Skeptical about “Skeptic” this month

Every month we get Scientific American in the mail and I devour it. This month’s has three intriguing articles: one on meditation, one on a human-powered helicopter (!!!!!), and one about the relationship between democracy and peace.

That third article, “Can democracy lead to perpetual peace?” is part of the magazine’s regular “Skeptic” column. Its focus is “Viewing the world with a rational eye” and I usually see it debunking pseudo-science. This month the author, Michael Shermer, is covering a scientific theory that democracies might be less warlike. He goes over various ins and outs and studies and articles, including the Polity Project and a recent article by political scientist Havard Hegre, and then gives his own theory:

“I propose human nature itself and our propensity to prefer the elements of democracy. Peace is a pleasant by-product.”

But something’s missing from this analysis, related to one of the most important scientific concepts: correlation is not causation. Shermer covers the possibility that  greater democracy leads to more peace and the possibility that there is a third factor, but doesn’t consider the possibility that peace leads to democracy, and war leads to authoritarian forms of governments.

That’s my personal theory, after looking at ancient Mesopotamia. It turns out that democracy didn’t begin with the Greeks — decisions were once made by an assembly on a town and city level. The secular leader of a town and city gradually took on more and more power, until that leader became a king, and then a god-in-the-flesh. This happened over thousands of years. And what prompted this increase of power?

I theorize that it was war. There’s an interesting story in the Enuma Elish, a creation myth from the city of Babylon in the 18th century BCE. The goddess Tiamat incites a civil war among the gods, and a young god, Marduk, is asked to fight her. The price? Supremacy over the assembly of gods.

Here is an excerpt from the Enuma Elish, adapted from a translation in The Babylonian Genesis by Alexander Heidel (pp 31-32).

Tiamat, our bearer, hates us. She held a meeting and raged furiously. All the gods went over to her. . . They had a meeting and planned the conflict . . . I sent Anu, but he could not face her. Nudimmud also was afraid and turned back. Then Marduk, the wisest of the gods, your son, came forward. His heart prompted him to face Tiamat. He opened his mouth and said to me: “If I am indeed to be your avenger, to vanquish Tiamat and to keep you alive, convene the assembly and proclaim my lot supreme.

Marduk’s rise to power  has striking parallels in the actual political situation of around the same time: Hammurabi became king of Babylon, was drawn into some defensive wars, and then went on the offense, eventually conquering and uniting all of Mesopotamia under one rule.

That looks to me like a clear example of war leading to authoritarian rule. Another, more recent example, might be the Patriot Act passed toward the beginning of the Iraq war. It limits our constitutional freedoms to such a degree that only war could have made it possible.

I don’t know if my theory is right or not. But I am surprised to see it omitted from the column. Maybe it’s because U.S. citizens have been so inundated with the concept that the U.S., as a democratic entity, can export its democracy and thereby bring peace throughout the world. (Never mind that we are becoming less democratic and bringing more war than peace.)  Maybe that kind of thinking is creating a blind spot even for the skeptical columnist who views the world with a rational eye.

I do love the title, though. Perpetual peace. That would be nice.

happy sumerian couple

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