Thursday, November 19, 2009

Last night, I read another ghastly episode in human history that seems unthinkable now. History of medicine is strewn with a variety of amazing incidents. The Flemish anatomist, Andreas Vesalius overturned centuries of unscientific medical monopoly by the Roman physician, Galen. In ancient Rome, as dissection was banned, Galen slit open apes and thought they shared the same anatomy as humans. This massive error lasted for 1400 years, until Vesalius disproved such a method and the anatomy based on it—through meticulous observation and experiment. In the 1500s, when Vesalius lectured at Bologna and Pisa in Italy, it was a standard practice that students seated in an auditorium-like classroom will see from the top dissection of corpses by a barber; the anatomy lecturer would direct the barber in the process. Vesalius overturned this and started dissecting the corpse himself. He was too ambitious for his age, even in his profession, and literally fought with dogs in cemeteries to dig out cadavers for dissection.

If this is ethically acceptable, three centuries down, another kind of morally repugnant act happened in Britain. With only two to three corpses available for scores of anatomy students, cadavers became the covertly precious. Two friends, Burke and Hare (who ran a lodge) were ambitious men of different sort. When an old tenant of the lodge died, the friends sold his body to a private anatomist for seven pounds and 10 shillings. Finding this way to earn quick bucks easy, they then suffocated their next victim to death; because this way, the body wouldn’t be poisoned. From this act came the word burking, meaning murdering without leaving a trace. Both the friends and their two accomplices went onto kill 14 more people, mostly women, to supply corpses for anatomical study. I even heard a famous medical proverb that a doctor does become one, only after killing sufficient patients.

Though bluntly hurting, this proverb does underpin a doc’s trade. When Burke and Hare were ultimately nabbed by the police and with Hare testifying against Burke, he was let off. But what followed was gruesome. Public outrage over the murders was so intense that Burke was publicly hanged. His body was dissected in public, skin tanned and even sold as souvenirs. Should the macabre acts be treated with equally or more ghastly treatment? Has violence lessened with the advance of ‘civilization’?

Steven Pinker, the lucid linguist and intellectual, took a shot at this sometime back writing a short ‘history of violence’. Pinker sets to debunk the idea of noble savage: “the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions.” His stress is on institutions, which have been the punch-bags of various social sciences, especially a now-waning discipline called cultural studies. Here is the concluding part of his mid-2007 essay in verbatim:

No one knows why our behavior has come under the control of the better angels of our nature, but there are four plausible suggestions. The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don't strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.

Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one's own station, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I".

Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.

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