Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

International Studies Association meeting assesses Pinker’s “Angels”

Posted 05 May 2012 / 0

Evolutionary Politics Pinker, Politics, and the Decline of Violence: Roundtable on ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’

What I find particularly interesting about this topic is the question of whether or not our cultural evolution away from conflict and towards cooperation has in turn affected our biological evolution. Sure, both cooperating and defecting (in this case, by being violent towards others) are facultative responses to a shifting environment, but as that environment shifts to favor cooperation and punish defection, I wonder whether our thresholds for behavioral “switches” are drifting as well. In the environment of inter-tribal conflict presumed by Pinker, it might have been good to have a few people whose “switch” from cooperation to defection occurred at rather low thresholds: in common parlance “hotheads” who are willing to be violent in response to relatively minor provocation. Those who were willing to mete out violence would advantage their group through what Bingham (1999, 2000) calls “coalitional enforcement”. Now that we have eliminated the need for coalitional enforcement at many levels of organization (through laws and law enforcement but also just through changes in social mores), it might be a disadvantage to have a “hair trigger” for switching from cooperation to defection/punishment via violence. Gene-culture evolution seems like the best explanation of the patterns that Pinker describes. I would be careful about assuming this shift is entirely cultural.

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