On Angels’ Wings


Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 10

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 10: On Angels’ Wings

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” ~Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Fun fact: IQ scores have been steadily rising, at a rate of about 3 points per decade, since standardized tests have been invented. “Mankind is Getting Smarter!” is an easy headline. But is it real?

As you know, “IQ,” or “Intelligence Quotient” is a measure of general intelligence calibrated as such that a score of 100 means “average” and +/- 15 points means roughly “below or above average.” (For the stat-savvy, 15 is the standard deviation.) So, the Flynn effect seems to posit that a person of today’s average intelligence would have been considered “above average” fifty years ago, and vice versa: an person of average intelligence fifty years ago would today be considered “below average.” What’s going on here? Is there a flaw in the testing, or the number crunching, or the sampling? Is “intelligence” a murky, ill-defined concept whose very definition is drifting with the times?

Let’s consider a standard sample question: What do a fox and a rabbit have in common? If you said “they’re both mammals” then congratulations, you would have gotten that question right on a standard IQ test. Why is this a measure of “intelligence”? And if it is, then what is “intelligence”?

Luria transcribed interviews with Russian peasants in remote parts of the Soviet Union who were given similarities questions like the ones on IQ tests:
Q: What do a fish and a crow have in common?
A: A fish—it lives in water. A crow flies. If the fish just lies on top of the water, the crow would peck at it. A crow can eat a fish but a fish can’t eat a crow.
Q: Could you use one word for them both [such as “animals”]?
A: If you call them “animals,” that wouldn’t be right. A fish isn’t an animal and a crow isn’t either…. A person can eat a fish but not a crow.

Luria’s informants also rejected a purely hypothetical mode of thinking—the stage of cognition that Jean Piaget called formal (as opposed to concrete) operations.
Q: All bears are white where there is always snow. In Novaya Zemlya there is always snow. What color are the bears there?
A: I have seen only black bears and I do not talk of what I have not seen.
Q: But what do my words imply?
A: If a person has not been there he cannot say anything on the basis of words. If a man was 60 or 80 and had seen a white bear there and told me about it, he could be believed.

Flynn remarks, “The peasants are entirely correct. They understand the difference between analytic and synthetic propositions: pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts; only experience can. But this will do them no good on current IQ tests.” That is because current IQ tests tap abstract, formal reasoning: the ability to detach oneself from parochial knowledge of one’s own little world and explore the implications of postulates in purely hypothetical worlds.

Sound like this is hearkening back to earlier posts regarding the book’s themes? IQ tests, whose scores have been drifting upwards decade after decade, “tap abstract, formal reasoning.” They measure one’s ability to detach oneself from “one’s own little world” and consider “hypothetical worlds.” IQ scores and the Flynn effect therefore quantify our capacity for reason and empathy! [insert caveats here] A connection between increasing capacity for empathy and decreasing rates of violence would be tenuous at best, but it’s interesting to consider. Experts tend to explain the Flynn effect in terms of education. Schoolkids learn more about “how to think” in the classrooms of today. That equips them to answer questions like “Cat is to mouse as cow is to what?” better than questions like “What states would you pass through driving due south from Columbus, Ohio?” While both test for a kind of synthesis of knowledge, one taps more into an innate ability than innate knowledge. That ability, that capacity to reason, to abstract, and to empathize (to explore hypothetical worlds) is what is driving IQ scores up. Better and more widespread schooling is probably the main driver. It is worth noting, also, that people are getting better at answering certain kinds of questions, not all questions across the board. It is not “general intelligence” that is necessarily increasing, the innate potential of the human brain, as dictated by genetics.

What other trends, besides education, reason and empathy, have been major driving factors of peace? Pinker details three more: the leviathan, trade, and feminism. Recall from a previous chapter that the leviathan refers to Hobbes’s idea of a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as a deterrent against infighting. It’s why legal cases are referred to not as “Alice vs Bob” but as “The People” or “The State” vs Bob. In feudal and tribal societies, scores were settled privately which led to bloody cycles of violent vendettas and the kind of “self-help justice” seen in ganglands and warlord & mafia-controlled failed states. The consolidation of power by kings (and their eventual evolution into governments) led to a decrease in this kind of violence by punishing the kind of infighting that suppressed the common wealth. Trade is the other major driver of peace. Plunder is expensive, as is occupation, so when nations lay down there arms in order to trade they share what social scientists call a “peace dividend.” Lastly, the statistics confirm our intuitions that violence is disproportionately dominated by males. There is a large correlation (cause may go both ways!) between peace and women’s rights. More inclusive, egalitarian societies tend to be more peaceful, and more violent societies tend to eschew the rights of women and minority groups.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.