Book – Steve Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature

The Most Important Book I’ve Ever Read + Other Strange Tales…

Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature – A History of Violence and Humanity’ is an absolutely incredible piece of work

Hi James

While I largely align with the general idea that Pinker puts forward that we can escape from the violent aspects of our nature, Nassim Taleb does a rather damning refutation of many of the arguments of that particular book.

For me, Steven doesn’t go nearly deep enough.

For me, the most important book I have ever read, was Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, which far from what the title suggests, was the first clear exposition I had read of the evolution of cooperation, and the ultimate power of cooperation in contexts of abundance. And that is likely a personal thing, as I had already read many hundreds of other books on evolution, philosophy, science, strategy and technology, it just happened to work for me at that point in my development.

It is clear to me, that it is ultimately the personal contexts we get to experience that are the largest single influences on who we get to be. We all have both competitive and cooperative natures, and the more abundant resources are, the more likely we are to be cooperative with wider groups.

Unfortunately, that reality is in stark contrast to the scarcity based valuation mechanism (market based economics) that currently dominates this planet.

If we really do want long term peace them we must find a stable way to transcend markets as a measure of value, and deliver universal abundance of all real needs. The issues in doing so are not technical. We can relatively easily develop the automated systems to deliver (speaking as someone who has owned and operated a software company for 30 years).

The real issue is getting people to see outside of the implicit boxes created by currently accepted cultural paradigms.

[followed by]

Hi James,

It is very true that relationships engendered through trade can (and have through most of history) reduce violence in two very different ways.

1/ In times of genuine scarcity the sharing of goods and services through trade reduces both the frequency and degree of scarcity experienced across the range of goods and services so traded, and in doing so tends to reduce the incentive sets to violence.

2/ The actual social contacts made over time in markets tend to form socially cohesive bonds over wider networks than would otherwise be the case, and such social cohesion tends to weaken the power of propaganda to demonize an “enemy” and create feelings that sustain war.

I fully acknowledge both of these aspects of markets in history, and “the times they are a changing”.

Now we have automation taking an ever greater role in our lives.

Automation changes things in several profound ways.

In terms of goods and services, any process that can be fully automated can be supplied in abundance to all, but markets cannot deliver universal abundance. Anything universally abundant, no matter how important it is, has zero value. Oxygen in the air is the prime example – without doubt the single most important thing for any human being, yet of zero value in most markets, due to its universal abundance.

This becomes a major issue of justice, when the only reason that most people do not experience the sort of abundance that some of us do, is the market mechanism itself. The search for profit prevents the benefits of full automation being universally distributed.
Automation changes everything.

Full automation turns markets from a power for peace, to the greatest source of existential risk present (when viewed from the perspective of the sets of strategic influences present in human interactions).
Some people are reacting to that by trying to prevent automation (we see an explosion of such legal edifices – in the realm of intellectual property laws in their many guises).
That is a very sub-optimal outcome, that still imposes a great deal of unnecessary risk and tragedy on human existence for the majority.

I am clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that in this strategic sense, of the fundamental drivers that create the playing field of this game we call life, that markets have gone past the point at which they delivered benefit, and are rapidly diving into the realm of delivering severe (and exponentially growing) existential risk.

Another thing automation is doing is taking the human relationships out of markets. EBay and Alibaba supply goods and services without the human relationship.

So while the internet does allow you and I to meet, and to communicate, which might be a very positive thing, it is also progressively taking that daily trading relationship away for many. Multi player virtual environments allow some individuals to shrink the size of their real world networks.

Getting back more directly to the book, it is as I said, I agree with the idea that we can escape from the tendencies to violence that exist, but the major evidence set presented by the book is flawed, in profound ways, that are exposed by Cirillo and Taleb in their paper –

It is well worth the time to read.
It is well worth taking the time to contemplate, particularly in the context of the Chicxulub event and dinosaurs, or the Toba event and the human diaspora. We have lots of evidence for the damage that “fat tail” distributions can deliver.

So, like I said, yes to the overall theme, but no to the evidence set presented in support of the theme (which is kind of sad, as for many people, a failure of the evidence set leads to a rejection of the hypothesis as a whole, rather than just a rejection of that evidence set – and there are good reasons for that – which is why Pinker hasn’t done any favours with the book – it will only be seen as positive by those who already intuitively understand something deeper, it wont convince those who don’t, in fact it actually actively turns them away).

[followed by]

The evidence for automation abounds – self-driving cars is one instance, fully automated factories another, cell phones another – Ray Kurzweil does a great job on that.

I presented the prime source, but the link was edited out somehow.

What Cirillo and Taleb clearly demonstrate in their paper is that the evidence presented by Pinker does not demonstrate a decrease in violence, but is in fact exactly what one expects in “fat tail” distributions.

Evidence is not the issue.
The issue, as always, is how one interprets it.

If you understand complexity theory, then it is clear that there are an infinite possible number of ways to interpret any evidence set.

Some methods of interpretation are more reliable in some contexts than in others.

Our brains seem to be composed of linear projection systems, which worked well for us during most of our evolutionary history, but take a lot of training to reframe datasets to work well in our exponentially changing current reality. Right now, using interpretive systems tuned by a linear relationship to our past will miss the most important trends of our time (at all levels).

If you want evidence on this, look at Ray Kurzweil’s prediction systems, Stephen Wolfram’s New Kind of Science, David Snowden’s Cynefin framework for the management of complexity. If you really want to warp your common sense, then get into quantum mechanics – Heisenberg is a good start, and that requires Einstein and Hilbert to get into the mathematical context. Feynman is a great way into some of the deeper aspects.

Getting the beginnings of an understanding of what we are, and how much our models (understandings) of reality influence our experience of reality, is fundamental to starting to see that it is much more about how we interpret the data than the data itself.

Snowden’s take on complexity is about the best simplification of an extremely complex topic that I have found.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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