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Progress and Violence Debate: The Dramatic Conclusion

Today, we’re finishing up last Friday’s debate. Chime in below.

Motion for debate: Progress Is Inherently Violent.

Matty P, arguing for the motion, with his rebuttal:

Life is antagonistic. It’s a violent process. Organic metabolic processes based on catabolism and anabolism. Competition and predation. Adapting to the environment and affecting that environment to better suit the organism. Evolution is referred in the simplest terms as survival of the fittest. So too is innovation a simple expression of that evolution, of the violent existence that is life itself.

Eric isn’t wrong. Humanity is becoming less violent. Previous innovations of technology and thought have progressed us past simple reliance on basic impulse. Further, we also agree that our technology is more advanced, creating greater inter-connectivity. However, these assertions do not negate the simple nature of how life progresses.

Take Eric's example of a man belonging to a nation. The sense of belonging is an ideal. There will always be differences between human beings based upon skin color or wealth or location which will cause division. The reality is that groups within these nations that still are antagonistic toward one another despite the existence of peer groups of various sizes. The most apt example: Crips and Bloods are of one nation and still wish each other harm.

But this is tangent to the original assertion that progression is either propelled or follows violence. The following are simple examples:

  • Life and growth as an organism (individual progress to maturity) requires catabolism and consumption of sources of energy derived from other living organisms.
  • As stated previously, advance in prosthetic limb technology has always followed closely the influx of soldiers wounded by war.
  • Space exploration (i.e. the Hubble telescope and moon landing and innovations of scientific theory tied to these feats) originated as an arms race.
  • Nuclear energy could not exist without the Manhattan Project.
  • Curing disease is nothing more than killing micro-organisms.
  • Sterile surgical and medial techniques were pioneered by combat medics during the civil war to prevent infection to wounded soldiers.
  • Collecting written knowledge requires cutting down trees.
  • Collecting our supply of digital knowledge requires energy and materials produced by natural resources procured by altering the landscape and displacing organisms

Is man capable of progressing without innovation without violence? Sure. I’ll concede that. We can make small advances. But we are not to the point that major innovation is independent of the violent nature of life itself. Maybe someday, but not yet.

Eric C, arguing against the motion, with his rebuttal:

Is humanity violent? Certainly. Humanity was, is and will be violent for thousands of years to come, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading a blog called, On Violence. But the question for debate today is whether progress (or technology) is inherently violent. Put another way, does technology make us more violent? Does it encourage violence?

The answer is no. As I proved last Friday, via Stephen Pinker via long term trends and statistics, society is less violent now because technology continues to improve. Ergo, technology isn’t violent.

Will there still be examples of violence and antagonism? Of course. As I mentioned in my original argument, “The path to perfection will be paved with missteps, errors and violence, but the end result is a net positive.” Modern examples of violence are just anecdotes, not statistics.

Matty P mentions the Crips and Bloods. Los Angeles’ murder rate--314 murders in 2009 in a city of millions--is minuscule compared to almost any other era in the past; the feuding clans in 1800s America make modern day gangs look like Little Leaguers. The most important thing is why: technology. Television news broadcasts, telephone calls to 911, police radios, police cars, and forensics all enable a more secure, modern world.

Has the military, or war, fueled progress and the invention of new technologies? Absolutely. But I’d love to see a comparison between non-military patents and military patents. Most technology (electricity, telephones, lightbulbs, etc) is non-military.

A final thought: Matty P brought up evolution and competition, but I don’t think this picture is as complete as it originally appears.

According to some new theories--courtesy of Radiolab--natural selection didn’t actually apply during the first one billion years of unicellular life. Cell membranes were porous, so unicellular organisms shared everything, depending on what worked. Steve Strogatz, an applied mathematician at Cornell, describes the whole thing as some giant, communistic “a rampant sharing of molecules, it’s an orgy...a commune.” Basically, evolution via natural selection didn’t apply. Cooperation ruled over competition.

Then, one cell stopped sharing. And competition began. Life fought against other life. This went on for 3 billion years. Natural selection.

Then something else happened. Mankind defeated evolution. We’ve gone past it, evolved beyond it. We make our own food. We can kill any animal. And now we can manipulate our own cells, swapping genes at will. Swapping genes means Darwin’s theory no longer applies. We’ve subverted the natural order. Darwin’s laws no longer apply to us. Survival of the Fittest is now survival of humanity, and the survival of the environment through land and species preservation. We’ve moved beyond the animals.

We’re moving towards utopia, eradicating sickness and disease, becoming less violent, preserving the natural world, and ending competition.

How did we do it? Technology. And progress.

sixteen comments

Game, set and match, Eric Cummings.

Boosh and/or Ka-kow.

Like I said in the discussion of the first post, I agree with Eric, within the narrow confines of this debate.

On the other hand, I hate hearing people pontificate on the notion that we’ve shed the trappings of evolution by attaining consciousness and developing advanced technology. Sure, we’re at the top of the food chain and are beginning to understand the deep biological mechanisms that constitute life. But our understanding and manipulation of those mechanisms at this point is rather rudimentary. We are fairly capable of basic manipulations in simple organisms like bacteria and we can even make coarse genetic alterations in more complex organisms like plants and mammals. Ultimately, though, we’re still just building crappy little castles in the sand box.

How does swapping genes mean evolution no longer applies? In fact, it’s one of the underpinning elements of evolution. That’s what sexual reproduction is all about and one of the primary reasons it evolved. Early organisms may have shared genetic material freely, but modern bacteria still share genes fairly readily. That’s why antibiotic resistance is becoming such a thorny problem.

Homo sapiens sapiens is certainly still evolving. The difference is that we are beginning to develop new evolutionary tools that we apply to ourselves. Curing disease and changing our environment such that those with traits that would have precluded survival or reproduction even 100 years ago are able to have dozens of kids if they like does represent a paradigm shift in the way evolution works in humans. Our evolution in the future will be dictated by the direction we choose to take it in, by manipulating our genes. Transhumanism is a popular topic of science fiction and one I’m personally fascinated by. The point you’re scratching at is that with biotechnology and a basic science understanding of our biology a few orders of magnitude more advanced than what we have now we will be able to begin engineering our consciousness to remove the trappings of the biology of the mind that we are, for now, stuck with. Among those are the drives that lead us to violence.

Whether we will reach that point is where the difficult debate is. We have the technology to destroy ourselves, but we remain saddled with the biological imperatives that drive us to kill one another. We are already faced with a population that strains the resources of the planet while our minds are still driven by deep biological imperatives that focus on our own lifespans. We can intellectualize all we want, the hard cold truth is that deep future thinking is incredibly difficult for us. It’s everywhere in our politics. Ask people to sacrifice deeply in the face of a threat that is not deeply immediate and they hem and haw and push back. Progress on issues that concern a future as close as 50 years away is painstakingly slow and with our ability to set in motion drastic, permanent changes that have serious consequences for the future there is certainly a large risk that we’ll make a mistake we’ll have difficulty undoing. And that will be the next big bottleneck event. Hopefully we’ll be able to put all the tools we’re developing to moving ourselves as a species past it and onto the next phase of evolution.

Less violence? In the short term, certainly. My own view is that before the 22nd century is out humanity will have gone through the greatest paroxysm of violence it’s ever seen. I hope we don’t, but I guess we’ll see.

Wow… well that went from a science rant to a futurist rant. Sorry for the nitpicking, but next time base the latter half of your argument on more than pop science Eric.


I’d caution you to hold off on the victory celebration. Your argument suffers some serious flaws although in the long run, hopefully education and technology will help us.

First, think of the stock market. Over time, it has annualized returns of 6-8%. In my economic courses in the late 1990’s, some professors proclaimed that the rise in technology was steering the market to a whole new level which we’d never come down from. Instead, it crashed, and we all lost a lot of money. Society, like the market, will have self-corrections. These are usually bloody, brutish, and nasty.

Second, you’re discounting human nature. People react to fear and greed as Warren Buffett cautions.

While on the macro level, things get better over time, on the micro level, they’re often catalyzed through violence.

There’s a lot of literature on the subject.

Geez, Mike F and Nick. Both really great points and jump off points on much larger discussions. I think I shook the hornets nest on this one. Okay, I’ll dive in.

@ Nick – Yeah, this is definitely tied up in the whole tranhumanism thing. Here’s my shortened counter-point. We—humans—save people who shouldn’t survive. Who shouldn’t pass on their genes. People live today, because of technology, who wouldn’t live otherwise. The handicapped, the weak, the disabled. Maybe you can include this in the whole technology is a part of natural selection; I view it as humanity moving past the natual. We are no longer animals. From an evolution perspective, maybe it just means mankind won the battle—we are the ultimate specicies,

Why i brought it up was that Matt brought up catabolism. My point was that mankind now has—or soon will have—the choice on what genes we spread and how and to who. The old conception is gone, it is dead. so I responded to that.

What I still believe, and mainly disagree with you on is, we are becoming less violent. yes, there are population strains, but technology and progress will end that. The modern world’s population has already stabilized; soon the rest of the world’s will to. I don’t think we will see a war to end all wars in the next 100 years. I don’t think we will ever see it.

Hopefully I’m not proved wrong.

@ Mike F – Our main disagreement, I think, is that people want to work together. To me, human nature is cooperative. it had/has to be to build societies. Violence, in my mind, is an aberration. We focus on the wars, not on the peace. (Obviously, we do it here on the website.)

Maybe I’m too optimistic, but you can’t discount the statistics on the subject showing that society has become more intertwined and peaceful.

Anyway, good debate by all.

Hi Eric,

I just had to jump in before the man-hugs got out of control :). Okay, here’s some more discussion points.

“Human nature is cooperative.” Human nature is paradoxical. Modern economics would argue Rational Actor Model- i.e. people work together when it is in their perceived best interests. Psychology tells us this perception can be driven/skewed by hearts (emotions), minds (thoughts), and soul (will). Sometimes they work together; sometimes they don’t. (I’m actually covering this in an essay pending publication on my village in Iraq. It covers when and why a society breaks down). The tricky question is what drives society to work together? This is the real question IMO. I’ll cover it below.

If you look at all US major institutions, all but one (um, post office I think) were created at a time when the nation was in a declared state of war. Why? The quick upheavel in our day to day lives forced fear and greed which allowed quick passage of the bills for change. (I can’t remember who wrote the book on this but I read it 3 yrs ago in grad school).

My personal theory is that periods of suffering and sacrifice cause societies to work together, and that’s what concerns me a bit about our nation right now. Instead, we’ve grown fiat and happy and forgotten each other. Very few of us have gone without food, shelter, and sleep so Keynesian free-market economics is interpreted as getting everything you can for yourself. We’ve lost a sense of civic responsibility and that of helping our brother.

Additionally, from the Judeo-Christian model to which I subscribe, man is inherently nature, and we must fight our own internal selfishness to do good in the world (what Muslims call jihad). To this end, I try to search out good people doing good things for the sake of living a better life.

First I will address the evolution thinking. Eric C says that humans are the ultimate species. What about bug species that have gained sentience, like in Starship Troopers (the book) or Ender’s Game (the book)? Snap.

Whether the 22nd century will see the greatest outbreak of violence is interesting. Many people assume that WWII was the most violent conflict in history. It was not. By raw numbers, sure it killed the most people. By percent of population, no where close. The Thirty Years war wiped out something like 30% of the population in the German states. That is a paroxysm of violence.

@MikeF- I’ll challenge that “Major institutions” were all created in a declared state of war. I guess the question is, does that mean the Cold War? Cause a quick look up on wikipedia shows that the USDA was created in 1962, the VA in 1930 and the US Air Force in 1947.

Of course, you could say that all major institutions were created in times of major upheaval, then you would just have to call times of upheaval in the 20th century from 1900-1905, then 1916-1920, then 1930-1989 (Depression, WWII, Cold War and Vietnam War, and economic turbulence in 70s, 80s), then 2001-present. That seems disingenuous. It also completely misses private institutions that in some way are more important: ATT, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Ford, GE.

As for our society helping each other out, I think we have more charitable organizations now than ever before. That is why even though wars continue to break out, international institutions with NGOs help people live and survive. Think of the international response in Haiti and Japan. Sure they are far from perfect, but in the 1890s would we have done anything?

The biggest difference between the arguments here I see is that Eric/Michael are optimists and MattyP, MikeF, and I take a more pessimistic view.

@ Eric – You are certainly correct in pointing out that we have eliminated many of the coarse factors involved in natural selection in humans even 150 years ago (survival and reproduction of those with even extreme and early onset diseases and disabilities). But then again there are lot’s of diseases we’re only encountering now because we live longer. How many people got cancer or Alzheimer’s 500 years ago when the average person lived to be 40? Certainly cultural factors are much more important in survival and reproduction today than genetic factors. That doesn’t mean evolution, from a hard science perspective, isn’t still active (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1931757,00.html).

But even the basic elements of culture are part of our genetic legacy. Tribalism, fear of outsiders, etc. are as important as ever. As you pointed out with the Pinker reference, we are mitigating those factors to some degree, but they’re still important for now.

The deeper difference of opinion we have is simply one of transhumanist optimism or pessimism. I contend that in the future we will dictate our own evolution. We will alter our own bodies and brains to adapt to the environments and challenges we choose. Even today we can improve the performance of our bodies and minds in coarse, temporary ways. We can bulk up with steroids, boost our endurance with EPO, stay alert and focused with Aderall and Modafinil. Soon we’ll be able to make permanent, genetic changes, or live in cultures that incorporate massive body modification as a matter of course. Alastair Reynolds’ books (especially his brilliant novella Diamond Dogs) provide a nice space opera take on a lot of transhumanist futurism. I contend that these kinds of elective modifications are the next stage in human evolution.

Like I said in my initial essay (brevity is not a part of the soul of my wit, apparently) we will soon (in a few hundred years) have the tools to eradicate the biological underpinnings of violence we carry around.

And yes, we have the tools to solve problems of overpopulation and resource scarcity (really interesting paper on the subject here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/0..). The issue is really whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist on the subject. Does human consciousness allow us to supersede the biological imperatives that compel us to violence and can we resist destroying ourselves with our technology? Or has our biology locked us into a path which is leading us to a bottleneck event? From my own experiences and all the reading I’ve done, I feel we are still ruled by our biology and we will continue to be. We will change our bodies, our minds in wildly different ways, but until we can subvert our brain stems, our reptilian inheritance, many of those changes will be horrifying and will do little to lead us to the utopia you’re talking about. Ultimately, the question is “Are you an optimist? Or are we just screwed?”

@ Michael C – What about machine sentience? Maybe Jane (Speaker for the Dead) is the ultimate sentience… Snap back at ya!

And war has nothing on viruses, bacteria, and protists as the ultimate killer of humans. In fact, in many wars, more individuals died of disease than of trauma. And while we’ve been protected by antibacterials for a long time, we might be in a bit of a pickle in short order: (link in the next post… grrr)

And here it is.


Michael C- “times of upheaval” is probably better suited.

Nick- I’m striving to be a realist. It’s too depressing to be too optimistic and have something fail. Conversely, I try not to let the bad examples break my will.

Eric C- one of my favorite NGO’s is/was micro-financing. Lately, as they’ve taken off, big banks and big businesses have corrupted the practice in order to turn them into profit machines instead of assistance for the poor. One way to stop this would be through good regulation. Perhaps, the convergence of this entire debate is that through education and technology given good governance (regulations and rules), fair trade, and time, then we can have more peace. That gets us back to the democratic peace theory.

Y’all maybe interested in this book as well. I’m currently reading it, and I’m going to do a review/interview with Rye for SWJ.


Just because we advance, doesn’t mean we advanced past natural violent behavior. There will be violent men to provide peace for the weak.

Ah yes, the wolves to protect the sheep? And what happens when the wolves get hungry? Do the sheep offer sacrifice to the wolves for their protection?

Anyways, I’m sure you guys will have seen this, but I think Carl Sagan pretty much sums up your argument rather nicely Eric.


@MikeF- I am a huge fan of the Democratic Peace Theory, which is a pillar in my more liberal (in an IR sense) world outlook. As for how to pursue the promotion of democracy after 9/11, I don’t think we have seen a President who knows how to yet.

As for the violent provide peace for the week and sheepdog/sheep/wolf analogy (most typified by Dave Grossman’s work), I am working up a larger post about it. (In summation, it is vague, and irrelevant.)

I’m glad the debate sparked conversation.

Eric C – The podcast from Radiolab was interesting, but it is only an accepted theory and the fact that single cells had to evolve to become competitive doesn’t, as Nick stated negate the existence of competition as an evolutionary driver. However, I would suggest you catch (Radiolab’s) discussion on bioengineering and the ethical implications involved with creating/designing life.

Nick – You make some interesting points, particularly that humans are still evolving. It’s actually been debated whether we are truly still homo sapien or have evolved past that point to sapien superior based on the marked differences in average size from modern man to early homo sapiens not to mention the leaps and bounds in technological sophistication which is hard to quantify considering no other evolutionary offshoots use tools like primates or their relatives do.

Mike F – I was never good with economics to be honest. You made an interesting distinction between macro and micro levels.

Eric again – I want to clarify that I’m not stating technology doesn’t make us more violent, simply that innovation and change is something to which we are naturally resistant and that resistance creates friction. I cannot discount mankind’s altruism (which does exist in other species, but not on the order you indicated).

Mike F again – I like that you bring up the Judeo-Christian model, to which I also try and model my life and continually go to for meaning. It’s deeply entwined in the idea that man’s nature is to sin and that no man is beyond sin. And I think you’ve indicated that that may have admittedly shaped my opinion.

Michael C – Excellent point about the growing number of charities, but is that because mankind is becoming more benevolent or because tax laws are allowing more charities to function as organizations in combination with simple awareness brought on by our interconnectivity? Which I am not disparaging.

Nick again – Let me also add that we are long overdue for a pandemic thanks to vaccination and antibiotics according to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt back in 2006.

Lompoc – That’s a debate for another day.