Violence

  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.