Are we becoming less violent?

February 25, 2012

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. Abraham Lincoln


This quote by Abraham Lincoln is the origin of the title of the latest book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature. I have recently been immersing myself in violence. Apart from Pinker’s book I have also read Atrocitology: Mankind’s 100 Deadliest Achievements by Matthew White, which documents the worst cases of atrocities throughout history to produce a ranking of the top 100. Pinker’s book is undoubtedly a tour de force, encompassing research, spread across so many different fields. The central thesis is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. This counterintuitive observation is true for violence in the family, in neighbourhoods, between tribes and between states. This is not the message that the mass media wants to portray. They have a different agenda; “If it bleeds, it leads” is their philosophy. Look at the news and you get a diet of one violent story after another.


How does Pinker seek to substantiate his shocking claim? He breaks down his study into a number of historical themes which include:

The Pacification Process

Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that man was intrinsically good and that civilisation was what made humans bad. John Lennon imagined a world without countries where we’d all be living in harmony. This is however sentimental drivel. Thomas Hobbes was right. This kind of life was nasty, brutish and short. Hunter gatherer societies have always had very high murder rates. The rise and expansion of states drove death rates down. Let’s be clear about what was motivating the leaders of these states. They did not have a philanthropic interest in the welfare of their subjects. Here we are talking about the logic of political survival. Tribal raiding and feuding is a nuisance to imperial overlords. They do not benefit from this and any dead subjects would no longer pay taxes to them.

The Civilizing Process

The term civilised is a loaded one. The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto took a cynical view:

All definitions of civilization … belong to a conjugation which goes: ‘I am civilized, you belong to a culture, he is a barbarian.’

Pinker has borrowed this concept from the book The Civilizing Process, which was written by Norbert Elias, a German sociologist. It deals with European history from around 800 AD to 1900 AD. There was a consolidation of feudal economies into larger kingdoms and empires with central authority, trade and greater economic specialization. Criminal justice became “the king’s justice.” And at the same time commercial society led to a shift in incentives from zero-sum plunder to positive-sum trade.

The Humanitarian Revolution

This period in the 17th and 18th century includes both the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment. The early states had been successful in bringing down rates of homicide, but they were rather brutal. A lot has been made of Abu Ghraib, but listening to Barney the Purple Dinosaur or waterboarding do not really compare to burning at the stake, being hanged drawn and quartered, breaking on the wheel, the rack and many more devices so beloved in the Middle Ages. It was during the Humanitarian Revolution, especially in the 18th century, that such practices as witch hunts, duelling, and of course slavery were abolished.

The Rights Revolutions

The final historical development mentioned by Pinker is the Rights Revolutions, the reduction of systemic violence at smaller scales against vulnerable populations such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals. There has been an 80% reduction in rape since the early ’70s, when it became a feminist issue. There has also been a 66% decline in wife beating, and a 50% decline in husband beating. There’s been a decline both in the number of wives that are murdered by their husbands and the number of husbands that have been murdered by their wives. Indeed the fall has been much more dramatic for husbands. Feminism has actually been very good to men. More men survive matrimony, as women are no longer trapped in marriage and they don’t feel the need to resort to killing their spouses. This decline is not what we see reflected in the media. It really annoys me when news programmes fail to put violence into any kind of historical context.

Pinker then goes on to look at what makes us violent. He lists four factors:


This is the utilization of another person or group for selfish purposes. Examples include rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals.

The drive toward dominance

This refers both to the competition among individuals to be the alpha male, and the competition among groups for ethnic, racial, national or religious ascendancy.

The lust for revenge

This is the type of moralistic violence that that can trigger vendettas, vigilante justice, and cruel and unusual punishments.


Ideology comprises both extreme political systems, – nationalisms, fascism, Nazism, and communism or militant religions which seek to create utopias on earth. This is perhaps the biggest contributor of all to the list of mankind’s atrocities.

Luckily we have the better angels that Pinker alludes to in the title of his book. There are five of them:

The Leviathan

This is the strong state which emerges from a Hobbesian social contract which grants to the state a full monopoly on the use of violence from within.

Gentle Commerce

This increases economic incentives for cooperation.


The empowerment of women as intellectual equals has led to a decline of authoritarian/patriarchal based societies. Pinker argues that women are generally  more risk-averse and less violent.

The Expanding Circle

This idea, from the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, deals with how we have gradually extended sympathy to more and more groups, including animals. An activity like novel reading is an exercise in perspective-taking and helps to expand people’s circle of sympathy. In reality Pinker is arguing what has expanded is not so much a circle of empathy but a circle of rights. We may not love them but we now feel that fellow humans and now animals should not be harmed or exploited.

The Escalator of Reason

The “Escalator of Reason” is another concept created by Singer. As reason is used in human affairs, it takes us in unforeseeable directions but generally toward even more reasoning and the flourishing of humanity.


Here then is my brief and incomplete summary of The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Now you may want to know what my opinion is. I think it is an impressive piece of work. It does make you see the world in a different way. However, I do have some reservations. It is rather Eurocentric, but that is probably because Europe is the area about which the best data is available.

I belong to a more pessimistic school of thought than Pinker, whose vision seems to be more like the Whig Interpretation of history, which sees an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment. For Whig historians the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress are central to these advances. I believe in all of those things, but there is nothing inevitable about them.

To be fair to Pinker, he doesn’t claim that what he calls the Long Peace will go on indefinitely. The sixty or so years since the end of WWII are just not long enough to draw any lasting conclusions. A few years ago economists were talking about the Great Moderation a period roughly between 1987–2007, which was characterised by predictable policy, low inflation, and modest business cycles. This new paradigm was believed to have been caused by institutional and structural changes in developed nations. Where is all that now? Francis Fukuyama talked about the end of history. Alas I fear in 300 historians will have plenty of material with which to analyse from this epoch. The Long Peace is contingent and could be reversed in the future.  I am worried about the sheer destructiveness of modern warfare. The Crusades lasted centuries World War Two was six years. Now we have even more destructive power. Moreover, we are living in a world of more than seven billion souls and increasingly scarce resources. This is one of the central insights of Thomas Hobbes that even without our thirst for power and glory, scarcity and uncertainty bring us into mutual conflict. Nor do we know what the effects of widespread climate change will be.

After reading Pinker I went to read a review by John Gray in Prospect. I wanted to get a  contrarian viewpoint:

Pinker’s attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith. We don’t need science to tell us that humans are violent animals. History and contemporary experience provide more than sufficient evidence. For liberal humanists, the role of science is, in effect, to explain away this evidence. They look to science to show that, over the long run, violence will decline—hence the panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts. The result is no more credible than the efforts of Marxists to show the scientific necessity of socialism, or free-market economists to demonstrate the permanence of what was until quite recently hailed as the Long Boom. The Long Peace is another such delusion, and just as ephemeral.

I like reading Gray because his bracing pessimism challenges you to think about what you believe. However, ultimately I have to disagree with him. While I have no illusions that we are about to enter an era of Kumbaya, I do feel that he doesn’t give enough credit for the incredible changes we have seen. Reversible progress is surely better than no progress at all.

The atrocitologist and the world’s hundred deadliest multicides

February 25, 2012

Matthew White a federal courthouse librarian from Richmond, Virginia is an amateur atrocitologist. He begins with the Second Persian War (480–479 BCE) and closes with the Second Congo War, which took place between 1998 and 2002. He has a simple technique; he takes the highest and lowest estimates available in the research and averages them. Some academics are sceptical of this, while for others it’s a reasonable way to go about what is an inherently complex task. What nobody can deny is that Mr. White has invested staggering amounts of his time in producing his list of the 100 worst atrocities in world history. And his selection is most definitely not Eurocentric. What do we learn from this list? One point White makes is that Dictatorships are harmful to the health of their subjects, but chaos is also a great killer. Another one is that anyone with the Great after the name may well be a psycho. The other interesting thing is the surprises in the list. I had no idea that the Gladiatorial Games (264 BCE–435 CE) were so bloody – they cost 3.5 million lives. Chinggis Khan’s (1206–27) feat of forty million is pretty impressive, especially considering the time in which he did it. We hear a lot about the Atlantic Slave Trade but the Mideast Slave Trade (7th–19th centuries) responsible for 18.5 million lives is never mentioned. How many of you were aware of An Lushan Rebellion (755–63) which saw 13 million deaths. The shameful famines in British India (18th–20th centuries) killed a staggering 27 million. Here is White’s list:

1 Second World War (1939–45) 66,000,000

2=Chinggis Khan (1206–27) 40,000,000

2=Mao Zedong (1949–76) 40,000,000

4 Famines in British India(18th–20th centuries) 27,000,000

5 Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1635–62) 25,000,000

6=Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) 20,000,000

6=Joseph Stalin (1928–53) 20,000,000

8 Mideast Slave Trade (7th–19th centuries) 18,500,000

9 Timur (1370–1405) 17,000,000

10 Atlantic Slave Trade (1452–1807) 16,000,000

11= Conquest of the Americas (after 1492) 15,000,000

11=First World War (1914–18) 15,000,000

13 An Lushan Rebellion (755–63) 13,000,000

14=Xin Dynasty (9–24) 10,000,000

14=Congo Free State(1885–1908) 10,000,000

16 Russian Civil War (1918–20) 9,000,000

17= Thirty Years War (1618–48) 7,500,000

17= Fall of the Yuan Dynasty (ca 1340–70) 7,500,000

19= Fall of the Western Roman Empire(395–455) 7,000,000

19=Chinese Civil War (1927–37, 1945–49) 7,000,000

21 Mahdi Revolt (1881–98) 5,500,000

22 The Time of Troubles (1598–1613) 5,000,000

23 Aurangzeb (1658–1707) 4,600,000

24 Vietnam War (1959–75) 4,200,000

25 The Three Kingdoms of China(189–280) 4,100,000

26 Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815) 4,000,000

27 Second Congo War (1998–2002) 3,800,000

28 Gladiatorial Games (264 BCE–435 CE) 3,500,000

28= Hundred Years War (1337–1453)3,500,000

30 Crusades (1095–1291) 3,000,000

30= French Wars of Religion (1562–98) 3,000,000

30= Peter the Great (1682–1725) 3,000,000

30= Korean War (1950–53) 3,000,000

30=North Korea(after 1948) 3,000,000

35 War in the Sudan(1955–2003) 2,600,000

36 Expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe(1945–47) 2,100,000

37 Fang La Rebellion (1120–22) 2,000,000

37=Mengistu Haile (1974–91) 2,000,000

39 Democratic Kampuchea(1975–79) 1,670,000

40 Age of Warring States (ca 475–221 BCE) 1,500,000

40= Seven Years War (1756–63) 1,500,000

40= Shaka (1818–28) 1,500,000

40= Bengali Genocide (1971) 1,500,000

40= Soviet-Afghan War (1979–92) 1,500,000

45   Aztec Human Sacrifice (1440–1521) 1,200,000

46 Qin Shi Huang Di (221–210 BCE) 1,000,000

46= Roman Slave Wars (134–71 BCE) 1,000,000

46= Mayan Collapse (790–909) 1,000,000

46= Albigensian Crusade (1208–29) 1,000,000

46= Panthay Rebellion (1855–73) 1,000,000

46= Mexican Revolution (1910–20) 1,000,000

46= Biafran War (1966–70) 1,000,000

53 Rwandan Genocide (1994) 937,000

54 Burma-Siam Wars (1550–1605) 900,000

55= Hulagu’s Invasion (1255–60) 800,000

55= Mozambican Civil War (1975–92) 800,000

57 French Conquest of Algeria(1830–47) 775,000

58 Second Punic War (218–202 BCE) 770,000

59 Justinian (527–65) 750,000

59= Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–41) 750,000

61 Gallic War (58–51 BCE) 700,000

61= Chinese Conquest of Vietnam(1407–28) 700,000

61= War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13) 700,000

61= Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) 700,000

65 American Civil War (1861–65) 695,00066

66 Hui Rebellion (1862–73) 640,000

67 Goguryeo-Sui Wars (598 and 612) 600,000

67= Sino-Dzungar War (1755–57) 600,000

69 Algerian War of Independence(1954–62) 525,000

70 Alexander the Great (336–325 BCE) 500,000

70= Bahmani-Vijayanagara War (1366) 500,000

70=Russo-Tatar War (1570–72) 500,000

70=War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) 500,000

70=Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) 500,000

70=Partition ofIndia(1947) 500,000

70=Angolan Civil War (1975–94) 500,000

70=Ugandan Bush War (1979–86)  500,000

70=Somalian Chaos (since 1991) 500,000

79 War of the Triple Alliance(1864–70) 480,000

80 Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) 435,000

81 First Punic War (264–241 BCE) 400,000

81= Third Mithridatic War (73–63 BCE) 400,000

81= Cromwell’s Invasion of Ireland (1649–52) 400,000

81= Mexican War of Independence(1810–21) 400,000

81= Haitian Slave Revolt (1791–1803) 400,000

81= Greco-Turkish War (1919–22) 400,000

81= Indonesian Purge (1965–66) 400,000

88 French Indochina War (1945–54) 393,000

89 Great Turkish War (1682–99) 384,000

90 Great Northern War (1700–21) 370,000

91 Spanish Civil War (1936–39) 365,000

91= Postwar Vietnam(1975–92) 365,000

93 Cuban Revolution (1895–98) 360,000

94 Sanctions against Iraq(1990–2003) 350,000

94= Roman-Jewish Wars (66–74, 132–135) 350,000

96 Second Persian War (480–479 BCE) 300,000

96= War of the Allies (91–88 BCE) 300,000

96= Crimean War (1854–56) 300,000

96= Idi Amin (1971–79) 300,000

96= Saddam Hussein (1979–2003) 300,000

Those dark Satanic supermarkets

February 19, 2012

The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella). You can buy a fresh, frozen, tinned, smoked or pre-prepared meal made with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish, prawns, scallops, eggs, potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbage, aubergine, kumquats, celeriac, okra, seven kinds of lettuce, cooked in olive, walnut, sunflower or peanut oil and flavoured with cilantro, turmeric, basil or rosemaryMatt Ridley, The Rational Optimist


Retailing has evolved dramatically over the last 100 or so years. At the turn of the century products would generally be fetched by an assistant from shelves behind a counter, while customers waited in front of the counter and indicated the items they wanted. This was time-consuming, labour intensive and expensive. But, cars, fridges and freezers transformed. the economics of the grocery industry, enabling greater economies of scale for both customers and supermarkets. Shoppers were now able to buy far more groceries at one time than they could have carried home in their arms from their neighbourhood shop. Fridges and freezers now made it possible to stock up on perishable items like meat, fish and dairy products. Customers thus made fewer trips to grocery stores, with larger purchases each time. Cheap land in the suburbs allowed supermarkets to build larger and larger retail areas.

Supermarkets would emerge gradually. In 1916 American entrepreneur Clarence Saunders created the concept of a self-service grocery store with his Piggly Wiggly stores. However these stores did not sell fresh meats or produce. There is some debate about the first supermarket. I will go along with the Smithsonian Institution. They recognise King Kullen, which was opened by Michael Cullen, inNew Yorkin 1930. The chain, which began when Cullen leased a vacant garage inQueens, is still around today and ownership remains in the Cullen family.

Now supermarkets dominate retailing and have become vast emporiums stocking food, but many other things too – cosmetics, furniture electrical appliances and books to name but a few. However the rise of the modern supermarket has not been greeted with universal acceptance. Indeed they have been subject to opprobrium from both the left and the right. Excessive choice’ is seen to be corrupting In the 1960s Herbert Marcuse ingeniously inverted Marx’s theory of the ‘immiseration of the proletariat’. Marcuse argued that capitalism was forcing the working class to consume excessively. The real evil of capitalism is prosperity, which seduces workers away from their historic mission—the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, by supplying them with “tools of enslavement” such as cars and household appliances. And more recently Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor, claimed that consumers were overwhelmed with relatively trivial choices.

The right also disliked large stores. For the Nazis the enemy was the department store. This fitted in perfectly with their anti-Jewish agenda. One of their favourite targets was Woolworth’s. A Nazi pamphlet handed out to the people of Hanoverin April 1932 attacked the system which enabled “the gigantic concern Woolworth (America), supported by finance capital, to build a new vampire business in the centre of the city.” The Nazis frequently led boycotts against department stores. And once in power they imposed restrictions on the building of new department shops and retail chains. In May 1933 Hitler’s government passed a Law for the Protection of Individual Trade, which restricted the services and types of products that department shops could sell. Later in the same year department and chain stores were prohibited from offering a discount of more than three per cent on prices.

Now we are going to fast forward 80 years. Last year in Stokes Croft, a bohemian area ofBristolteeming with independent shops, squats, bars and clubs, rioters destroyed a Tesco Express. This action was immortalised by Banksy. This commemorative souvenir poster went on sale atBristol’s Anarchist Book for £5.00, with all proceeds going to the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft and associates.

Tesco plc is a British multinational grocery and general merchandise retailer, which  according to Wikipedia is the third-largest retailer in the world measured by revenues (after Wal-Mart and Carrefour) and the second-largest measured by profits (after Wal-Mart). If we are to believes its critics, in a few years theUnited Kingdomwill be renamed Tescoland. Why does such a successful British company inspire such hatred?

I was reminded of these themes by an article I read in the Observer a few weeks back: Who’s the thief here, Tesco?  It was a classic example of the economic illiteracy that is not uncommon on the comment pages of this publication and its sister paper, the Guardian. The article was written by Carole Cadwalladr. It was written after the arrest of celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson for pilfering cheese, wine, onions and coleslaw from a Tesco superstore in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. The Sun of course couldn’t resist sticking the offset serrated knife in with a page of jokes about the hapless chef:

Antony Worrall Thompson stole some cheddar? How dairy!

I went to see Ready Steady Cook the other day. It was fantastic. Antony Worrall Thompson absolutely stole the show.

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was stuffed up Worrall Thompson’s jacket.

Antony Worrall Thompson has been caught shoplifting milk, yeast and flour from his local Tesco. He’s clearly run out of dough.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Unless you’re using the Worrall Thompson recipe book.

Antony Worrall Thompson stole some cheese and wine. And that was only for starters.

Wozza was caught stealing cheese from Tesco. He should have done it more Caerphilly.

Asked how he feels about stealing cheese, Antony Worrall Thompson admits it wasn’t very mature.

Anyway let’s get back to Ms Cadwalldr’s article. It has a rather a dubious premise: although Worrall Thompson was wrong, Tesco deserved it because they should employ more staff. She was particularly vexed by self-scanning, which has become prevalent in many countries. Actually I am against this system, which I hardly ever use. My take is simple: why would I work for the retailer, scanning and bagging items for free?  It reminds me of those restaurants where they bring the steak to your table for you to cook it on a stone. Perhaps I should wash the dishes as well! I might as well bring my own Fairy washing-up liquid.

Cadwalladr’s objection is different. She condemns self-scanning for its destruction of jobs. Therefore I imagine for her self-service stores must be a no-no. I hope she also refuses to take lifts that don’t have operators. And he surely won’t use digital cameras as they have destroyed all those jobs in laboratories that used to develop films. As one wag put it in the comments section:

Why not print The Guardian on old-fashioned printing presses? How many jobs would that create? It would also bankrupt it by making the cover price prohibitively expensive. What’s not to like?

She doesn’t exactly cover herself in glory with her economic analysis:

Or buying a cup of tea at a motorway service station. (Unit price, what? Maybe 2p? Sale price? £2.75. I’m a rubbish capitalist and can’t do the sums but isn’t that something like about 20,000% profit?)

She seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that you need to pay rent. You need staff to serve it. And what about the insurance, the electricity, the furnishings and everything else you need to be successful.  But maybe Cadwalladr ought to give up the day job as it’s obviously so easy to run a business.

I am not her to defend the retail chain, but I am not convinced by the arguments we hear the Tescophobes. Here are typical ones:

No one wants them hereWe hear people saying that the local community are really against it. If that is the case, then they should be delighted because Tesco are going to lose a lot of money if nobody shops there. Of course the reality is that there is probably a lot of demand.

Their food is awful. If the food is so bad, nobody will go there.

They are out to create a monopoly. Apparently they are an evil empire bent on destroying all competition. I don’t know what Tesco’s long term strategy is. But I always suspicious about charges of monopoly against firms who have been consistently cutting prices. There are campaigners claim that they don’t like monopolies, but want to stop a new shop opening up to compete with another one. I don’t get it.

Supermarkets are not run by saints. They are run on the basis that they will make a profit. If you don’t like the ethos of a supermarket, don’t shop there. And I’m sure supermarkets will also be responsive to consumer pressure, because if not they will see their bottom line affected. But don’t try to impose your preferences on others. I think that the retail market should be big enough to accommodate both large and small retailers. Small shops which offer convenience, expertise or something different will still have a niche.

I go to my local Día supermarket, because it’s a two-minute walk from my flat. And of course it’s cheap. If I earned more, I would probably go somewhere else. Día is the world’s third-biggest hard-discount group behind German retailers Aldi and Lidl. I know that the idea of cheap food is not fashionable these days but I salute these champions of cheap food. Cadwalladr attacks Tesco: “Making money out of poor people is what we call “business”.“ I beg to differ.

Not My Best Side by U.A. Fanthorpe

February 19, 2012

I really like this poem by the late UA Fanthorpe. It’s called Not my best side, and is based on Uccello’s painting St George and the Dragon, which can be seen at the National Gallery inLondon. The poem’s three stanzas are monologues from each of the three characters depicted in the painting – the dragon, the maiden and the knight respectively. I love the way it subverts the our stereotypes of the characters. Sice reading this poem I have never thought of the maiden in quite the same way:


Not my best side, I’m afraid.

The artist didn’t give me a chance to

Pose properly, and as you can see,

Poor chap, he had this obsession with

Triangles, so he left off two of my

Feet. I didn’t comment at the time

(What, after all, are two feet

To a monster?) but afterwards

I was sorry for the bad publicity.

Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror

Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride

A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?

Why should my victim be so

Unattractive as to be inedible,

And why should she have me literally

On a string? I don’t mind dying

Ritually, since I always rise again,

But I should have liked a little more blood

To show they were taking me seriously.


It’s hard for a girl to be sure if

She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite

Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be

Liked, if you know what I mean. He was

So nicely physical, with his claws

And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,

And the way he looked at me,

He made me feel he was all ready to

Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.

So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,

On a really dangerous horse, to be honest

I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,

What was he like underneath the hardware?

He might have acne, blackheads or even

Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–

Well, you could see all his equipment

At a glance. Still, what could I do?

The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,

And a girl’s got to think of her future.


I have diplomas in Dragon

Management and Virgin Reclamation.

My horse is the latest model, with

Automatic transmission and built-in

Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,

And my prototype armour

Still on the secret list. You can’t

Do better than me at the moment.

I’m qualified and equipped to the

Eyebrow. So why be difficult?

Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued

In the most contemporary way? Don’t

You want to carry out the roles

That sociology and myth have designed for you?

Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,

You are endangering job prospects

In the spear- and horse-building industries?

What, in any case, does it matter what

You want? You’re in my way.

He had five personalities and they were all boring!

February 12, 2012

A sceptical take on multiple personality disorder.

This week I’m going to be looking at multiple personality disorder. Actually it’s no longer called that, but I’ll go into that later. The title of my piece comes from a quip I heard from a university professor talking about someone suffering from the condition. The idea that a rare mental illness in which multiple personalities can coexist within one person is one that has captured the public’s imagination. In 1957 Joanne Woodward won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film The Three Faces of Eve, making her the first actress to win an Oscar for portraying three different personalities. Woodward, who was at the time a relative unknown in Hollywood, would later go on to play Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in Sybil, another movie about multiple personality disorder. Sybil, played by Sally Field, had no less than 13 personalities, including two male ones – Mike and Sid. The film was based on a book from 1973 by Flora Rheta Schreiber, which became a publishing phenomenon, selling some 6 million copies around the world.

Shirley Ardell Mason, who was the inspiration for Schreiber’s book, was born and grew up in Dodge Center,Minnesota. She came from a strict Seventh-day Adventist family. Her psychotic mother had allegedly sadistically abused her when she was growing up. This mistreatment had caused her consciousness to split into many different personalities to hold the trauma, so that she wouldn’t be aware of it. She decided to seek psychiatric help and she became a patient of Dr. Connie Wilbur, a Freudian psychiatrist who had a special interest in multiple personality disorder.

Once Mason had been diagnosed with MPD, she started generating more and more personalities including babies, little boys, and teenage girls. Mason probably wasn’t faking it – she was highly suggestible, and was giving Wilbur what she wanted. Wilbur began injecting Mason regularly with sodium pentothal, which at that time was used to help people remember traumatic events that they had repressed. Under the influence of drugs and hypnosis, the very suggestible Mason uncovered more and personalities.

IN 1958 Mason tried to retract what she had said. But it was too late. Wilbur had too much at stake. The doctor used the rationale that her patient was in denial about her problems. Wilbur had too much invested in her theories and Mason’s mental illness.

When people began to recognize her as the patient portrayed in the book, Mason left West Virginia and moved to Lexington,Kentucky, to be near Wilbur. There she taught art classes at a community college and set up a gallery at her house. Mason cared for Dr. Wilbur during her cancer until her death in 1992. Mason herself died at home of breast cancer in 1998, at the age of 75.

So what is multiple personality disorder?  As I said before, we no longer use the term. In 1994, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) it was rebranded as Dissociative Identity Disorder – DID. The rationale behind the name change was to emphasize the importance of changes to consciousness and identity rather than personality.

DID is a personality disorder in which a person has more than one discrete, separate identity. Each identity is unique, and has its own sets of memories, ideas, thoughts, ways of thinking, and purposes. The alter identities are completely unaware of the other identities, and switches between identities usually occur within seconds. The alters vary hugely both across and within individuals. The number of alters has been reported to range from one to hundreds or even thousands; one clinician reported a case of a patient with 4,500 alters. Only 200 cases of dissociative identity disorder could be found prior to 1979, whereas in 1999, more than 30,000 cases had been reported. One misconception which I would like to lay to rest is MPD is in any way connected to schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia do not have multiple personalities. They suffer from “a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.” Its most frequent manifestations are auditory hallucinations, paranoid delusions, and disordered speech and thinking.

While at the beginning dissociative identity disorder had many converts, in recent years growing scepticism has emerged. There are a number of reasons that have provoked this scepticism:

The dramatic epidemic in DID cases is I fear not the result of improved techniques in diagnosis and assessment, but from the actions of the therapists and the increased media attention. I am not arguing that DID patients have nothing wrong with them. There is strong evidence that many patents diagnosed with DID entered psychotherapy with psychological difficulties,. But it is the psychotherapists who have generated and maintained DID. Many of the patients had no memory of sexual abuse upon entering therapy. Only after the therapist encourages the patient, did memories of sexual abuses emerge. The late Nicholas J Spanos, a prestigious psychologist, was a DID sceptic. He argued that “patients learn to construe themselves as possessing multiple selves, learn to present themselves in terms of this construal, and learn to reorganize and elaborate on their personal biography so as to make it congruent with their understanding of what it means to be a multiple.”

Nowadays few of us would invoke demonic possession in order to explain such phenomena as epilepsy, brain damage, genetic disorders, neurochemical imbalances, or hallucinations. Yet, not too long ago, this would have been the explanation. What’s more there were experts who were able to identify these cases and exorcise the victims.  We know now that the possessed and those who “cured” them were enacting social roles. Of course to them it was all very real. What we seem to be seeing now is the latest incarnation of demonic possession.

Basic research into human memory has not uncovered any mechanism for repression and recovery of traumatic memories during childhood. The idea that memories can be recovered has been shown to have no scientific basis. Indeed it is extremely dangerous. It is incredibly easy to implant false memories. If you have a vulnerable patient, the inappropriate use of hypnosis can foster convincing pseudomemories for events that never occurred. Psychologists have implanted memories of past lives, UFO abductions satanic rites and sexual abuse. Parents have been arrested and sent to prison for abusing their children on the basis of these supposedly recovered memories. Of course childhood sexual abuse is very real, but these cases of recovered memories are based on completely unscientific methods.

But even if we assume that all the claims of abuse are true, there is a fundamental flaw in the claim that childhood trauma causes DID. If this were the case, the abuse of millions of children over the years would have caused many cases of DID. One obvious example would be the children who were brutalised by the Nazis in ghettoes, trains, and concentration camps all over Europe. However, no evidence exists that any developed it.

A cynic would argue that that this is another example of the psychology industry and its afan for manufacturing victims. Remember psychology critic Tana Dineen’s maxim: PERSON = VICTIM = USER/PATIENT = PROFIT. I have no doubt that economic incentives play a significant role but I think there is more to it than that. A crucial lesson is that beliefs can help to shape reality. Psychotherapists must therefore be aware of the possibility that their therapeutic practices may unwittingly worsen and perhaps even create psychological disorders in their patients.

Sum: a short story by David Eagleman

February 12, 2012

One of my favourite books of the last few years has to be David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Eagleman a neuroscientist by day has produced a fascinating collection of speculative fiction,  forty short stories which explore a wide variety of possible afterlives.  The title of the book, Sum comes from the Latin for “I am,” as in “Cogito ergo sum.” Here is the first story, which is also called Sum:


In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.

You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

The economics of religion

February 5, 2012

It may seem perverse to look for God in supply-and-demand curves, endogenous growth theory and circular-flow diagrams, but that isn’t stopping economists from bringing their own particular way of thinking to religion. I can hear your objections already – they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in our current financial meltdown. But I feel that the dismal science can offer some interesting insights. There are now economists like Larry Iaconne who have specialised in investigating the economics of religion. These economists start from a couple of assumptions. They treat religion as a market in which the religions are like firms.  The producers of religion, be they churches mosques, temples or synagogues, have to compete for by seeking followers. Their other premise is that believers are rational actors – people choose which religion they want to belong to at some level.

One of the lessons taught by economics is the beneficial effects of competition. And in the United States there has been a wonderful experiment in a laissez-faire approach to religion.  It is the ultimate religious marketplace in which faiths compete for followers. The United States is of course an anomaly. In general economic development tends to lead to less religiosity. At least that’s the theory.

Economists also like to examine the role of religion in fostering or hindering economic growth. The seminal work about religion and its role in economic growth is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which first came out in 1905. Weber was definitely on to something. The Calvinist mentality about making money was very different to official Catholic doctrine. The Franciscans in particular seemed to abhor money:

A legend from the Franciscan tradition speaks of a person who, when he entered the church of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula to pray, left some money near the cross as an offering. After he had left, one of the Franciscan brothers simply picked it up and threw it on the windowsill. St. Francis found out what the brother had done. The brother seeing that he was found out, hurried to ask .pardon. He cast himself on the ground and asked to be beaten. St Francis rebuked him most severely and commanded him to lift the money with his mouth and place it with his mouth on the ass’ dung that lay outside the walls of the church.

Having said that, the causes of economic growth are complex, and should not be reduced to one factor. Many of the institutions of capitalism were created in renaissance Italy, a Catholic country. Within Europe, Protestant areas did not necessarily grow faster than other areas.Scotland, a centre of Calvinism did less well than England, which had a more moderate brand of Protestantism.

Now the debate is about Islam. According to Wikipedia in 2008, at least $500 billion in assets around the world were managed in accordance with Sharia law, with the sector growing at more than 10% per year. Islamic finance seeks to promote social justice by banning what they call exploitative practices. This results in a set of prohibitions on:

  • charging interest
  • derivatives and options,
  • investments in firms that make pornography or pork

There are some elements of Islam that do not seem conducive to economic growth. The discrimination against women has important economic costs. These were described by David Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations:

“To deny women is to deprive a country of labour and talent, but even worse – to undermine the drive to achievement of boys and men. One cannot rear young people in such ways that half of them think themselves superior by biology, without dulling ambition and devaluing accomplishment. …But it cannot compete with other societies that ask performance from the pool of talent.”

And there is the famous prohibition on charging interest. However it should be pointed out that there are ways round it. The Islamic economic record is mixed. There has been lots of economic populism.Iranhas been heavily statist with a large public sector. I think these policies are bad in themselves, but I wouldn’t want to put all the blame on religion.Turkey,Malaysia and Indonesia seem to have done much better.

Economists analyse the sacrifices that religions place on their adherents in terms of dress code, eating habits etc. Religious groups face a free-rider problem. They want followers who are committed to the cause. What may seem extreme to an outsider is exactly what promotes commitment. The Hare Krishna movement demands that its followers shave their heads, wear those rather garish orange robes and chant in the streets. This will weed out those who are not serious. What’s more it is easy to check compliance. The strict rules that church members have to follow actually help and strengthen the ties within the group. This conclusion is a bit depressing as it suggests that religions will tend to extremism. Doubt and uncertainty don’t seem to do well in the religious marketplace.

My final topic is sainthood. This has been the subject of an economic study by Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary of Harvard. It’s called Saints Marching In, 1590-2009. The Catholic Church has been making saints for centuries. I should make a clarification here. The church would argue that they don’t “make” saints and neither does the pope. The Church, through the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, recognizes the saints that God has made. Anyway the process typically involves two stages:  beatification and canonization. The academics have produced an extensive data set of the “beatifieds” and saints chosen since 1590. Their conclusion is that the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are outliers, creating blessed persons at a much higher rate than that of their predecessors. Barro and McCleary see it as a response to competition from Protestantism. And this competition has escalated in recent years. They claim Pope John Paul II beatified as many individuals as all of his predecessors combined.

In 1984 the process was speeded up. Under the old system you had to perform two miracles in order to be beatified. And a further two miracles had to be performed in order to qualify for sainthood. These miracles had to be posthumous. In addition you had to wait 50 years before you could nominate somebody to even be considered as venerable, the first stage in this arduous process. That’s been shortened; it’s now only one miracle for each stage and you have to wait just five years after the death of the individual before you can promote them to be venerable and then beatified. Benedict has continued the streamlining process. This may be due to a huge backlog of “beatifieds” created by his predecessor.

This has been my brief survey of the economics of religion. I realise that the economic study of religion doesn’t provide any insights into the transcendent aspects of religion, but I feel it can shed light on the behavioural aspects.