This book is just chock-full of good parts to quote. The Distributed Republic linked to this blog earlier on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and war, and here’s another example.

“Decades before Tooby and Cosmides spelled out this logic, the pyschologist Anatol Rapoport illustrated it with a paradox from World War II. (He believed the secnario was true but was unable to very it.) At a bomber base in the Pacific, a flier had only a twenty-five percent chance of surviving his quota of missions. Someone calculated that if the fliers carried twice as many bombs, a mission could be carried out with half as many flights. But the only way to increase they payload was to reduce the fuel, which meant that the planes would have to fly on one-way missions. If the fliers would be willing to draw lots and take a one-in-two chance of flying off to a certain death instead of hanging on to their three-in-four chance of fling off to an unpredictable death, they would double their chance of survival: only half of them would die instead of three-quarters. Needless to say, it was never implemented. Few of us would accept such an offer, though it is completely fair and would save many lives, including, possibly, our own. The paradox is an intriguing demonstration that our mind is equipped to volunteer for a risk of death in a coalition but only if we do not know when death will come.” Pinker does not mention the Japanese kamikaze pilots of that same war.

As might be expected from his History of Violence stuff, Pinker is a believer in “moral progress” (discussed here and here at Overcoming Bias).

“And on the larger stage, history has seen terrible blights disappear permanently, sometimes only after years of bloodshed, sometimes as if in a puff of smoke. Slavery, harem-holding despots, colonial conquest, blood feuds, womean as property, institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism, child labor, apartheid, fascism, Stalinism, Leninism, and war have vanished from expanses of the world that had suffered them for decades, centuries or millennia. The homicide rates in the most vicious American urban jungles are twenty times lower than in many foraging societies. Modern Britons are twenty times less likely to be murdered than their medieval ancestors.

If the brain has not changed over the centuries, how can the human condition have improved? Part of the answer, I think is that literacy, knowledge, and the exchange of ideas have undermined some kinds of exploitation. It’s not that people have a well of goodness that moral exhortations can tap. It’s that information can be framed in a way that makes exploiters look like hypocrites or fools. One of our baser instincts – claiming authority on a pretext of beneficence and competence – can be cunningly turned on the others. When everyone sees graphic representations of suffering [note from TGGP: see Chris DeBona explain what he’s optimistic about at Edge], it is no longer possible to claim that no harm is being done. When a victim gives a first-person account in worders the victimizer might use, it’s harder to maintain that the victims are a lesser kind of being. When a speaker is shown to be echoing the words of his enemy or of a past speaker whose policies led to disaster, his authority can crumble. When peaceable neighbors are described, it’s harder to insist that war is inevitable. When Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'” he made it impossible for segregationists to maintain they were patriots without looking like charlatans.

And as I mentioned at the outset, though conflict is a human universal, so are the efforts to reduce it. The human mind occasionally catches a glimmering of the brute economic fact that often adversaries can both come out ahead by dividing up the surplus created by their laying down their arms. Even some of the Yanomamo see the futility of their ways and long for a means to break the cycle of bengeance. People throughout history have invented ingenious technologies that turn one part of the mind against aother and eke increments of civility from a human nature that was not selected for nicness: rhetoric, exposes, mediation, face-saving measures, contracts, deterrence, equal opportunity, mediation [yes, he did just repeat himself], courts, enforceable laws, monogamy, limits on economic inequality, abjuring vengeance, and many others. Utopian theoreticians ought to be humble in the face of this practical wisdom. It is likely to remian more effective than “cultural” proposals to make over childrearing, language, and the media, and “biological” proposals to scan the brains and genes of gang members for aggression markers and to hand out antiviolence pills in the ghettos.” Oddly enough, he noted earlier in the book that monogamy is a conspiracy of non-alpha males to decrease the supply of eligible husbands for women and thereby gain at their expense (as well as that of alpha-males).