leovitch (leovitch) wrote,

A Criminal History of Mankind

This book by Colin Wilson has the in-depth research and lurid topic that would seem to guarantee page-turning reading at the least. Now, maybe it's just because of my recent reading of Nassim Taleb's books, but instead when I read through Wilson's very thick book, I'm continually dumbfounded at a unsupported assertions made, as well as a the fact-making-by-anecdote (Reagan would have been proud) that abounds in it.

For instance, Wilson repeatedly asserts that, "this kind of crime (meaning meaningless acts of murder) only began when mankind started to live in large cities." Oh really? While in general urban crime rates are higher it's not clear that's true across all time, and he doesn't offer any statistics in support of that fact.

"Meaningless acts of murder are only a phenomenon of 20th century society" -- this one seems totally unsupportable. Widespread reporting of meaningless acts of murder is definitely a historically recent phenomenon - people in rural Scotland in the 12th century couldn't really hear about the latest grisly murders from Cornwall, but now they can. Furthermore, pre-20th-century mores also had a strong sliencing effect; there's little reason to think we would have had about the Michigan murders in an Elizabethan society.

Finally, "the criminal mind" is an incesssant topic of the book. While I'm open to the idea that certain thought patterns are more prevalent among law-breakers than law-abiders, lots of the criminal mind discussion is again based on anecdotal pattern-finding. As Taleb would surely point out, it's all the worse because Wilson is trying to infer patterns from an extremely small sample (serial killers who were in the end caught) making almost any claim to widespread patterns of criminal thinking dubious.

Of course, the book is an exercise in anecdotalism by design -- it's more interesting to read about that sort of crime than the infinitely more common shooting as the result of a drug gang turf war. But I'm having a tough time convincing myself it will be worth wading through this book!

(so I read "The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu" while thinking about it...)

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