Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Every Cradle Is A Grave

My book is finally a real, physical book! It can be ordered from Createspace or Amazon or Nine Banded Books. (Note that the ISBN number was changed from the original - sorry about that, an unavoidable hassle!) Thanks so much to Chip Smith of Nine Banded Books for book midwifery and to everyone who helped read drafts and edit.

Also, if you like, check out my recent work on my other, wordpress View From Hell blog on cultural evolution. (I have been progressively avoiding blogspot as it has become progressively unfriendly as a tool, and will likely migrate over to a wordpress blog in the future.)

Thanks to everyone for your support and patience!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Impro and the Cultural Destruction of Creativity

Suppose an eight-year-old writes a story about being chased down a mouse-hole by a monstrous spider. It'll be perceived as 'childish' and no one will worry. If he writes the same story when he's fourteen it may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Creating a story, or painting a picture, or making up a poem lay an adolescent wide open to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears 'sensitive' or 'witty' or 'tough' or 'intelligent' according to the image he's trying to establish in the eyes of other people. If he believed he was a transmitter, rather than a creator, then we'd be able to see what his talents really were.

We have an idea that art is self-expression — which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to se his Mask, they wanted to see the God's. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn't have to 'think up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there — and this is crucial. When he'd finished carving his friends couldn't say 'I'm a bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo', but only, 'He made a mess getting that out!' or 'There are some very odd bits of bone about these days.' These days of course the Eskimos get booklets giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It's no wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It's not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.

Schiller wrote of a 'watcher at the gates of the mind', who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind 'the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.' He said that uncreative people 'are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators . . . regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.'

Keith Johnstone, Impro, pp. 78-79. One of the most important books that exists.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ride the Crab

My recent work on Carcinisation:

Two Patterns, on the structure of public, intimate, and sacred space, and how this structure mirrors that of our conscious selves;

The Last of the Monsters with the Iron Teeth, on the destruction of children's culture; and

Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries, on the nature of community and mental boundaries.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Jean Améry was tortured by the SS as an anti-Nazi resistance fighter, and survived internment in the concentration camps. He committed suicide in 1978. He described his torture in his book At the Mind's Limits.

The first blow changes everything, he says - while the physical pain is surprisingly bearable, the dark realization that the torturer is allowed to do this changes one forever. Help is not coming; there is no help.

"Help" or "support" in this sense is not a function of present material circumstances, but of the community from whom the tortured person is presently cut off. It is a function of their standards, what they will and won't stand for. The idea of "help" in the tortured person's mind is also a function of the community's agency, its ability to miss him and to organize its forces to aid him. It is the community that supports the notion of "help" in his mind, through its sacredness and its actions, and the notion of "help" in his mind fundamentally changes the subjective experience of victimization.

This "help" is justice. It has a component of sacred law - the community's standard for the permissible ways to treat a human being. It has an element of the material, in the sense that the community must gather material force in order to do its duty for its member. It is an idea in each community member's mind, and it being held in common with other community members facilitates the coordination necessary to render material aid. Its sacredness allows it to transcend time, punishing the torturer long after the act of torture occurred, in order to enforce its standards.

The opposite of justice, in this sense of society's "help" existing materially as well as psychologically in victim's minds, transforming their experiences, is Rotherham, UK, police arresting an eleven-year-old girl for being drunk and allowing her rapists to go free.

No person by himself, estranged from a community, can experience justice. Justice is a function of the community, and the community does its duty both psychologically (by having sacred standards) and materially (by coordinating to enforce its sacred standards).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Something Equivocal

Nic Pizzolatto, writer of the television show True Detective, has said that he found Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race to be "incredibly powerful writing," a major influence for the show. In this book, Ligotti advises that if you hope for any audience at all, then you had better say something positive about humanity; and if you don't have anything nice to say, then at least say something equivocal.

The final moments of the show are a careful implementation of this advice. The very last two sentences of the finale, if interpreted according to the ordinary cultural connotations for "light" and "darkness," provide a note of hope at the end of a grisly but heroic adventure. The darkness seems to occupy a lot of territory, yes, but once the whole universe was all darkness and no light - and now the light seems to be winning!

However, relating his near-death experience just seconds earlier, Rust Cohle offers a different - and entirely reversed - set of meanings for "light" and "darkness." Darkness - a deeper, darker, warmer darkness than mere unconsciousness - seemed to enfold him peacefully, and he felt surrounded by the love of his deceased small daughter. He "let go," hoping to stay in this darkness, but then he woke up. Back to the light.

This speech and its proximity to the final sentences indicate a smart equivocation - with one voice, "light" and "darkness" have their everyday connotations; with another, they are flipped. The latter voice, consonant with Rust Cohle's earlier presentation of his philosophy, also seems consonant with having just visited the worst basement in literature since Cormac McCarthy's The Road, from which basement, like McCarthy's, no one was rescued.

(Originally published by me at http://pastebin.com/PAUBHAct)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Rationality of Catastrophizing

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that was popularized in the 1990s. It is based on the premise that people with mental illnesses experience cognitive distortions, and that these distorted, broken patterns of thought are responsible for their feelings of depression and distress.

One of the cognitive distortions identified by cognitive-behavioral therapists is catastrophizing - the tendency to worry about something uncertain, and then immediately update toward believing that the worst possible outcome is true. Rumination - an involuntary replaying of social memories viewed through a harshly self-critical filter - reliably produces worries for the mind to turn into catastrophes.

At first glance, catastrophizing seems silly and self-defeating. The catastrophes predicted rarely come to pass. So why do brains continue to do this even after years of evidence of their own poor predictive powers? Why would a person tend to instantly and without evidence believe the worst, over and over again?

It is my hypothesis that catastrophizing is a completely rational behavior when viewed from the perspective of a self involuntarily trapped in a mind, attempting to minimize pain inflicted on it by the mind. It is a literal "mind hack" - gaming the emotional and cognitive system, rather than meeting opponents in the external world.

First, the self obtains information about the pain-delivering algorithm of the mind. A major feature of this algorithm, descriptively speaking, is that the worst pain is generally delivered in response to a loss - a loss in resources, perhaps, but more importantly a loss of social status or social belonging. A change in social status or other resources appears to matter much more to the pain-delivery algorithm than absolute levels of either. The mind rewards the self when the level of external resources or social status increases, punishes the self when it falls, and does not do much when it is stable. Another major feature is that a loss has much more impact than an equivalent gain, in absolute terms. The self's best strategy is to minimize the likelihood of loss in the future, and it is motivated to do so by rumination and fear.

However, the self has another option to avoid being punished by the mind for losses over which it has limited or no control: the self can manipulate its own beliefs to avoid perceiving a loss as a loss. It accomplishes this by catastrophizing.

When the self catastrophizes, it updates toward believing that a loss has already happened. Since this epistemic manipulation is, first, imaginary, and second, under one's own control, the ordinary pain response to loss is not engaged. Meanwhile, one's internally-tracked "position" is made less precarious and vulnerable to uncontrollable factors; instead of risking a fall from a tightrope, one climbs down to the bottom by catastrophizing.

Should the catastrophe materialize, the self will not be punished by the mind (as much), since it did not subjectively experience a loss - it experienced the world being the same as it predicted. More commonly, should the catastrophe fail to materialize, the self will experience a reward, since from the self's perspective, its position just went from rock bottom to much improved.

In summary, catastrophizing is a strategy the self employs in order to "game" the reward and punishment system of the mind - in a manner that is likely totally at odds with the genetic interests of the organism hosting the self. Rumination, fear, and the infliction by the mind of intolerable levels of pain or shame are likely predictors of the catastrophizing "mind hack."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Beauty is Fit

Crabs are natural, crabs are fun;
Crabs are the endpoint of carcinisation

(A synthesis of beauty and fit in the design sense, by me)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Carcinisation is the new insight porn blog some of us from twitter recently started.

I post as Birgus latro (the coconut crab) - here are my two posts so far:

What is intelligence? - a brief model of the things we mean by intelligence, whether machine or human, and their relationship to consciousness.

Toward the Synthesis of Flourishy Forms - applying concepts from Christopher Alexander's design method and elaborating them into space and time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Children, Education, and Status

In my previous post I argued that a culturally transmitted change was responsible for the fertility decline: education. The fertility decline is not simply a price effect within an existing context, though children are certainly more expensive than they have ever been, but rather a cultural transformation that changed the relationship between parents and children. 

My most controversial claim is that children used to be valuable, in the way that slaves and farm animals are valuable. A line of evidence against this is that children in some hunter-gatherer and farming societies did not, on net, contribute positive economic value to their families in terms of material production. In "Economics in the Family Way," Ted Bergstrom relates a few examples of studies of hunter-gatherers and peasant farmers; Peruvian and Paraguayan hunter-gatherer children consumed more food than they caught up to age 18, and the same was true of peasant agriculturalists in contemporary India and Egypt. The rate of return on the "investment" in children, measured by their providing for parents' retirement, was only 1%. In some societies, measured by material consumption and production, children appear to have been a very poor investment indeed!

However, not all studies agree - methodology strongly influences the result, and populations vary in terms of their children's helpfulness and self-sufficiency. In many populations studied, children make significant and even net positive economic contributions, and the upward wealth flow is measurable even in merely material terms. Karen Kramer summarizes the many studies that have investigated whether children "help" in "Children’s Help and the Pace of Reproduction: Cooperative Breeding in Humans," and reports that Maya subsistence agriculturalist children produced more than half of their consumption by the age of seven for boys and six for girls, and produced the equivalent of their consumption at sixteen for boys and fifteen for girls. Though children are not very productive compared to adults, they are cheap - they have a very low opportunity cost for work compared to adults, and are expected to work long hours even with low productivity. Kramer reports that agriculturalist children spend many more hours per day working than hunter-gatherer children, and pastoralist children most of all. Hunter-gatherer children frequently become self-sufficient at a very young age. Farm children cannot become self-sufficient so early, and therefore need more from their parents, but their parents demand more from them in return.

But the impact of children in terms of material production compared to consumption, and on net wealth, is not the main driver of fertility; children were valuable in other ways, and mass education interfered with all of them, not just their economic contribution. To return to the central analogy, slaves are valuable for many reasons besides their ability to produce more than they consume: they may help with childcare, provide companionship, and serve as status goods (from the point of view of peers). The type of companionship slaves provide is relevant: they are low-status beings, and with their servile behavior they provide the owner with constant reminders that he is powerful and high-status. A slave of this type's mere presence represents a type of consumption on the part of the owner, similar to the consumption of entertainment.

The practice of apprenticeship and child servitude suggests that many children even in complex societies contributed positive economic value at a young age. Much of the value that they contribute, though, is social: they make parents (or other adults) feel both needed and comparatively high in status. Submissive, servile behavior, instilled by harsh treatment and often violence, likely made them more pleasing for parents to be around. Having low-status underlings around seems to be a common human desire, expressed in a celebrity's "entourage" and in pet ownership. This human trait may even be relevant to the formation of complex hierarchies. In a sense, children used to provide a social service; education deprives them of most of their ability or willingness to engage in these behaviors.

What do children help with? They are primarily useful for the work of having a large family. Among the Maya, Kramer reports:

If children produced nothing, Maya parents would have to work 2.5 times as hard as they do to maintain their children’s consumption between the 20th and 33rd years of the family life cycle. Were it not for the economic contributions of children, parents in their fourth and fifth decades would have to increase their work effort by 150%, each parent working more than 16.5 hours a day (real-time hours).

Children's work makes it possible for parents to raise large families. This may be even more true among agriculturalists and pastoralists than hunter-gatherers; among a group of Pacific Island agriculturalists, the Ifaluk, Paul Turke found that having a daughter (or better, two in a row) increased the completed fertility of women compared to those who had sons first; this was not the case among !Kung foragers. The nature of available work and the gender division of labor accounts for the difference; Kramer finds that the percentage of childcare provide to infants by their sisters ranged from 10% to 33% in the available studies. In no case, however, did care from fathers account for a higher percentage of an infant's time than care from sisters.

But there is another way in which children used to contribute: they gave a parent his status as a free adult, and marriage and children were the only path to free adulthood. In The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe, John Boswell notes that in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Syriac, and many medieval languages, terms for "child," "boy," or "girl" were frequently used to mean "slave" or "servant." He reminds us that only a few hundred years ago, only a small proportion of the population married and raised children; the rest remained under someone else's control, often as servants. Similarly, in the Nakaya language, a "child" is someone who has not yet had children; one does not obtain adult status until having children of one's own. Having children was formerly the only path to achieving adult status; education changed all that, providing a new means by which to measure status and changing the status relationship between parents and children.

In summary, children used to be:
  • hard working and helpful, especially at the work of raising a large family;
  • self-sufficient at an early age;
  • submissive to adults;
  • the only path to adult status
Education, specifically Western education promoting democratic values, interferes with children's work and their parents' expectations for their work. It makes them more dependent on their parents, and makes them less likely to be servile and submissive to parents. And education itself provides an alternate means of achieving adult status other than having children. In the presence of these conditions, the demand for children is apparently low.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why People Used to Have Children

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been characterized by a massive decline in fertility, beginning in rich Western countries and spreading all over the world. It is a transformation that is still underway in poor countries today.

Technological advances have, over the same period, radically decreased child mortality and increased life span. Modern parents need not have many children to ensure that one or two survive; almost all children survive to reproductive age. But Darwinian genetic interests cannot explain the modern decline in fertility (if Darwinian interests dominated, fertility should increase with increased survival, as observed in many historical elites). Rather, the fertility decline to present levels is mostly an economic response to the changing value of children, and to the changing economic relationship of parents and children. The economic transformation is not spontaneous, but the product of cultural transformation through education.

The economic value of children has decreased, but this is not the most important cause of the fertility decline. The transformation of countries from predominantly agricultural to predominantly urban reduced the value of children, especially where the industrial employment of children was restricted. Each child's labor contributed positive value to a family farm or cottage industry, but in an urban setting, children began to have negative economic value. Indeed, the fertility decline correlates somewhat - though not perfectly - with the transformation from agrarian to city life.

But the fertility decline is not merely the product of a price effect - of people having fewer children because children are more costly. Children are not normal goods (or even inferior goods, as might be surmised from low fertility among the highest income groups): they become not goods at all, but rather bundles of claims on their parents. This transformation is a culturally-controlled change in direction of the flow of resources. Before the fertility decline, resources flowed from children to parents (and even up to grandparents and kin); after the transformation, resources flowed from parents to children. In Mass Education as a Determinant of the Timing of the Fertility Decline, John Caldwell argues that the vector of this cultural transformation has been mass education. He characterizes it as the replacement of "family morality," in which children are expected to "work hard, demand little, and respect the authority of the old," with "community morality," in which children are dependent on their parents to become future productive citizens (perhaps even upwardly mobile) for the good of the country.

Caldwell identifies five mechanisms by which education reduces fertility by reshaping the economic relationship of parents and children. First, education reduces the ability of a child to work inside and outside the home - not just because school and studying take up time, but also because the child's student status makes others reluctant to enforce traditional duties. Second, education increases the expense of raising a child, again not just because school is expensive, but because education increases a child's demands on his parents for non-school expenses in a manner Caldwell describes as unprecedented. Third, education increases the dependency of children, reframing a formerly hard-working, productive child as primarily a future producer and citizen. Fourth, schooling speeds up cultural change and creates new cultures. Finally, fifth, in the developing world education specifically transmits the values of the Western middle class, which is contemptuous of traditional "family morality" as described above.

In each country, before the demographic transition, children were essentially the property of their parents. Their labor could be used for the parents' good, and they were accustomed to strict and austere treatment. Parents had claims not only to their children's labor in childhood, but even to their wealth in adulthood. To put it crudely, marrying a wife meant buying a slave factory, and children were valuable slaves.

After the transition, mediated by mass education, children were transubstantiated into persons. Their individual status increased, and parents no longer had a culturally recognized claim on their labor. Children's culturally supported entitlements increased, including not only food and clothing, but also study and play time. Their relationship with their parents became more egalitarian and friendly, their treatment less strict.

But children do not exactly own themselves in the present situation: the government has claims on their future earnings, through taxation and other mandatory payments (and, increasingly, education loans). In essence, mass education is a communist transformation: individually-owned "goods" (children) are brought under national ownership, and returns from children flow to the country as a whole (through tax-based entitlement programs), rather than individually to their previous "owners." When farms are communally owned, production suffers and famine results; when children are communally "owned," fertility decline results. Social Security programs likely reflect this: the government provides (often poor quality) assistance to old people in place of their children, while undermining their direct claims on their children for assistance in old age.

There is another, related shift in the direction of resource flow during this time: resources (including labor) stop flowing from wives to husbands, and instead flow from husbands to wives, as a result of Western-style female liberation. This trend is also a result of education, and amplifies the trend toward low fertility. Since the emancipation of women frequently lags the child-parent economic transformation, it does not seem to be the first cause; Japan's fertility decline occurred in the post-war 1940s, tracking the forced implementation of Western-style mass education, but women's opportunities for education, professional employment, and political participation continue to be limited and were much more so in the 1940s, despite American-imposed female suffrage. Few would describe Japan in the 1940s as a hotbed of feminism and licentiousness, yet its fertility declined steeply and has not recovered since.

It does not seem that female emancipation was the primary cause of the fertility decline, although Caldwell details the many ways in which it amplifies the existing trend once established. It has long been noted by charitable organizations in poor countries that when resources are distributed directly to women, they are more likely to be spent on children's needs, and when distributed to men, more likely to be spent on the men's status and drug needs. Education and control of finances by women embrace and amplify the new flow of resources from parents to children, rather than children to parents. Educated children are expensive and demanding children, and an educated wife makes them more so. Higher education and labor force participation by women limits the time available for child bearing and rearing, especially during the more fertile periods of women's lives.

Caldwell reports that the transition in Ghana was underway in the 1960s, and in many cases families had both children who had been to school and children who had not. Children who had been to school were treated drastically differently from their "illiterate siblings," though they were often oblivious to this fact. That the transformation could be observed at this level - the treatment of children within the same family - suggests that changes in the status of children (expected to play, to devote time to studies, to be dependent on their parents) precede and underlie changes in gender roles.

Parental control of children's sexuality and marriage does not last long once children have been transformed into persons, and with it goes the right to collect bride price, formerly a compensation for the burden of raising a female child. Even in dowry societies, dowry is increasingly supplemented or replaced with education, Caldwell notes, as a wealthy but uneducated woman is not seen as marriageable by Westernized elites. But this is only one aspect of the fertility transformation, rather than the prime driver; in a few countries, parental control over children's marriage survived long after the fertility decline.

Industrialization negatively affected women's productivity earlier than men's productivity, usurping traditional female work from spinning and weaving to food production. The declining economic value of both women and children necessitated that they be granted symbolic value instead. The "cult of motherhood" beginning in the 1820s in England was a response to this - granting motherhood special status as a full-time occupation, and as a fulfilling life's work. Similarly, as the economic value of children fell, their sacred value increased. Both of these value transformations are not spontaneously occurring, but culturally transmitted; and the vector for their transmission is mass Western-style education. Literature for the masses, from pamphlets of the 1820s to television, also plays a major role.

For many decades prior to the 1970s, the value of an adult (in terms of his productivity and real wages) rose; but the economic value of even an adult person has fallen in recent decades, as real wages attest. Fertility trends do not track the economic value of a human, as they might be expected to do if parents could realize a portion of the value of their offspring. Fertility trends can only respond to that share of the value of a person that a "producer of children" can recover - and the memetic transformation occasioned by mass education has essentially eliminated this share. Governments, meanwhile, claim an ever-larger share of their citizens' resources. And accessing parental money by catering to (and creating, if necessary) the "needs" of children remains a profitable business plan. The producers of children have not benefitted from their children's adult productivity in a long time, just as farm workers in China during the Great Leap Forward did not benefit from their labor.
So why did people used to have children? It's hard for us even to imagine, but children used to be valuable - they used to be much more like slaves or farm animals, which are both very valuable. They were also treated much more like slaves, with patriarchs (at least) maintaining distance from children, as Caldwell notes. Consider the history of the study, compared to the lowly and shameful "man cave," for a sense of the old style of family relations. A wife was not only a valuable RealDoll, but also a valuable slave factory. Making a new "person" - on which the state has claims, but you do not, and toward whom you have (class-dependent) obligations - is a much less economically attractive proposition than making a new slave.

Please see Children, Education, and Status for a response to the argument that wealth never flowed from children to adults.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Social Cost of Free Disposal

An anonymous reader sends this insightful question:
Belgium and Vienna

If we look favorably upon, as a consequence of the post-60s social pandemonium, the heuristic many ancient sacred prohibitions were entirely crypto-utilitarian public policy, doesn't the taboo of suicide in both eastern and western make you want to at least want to steelman the the pro-natalist/anti-suicide position, which I've not seen on your blog? Or a piece of Freudian self-critique.

You can't remove the barriers to suicide for the terminally ill without removing them for the non-terminally ill, history has shown that the slope is slippery, and I think you want that slope to slip right? For many, the nightmare of failed suicides is a feature, not a bug. To be very generous, suppose that a state apparatus is set up so that the pills can't be stolen to commit murder and everyone not in an altered state of consciousness can use it for free on site, a perfect implementation mechanism, might there not be a domino effect? Depressed son kills self, mother follows, so does father, completely formerly healthy and well adjusted sister 1 follows, sister 2 does too, friend of sister 1 and 2, etc etc until this happens.

And now even the happiest people who don't kill themselves out of sorrow are psychologically crippled wastebaskets; In high school we talked about smart people who ended up in shitty colleges and a common pattern was "s/he had a friend who committed suicide and s/he was so depressed for a few years he only got Bs and Cs." People regret things and wish other would've stopped them from doing stupid spur in the moment things all the time.

But we haven't tried it yet. But is it not possible that the very cost of experimentation is just too damn high?

It is almost certainly the case that true Free Disposal in the Bryan Caplan sense - in which suicide actually has no cost - would result in a world no one would want to live in. For one thing, a huge reason people feel compelled to stay around is the existence of social bonds; therefore, social bonds place a major cost on suicide; a world with truly Free Disposal would not allow social bonds to form. But social bonds are among the most basic human needs; a life without them would likely not be worth living.

The chosen-ness of life is not binary but a continuum. Gruesome punishments may be heaped upon the act of suicide, making it very un-free, or it may be actively promoted, making it much more free. The suicide restrictions of old cultures give us a good idea of the degree of freedom regarding suicide that may be permitted and still maintain a functional, self-reproducing society.

Your question illustrates an important dilemma: life is unfree, and must be unfree in order for it to go on. Both at the level of culture and at the level of the individual, the freedom to end life is at odds with the evolutionary goal of self-replicaton. Some will be miserable, and societies rely on keeping miserable people alive by force in order to survive. It is my contention that they do not necessarily deserve to survive.

The Old Ways are fascinating, intricate, carefully evolved structures, and they are also not that great. Certainly they have failed us under modern conditions vastly different from the conditions under which they evolved. A person choosing to have a child now cannot really offer it a functioning, reliably self-reproducing society in which to live; but lives in past societies were not necessarily worth living, either. Keeping humans in line with evolutionary goals requires the use of both force and illusion. I am very suspicious as to whether these goals line up with eudaimonia. If the freedom to avoid the experience of life results in this, then maybe it is not such a great experience after all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Homicide Rates, Suicide Rates, and Modern Medicine

Homicide rates in the United States have been falling for decades. Some have attributed this to people becoming more civilized and peaceful, a hypothesis Steven Pinker expores in The Better Angels of Our Nature. From 1931 to 1998, the United States homicide rate dropped by about 25%. But during that time, rates of aggravated assault increased by about 700%. This calls the peacefulness hypothesis into question.

Homicide is a metric that links a behavior (a violent act) to an outcome (a death). Modern medicine has drastically increased the survival rates for serious injuries in the past several decades. Since death from a given injury has become less common, especially in urban areas close to high-tech hospitals, metrics attached to death - such as homicide - will drop even if there is no change in the frequency of the kind of violent assaults that would have been murders if only 1931 technology were available. Since those kinds of violent attacks have increased dramatically, it appears that using the homicide rate as a metric allows improvements in medical technology to mask a major increase in violence in recent decades.

This trend continues into the twenty-first century; violent attacks increase, but homicide deaths decrease because of improvements in medical technology (see graphic).

Keep that in mind when you consider that American suicide rates have been mostly flat since 1950 - not decreasing, like homocide rates, even though medical technology and injury survivability has vastly improved. In fact, suicide rates have been increasing since 1999. Suicides in the 35-64 age group increased by 28% between 1999 and 2010.

Suicide, like homicide, is a metric that links a behavior (a self-injury) to an outcome (a death). Like homicide, the reduction in death for a given injury should reduce the suicide rate even if self-injuries are constant. We do not see the suicide rate decreasing; in recent years, even as the homicide rate continues to drop, the suicide rate is increasing. Medical technology may be masking an even greater rise in suicidal behavior than the completed suicide rate would indicate.

Case-fatality rates are three to four times higher for self-inflicted gunshots than for gunshots inflicted intentionally by others; that is, suicide attempts by gunshot are more lethal than assaultive shootings. In 2007, 21% of intentional gunshot wounds inflicted by someone other than the victim were lethal; 80% of self-inflicted gunshot wounds were lethal. Gunshot is the most common method of suicide in the United States, accounting for 54% of suicides.

However, almost half of completed suicides have used methods other than firearms - and methods other than gunshot are only 10-15% likely to be fatal. Since 20% of self-inflicted gunshot wounds are currently nonfatal, the firearm suicide rate would "only" rise by about 25% of its current level if modern medicine were not aggresively saving lives that are unwanted by their possessors. But in the absence of modern medicine, up to ten times as many people who poison, cut, hang, or suffocate themselves might succeed in killing themselves.

Proximity to a hospital is a major factor in trauma survival. This may partly explain why rural suicide rates have leapt ahead of urban rates in recent decades: suicidal behavior may be similar, but rural people die from their injuries more frequently than urbanites.

Note: St. Rev hates this graphic as the graphs for weapon injury are of radically different scales (inter alia) and indeed it is probably seriously flawed but it provides a cheap and tasty way of immediately visualizing the phenomenon.
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