This week's big questions: The end of men, vegetarianism and is Baumgartner a show off?

Is meat-eating uncivilised? Can we ever stop genocides? Are drone attacks justified?

Steven Pinker
Friday 19 October 2012 18:32
Daredevil Felix Baumgartner on the ground
Daredevil Felix Baumgartner on the ground

This week's big questions are answered by Steven Pinker a cognitive scientist at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature; A History of Violence and Humanity

Felix Baumgartner: attention-seeker or explorer at the frontiers of human knowledge?

He’s certainly not an explorer at the frontiers of knowledge. As a psychologist, I understand the universal appeal of a narrative about a brave man putting himself in mortal jeopardy and coming out triumphant. Yet I share the frustration of many space scientists about the paltry media attention for the stunning discoveries and breathtaking images from unmanned space probes such as Cassini. I’m suggesting to my friend Carolyn Porco, head of the Cassini imaging team, that before she releases the next photographs of the outer planets, she should run across a busy motorway or suspend a piano over her head.

Is there any way to avoid more genocides and more Radovan Karadzics?

There’s no guarantee, but some steps will lower the odds. First, democracies tend to commit fewer genocides, as do countries that are more open to the world economy. Say what you will about wanting to get rich, it’s less likely to lead to genocide than a mission to enhance the glory and purity of the nation or to rectify ancient injustices. Second, halfway-decent police forces under the control of stable governments can prevent militias from mobilising thugs to terrorise populations. More nebulous, but perhaps most effective, is the spread of the concept of human rights as the norm of conduct for states – the radical idea that states achieve greatness, and leaders achieve historical immortality, not by maximising their glory but by allowing their citizens to flourish. The value of the ICC and similar institutions is not just to deter despots, but also to spread the norm that if you want to join the club of decent, respectable world leaders, you just don’t do that sort of thing any more.

Is Obama’s expansion of drone attacks and the consequent loss of civilian life justified?

I won’t speak to whether the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan is justified, but I will challenge the assumption that drone warfare leads to greater loss of civilian life. This is exactly backwards. Drones are targeted against enemy individuals, and thus kill a small fraction of the civilians that used to be killed by the indiscriminate carnage of artillery, aerial bombardment, and search-and-destroy raids. The difference is that today we care more about civilian lives, so an errant drone attracts more condemnation than the “collateral damage” of previous wars. This concern is obviously a welcome development, but it distorts appreciation of the historical trend away from high-casualty wars.

Are vegetarians more civilised than meat-eaters?

Not necessarily. Many vegetarians avoid meat because they think it is fattening, carcinogenic, or toxic, and many meat-eaters support regulations that would force farmers to treat animals humanely. Even a person strongly committed to animal rights may wonder whether the pork chop he would forgo could possibly make a difference in the treatment of the hundreds of millions of animals that will still feed his carnivorous neighbours. Nonetheless, the rise in vegetarianism is a bellwether of the rise of humane sentiments. Unlike other rights revolutions forced by demands from victimised groups, animals are in no position to press for their interests. Any advances in how we treat them come from pure reason and compassion.

If the idea of ‘The End of Men’ is plausible and women are finally gaining the upper hand, is this good news?

The phrase “The End of Men”, of course, is a journalistic gimmick. Men aren’t going away, particularly from the positions of greatest influence. Men are found at the extremes of the distributions of most psychological traits, and somewhat more likely than women to be consumed with a lust for power and fame, to be autistically obsessed with the minutiae of abstract systems, and to set their work-life balance at 100 per cent work, 0 per cent life. At the same time, women have made fantastic inroads into positions of power and influence, and that is indeed one of the best things that has ever happened to societies.

Violence is largely a guy thing, particularly the stupidest forms. Of course, female heads of state will deploy violence strategically. But women are less likely to be turned on by insane wars of conquest, bloodthirsty massacres, knife fights over a parking space, that sort of thing.

Women in power also press for their own interests, such as the elimination of domestic violence, which makes everyone safer, and are more likely to press for the interests of children. Women have also played a disproportionate role in peacemaking; they’ve won more Nobel prizes in peace than in any other category. Finally, the most contested battleground in the war between the sexes is female sexuality, and when women are empowered to control their own reproduction rather than serving as baby factories, they marry later and have fewer children overall. This deflates the youth bulges that release hordes of single young men into societies that can’t put them to productive work – a recipe for mayhem.

Did the European Union deserve a Nobel Peace Prize?

There’s a defensible rationale for the decision. We take it for granted that Western European countries will not go to war against each other, but this is, to put it mildly, a historically unusual situation, for which we should all be grateful. The EU grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was designed in 1950 to reduce the chances of a recrudescence of war between Germany and its neighbours. The rationale came right out of Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace”: democracy, free trade and an international community should discourage leaders from dragging their countries into war. More than half a century of Western European peace later, we can see that the architects of European economic unification had a point.

Congressman Todd Akin claimed women are less likely to get pregnant from rape than consensual sex. Is scientific illiteracy on the increase in the US?

The problem is not so much scientific illiteracy – though his statement is, of course, ludicrous – as scientific politicisation. Most Americans who support the theory of evolution don’t understand it any better than the creationists who deny it, and exposure to the facts of evolutionary biology often leaves creationists unmoved. Scientific beliefs among laypeople are often membership badges in a political coalition, rather than the product of a poor scientific education. The most effective way to change the minds of large numbers of people is not to present them with facts but to show them that one of their allies or heroes has changed his mind.

Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature; A History of Violence and Humanity’ is published by Penguin in paperback

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