Why violence has declined
Following his masterpieces of popular science 'The Language Instinct' and 'The Blank Slate', Steven Pinker has come out with a more ambitious book, 'The Better Angels of our Nature' . Like the 'The Blank Slate', it has political implications. It's subtitle is 'why violence has declined'.
It's an unequivocal endorsement of Thomas Hobbes, best known for his 'Leviathan' , which praises the advent of Civilization and the iron rule of the state, and describes life of 'savages' as 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Hobbes's chief critic was Jean-Jacques Rousseau , who thought our stone-age ancestors lived the good life. Pinker is a formidable defender of Hobbes. Another is Lawrence Keeley . Fredy Perlman is one of many contemporary followers of Rousseau . John Zerzan is a more extreme defender of Rousseau's idea that human beings were better off before civilization .
Unlike stone-age life, Hobbes's book is anything but short. It took me twenty years to finish it. In the meantime, I read Perlman. It's a shame Hobbes is so difficult, because it's much better than Perlman claims.
Pinker, Keeley and other scholars exemplify the recent trend back toward the Hobbesian view of primitive human existence. Keeley explains the political context which gave rise to neo-Rousseauians like Perlman - the anti-racist current in academia which developed out of the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, taken to an extreme. This is exactly the opposite of what Perlman claims about academia - he accuses it, without evidence, of systematically 'projecting' pro-civilization prejudices onto the past. He claims that academics tend to praise civilization and dismiss primitive societies because they want 'Positive Evidence'.
This is wrong, for three reasons.
1. What's wrong with evidence?
2. Academic theories attempt to be falsifiable - no amount of 'positive evidence' for a theory can confirm it, but one counter-example can refute it
3. The political trend in academia has been the opposite of what Perlman claims
Perlman chooses the worst aspects of civilization in order to criticize it, and the best aspects of primitive life to defend it – 'visions' and 'dances'. Looking at bear cubs playing, he wonders what a factory time-and-motion man would make of it. He doesn't ask what a scientist would say – he would say that rough-and-tumble play has an evolutionary explanation.
The cuteness of nature is an illusion. Its the product of a ruthless war of all against all. If you see a wild animal playing, its ability to relax is the product of natural selection; most of the individuals in previous generations of its species have no descendants.
Keeley claims that, dominated by a Rousseauian discourse, archaeologists from world war two to the mid-nineties pacified the past, refusing to see the evidence of prehistoric massacres in the remains of burned-down villages, scalped skulls, chopped-up children, and rest of a vast pile of evidence that stone-age people were more murderous than we are today. During the same period, anthropologists, guided by the cultural relativism of Franz Boas, systematically covered up violence among Kalahari bushmen, Amazonian Indians, and Tahitian islanders.
The high point in that trend was the year 1992, during which planned celebrations of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World turned into condemnations of genocide. Neo-Hobbesians like Keeley and Pinker argue that Columbus's did not introduce genocide to North America, but did make it easier, by giving Indians horses which they used to attack and massacre their neighbours.
Keeley and Pinker produce charts showing that, for example, a Russian man born in 1920 had far less chance of being killed in a war than a Jivaro, a Dani, or a Modoc, living in primitive communities before civilization.
When Keeley applied for a grant to do archaeological research, he had to describe Neolithic European fortifications as 'enclosures'. When he studied a site in the San Francisco Bay Area littered with evidence of mass murder, he ignored it. It was the politically correct dogma in academia that the inhabitants of the area in prehistoric times were as peace-loving as they would be in the summer of 1967. Perlman produced an anarchist version of this establishment dogma , saying nothing about genocide among Native Americans, but he did give the Spaniards credit for re-introducing horses (the native ones had all been eaten).
John Zerzan found a solution to empirical objections to Perlman's argument. For him, the noble savage disappeared when language was invented, for it, along with agriculture, art, ritual, number, time, and the division of labor, all of which were products of 'the urge to dominate'. Unfortunately, evidence is accumulating that before these seven deadly sins, it was even worse. The most primitive stone tools appear to be useless for anything except smashing in the heads of other hominids - perhaps this is why Neanderthals had such thick skulls.
My own example of how to argue Hobbes was right and Rousseau was wrong follows.
We always assumed the mutineers on the Bounty in 1789 were heroes, and Captain Bligh was a tyrant. In fact, he was a product of the vanguard of the enlightenment, Georgian Britain. Bligh was one of the naval reformers who used flogging sparingly. The mutiny itself was a crime in two ways. Bligh and loyal sailors were put aboard a small boat, where they might have been expected to die of thirst – the mutineers were too cowardly to kill them outright.
Fortunately, Bligh survived, and the mutineers were eventually hanged – except the ones who 'abducted' (that's a euphemism) Tahitian women, and escaped to the Island of Pitcairn. Some of their descendants had to do jail time in 2006 for underage sex. Now they are back in the Eden their ancestors created, but Leviathan keeps a close watch on them, and a good thing too.
Tahiti was a paradise for visiting sailors, but not for its inhabitants. It had high rates of murder and warfare before France civilized it.
That's the case for Leviathan. Contrary to what Perlman and Zerzan tell us, it's a good case.
However, I'm not convinced that primitive life was always nasty, brutish and short. Lévi-Strauss's 'Tristes Tropiques'  describes a Paraguayan tribe who were much better off before the Spanish destroyed their easy, well-nourished lifestyle. Same with the Canary Islands, whose inhabitants were wiped out. There was tribal warfare in pre-colonial Australia, but nothing like the genocide which was initiated by the First Fleet of 1788.
There must have been circumstances in the stone age in which humans didn't clash, because they had enough room to hunt, where they didn't have too many children, etc.. During the original conquest of the Americas, there would have been no reason to fight over a piece of land when there was so much to spare. But as game species were hunted to death by ignorant tribesmen, perhaps warfare became more common. It was the same in Australia.
Pinker's fellow Canadians “kill at less than a third of the rate of Americans, partly because in the nineteenth century the Mounties got to the Western frontier before the settlers and stopped them from having to cultivate a violent code of honor" (page 116).
He takes this example from Keeley, and uses it to illustrate an important part of his theory - violence is adaptive for men in unregulated frontier societies. The state, marriage and religion make it less adaptive.
Karl Marx's 'materialist conception of history'  denied the power of ideas. Pinker reminds us that the evolution of the US Constitution is a counter-example. It is an idea which continues to create freedom:
- abolition of slavery
- votes for women
- the end of segregation
- less tolerance of domestic violence
- gay marriage
On page 161, Pinker defends this position with a vengeance: "The idea of democracy, once loosed upon the world, would eventually infect larger and larger portions of it, and as we shall see, would turn out to be one of the greatest violence-reducing technologies since the appearance of government itself". He ignores that Germany had an election in 1933, that Iran is a democracy, that Israel attacked Lebanon, that Chamberlain and Truman were elected, etc., etc..
But it's true that the monopolization of violence by the state is likely to reduce bloodshed. If one player has overwhelming superiority, the others have no choice but to play by his rules. Pinker confuses 'violence' and 'bloodshed'. If someone says, "don't go there, or I'll hit you over the head", and someone does go there, and he hits him over the head, there is more bloodshed than if he didn't go there, but the amount of violence is the same. The state is an extreme version of the same thing.
As a leader in the field of the scientific discovery of human nature, and a formidable opponent of the idea that we are like blank slates, on which any words can be written, Pinker is confident in defining 'universal human nature' (page 182): "The universality of reason is a momentous realization". This may be true.
But the assumption that morality is universal is just that, an assumption. According to Pinker's version of Kant's categorical imperative, I cannot say 'this piece of ground is special' just because I'm standing on it. In fact, many people have done just that, and gotten away with it. Perhaps that's part of human nature too.
His defence of the Enlightenment involves emphasizing the good bits. The horrors of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars "did not represent the stream of reasoning that connected Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume and Kant". Some communists similarly argue that the Russian Revolution deviated from its proper course. But they have not been able to satisfactorily explain why.
Pinker's attempt to disassociate Darwin from some of the consequences of his views is ineffective: "Darwin himself was a thoroughgoing liberal humanist" (page 187). This is the fallacy known as 'argument from authority'. It doesn't matter what Darwin thought, but what he proved. Maybe his politics did not follow from his scientific discoveries.
Pinker and Perlman both refer to historian Arnold Toynbee . Perlman agrees with his pessimism about civilization's future, whereas Pinker contrasts it with another British scholar, Lewis Richardson . In the early 1950's, both men were asked to predict what was about to happen, on the basis of the past. Toynbee defended the conventional wisdom of the day - the previous fifty years had seen the two greatest wars in history, and it was probably going to get worse. Richardson, a mathematician, pointed out that two wars are not statistically significant, and we could be in for a long peace. Pinker claims that today we can see that Richardson was right.
But we are still within living memory of world wars one and two. We don't have enough evidence to bask in the complacent glow of Pinker's praise of the 'civilizing spirit'.
He argues that World War II was only the worst war in actual numbers killed - in percentage terms, there were much worse wars, for example one in the eighth century which killed thirty-six million Chinese. A person dying in the ruins of Nagasaki could console herself with the thought that, though she might be the fifty millionth victim of World War II, the An Lushan revolt killed more in percentage terms.
Pinker tends to argue individuals rather than forces such as class warfare, economic development and so on, cause history. He may have a point, but I don't think his naive defence of the official story of World War II is very convincing.
"Only one European really wanted war - Adolf Hitler", says Pinker. He thinks the war was caused by a bad guy who 'wanted' it - Chamberlain's declaration of war on Germany for invading Poland doesn't count. Russia invaded Poland too, but instead of declaring war on her too, Britain spent the next two years trying to ally with Russia, invalidating the alleged justification for war against Germany. Chamberlain's arbitrary attack on a country which had no quarrel with Britain was just as much a cause of World War II as Hitler's arbitrary attack on a country which had no quarrel with Germany.
He has no good words either for Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, but Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill he lets off the hook. I find this frankly absurd, not only because it mindlessly repeats the victors' history taught to children, but because it creates a hierarchy of victims. The victims of dictators Stalin, Zedong and Hitler are privileged over the millions of civilians murdered by Roosevelt and his subordinates. He blames two of the Allied leaders in World War II as well as one of the Axis leaders, but exonerates the Western allies, the good guys, the English-speaking democrats.
Keeley's book  is more broad-minded. He agrees that the post-war anti-racist trend in academia was a reaction against the Nazis, but contained the realization that they had applied to Jews, using industrial means, what other European empires had done to other peoples. But it covered up what these peoples had done to each other.
On page 257, Pinker graphs the decline in the percentage of men in uniform as an indicator of peace. But the decline in numbers is like the decline in employees in the steel industry - the remaining workers are more productive in total than the larger number who were there before. Today's armies in Western countries are becoming more and more professional, killing their opponents and civilians with more advanced technology. But in the Congo, they still do things the old way.
As I write, Israel is trying to lead the USA into a war with Iran, a war which would have incalculable consequences. But Pinker's statistics seem to show how casualties from war declined since the Stone Age, during the Middle Ages, after the first half of the twentieth century, and especially in the long peace which has followed, unprecedented in the history of great powers. The six million dead in the Congo barely get a mention, but relations between France and Germany are better than ever.
On page 260, he optimistically asserts "Among respectable countries, conquest is no longer a thinkable option". But this depends on knowing what the boundaries of countries actually are. Was Argentina's attack on the Falkland Islands in 1982 conquest, or the repatriation of national territory? Are Kurdish nationalists terrorists, patriots, or both?
He adds "living with existing borders is now considered better than endless attempts to square the circle, with its invitations to ethnic cleansing and irredentist conquest". Except when the ethnic cleansing is carried out by NATO, he forgets to add. The USA acts as the world's policeman, enforcing existing national boundaries on behalf of the United Nations. Except when it doesn't. It defended Kuwait against Iraq, but ripped Kosovo out of Serbia, where it had been for six hundred years. And he doesn't believe that the Jews who emigrated to Palestine before, during and after the Holocaust should have tried 'living with existing borders'.
Pinker uses the 1982 Falklands conflict as evidence for his 'respectable countries' hypothesis - Argentina was able to start a war with Britain confident that the latter would not use her nuclear weapons. But that was not true of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world came within an inch of a war which would have dwarfed all others. It is presented by Pinker as an example of how far we've come since the Stone Age . Here, his optimism makes Pinker sound like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss. He doesn't know how lucky the world was to avoid a major interruption in 'the long peace' in 1962, when a submarine commander refused an order to fire a nuclear torpedo at an American ship, and saved the world. It's thanks to Vasili Arkhipov that Pinker can view history through rose-tinted glasses.
He does admit that, though president Nixon negotiated a 'face-saving withdrawal' from Vietnam, it was not “before another 20,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese had died in the fighting" (page 264), though most of the Vietnamese who died were civilians. Pinker collects facts which appear to show things are getting better, while ignoring, or parenthesizing, the evidence which conflicts with that conclusion.
"Military leaders at all levels have become aware that gratuitous killing is a public-relations disaster at home and counterproductive abroad, alienating allies and emboldening enemies".
This isn't quite as complacent as it appears. The US Air Force did not carpet-bomb Kandahar and Baghdad, like it did Tokyo and Hanoi. But this is perhaps a temporary change of tactics, and it could change again. If Iran resists the current Israeli-led war drive, which it will, it could get very unpleasant.
Pinker is even less complacent on page 271, where he expresses concern about countries getting nukes. "One should worry that nuclear nations outside the club of great powers, such as India, Pakistan, North Korea, and perhaps soon Iran, may not be party to the common understanding that the use of a nuclear weapon is unthinkable. Worse, a terrorist organization...". Note that Israel is not 'outside the club'. And how would the bombing of Hiroshima have been worse if it had been carried out by 'a terrorist organization'?
His argument that democracy causes peace has no basis in fact. The idea that trade leads to peace is more plausible. Perlman said trade is something you do to your enemies. Pinker disagrees, following Hobbes. It is difficult to travel with ones goods for sale across trenches filled with armed men, or through burning cities. The argument that 'capitalism causes war' is defended by Marxists, who don't know how to test a hypothesis:
a. does capitalism ever lead to peace?, and
b. does any other economic system result in war?
It's the US domestic political system which, as I write, is waging economic war against Iran, not businessmen. When Richard Cheney was an entrepreneur in the oil industry, he wanted trade with Iran. When he became a candidate for vice president, dependent on the good will of the Israel Lobby, he changed his mind. The main barriers to the US following Israel into the abyss are 1. the CIA, 1. the armed forces, and 3. the oil industry.
Pinker's contempt for Muslims is expressed forcefully on pp 356-357. He can't think of any explanation of suicide bombers in Israel other than psychology. He lumps all Islamic militants and terrorists together, following the neoconservative narrative, which sees parties whose only enemy is Israel, as enemies of Americans. He counts Palestinians as part of the third world, and says they are an order of magnitude more violent than their civilized neighbours (page 413).
Not only is he too hasty in writing off the Palestinians, a particular target of his contempt, he is even complacent toward the Taliban of Afghanistan. He thinks that Islamic militancy can be beaten, a delusion which has cost tens of thousands of Western lives, and millions of non-Western ones, since September 11th 2001.
One thing Hobbes wasn't, and that's smug. He didn't think the Anglosphere was God's gift to humanity, he just said the state is better than the alternative, which he'd seen at first hand during the English Civil War.
I don't like politically-correct terms like 'Islamophobia', so I'll not accuse Pinker of it. But his attitude to the Islamic world, though not hate, is certainly contempt, and this attitude does not contribute to peace.
He is right to condemn the lynchings of black Americans during the anti-draft riots of 1863 in New York - but he fails to point out that the riots were in opposition to a far worse massacre, the Civil War. I was glad to find he backs up something I've written about - he dismisses "intellectuals who assert that the United States is racist to the bone". But he doesn't analyze the motives behind this 'anti-racist' smear campaign disguised as a civil rights movement.
It's true (page 392) that the percentage of Americans who think black people are less intelligent than white people has declined. But the idea that Jews control Hollywood has also declined. These changes in attitude have nothing to do with evidence, and everything to do with increased sensitivity. Political correctness sometimes leads to factually correct conclusions, and sometimes not. America's prejudices have changed, that's all.
He's better when he employs evolutionary psychology, rather than democratic prejudices, to understand history.
On page 621 he cites Gregory Clark's essay "Genetically Capitalist". Pinker doesn't actually agree with Clark's essay, but he presents it as a serious example of the evolutionary approach:
"The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality".
I can think of many objections to this argument, but none of them from Marxism, anti-civilization anarchism, anti-racism etc.. Natural selection is by far the most powerful theory for explaining the behaviour of organisms. Human history is as much the behaviour of organisms as an ant's nest. Objections that evolutionary theory is 'reductionist' or that it leads to unpleasant political opinions are not worth dignifying with a reply. Until something better shows up, Darwinism it is. This doesn't mean Darwin was always right, even when Pinker thinks he is:
"As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being remarked, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to like men of all nations and races"
- Charles Darwin, the Descent of Man, 1871 
Darwin couldn't predict every consequence of his own research. It is in fact adaptive for a man to be altruistic to those more closely related to himself, a natural barrier which often does 'prevent his sympathies extending to like men of all nations and races' .
Steven Pinker is one of the most accessible defenders of the Darwinian approach to the social sciences. But he has to be approached critically. Page 648: "Humans, of course, were not created in a state of original reason. We descended from apes, and spent hundreds of millennia in small bands... Only gradually, with the appearance of literacy, cities, and long-distance travel and communication, could our ancestors cultivate the faculty of reason".
Substitute “accountants, slavery and labor camps” for “literacy, cities and long-distance travel” in the above quotation. It would be just as accurate as the original. Pinker says nothing about the origins of arithmetic in counting the possessions of an emperor, including slaves .
Civilization, for Pinker, gradually gave us the ability to think abstractly, and to see harm to another as in the same category as harm to oneself. That's partly true. Another part is summed up by Perlman: abstraction is the ability to see in a wound only the shape of the cut and the colour of the blood. Pinker gives some amusing examples of hicks who can't do abstract reasoning, but examples don't prove anything.
Though he dismisses it as an anomaly, abstract reasoning did enable the Holocaust. Whereas Pinker uses the good things about Civilization to defend it, the bad things he sees as extensions of primitive barbarism, by for example listing examples of genocide by primitive tribes.
To try to show how the Western countries are getting better, he makes early colonialism sound worse than later imperialism by quoting the leaders of the former and ignoring those of the latter. For example, he cites Churchill saying he bombed Iraqis because he hated them. He doesn't mention Albright who more recently said it was 'worth it' to murder hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. But she didn't say she hated them. Is that really progress?
Game theory is employed to ask under what circumstances one might expect a rational actor to be less violent. When he might expect the other to realize the mutual benefit of cooperation. Even in a "bind prisoner's dilemma" situation, when the only rational policy if the other defects, is to defect, when co-operation would yield maximum benefits to both, when each doesn't know the other, co-operation might happen. In a society of co-operators, enforced by trade, work, and law, co-operation is a real life outcome, because we know they know we know the benefits of co-operation. It's ironic that the state should have solved the prisoner's dilemma.
If countries which trade with each other are less likely to cross swords (page 683), Perlman's primitives who saw trade as what you do to your enemies were just wrong.
Perlman's libellous assault  on Hobbes's Leviathan  begins:
"This Hobbes will know that Ur is no longer in the state of nature. It is no longer a community of self-determined human beings".
A word on Perlman's strange way of describing time: "Hobbes will know", he wrote, hundreds of years after Hobbes's death. This is because he will reject the idea of time as a continuum. Identifying with ancient galley slaves, because he will want to persuade us we are in the same boat, he will see Hobbes's book as a future development: the defence of Civilization unadorned, without the trappings of religion, ritual and art, remnants of the defeated Stone Age societies, with which rulers feel constrained to decorate Leviathan.
Instead of discussing Hobbes vs. Rousseau with an open mind, Perlman dismisses Hobbesian perspectives with a circular mode of reasoning, derived from Wilhelm Reich and the Frankfurt School - those who disagree with his argument have something wrong with them. If you can't see Perlman's, Zerzan's or Rousseau's viewpoint, it's because you are 'projecting your armour'. This approach violates the scientific mode of reasoning, where you have to show your argument can be, but has not been, falsified.
Perlman makes short work of some of Marx and Engels' simplifications, but his conclusions do not follow. "The surplus product, the famous margin, did not give rise to the Leviathan. On the contrary, it is the Leviathan that gives rise to the margin. Communities of human beings needed this margin no more than communities of wolves".
This could only have been written by a city-dweller. In fact, human beings do need a margin, to tend them over bad winters, for example. Still, it is true that civilization did not arise in order to solve problems common to all people, a viewpoint Marx and Engels' writings imply - the slaves did not enslave themselves.
But this is a valid point against Marx, not Hobbes. Hobbes, and now Pinker, tried to explain how civilization solved, in practice, real problems like male competition, deadly zero-sum conflicts of honour, the fact that a raid sometimes pays better than trade, and so on. Perlman rejects all of this, on the basis of unsubstantiated statements taken uncritically from academics who support his hypothesis.
The Bushmen of the Kalahari were not peaceful at all: in fact their statistics for rape and murder are worse than those for Detroit, the city where Perlman lived. Samoa was not a paradise of sexual freedom for young women. Western societies are in fact the freest and most liberal that we have any knowledge of - so what was the basis of the Boas school's distortions?
Perlman gets close to a less-than-golden view of primitive society when he mentions the concept of 'kin', a cute way of saying 'people in the same tribe of at most a few hundred people who are relatively closely related to oneself' . This excludes the vast majority of humanity. "In the state of nature, trade is something people did to their enemies. The didn't trade with kin."
This undermines his position in two ways. First, he offers no evidence that people trade with their enemies, whereas Pinker offers a plausible claim that trade reduces conflict. Second, if people traded only with non-kin, and they were their enemies, then ethnic warfare was common, like Keeley  says, a view Perlman dismisses as a psychological problem.
Perlman's approach is part of a tradition of which the Frankfurt School is the premiere exemplum - sometimes known as 'cultural Marxism', its an attempt to undermine confidence in Western society by means of lying, morality and emotional blackmail.
Pinker and Perlman both support feminism. But they support two different kinds, which I will bluntly call sensible and loony feminism. Sensible feminism is adaptive for both men and women - for example, it reduces the chance of a man getting killed in a fight. Pinker writes that we might sneer at the "women's temperance movement" of the nineteenth century, but it improved the lives of men, women and children, by co-operating with the church and the law in taming the wild west.
In a sense, the whole story of humanity is a story of sensible feminism benefiting both sexes. At some point, men started caring for children. In a large mammal species, its in the interests of genes in the male not to make him care for his children, but to try to have as many as possible, unless all the other males co-operate by becoming relatively monogamous, all at once. If all the males start caring for children, the genes in the whole species benefit - look how humans outnumber all the other apes.
Radical feminism intersects nicely with another eighties fashion, the pseudo-science of ecology. Perlman uses the twee phrase 'Mother Earth' - but a planet is not a person. If primitive people really did see the earth as a generous, animate being, they were wrong, and one should undermine, rather than try to revive, wrong ideas, which can be dangerous - Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who killed three people in the name of environmental extremism, is an example. Its getting to the point where it will be impossible to commit a serious crime without being caught. Wherever you go, you leave millions of molecules of your unique DNA. The rule of law seems to have a rosy future, as long as the state survives. Its important to say this, because casually defending radical ideas like those of Edward Abbey, author of 'The Monkeywrench Gang', can inspire people to do foolish things . Several anarchists have been sent to prison for years for non-violent actions in defence of Mother Earth.
One important difference is that Pinker is a defender of Zionism, whereas Perlman condemns it. But both see it as an example of Western Civilization.
"Only much later people who claim to be the heirs of Moses will learn to worship the actual Leviathan, but in this theory will be heirs of the Greeks and of the later English Greeks of Hobbes's age who will try to perform the feat of worshipping Leviathan unadorned".
On the other hand, we have Gilad Atzmon's formulation: Athens or Jerusalem - Universalism or Tribalism . In this conception, Israel is not the result of the corruption of a primitive tribe by Western decadence, but a hangover from our miserable past.
Pinker's book seems to confirm Perlman's observation that 'trade is very old' and to demonstrate that Karl Marx was wrong about exchange, with his mystical talk of 'alienation'. Many tribes engage in exchanging goods, even useless ones, because they know it helps keep the peace (page 684). The economic benefits of the division of labor encouraged by trade, encourage peace. Nations or tribes who trade more are less likely to fight each other or to commit genocide.
As well as popularizing evolutionary psychology, Pinker is also good at teaching statistics.
Following the graph on page 195 showing World War II was really the ninth worst war in history, he explains some basic statistics. We tend to suffer from two statistical illusions. We
- see meaningful clusters in random events
- thus we see the two world wars as the inevitable consequence of a historical law, and conclude there will be a third, even more cataclysmic conflict
- see bell curves where we should see power law distributions
An example of a bell curve is to have height along the bottom, and percentage of men of that height on the left axis. Most guys are close to the average.
40 % * *
30 % * *
20 % * *
10 % * *
0.5m 1.0m 1.5m 2.0m 2.5m 3.0m
The power law distribution is exemplified by the percentage of cities in the USA which have a given population on the left, and population of cities along the bottom. The lower the population, the more cities have that population, and the percentage drops precipitously as population increases, turning sharply toward the bottom and gradually tailing off to the right.
0.3 % *
0.2 % *
0.1 % *
100K 200K 300K 400K 500K
Wars and other kinds of quarrel are like that. The left hand axis is percentage of quarrels, and the bottom is number killed. There is no such thing as a typical war, so there's no way of predicting when one will stop - except its more likely to kill fewer people than more. There isn't a typical war around which casualties cluster, like there is a typically tall man.
There's a third statistical illusion - the gambler's fallacy. Most winters have a close-to-average amount of snow. So, if it's mid-January somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, and it has been warmer than any year in the last hundred years, in order to approach the average, there has to be extra snow in February. Making a similar logical error, we might think we're due for a war.
Pinker uses various other graphs to show a decline in warmongering, but the one on page 230 shows a very jerky, but increasing, likelihood of deaths in war, with 1600 being a peak, 1943 another, and 2000 being an exceptional, but not unprecedented, trough. But nuclear weapons keep spreading, and the electoral system of the world's greatest power isn't getting any less hysterical. But it is more than complacency that Pinker is in danger of spreading. He doesn't consider that with politics you are not just reporting facts. This is an intervention, using history to persuade readers to supporting the democratic state. This makes people more likely to agree to be cannon fodder.
Pinker takes concepts like The Age of Reason, the Humanitarian Revolution and the Enlightenment very seriously, arguing that, in spite of appearances, these events are making better, more intelligent, more humane people of us. All this depends on the notion that people in the Stone Age were worse than they are today.
His contrast between the first half of the twentieth century and the sixty-five subsequent years depends on ignoring millions of deaths in the Congo and various other places, and of taking the current state of affairs to be better than it really is, because no country has yet used an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The book is not just about war. It's about crime and punishment too.
Pinker takes on the argument of 'Freakonomics' that the availability of abortion caused the crime rate to decline . Unfortunately, he says, the women most likely to have criminal children are less likely to have abortions (page 120).
His complaint that "the US imprisons far more people than it should, with disproportionate harm falling on African American communities" is uncharacteristically compassionate (page 123). But on the whole, his book is a powerful defence of the necessity of state violence, implying that 'disproportionate harm' is 'worth it'.
Following the German economist Elias, Pinker argues, quite convincingly, after showing how murder declined precipitously during English history (page 78):
"The centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals, all fit into an organic whole".
Perlman would dismiss this as 'armored', Leviathanic propaganda. This is circular - defending one's position by assuming it's true in order to explain away a challenge to it.
Pinker's statistics include recorded homicides through the ages, offences for which the death penalty applied, judicial torture, recorded deaths in warfare - all have shown a clear tendency to decline, on average, for centuries.
But what about children being forced down the mines? The industrial revolution made the life of the average person worse. It was over a century from Engels' appalling description of 'The Condition of the Working Class in England'  to a prime minister telling the proles "you've never had it so good". That's the impression Pinker conveys – the ruling class tastelessly boasting about the hard-won gains of the huddled masses.
Pinker attributes the decline in violence over the centuries - even taking into account world wars one and two - to state power - and the slight upturn in violence inside the USA during the seventies to liberal sentencing policies. Rather than saying he's sold out and become a conservative, one should try to show he's wrong.
He approaches race fearlessly, starting with the dramatic statistic that white Americans have an average homicide rate of 4.8 per hundred thousand, black, 36.9. He rejects the argument that this is because of racial profiling by the police.
But he does attribute the discrepancy to racial discrimination - the police didn't use to take seriously the policing of black neighbourhoods, so these hoods evolved frontier justice to take care of disputes. But as the courts forced the police to enforce the law everywhere, the ghettos got safer. Rodney King might disagree, but Pinker says the racial discrimination which accounts for the high homicide rate among African Americans is - a lack of policing!
It's almost as if he's saying Clint Eastwood's “Dirty Harry” movies are true.
The statistics he quotes are the likelihood of being killed, not of being a killer. A higher black homicide rate means a higher chance of being a victim of homicide - it says nothing about the race of the attacker.
Southern US culture is more honor-based than Northern. Pinker demonstrates this using a series of ingenious experiments in which students from both parts of the USA were provoked by experimenters in disguise. So it's no more 'racist' than it is 'anti-Southerner' to explain how black people and Southerners were more likely to use violence to resolve disputes - it was the most effective way of doing it.
Pinker gets right down to the point. On page 57, he asks "so why did our foraging ancestors leave Eden?"
- it was never an explicit choice
- they had multiplied themselves into a Malthusian trap
- maybe not
On pages 667-668, in a discussion of how discourse has improved along with intelligence, Pinker comments on the 'inanity' of conservative senators who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972, using 'dumb' phrases like 'absolutely ridiculous'. But he is sometimes just as aggressive at expressing his own biases.
On page 330 he states that the only reason someone would say they doubt the official story of the Nazi holocaust is because they secretly sympathize with it. This is a common idea, but it is a prejudice, because it is impossible to prove what motivates a person. "Today's Holocaust deniers at least feel compelled to deny that the Holocaust took place. In earlier centuries, the perpetrators of genocide and their sympathizers boasted about it". When it comes to other genocides, Pinker manages to be neutral - "This is how the Nazis saw the Jews, and how Hutus and Tutsis saw each other" (page 328).
His biases are at least obvious. After about page 150 in the chapter "The Humanitarian Revolution" shows how Europe became less barbaric, on and off, for about two thousand years up until 1914, and then again after 1945, the book begins a descent into selection for examples which 'prove' the superiority of modern Western democratic societies.
There are many temptations to take cheap shots at Pinker, in response to his own populist remarks about 'baby boomers' and suchlike trivia of popular culture. Sometimes, he makes errors which should have been caught by editors, such as claiming that most Australians are descendants of convicts, that black swans are native to New Zealand, and that "in traditional societies, daughters are sold for a bride price" (page 396).
On page 614, Pinker considers recent evolution, whether people who have lived in 'peaceful' societies (civilization) for centuries may have evolved to be less belligerent, and whether recent immigrants from 'primitive' societies may be more violent. But when right-wing academics say exactly the same thing, he condemns them as being “outside the bounds of normal scientific discourse”.
Sometimes, Pinker is annoyingly populist "A sense of solidarity from 15-30 year old would be a menace to civilized society at the best of times" he writes on page 109. Yes, Pinker blames the increase in violence in the seventies on Woodstock. He is a baby-boomer who went from listening to John Lennon to believing long prison sentences are effective, Western values are superior to Oriental ones, and Iran must be stopped by any means necessary.
"The impression that the Muslim world indulges kinds of violence that the West has outgrown is not Islamophobia". The question is whether that's accurate, not whether it's politically correct.
In some Islamic societies, there are punishments reminiscent of medieval Europe. But he's selecting statistics to praise his own part of the world. Western societies have killed far more people in Muslim countries in the last ten years than the other way round - as he points out, the scale of September 11th 2001 is exaggerated by its spectacularness. Trying to correct the impression that he is Islamophobic, he discredits the neoconservative book 'The Clash of Civilizations'.
But then, on page 373, he joins the dogs of war: "the prospect [that Iran would attack Israel with missiles] might leave Israel or the United States no choice but to bomb its nuclear facilities preemptively, even if it initiated years of war and terrorism in response".
Today's establishment is hawkish abroad, but liberal at home. Pinker makes assertions which are politically acceptable, but which seem at first glance to be unscientific, without explaining why he thinks they are true - "homophobia is an evolutionary puzzle, as is homosexuality itself" (page 448). But homophobia is the discouragement of a maladaptive trait. Homosexuality is that trait. Pinker dismisses 'race' on page 523, without giving a scientific reason for this. It's like he pushes the frontiers of science as far as he dares, but no further.
On page 544 he compares Egypt's apology to Israel with Israel's peace treaty with Egypt, ignoring the relative strengths of the two countries, the overwhelming support of one side by the US, and the cost to the US treasury of the deal, though he does mention the cost to the first Egyptian president to collaborated with Israel – he was assassinated. The second is now on trial for his life in Cairo.
Re. the end of apartheid in South Africa, Pinker identifies two sides and praises their ability to reconcile, each admitting they did wrong, making no distinction between white supremacists and their victims.
This inappropriate neutrality conceals a bias, which becomes clearer in a passage which would make Cecil Rhodes blush. "It is so hard to impose liberal democracy on countries in the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords and feuding tribes" (page 185). This would be a refreshing respite from cultural relativism were it not a reluctant justification for war. Saying it's 'hard' to bomb the savages into civilization implies that it is just about worth the effort. There are two main factions in American foreign policy – those who think backward countries can be bombed into civilization, and those who think they're too backward. Surely the latter position is better than that of liberal hawks who think it's “worth it”.
On page 592, he equates the burning and looting by African-Americans of 'their own' neighbourhoods in 1968 with Israel's pulverizing of Lebanon in 2006 - in both cases, some of the perpetrators felt remorse. But there the resemblance ends. If rioters felt remorse, it's because they realized they'd harmed their own interests. If Israelis felt remorse, it's because the Islamic militia Hezbollah handed the IDF's ass to it on a plate. I bet Hezbollah don't feel sorry. How uncivilized of them.
Pinker has achieved more than any other academic the popularizing of the evolutionary approach to human nature, but not satisfied with his position in Psychology at Harvard, with this work he seems to be interviewing for the Pangloss Chair of Political Correctness in the Department of Conventional Wisdom.
Finally, I am grateful to Pinker for pointing me to a line in Shakespeare I had somehow missed. One of the strategies of Henry V, a great hero of English history, was to threaten the French that his soldiers would rape their women. The only war crime I remembered from the play was the scene where French soldiers murder the boy servants in the English camp. So I learned something from this book.
. The Monkeywrench Gang, Edward Abbey, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2000
. The Wandering Who?, Gilad Atzmon, John Hunt publishing, 2011
. The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin, 1871 - http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2300
. The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels, Oxford University Press, 1999 (1844)
. Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, Wilder, 2007 (1651)
. War Before Civilization - the myth of the peaceful savage, Lawrence Keeley, Oxford University Press, 1996
. Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, William Morrow publishers, 2005
. Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Penguin, 1992
. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx, General Books, 2010 (1859)
. Against History, Against Leviathan! - Fredy Perlman, Black and Red, 1983
. The Better Angels of our Nature - why violence has declined, Steven Pinker, Viking Penguin publishers, 2011
. Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization, John Zerzan, Feral House, 2008