Very enjoyable. I confess to particularly enjoying the English (or at least British) style of humour and writing generally.

There was a great deal about the book that was being reviewed - more than in most of the finalist reviews - and yet I didn't quite get the feeling I learnt much about the book. Odd - perhaps the criticisms and approvals were too flamboyant for me to feel that I'd heard the ideas presented completely accurately. A minor point, possibly.

Quite different from all the other reviews which was something I generally liked.

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Minor points: the oxytocin literature is in shambles well beyond what you note; and Samuel Marshall's title is even better than you note (he's usually called "S.L.A.M." or "Slam"), and his results are even worse (a giant tissue of fraud).

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Interesting review. But please change "marital culture" to "martial culture."

I can send you a copy of the paywalled article if you like. You might also read "Survival of the friendliest."

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>(it'd be nice to check whether the effect moved from just below half to just above, but the paper is behind a paywall)

Just checked myself - it appears to go from .27 for female participants in the low-empathy condition to .73 for female participants placed in the high-empathy condition, and .4 to .73 for male participants.

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> Now at first glance it looks like intelligence is our superpower, but Bregman disagrees. [...] Only in social learning do the toddlers demolish the apes. This shows that humans didn't take over from chimps because we're cleverer, but because we're better at learning from each other.

This review treats this claim skeptically, but it's argued in great detail (also including the "domestication" concept) in Henrich's *The Secret of Our Success*, reviewed by Scott at


Having read Henrich's book thanks to Scott's recommendation, I think these ideas are quite plausible and supported by a lot of evidence.

Henrich may have downplayed the importance of individual intelligence too much (e.g., the ability to do Piaget's "formal operational" reasoning is a *huge* deal), but I think he's established that a huge amount of what we might casually attribute to "intelligence" is really handled by culture, and that that's possible because of our tremendous predisposition to and capacity for social learning.

This doesn't directly prove or disprove Bregman's claim; clearly culture and social learning can both encourage and discourage violence and abuse of others, and the ingroup/outgroup thing is really complicated. In Henrich's account, social learning is more about letting culture give us capacities (and retain and refine knowledge) than about requiring those capacities to be either violent or nonviolent.

The domestication claim is discussed in chapter 11 of Henrich's book and is mostly focused on the idea that people have an innate capacity to learn and *want to follow and enforce* social norms from their cultures. Those social norms can then act as a check on all kinds of behaviors, including conflict and harm behaviors, but the details depend on the content of the norms. (Since I think Henrich is very committed to that latter idea, he would probably say that the extent to which people are "benevolent" depends enormously on the extent to which they've learned a social norm for benevolence from their cultures, but that they do at least have a kind of desire to learn how to cooperate with others with the society in which they grow up—whatever that consists of.)

Henrich's book is kind of optimistic in the sense that it foresees continued capacity for various kinds of progress, and various kinds of cooperation, but it doesn't specifically say that culture will always work well for everyone or every group in every case, or will always suppress every kind of violence, or anything.

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I enjoyed this review. In places the tone rubs me the wrong way; I think a lot of the entries have aimed for Scott's 'not afraid to criticise the author, and masterful at microhumour' and overshot into 'a bit mean to the author in places'.

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I wonder if modern cynicism isn’t an adaptation to higher population density in order to hedge against tail risks: let’s say 95% of the population is decent and kind and nice, but 5% are evil. In a small town with 100 people, there will be about 5 who you have to look out for, and you’ll know who they all are.

But in a big city with 10,000,000 people there will be 500,000 people you need to avoid, and you have no hope of knowing who they all are. And the anonymity will further empower them to do evil things by increasing the chance they’ll get away with it. On top of that, you’ll have contact with a greater number of people every day, increasing the likelihood of you running into one of these people.

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As noted by Gwern below, Marshall's observations on solders not firing their weapons have been broadly challenged.

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"Good news: Bregman does not propose that an alien obelisk dropped out of the sky into pre-history to tame us for its own inscrutable purposes. Bad news: Bregman has no idea why evolution should suddenly serve up a dish otherwise reserved for human interference."

No one has mentioned Richard Wrangham's the Goodness Paradox? He argues that humans self domesticated leading to a modern human race less prone to individual violence than other primates, but more cooperative and better at planned violence. I.e., our unmatched capacity for violence is a consequence of our niceness. Wrangham argued once languages developed and humans could cooperate, one of the things men cooperated at was killing off the most violent & disagreeable men. After a few thousand generations of this, here we are. I've heard of other theories to explain it but I'm not as familiar with them.

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Small suggestion for the voting form when all reviews are published: Is it possible to make it not alphabetic but chronological? That's probably the only way I'll be able to correctly remember and grade.

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"Now Curtis has cunningly compared an extremely specific (chained to a radiator) with a much more general (falling in love). But the numbers still work if you widen his point out to all kidnappings. Or all serious crime. This kind of thing is everywhere - George R. R. Martin is fond of calling A Game of Thrones a more 'grounded' Lord of the Rings. It's actually drastically less real, just nastier."

Less real in what respects? The linked articles don't seem to support this claim at all, they just analyze the realism of a particular narrow element of each property without comparing the two of them at all.

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I really enjoyed the writing style (full disclosure: also a British Christian), it kind of discouraged me from reading the book which is possibly a good thing? It seems like what's good is not original and what's original isn't good, but I'm already exposed to lots of "Humans are good actually" rhetoric.

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Great review. I'd lose the "Paris, France" joke. But, still, job well done.

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1) What I read about the Stanford prison experiment is that two of the three groups turned out OK, and only the third group of guards became cruel. (Which fits pretty much what the reviewer says.) And further that the reason for this third group is that one of the guards became bored, and decided to try channeling the sadistic prison warden in the movie "Cool Hand Luke" just to see what would happen.

2) I'm a little skeptical of these stories of hundreds of people getting together to plan city budgets. I had a councilman who tried to get citizen input this way, and for me at least it didn't work. First, city budgeting is boring. Second, setting priorities involved questionnaires that demanded you put something like 20 municipal needs in priority order. Somehow, deciding which was the 15th highest and which the 16th highest seemed rather arbitrary.

3) "Love Actually" is not a movie about falling in love. Far too much of it is either about guys who cheat on their existing stable love in favor of a momentary lust, or about stalkers whose victims respond in the way they only do in stalkers' fanciful dreams. That's why "it's called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world."

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Delightful review. I suspect I got more out of this review than I would have if I'd set down to read the book.

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I think contact under conditions of reasonable equality wears down prejudice, but quite a lot of contact left prejudice in place in the slave-holding south.

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I've read Paul Bloom's book Against Empathy. My sense of it was that he had a good point that empathy was not and should not be the sole basis of moral reasoning--that it could be biased and lead to poor choices in certain circumstances--but I don't think that he successfully made the case that it was a bad thing overall. Empathy is important for facilitating communication and it's helpful for getting people to overcome animousity and distrust. It's essential for a lot of human cooperation. It just needs to be embedded in a larger ethical system supplemented with other forms of compassion.

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Excellent review! Re: "The Lord of the Flies", my view is that Golding wrote it as a rebuttal of "The Coral Island" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coral_Island and so we're immediately into a literary contest of genres, rather than trying to be realistic descriptions of actual society (also Modernism would have been the influence on Golding as a young man, and he was writing in the post-war period, so all this meant that 'grimdark' was the favoured tone for High Literary Novels). So it's all very artificial, but for some reason we're a species that likes to think of ourselves as rough, tough and brutal, at least in our reading material.

Re: toddlers - they are very definitely not blank slates. There's a reason it's called The Terrible Twos, because they are developing minds and wills of their own and are out there getting stuck into everything. Favourite word: "No!" What you describe reminds me very much of all the (alleged) experiments trying to find out what the original language of mankind was, with kings ordering groups of babies to be brought up in isolation so that their first words could be interpreted without anyone teaching them a particular language.

Re: all the social science experiments - I do wonder how much "the ones who claimed afterwards that they only went along with it because it was a psychology experiment in a prestigious university, pretty clearly no one was actually being dangerously electrocuted" had to do with it. Certainly people *will* take orders from "official looking person with a clipboard" but by the same token, if you know that this is all an experiment taking place in a university run by Real Scientists, there probably is an element of "okay, best to just go along with this, nothing bad is really happening" as well.

Re: people don't need nearly as much managing as management claims - "We should be aware that the reason Jos de Blok can slice literally all the middle management out of his nursing company and end up only slightly cheaper is that he pays his nurses a lot more. So maybe don't give up on pay as a lever entirely."

I'm also willing to bet that he hires a *lot* more staff and that staff *don't* work as many hours. The first thing that both public and private health-care providers, from nursing homes to domestic aides, do is to cut corners and penny-pinch by cutting down on staff, hiring less-qualified staff so that they can pay them less, and fudge numbers so that staff are covering a lot more patients than they should officially be doing. This has a huge effect on quality of care, job satisfaction, you name it. If de Blok's organisation is deliberately not doing this kind of penny-pinching, no wonder staff are happier and clients report better care.

I think I fall somewhere in the middle here - I don't think people are as natively nice as Bregman states, but neither do I think that we're all ravening brutes. It's up to circumstances: I don't whole-heartedly agree with this quote from Deep Space Nine during the Dominion War (I do think the Federation has principles that it sticks to) but at the same time, it's not completely wrong:

"Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They're a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people... will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don't believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes."

Put people under pressure, and some of them will turn into diamonds, and some will just shatter.

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> have been unable to establish whether Bregman has got his Nikolais muddled, or whether Stalin instituted a pogrom specifically against geneticists called Nikolai

It was genetics in general, and yes, it was Nikolai Belyaev who was arrested and executed: https://ru.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?oldid=110574583 (the death claim is backed by 2 book sources).

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Is "leave the chip pan on" a Britishism?

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Marshall was wrong:


Don't rely on the Israeli daycare study either:


Here's Robin Hanson on paying for results, which he thinks our system of capitalism doesn't currently do nearly enough of:



"Which is odd because broken windows theory turns out to be based on one experiment done by our old friend Philip Zimbardo"

Wrong. Broken windows/"nuisance abatement" is the ONLY criminological intervention with a replicated randomized control trial. See Manzi's "Uncontrolled".

"New York's great crime statistics just reflect that violent crime was falling everywhere in this period"

It fell more in NYC. "Dynamic concentration" seems to be a big part of that.

"What we can say with confidence is that zero-tolerance policing massively, disproportionately, picks on ethnic minorities":


On cynicism I'll cite Robin Hanson yet again. It leads to accuracy but also marks you as someone for whom cynicism is justified:


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Like a number of these reviews, this one is brilliantly written in the details but needs editing. I have a plesant overall impression of wit, the well-turned phrase, and that the reviewer kind of liked the book, maybe a little against his better judgment, but I'm not entirely sure what the book is *about*.

People are nicer than you think? Social science research is often massively overinterpreted by the time it turns into a shibboleth? (Although the latter point would be made more persuasively if the review itself didn't quietly switch from deep skepticism about single "key" social science experiments at the top to a mild credulity about them at the bottom.) We shouldn't draw our ideas about human nature from popular novels? There's a lot of shitty management out there, so some shocking percentage of the time *reducing* management gets better results? If all of these, what is the thesis that ties it all together, somehow?

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I suppose if you're a fan of snarky hatchet jobs that spend too much effort trying to be witty you might like this review. I found it severely lacking. From the first sentence I found the tone grating making it difficult to take the rest of the review seriously.

I admit I'm quite biased. I read this book last summer and found it was one of the most interesting things I've read in quite a while (and I read a lot).

The reviewer made some interesting and valid points. It's too bad he chose to do so in a way that I found so off-putting.

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The blitz example reminds me of how in the testimony coming out about the UK covid response, most recently from Dominic Cummings, they seem to have made the same mistake again. With a widely held belief that a lockdown would be impossible as noone would obey it without draconian enforcement. But when it was actually tried Britain had some of the highest rates of adherence in the western world, and it required minimal direct enforcement

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Thoughtful, enjoyable, and interesting review, thanks! There are a lot of run-on sentences, though. Also, formatting note: there's an incorrectly placed quotation mark at the end of the Part 1's first paragraph.

(I don't know what you're referring to or mean by "at one time we were looking into the literature on forecast accuracy measures. We found one using arctan." Are "forecast accuracy measures" stuff like Brier scores and log-scores and whatnot? (If so, what exactly was the measure (just arctan(probability)??), and what was their pitch for using something as random-seeming as arctan?))

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“we're not led by toddlers, at least not since Donald Trump was voted out." (I'm allowed to be snide about your previous choice of president without actually understanding the issues at stake, just like you're allowed to be snide about Brexit without actually understanding the issues at stake.)”

No not snide but rather charitable if you look back at it realistically. Nor lacking in understanding. It was quite simply as bad as it looked

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Re. my feelings on Remuneration as motivation:

I notice that the absolute number matters less to me than the feeling of fairness.

I've purposefully work slowly and poorly when I noticed the boss did nothing other than own the building, and I've busted my ass for very little when the boss shows up to a job site to show willing.

Likewise, I'd rather work in a place where everyone is compensated fairly, then get a couple thousand more in a place where other people are getting screwed.

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Oh, dear. I am not impressed by Bregman's scholarship. I haven't actually finished the review yet, but taking SLA Marshall at face value verges on scholarly malpractice, to put it nicely. One of my college professors would use even stronger words. He was making things up, and his stuff about people not firing their weapons has been thoroughly debunked.

I'm also skeptical of his view on the Blitz. To paraphrase a book I read many years ago, the average Briton's enthusiasm for Churchill's policies was inversely proportional to how heavily he was being bombed every night. Were the early advocates of air power overenthusiastic about how effective terror bombing would be? Yes, absolutely. Did governments that were being bombed have lots of motive to downplay the morale effects of the bombing? Again, yes. Is taking London Can Take It! at face value also borderline scholarly malpractice, given that it was made as propaganda for American audiences? Not as much as taking "Men Against Fire" seriously in the Year of Our Lord 2020, but this is really not impressive.

These are by far and away the two things I've run across so far that I'm most familiar with. And he's badly botched both of them. I believe that the amount of salt it is appropriate to take the rest of the book with is enough that the total consumed is going to be mostly sodium chloride.

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I haven't read the book, but based on the review, it feels like Bregman read a well-argued book, remembers the basic idea but misremembers a lot of the details, and is now trying to explain it to me at a party.

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"Teams of three had a leader designated at random, and a plate of five biscuits brought in while they were working on a task. In no group did anyone commit the solecism of eating the last biscuit. "

Adding to the pile-on of scholarship, Dacher Keltner's "Cookie monster" study should not be cited for anything. I did some digging on it a couple years ago, including a brief correspondence with Prof. Keltner himself on it. The original was a never-published 1998 manuscript, and the only data published is in a 2003 psych review article. That article gives a bar chart with the following (numbers estimate from the bar chart):

Average cookies eaten:

Low power High power

All male group: 0.8 1.3

All female group: 1.1 0.9

So, according to their data, the high-power males ate fewer cookies. Doesn't really support the story, does it?

My E-mails from Prof. Keltner below:

"That study was done by a grad student who stayed behind at UW Madison when I moved to Berkeley, then dropped out... so we never had the chance to publish other than in the Keltner, Gruenfeld, Anderson, 2003 Psych Review article.

Here are the methods

1. Same gender groups of three participants come to lab (participants were 96% White, average age about 21)

2. One is randomly assigned to position of power, based on a past leadership test they filled out. They are given the task of evaluating the other two participants' contributions to a collective task.

3. They are given several issues on campus to read up on and write policy for, based on information we provided: should alcohol be sold in the university center, should there be mandatory senior tests?; should religious groups get funding, etc.

4. 30 minutes into the study we place a plate of 5 cookies on the table, and see how many each participant takes.

5. We coded the videotapes for disinhibited eating.

That is it.


I'd say it was a small effect


We randomly assigned one person to have power but told them as a cover story it was based on a leadership test they took earlier in the semester

It was about 25 all female groups and 25 all male groups


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I think comparing human toddlers to adult apes does tell us something useful. If human toddlers are as good as adult apes at non-social intelligence, that tells us that we're smarter than apes in that respect. And if human toddlers outperform adult apes at social intelligence, that tells us that the species gap in social intelligence is even bigger.

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I feel that this is the most ambitious of the submissions so far (how about demolishing perhaps the three most famous experiments in twentieth century psychology for starters?). The author uses a critique of the book as a foundation to present an original thesis, relegating the book review itself to a mere sideshow.

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I took part in an impromptu test of the Bystander Effect in early May in the late 1990s. During rush hour in downtown Chicago, a woman fell 53 feet from the Madison St. bridge into the Chicago River in front of perhaps one thousand pedestrians. She then splashed around in the cold water.

I was the only individual who ran and got the lifesaver ring from the east end of the bridge, then tied it to the railing and dropped it down to the woman, who grabbed onto it and held onto it until a police boat finally arrived about ten minutes later. I had to run for about 3 minutes from starting about a half block away on the west end and then running across the bridge to get to the life buoy and rope. (I also pointed at numerous gawkers as I ran by them, made eye contact and said, "Call 911.")

This was a pretty spectacular test of the bystander effect, although I think it might have been exaggerated in this case because most of the pedestrians probably had never noticed the life preserver stored behind glass at the east end of the bridge. I have very much of an Old Boy Scout personality, so I had 15+ years before taken note of the placement of this equipment just in case something like this ever happened and I would have to use it to save somebody's life. But most Chicago commuters are not like that.

Also, many on-lookers probably didn't think the woman was in much peril. She was splashing around, after all. My view was:

- It was early May, so the water was quite cold.

- It's not obvious how you would climb out of the Chicago River since it is lined with huge buildings like the Opera House.

- She may have had a concussion or other injury from the fall.

- She may have made a suicide attempt, then changed her mind when she didn't die, but if a large number of humans can't be bothered to rescue her, she may then decide she was right about killing herself after all. (I hadn't seen how she got over the railing of the bridge, only seeing her plummeting body out of the corner of my eye, but a witness later told me she had climbed up on the railing and jumped. To choose rush hour to do it suggests she probably wanted attention more than death, but it would have been pretty easy to die anyway even after changing your mind.)

I don't think the behavior of the other 999 or so witnesses was in anyway malevolent. They just seemed rather clueless. Many seemed to assume that somebody else would do something, which I did.

On the other hand, I was surprised I was the only yuppie to do the right thing. I would have thought 5 or 10 other yuppies would have responded equally productively. (This is not to say that nobody else helped. When I was trying to smash the glass over the life ring with my shoe and not making any progress, a man immediately figured out the situation and handed me his umbrella, which worked great.)

I suspect the huge number of witnesses suppressed individual initiative on the assumption that somebody else must be doing the right thing. Plus, probably 90% of the pedestrians were white collar workers (most on their way to the commuter train station to go to the northern suburbs). I suspect blue collar workers would have been less stumped by the sudden intrusion of a problem in 3 dimensional physical reality into their day.

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One useful lesson that came out of the much publicized Kitty Genovese case was that it was too hard to get in contact with your local police station in an emergency.

In the old days, phone calls had been routed through a human operator, so in 1930s movies, people are always rattling the telephone and shouting "Operator, get me the police!" But operators were getting scarcer, so in 1964 it was assumed you'd pull out your phone book and look up you local precinct station by its precinct number.

The Genovese case helped provide impetus for the spread of the 911 system of contacting emergency services.

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Anecdotal evidence against the contact theory.

Moving into a majority gypsy neighborhood has heavily biased me. Before I moved, I had had virtually no contact with any gypsies. I thought it was a shame how they were treated in society, spoke up when people around me made racist remarks, etc.

After I moved, I was threatened with assault *numerous* times, my phone was stolen, I was falsely accused of beating up an 8 year old kid, I've seen their children throw stones at stray cats and dogs, I've seen them all just leave their garbage where they stand, 10 feet from a garbage can, in the winter the air is impossible to breathe because several households burn rubber and other garbage.

Now I no longer speak up.

But that's just one data point, and the studies on American soldiers are no doubt much more important.

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Nice review.

But at the great risk of being a pedant, I get crabby whenever someone presents a Machiavellian as an unsophisticated asshole:

“Kelter ran a series of experiments from dorm rooms to summer camps where people meet for the first time, and establish pecking orders. What he discovered was that people who behave as The Prince recommends get run out of the camp.”

…Hah, a would-be leader of your summer camp taking Machiavelli’s advice would wipe the floor with his opponents! You get Machiavelli 180 degrees wrong.

For starters, Machiavelli is the first to stress the importance of being perceived as a nice guy. You just must not let the usefulness of this image get to your head, so that you actually become nice, i.e. unable to play dirty tricks on your competing would-be summer camp leaders when that serves you better. Preferably unnoticed of course, but you can usually rely on people having short-term memories anyway.

How about keeping the job as leader? Many, including many business leaders, have noticed the first part of Machiavelli’s famous advice: that it is preferable to be both feared and loved by your underlings, but that if you cannot be both, it is better to be feared than to be loved.

(Digression: Which is sound advice of course, in particular if you are running an Italian city-state, the enemy is at your door, and you are worried that your city-state underlings might strike a deal with the enemy and open the gates at night, so that they can enter and kill you. If your underlings only love you, they might be tempted to do it, to save their own skin; if they fear you, they will know that there are ways of torturing people that are far worse than death, if you should discover their plot in time.)

However, the second part of Machiavelli’s famous advice almost no-one knows (why don’t people read the classics any more?) He says that while it is better to be feared than loved, above all you must avoid being hated. For if your underlings hate you, you can never sleep peacefully at night, without guards at every door and every window; and there could be an assassin behind every tree. So your job is to be feared without being hated. How to you do that?

Machiavellis advice: By making your acts of suppression predictable. If your underlings know which acts that will get them in trouble, but also which acts that will leave them in peace, they will fear you but not hate you. And this is nothing less than the birth of the Rechtstaat (rule of law). Machiavelli is in effect pointing out that it is in the self-interest of a ruler to bind himself to a set of rules (laws) that binds everybody, including himself.

…sorry but I just had to get that defense of Machiavelli off my chest. He was no comic-book villain; and he was not an ordinary asshole.

(Actually he was a deeply religious man in his way, and/but desperate to see somebody becoming the absolute ruler of Italy, because any ruler was better than continuation of the decades-long Italian civil war. Being ruled by a stationary bandit (prince), regardless of whom, was better than being ruled by the innumerable number of roving bandits (to use Mancur Olson’s later dichotomy) that continued to lay waste to Italy, and make life for its tried inhabitants unpredictable.)

Read the book here, it is a slim volume, read in a couple of hours. I particularly recommend Chapter XVII: Concerning cruelty and clemency, and whether it is better to be loved than feared:


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I liked this one. Some others seem to dislike it for its relatively high level of sharing-your-opinion-about-the-author-ness. But i was less put off by that. especcially when there have been a lot of reviews that read more like summeries than reviews to me. maybe im too autistic to pick up on the subtle opinion sharing in those?

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It is worth noting that a fair chunk of Marshall's research practices are now believed to have been rather dubious, up to and including just making stuff up, to support his particular thesis that most people have an innate aversion to killing, and casualties in combat were caused by a small minority of "killers". This has to be put in the context of his confusion (and a broader confusion amongst some theorists) about why forces in modern warfare with their vastly more effective weaponry were not simply obliterating each other in a single engagement. Also worth noting that Marshall himself was not pushing this thesis as some sort of uplifting message about man's innate love for man - his whole focus was to find ways to turn more soldiers *into* killers, and this had some influence on militaries trying stuff like desensitisation training. His thesis was later expanded upon by David Grossman, who continued the idea that most killing is done by a small proportion of aces, and has contributed to the "sheepdog" idea you see floating around today in certain circles.

Whilst it is true that a relatively small proportion of rounds fired in combat end up hitting targets, and some soldiers never fire their weapons, but this has to be understood in the context of modern combat. In most engagements with modern weaponry, many rounds are used for suppression, and units are often shooting at others who they can barely see, meaning some soldiers may not have an opportunity to get a shot off. Whilst there are certainly cases of units or indeed whole armies being more or less enthusiastic in combat, I think this has to be understood in a historical context, because the reasons why are usually both complicated and idiosyncratic.

Based on my own reading and from talking to mihist enthusiast friends, some of whom are veterans, I would modify Marshall's thesis somewhat, most people except a small minority are averse to doing lethal violence *when they themselves are at risk of being killed in return*. When that risk disappears or is lessened, and it is easy to kill enemies at no risk to yourself, then you see a lot of the hesitation disappear and most soldiers can become prolific killers. One sees this a lot in ancient sources, talking about the sweet joy of killing fleeing enemies (and the simple numbers which show the greatest number of casualties is typically during a rout). One also sees this with early modern warfare, when the effective range of musketry would increase immensely when infantry were behind a stone wall or other defence giving them a feeling of safety. While under fire, most people will keep their heads down and return fire only in brief slices, this is how suppression works. But when not supressed by fire, most soldiers are quite capable of acting aggressively or popping up like jack-in-the-boxes to shoot an enemy running away.

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>and how Mandela ended apartheid. Turning the other cheek works

Actually the ANC carried out bombings and assassinations

>Outperforming American prisons is like outperforming American healthcare. The reason we keep comparing our healthcare to yours is that American healthcare is about the worst in the world.

Actually this conventional wisdom is wrong. The US spends a normal amount relative to its GDP, with normal cost-per-service relative to GDP, but it consumes a lot more services. The worse life expectancy is the result of much worse lifestyle factors than other rich countries (obesity, homicides, car crashes) combined with diminishing returns on healthcare services.


>zero-tolerance policing massively, disproportionately, picks on ethnic minorities

So does every other kind of policing, because crime rates differ. What are they supposed to do, look the other way when a black youth steals your bike, just because he's black?

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I'm generally sympathetic to Bregman's thesis here. But I was not impressed by his handling of the evidence regarding the level of violence, or lack thereof, among hunter-gatherers. It's not just that I disagree with his conclusion, it's that he presented it as the result of his careful study of the scholarly literature. Yet he seems to completely ignore the major works on the subject that make the opposite case. To get into the specifics, here's my commentary on his debate with Steven Pinker from ~a year ago:

Bregman cited three lines of evidence in support of his view: contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, skeletal remains and cave paintings.

Regarding contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, Professor Azar Gat writes in his magisterial study War in Human Civilization:

>Few hunter–gatherer peoples have survived in their original way of life until close to the present, and they too have been fast transformed by contact with the modern world. These extant peoples are now recognized to have had special features that are not wholly representative of the full range of the prehistorical hunter–gatherer way of life. They were largely confined to poor environments, such as the Arctic and deserts, which were unsuitable for agriculture. In some cases they were pushed there by the pressure of more populous agricultural communities, on whose margins they held a sometimes tenuous and subservient existence. In consequence, because of the low productivity of the environments that most surviving hunter–gatherers inhabited, they had very low population densities: fewer than one person per square mile, often far fewer, was the norm. They moved a lot to subsist and had very few possessions. As a result, they were remarkably egalitarian. Their main division of labour and status was related to sex and age. This is the prevailing image of simple hunter–gatherers, but it is partly misleading. Before the advent of agriculture, hunter–gatherers inhabited the entire globe, including its richest ecological environments. In many places, they still did when contact with westerners was made in modern times. Under these conditions, hunter–gatherers’ population densities, subsistence modes, mobility, and social order were considerably more varied than they are among more recent hunter–gatherer populations. All the same, fighting is recorded across the whole range of hunter–gatherer societies, from the simplest to the most complex...

>During the 1960s, cases of hunter–gatherer peoples among whom group fighting appeared to be unknown attracted all the attention. The most prominent of those cases was that of the central Canadian Arctic Eskimos. This is hardly surprising. In the first place, they inhabited one of the harshest environments on earth and were very thinly spread. Second, the resources on which they depended were also diffuse and could not be monopolized. It is not that these Eskimos lacked violence. They had a very high rate of quarrels, blood feuds, and homicide.Moreover, as we see later, to both their east and west, in Greenland and coastal Alaska, where conditions were different, the Eskimos were both strongly territorial and war-like.8 As mentioned earlier, the Kalahari Bushmen, east African Hadza, and central African Pygmies were also celebrated as entirely peaceful in 1960s’ anthropology. Being among the last hunter–gatherer populations that could be observed in their traditional way of life, they achieved a sort of ‘paradigmatic’ status.9 However, there is clear evidence that in the past they had been involved in fighting not only with their agricultural and pastoral neighbours, who had pressured them into their current isolated environment, but also among themselves even before contact with non-hunter–gatherers. Recent homicide rates among them were also very high, many times higher than in the modern United States of America, which registers the highest rates of homicide of all industrial societies. Only with the coming of state authority and state police in Canada and southern Africa did violence rates decline.10

>For all that, the argument here is not that all hunter–gatherers invariably fight. Human societies—be they hunter–gatherer, agricultural or industrial—have lived in peace for longer or shorter periods. Why this is so is discussed later. Yet most societies observed to date have engaged in warfare from time to time, including the simplest hunter–gatherers. One comparative study of 99 hunter–gatherer bands belonging to 37 different cultures found that practically all of them engaged in warfare at the time of the study or had ceased to do so in the recent past. According to another study, in 90 per cent of hunter–gatherer societies there was violent conflict, and most of them engaged in intergroup warfare at least every two years, similar to or more than the rest of human societies. The author of yet other comprehensive cross-cultural studies similarly concluded that ‘the greater the dependence upon hunting, the greater the frequency of warfare’.11

Regarding skeletal remains, Professor Gat writes:

>Our knowledge of hunter–gatherer fighting during the Pleistocene, the period spanning most of human evolution from 2,000,000 to 10,000 years ago, is inherently inconclusive. The evidence from these distant times is extremely patchy, and that which might indicate warfare can also be interpreted differently. Stone axes, spearheads, and arrowheads have a dual purpose and could have been used only for hunting. Wooden shields, leather body armour, and tusk helmets—familiar from historical hunter–gatherers—do not preserve. In fossilized injured bones, hunting and daily-life accidents are difficult to distinguish from those caused by fighting.6 Nevertheless, comprehensive examinations of large specimens of such bones have concluded that at least some of them were injured in combat. In some cases, arrow- and spearheads were found buried in the injured bones and skulls. A Neanderthal man from some 50,000 years ago, found with a stabbing wound in the chest from a right-handed opponent, is our earliest documented specimen.

>Later cases of interpersonal lethal injuries among Neanderthal men have also been identified. The evidence becomes more plentiful as we move closer to the present; preservation is better not only for natural reasons but because people began to bury their dead. At Sandalja II in the former Yugoslavia a group of 29 people from the Upper Palaeolithic have been found with their skulls smashed. Violent injuries were also found to be very common in Upper Palaeolithic cemeteries in the former Czechoslovakia. In the Late Palaeolithic cemetery at Gebel Sahaba in Egyptian Nubia over 40 per cent of the men, women, and children buried there were victims of stone projectile injuries, some of them multiple.7 Moreover, evidence of fighting among historically recorded hunter–gatherers, whose way of life was not very far from that of their Upper Palaeolithic ancestors, is abundant.

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"Weeks later when they're rescued half of them are dead."

Ummm.... what? Only three boys died. Unlike the Tongan castaways, there were more than six of them.

"In 1966 Lord of the Flies happened for real - 6 teenagers went for a joy ride in a fishing boat"

The LotF characters are 6 to 12 years old. The Tongan castaways were 13 to 16, and they were a smaller group.

"When they were found 11 months later"

15 months. Unless you're talking about another group of six teenage castaways.

"Muskets from the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War .... found 90% were still loaded."

That sentence seems to be missing something. And when was this data collected, and why were there muskets still on the battlefield? Is the set of muskets still on a battlefield representative of the muskets in general? Is the percentage of muskets loaded at the end of a battle representative of what percentage were fired?

"I don't know of any studies showing Reality TV is bad for your mental health, but I'm happy to take it as read."

I can't recall ever coming across the idiom "take as read" before. Is it especially prevalent in BrE?

"There's a test called 'object choice' in which you hide a treat and then give the subjects hints (pointing at where it is) to see if they can find it... One hypothesis is that our ancestors bred dogs for intelligence"

Looking at where a finger is pointing is not a matter of intelligence, it's a matter of convention. You might as well claim that bees are more intelligent than humans because humans "fail the find-the-nectar-by-watching-bees-dance test hard".

"became the cinematic face of the experiment, was a fake he put on after discovering he wouldn't be able to spend the time in jail revising"

I'm not sure how many Americans know that British people use "revising" to mean "studying" rather than "amending".

"(well, a bit under half if you discount the ones who claimed afterwards that they only went along with it because it was a psychology experiment in a prestigious university, pretty clearly no one was actually being dangerously electrocuted)"

How is that an excuse? The study was intended to answer the question of why so many people went along with the Holocaust. Why would you "discount" the people who figured the authorities knew what they were doing as an explanation for why people went along with the authorities rounding Jews up and disappearing them? If we're talking solely about the people who actually killed Jews, okay, but there was much larger complicity.

"Finally, some neurologists stuck a bunch of more and less powerful people in transcranial magnetic stimulation machine. They concluded that power kills mirroring - the empathetic process by which we copy the attitude of the people around us (you can tell that with a brain scan?)."

My understanding is that TMS is for altering the brain, not for observing it. It's not a "brain scan".

Also, there's a lot of places that could us commas, such as between "Bratton" and "officers" in "Furthermore under Bratton officers felt pressured to fine as many people as possible for minor offences, but to under report serious crime."

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Minor correction but it's 'Dacher Keltner' not Kelter :)

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"[...] but what about violent situations like Kitty's? They were unstudiable until Marie Lindegaard had the bright idea of using CCTV footage of real incidents to evaluate bystander behaviour in violent situations. In these high stakes situations bystanders intervene [9 times out of 10], with the rate of intervention rising if there are more bystanders."

Doesn't the linked paper state the opposite? From the abstract:

"The results confirm our predicted association between social relations and intervention. However, rather than the expected reversed bystander effect, we found a classical bystander effect, as bystanders were less likely to intervene with increasing bystander presence."

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I've reviewed this book as well. I found the evolution section to feel more credible, probably less due to the content Bregman presents but other evidence from "Secrets of Our Success". Here's my review in case anyone is interested:

Bregman has a beautiful idea, an ambitious idea. An idea to benefit the whole world and change the course of humanity. It might sound simplistic, but you have to believe in it with your whole heart: Humans are Good. Now if you take a moment and reflect it doesn’t take long to come up with some counter points. What about genocide? War? Yes those things are bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s fundamental to being human. It’s the system that corrupts us and it’s our negative thinking about ourselves that condemns us. Our system always assumes the worst in people, so we shouldn’t be surprised that our system only turns up the worst in people. If only humans had a more optimistic view of who we are, then we would build a world to be more optimistic about.

The villain preventing this utopia is ‘veneer theory’. This is the belief that if you scratch away the thin layer of civilization from a person, then all you’re left with is some evil, savage animal. Bregman’s model turns the veneer inside out; instead it’s the products of civilization that are making us evil and if you scratch it away you reveal the good human beneath. The book never breaks this dichotomy by examining alternatives, such as realistic conflict theory or terror management theory. It never even mentions the possibility of alternatives, to Bregman if veneer theory is stripped away then the good will shine through.

His evangelism strategy is to select major cultural cornerstones of veneer theory and dismantle them piece by piece. What follows is a curated list of dark moments of humanity which are held under the detective's magnifying glass. When the villain's mask is pulled off it wasn’t human nature underneath, it was the media or civilization all along.

There’s a problem with this approach. Defeating cherry picked arguments from an opponent you claim is the only other option isn’t how you’re supposed to construct an argument. When you’re honest you should build a case from a body of evidence which supports your theory instead of trying to constellate your point from bullet wounds in your chosen foe. It’s understandable that some of the major oppositions need to be addressed, but Bregman relies on this strategy far too much.

Secondly, even after having the luxury of picking his battles, some of his takedowns fall a bit flat. At times they veer so far from his central thesis that the victory seems shallow or otherwise misses the bigger picture.

The most egregious example of missing the point is the discussion of Lord of the Flies. I understand that he picked this novel to dismantle as it is a long standing societal touchstone about the inherent evil of people, but there’s a problem: it’s not a real story. It's fiction. Bregman makes the mistake of trying to disprove the underlying theory by disproving the fictional analogy. He presents a single real life example where kids got stuck on an uninhabited* island and didn’t actually degrade into savagery. It’s a captivating story, but not a true reflection of Lord of the Flies, nor a solid premise for a thesis. It’s like finding a single example of someone who was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place, but actually got out, and then exclaiming “Look, there are no such things as impossible situations!” More charitably you could see Lord of the Flies as a prediction of veneer theory but even then, one instance where a prediction didn’t pan out doesn’t automatically make your theory right.

*The island in the real life example was only deserted because slave trading had eradicated the natives living there, but for some reason he didn’t dive into this for his argument on human goodness.

The biggest point Bregman had to contend with are the atrocities that humans inflict on one another. It’s a difficult question to answer for everyone, but it’s even more crucial when your key idea is that humans are good. Bregman acknowledges this, but instead of tackling this important issue head on he steers the discussion to a place where he could win. The question he needed to answer was “How can a world where humans have committed numerous atrocities coincide with a world where humans are inherently good?”. His response is to look at four famous studies from before 1970 which said humans are some sort of bad. He points out flaws in these studies, and then treats the matter as resolved. That’s a side step any All Black would be proud of.

What’s worse is that two of those four studies aren’t even given the lit review they deserve. The Robbers Cave Experiment and the Bystander Effect have both been extensively examined beyond the original case Bregman tore down. The Bystander Effect does have some contradictory evidence, but the conclusions of the Robbers Cave Experiment have been supported a number of times. Humankind doesn’t bother to acknowledge the existence of any subsequent research.

His other two chosen papers, the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments are far more deserving of criticism, but even here his arguments aren’t slam dunks for his case. After taking down large chunks with valid critiques, he explains the rest away by suggesting that people were only electrocuting people to death and torturing other humans because “they were trying to be good” and help the researcher. He then relates this back to how actors of the holocaust, particularly Eichmann, thought they were doing a good thing so they’re not just pure evil. This is how he concludes the section on human atrocities.

It feels like a hollow explanation when related to other horrors such as slavery, the Rwandan genocide or the Nanjing massacre. Even when this explanation fits, I don’t think that perceiving yourself as a good person while you commit genocide makes you any less evil. It erodes Bregman's central idea from “humans are good” to “humans have intentions that they think are good” which is a lot less hopeful.

Humankind does have parts where it tries to build a case from the ground up, and these became my favourite sections. The first looks at life in hunter gatherer societies and the evolutionary pressure for friendliness. The second section slips into more of the ‘Management Thinking’ genre and looks at case studies from modern society. It turns out treating prisoners, employees, children and voters optimistically can generate systems which work better than what we currently have. This section acts as the conclusion for the other discourse, that with the death of veneer theory this is how we need to act for a better world.

I found this conclusion quite convincing, but unfortunately scattered amongst it were lapses that made me suspicious. For example, he’s trying to make a generalised case for all humanity, but almost exclusively chooses examples from a western viewpoint. He only addresses crimes of malice, and not the likes of negligence or indifference leading to climate change. He doesn’t mention discriminations like homophobia or ableism. He does mention racism, but also claims the enlightenment “invented racism” in the 18th Century, ignoring a millennia of abuse against minorities in the likes of the Muslim crusades, or Spanish colonialism. It doesn’t do well to build trust in the reader when you print glaring omissions like that.

Bregman is motivated to push the sins of humanity towards modern times. If our problems have been with us from the beginning, then society isn’t the problem - it’s us. I think there’s a more nuanced view out there that doesn’t need this shoehorning. It’s plausible that treating our fellow humans with kindness would be better for the world, but that we have great inherent capacity for evil and we should try and understand those situations to help avoid them.

Despite all this, I enjoyed the book. The chatty, journalistic tone made for an easy read even as Bregman delved into some dark chapters of humanity. The vaguely anarchist subtext made me smile, and his lesser case, which I’m calling “treat humans optimistically”, is well argued for. In the end I find myself agreeing with the spirit of what Bregman is preaching, but wishing for a book with more rigor to support such an ambitious, beautiful idea.

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It took me ~2 minutes to verify that Bregman did not “get his Nikolais muddled“: https://persona.rin.ru/eng/view/f/0/23958/belyaev-nicholas

Not a huge thing, but made me skeptical of the slightly snippy tone of the review.

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"(presumably either these slave traders have developed zombification, or else they completely missed the aim of their job)"

Ulch! I'm not sure whether you were consciously trying to derive it from this, but this is perhaps not the most tasteful comparison to make as a joke. A substantial part of how zombie beliefs propagated in the first place is thought to have come from experiences of the African slave trade, especially the fear of being revived after death to be forced to keep working…

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"In 1958 Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut started an experiment on domestication. This was surprisingly risky, as at this point Russia thought evolution was a capitalist lie (Bregman claims that 10 years earlier Dmitri's older brother Nikolai, also a geneticist, was executed. "

Bit of a nitpick, but official Soviet ideology most certainly did support evolution. Just that the official ideology also supported the idea that personality traits were the result of environment, not nature, as otherwise socialism would be vulnerable to sociopaths, unable to produce a better race of men.

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Brief review-of-the-review:

This was a lot of fun to read. I like the reviewer's perspective and the British snark with which it's presented. (Though the cross-Atlantic jokes are sometimes off-target; I have no problem with "American Civil War" but find "revising" as a synonym for "studying" to be utterly silly.) Unfortunately I wasn't able to fully keep up with the flow of the argument given the slightly stream-of-consciousness style. The reviewer shows commendable intellectual charity in giving the book the benefit of the doubt, but struggles with a similar need-- "intellectual empathy" maybe?-- in forgetting that most of us clueless ACX readers haven't read it. At times I felt like I was listening to one side of a spectacular debate. Although I'm willing to trust that it's the winning half based on what I heard, I don't feel comfortable concluding that unless I can hear the other side properly.

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This blog has gone from a beacon of intellectual stimulation to pathetic posts over educated communists whining about Trump and wishing the world was a graduate school symposium.

Please start a new anon blog the world needs your writing

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Regarding the domestication bit, I wonder if what we're really selecting for is "how much they appeal to humans". Because it should really be no surprise that humans are selected for that by evolution.

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Re: Lord of the Flies vs. veneer theory:

1) It's been 12 years since I listened to it, but as I recall when they were rescued there had only been two deaths (not half); however, they were in the process of a massive manhunt for the boy they'd previously elected leader and now were intent to kill also. And "burning down half the island" in the process.

2) There was a huge idyllic period that is glossed over between when they set up the council, and when the soldier parashoots onto the island and scares the shit out of them. I don't think this squares with its author is pushing 'thin veneer theory' but the opposite, the boys were basically good it was outside input *from* civilization / history / adults that made them fear / hate / fight / kill.

My reading is: humans are neither good nor evil, but we will willingly self-organize into functioning societies to maximize health and order / minimize surprise / restrain our baser instincts. And this usually works for long periods of peace / prosperity.

When something upsets our balance, we're prone to overreact, whether that's ([boosting the jealous opposition despite them previously being correctly determined to be a sub-optimal choice for leader (Roger/Jack)] or [choosing innocent scapegoats to punish for the problem(piggy)] or [destroying the institutions of order(the conch)] or [mob-rioting and killing the messenger here to explain the phenomenon that you're currently afraid of but don't need to be (Simon)]) or whether that's ([pulling together to take care of the survivors] or [call for the police / ambulance] or [clean up the rubble] or [donate blood])

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