In a pivotal scene in the movie The Imitation Game actor Benedict Cumberbatch (playing mathematician/proto-computer scientist Alan Turing) gets punched in the face by an angry colleague. He explains that although the violent act was a useless action, “violence makes you feel good”. The movie is based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing, the Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film ‘The Imitation Game’ (first published in 1983, reprinted 2014). Although the movie is the tracing of the historic and transformative World War II code breaking work completed by top-secret British Intelligence personnel, it also focuses on Turing’s belief that the “cracking” of the German codes could not be unravelled by any one human mind but only through rigid statistical analysis and mechanical computation. His device known as the “Turing Machine” was a prototype of what was to bec0me the computer.
The other fascinating parallel in the movie is Turing the outsider, the outcast, the nonconformist – the easy target to be bullied as well as a victim of violence. In many ways this observation of violence, an action that is often useless and almost always destructive, is at the heart of Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker’s position is human nature has not changed, but rather, what has changed is human institutions like government, literacy, economic and cultural exchange between societies which have moderated the “natural impulse” to violence. As a biologist he is committed to grounding human actions to natural biological processes; this could be found in earlier works such as The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.
The spread of manners, etiquette, literacy and commerce in addition to how they have shaped “human progress” was not invented or discovered by biologists. Many of these insights have been documented by historians and others in the humanities in the movement known as Modernism. Examples include Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Millennium: [A History of Our Last Thousand Years] and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age
A different perspective of our historical and contemporary legacy of violence could be found in Karen Armstrong’s latest book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Armstrong notes when you break down and assess examples of violence in history, it is not religion per se but political dogma that lies underneath the true source of conflict. By way of contrast to Pinker is the viewpoint that it is not necessarily the forces of impersonal government and business tempering the violent impulses clans, tribes, or warlords have but the politics of domination, humiliation, and the blind will for power that drives humans to violence. These are universal and timeless themes, whether discussing the Peloponnesian War or dealing with modern terrorism. It is not a question of “civilizing” or “conquering” but of continually questioning and talking, and at all cost holding back the desire for violence just because “it makes us feel good”.