Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Humanity: up from the sludge

Arnold Klink begins a review of humanity’s improvements with a Steven Pinker quote:

TCS Daily - Appreciating Our Moral and Mental Development

... "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." ...


Elsewhere I recently read the claim that the male violent death rate in a hunter-gatherer society is 30%. Our violent death rates are rather lower.

Two thousand years ago a bizarre doctrine that called for the forgiveness of enemies actually almost got off the ground. Fragments of it remain today. So, it’s not linear progress, but it’s hard to deny that it’s progress.

But why? That’s the interesting question. Is it all cultural? Is there some biological component as well? I suspect there’s something biological. I wonder if we have “aggression set points” that we switch between based on early childhood experience and maternal prolactin secretion. I wonder if, on a longer timeframe, we have “backup-gene collections” (these apparently exist in many species) that allow a human population to effectively switch cooperation patterns in a few generations depending on changing environments …

Update 1/17/2007: We know that mammals are capable of insect-like social systems (naked mole rats) and of differential adult behaviors based on early experiences. We know humans are among the most socially integrated of all mammals, rivaling the social integration of the insects. We also have "Hellstrom's Hive", a 1970s science fiction short story series that compared human social organization to insect life. I believe many insect colonies alter colony behavior and the drone/warrior balance based on environmental conditions. Hmmm.

No comments: