[Book Notes] Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (In 5 Bullets)

  1. Steven Pinker takes on a big challenge as he attempts to explain the history of violence in his 800+ page best-selling book Better Angels of Our Nature. To do this Pinker breaks down human history into five parts:
    • The Pacification Process – going from hunter gatherers into settled civilizations
    • the Civilizing Process consolidation of small kingdoms into large kingdoms with centralized authority and commerce
    • The Humanitarian Revolution—emergence of Enlightenment philosophy that puts substantial value on human’s capacity to be logical, creative, and non-violent
    • The Long & New Peace—a time supported by political hegemony and the trend of wars becoming more infrequent and less violent
    • The Rights Revolution—the incremental distribution of rights to once-suppressed groups (women, animals, gay rights, etc.)
  2. Pinker attributes the trend of decreasing violence throughout history to the genetic evolution of the humans , an increase in global commerce, the feminization of cultural norms, growth in information and communication networks, and reliance on science and reason (as opposed to religious doctrine).
  3. In order to prove that things have gotten better he has to prove that things were much worse. Notably he emphasizes the savage nature of tribes and, as Stephen Corry notes, Pinker “promotes a fictitious, colonialist image of a backward ‘Brutal Savage’, which pushes the debate on tribal peoples’ rights back over a century”.
  4. In order to slickly prove his point, that violence has definitely decreased over time, Pinker also asks the reader to accept the following truths:
    • That capitalism has been an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the world, since “violence has declined since its advent”…minus a few inconvenient statistical peaks of violent wars and genocides.
    • That we should ignore the violent the dealings of Colonialism. As the New Yorker says, this is a serious omission because “of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between savage and civilized.” (New Yorker)
    • That we should ignore small modern wars because they are essentially statistical flukes, these wars include: “The Korean war, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, decades of civil war in the Congo and Guatemala, the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan war” (New Yorker)
    • Here is my favorite –> That using a graph he provides, we are asked to draw conclusions of the “rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts between 1900 and 2005” (Figure 6-1) while being instructed to ignore the figures for the first and second world wars. The New Yorker says it best here: “Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count. Accidents happen, and the Nazis’ rise to power was one of them”(New Yorker)
  5. Ultimately , though Pinker is “most likely correct that prehistoric life was more violent than life in agrarian civilizations and modern states…the way he pitches the evidence raises suspicions from the very beginning…The sources Pinker cites for the numbers of dead are themselves just aggregates of other estimates, the vast majority of which, if one follows the thread of sources to the end, turn out to be more or less informed guesses.” (Foreign Affairs)

I found the conclusions the author made to be poorly argued and statistically undisciplined. As a renowned academic it is no surprise Pinker can throw around academic jargon, but this does not make up for his habit of misinterpreting the scope of his data to convince himself and others of what seemed to be his pre-existing beliefs.

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One thought on “[Book Notes] Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (In 5 Bullets)

  1. Hi Natalia

    I understand your criticisms.

    On warfare, Pinker presents data from the years 1500-2000 to show the Frequency of Wars Involving a Great Power, the Duration of Wars Involving a Great Power, the Deaths in Wars Involving a Great Power and the Deadliness of Wars Involving a Great Power. The first two show a general slope downward over most of the time span. The third remains at a relatively high amount between half and two-thirds of WWII levels, except for a major drop in the first half of the 19th century and then again in mid-20th century through the year 2000. The fourth shows a steady rise until the mid-20th century and then decreases significantly up to the year 2000.

    On the surface, what I suppose from those charts is that the technology available for human destruction had continually improved so that any warfare was far more efficient in killing large quantities of people faster. The numbers of deaths increased partly because the world population was substantially growing. Or, at least, that’s part of the story. It’s complex. I think that what Pinker calls the Humanitarian Revolution, beginning in the 1600s with the Age of Reason, had a big effect in transforming religion, politics and secularism to include more concern about possible reductions in human suffering along with promoting access to a better quality of life for a gradually widening circle of people (and eventually non-human animals). Of further importance, as you alluded to, are the five historical forces that he suggests most significantly impacted the decline of violence: commerce, feminization, strong central governments (leviathan), cosmopolitanism (mass media, literacy, multicultural awareness, mobility, expanded sympathy) and the escalator of reason (where people considered the consequences of their actions in greater detail).

    I wonder how you view the overall thesis that violence has declined especially since the late 1600s in all categories of physical violence, a much broader scope than just dealing with warfare.

    Through debating the contents of this book fairly regularly for the past three years, I’ve developed and revised multiple times an overview statement for the book along with attaching or copying many charts that Pinker put together. Below is part of my latest version. What do you think of the content?

    ——————————————————————–

    Much of the information below comes from Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. Terrible things like warfare, rape, murder, legal and illegal slavery, bullying, lynchings, racism, sexism and animal abuse are all in radical decline. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and afterward. By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior.

    Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving. That’s just not the case when it comes to acts of violence. There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it’s far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585. Through a very large range of historical narratives, archaeology and statistics, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks. On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common. According to the FBI, from 2001-2010, the crime rates went down in categories of violent crime (20%), forcible rape (13.8%), robbery (19.7%), aggravated assault (20.8%) and motor vehicle theft (44.5%).

    When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don’t top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th. Archaeological evidence from almost 40 pre-state societies of eras as far back as 14,000 years ago and up to those active today show an average of a 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%. The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%. That’s 500 times less than typical pre-state levels of brutality. Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of the American Wild West, where the percentages ranged up to 30% or higher in each town. England, for another example, now has a murder rate that is 35 times less than in the Middle Ages.

    For an interesting video presentation/summary of the contents of this book, see this link:

    A great web site that can be used as a reference to double-check this data is necrometrics.com, where typically a half dozen or more historians contribute their estimate on the death toll for each significant historical event. As far as I have been able to study, Pinker many (if not most) times chose one of the conservative numbers in the ranges.

    I’ve gathered many color charts related to the book here:

    https://persuademepolitics.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/now-most-peaceful-time-in-world-history/

    Otherwise, an image search for “better angels steven pinker charts” will bring up many more.

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