and self critique, but we have never used it before. So far we followed our inherent egoistic desires and instincts automatically like robots.
    Today we are at crossroads. The deepening and unsolvable global crisis, and environmental crisis that is the result of our unsustainable, excessive, exploitative lifestyle is pushing us into a corner, where we cannot avoid self scrutiny any longer.
    Now we can activate our mental powers, our human cognition in order to analyze our new global human system, how we relate to nature's laws around us always thriving for homeostasis, and then work out how we, the only truly active element in this system can contribute in such way that we return the whole system into harmony.
    The only question today is if we can do this proactively, wisely, using our mental powers and free choice before we are forced by suffering, or we wait like we have done so far, until the present state becomes so unbearable that we have to change against our will.

  8. CommentedJohn-Albert Eadie

    These are MY ideas, Mr. Singer %^) What I maintain, however is that the "brain software" must have a great leap forward right now, or we won't avoid incineration from climate change.

  9. CommentedJosué Machaca

    Mr. Singer, you said that the world is better now becouse the percentage of deaths decreased. But you did not consider that there are more people in the world. For example, you said "in the first half of the twentieth century, the two world wars caused a death rate in Europe of not much more than 3%". Everybody knows that the two world wars caused millions of deaths. In the past wars caused thousends of deaths only. So, ¿Does the world get better? Your points of view are well, but when we talk of deaths we consider amount, not percentage. (Sorry for the vocabulary, I speak Spanish)

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