The Better Angels of Our Nature  

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"In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Pinker represented the Hemoclysm – a term referring to the early 20th-century spasm of mass killing, which he uses to lump together the two world wars, the Soviet Gulag and the Holocaust – as not much more than a statistical fluke." --"Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled liberals", a review of Enlightenment Now by John Gray[1]

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a 2011 book by Steven Pinker, in which he argues that violence in the world has declined both in the long run and in the short run and suggests explanations as to why this has occurred.

Criticism

R. Brian Ferguson, professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University–Newark, has challenged Pinker's archaeological evidence for the frequency of war in prehistoric societies, which he contends "consists of cherry-picked cases with high casualties, clearly unrepresentative of history in general." Whereas "[b]y considering the total archaeological record of prehistoric populations of Europe and the Near East up to the Bronze Age, evidence clearly demonstrates that war began sporadically out of warless condition, and can be seen in varying trajectories in different areas, to develop over time as societies become larger, more sedentary, more complex, more bounded, more hierarchical, and in one critically important region, impacted by an expanding state." Ferguson's examination contradicts Pinker's claim that violence has declined under civilization, indicating the opposite is true.

Despite recommending the book as worth reading, the economist Tyler Cowen was skeptical of Pinker's analysis of the centralization of the use of violence in the hands of the modern nation state.

In his review of the book in Scientific American, psychologist Robert Epstein criticizes Pinker's use of relative violent death rates, that is, of violent deaths per capita, as an appropriate metric for assessing the emergence of humanity's "better angels." Instead, Epstein believes that the correct metric is the absolute number of deaths at a given time. Epstein also accuses Pinker of an over-reliance on historical data, and argues that he has fallen prey to confirmation bias, leading him to focus on evidence that supports his thesis while ignoring research that does not.

Several negative reviews have raised criticisms related to Pinker's humanism and atheism. John N. Gray, in a critical review of the book in Prospect, writes, "Pinker's attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith."

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, while "broadly convinced by the argument that our current era of relative peace reflects a longer term trend away from violence, and broadly impressed by the evidence that Pinker marshals to support this view," offered a list of criticisms and concludes Pinker assumes almost all the progress starts with "the Enlightenment, and all that came before was a long medieval dark."

Theologian David Bentley Hart wrote that "one encounters [in Pinker's book] the ecstatic innocence of a faith unsullied by prudent doubt." Furthermore, he says, "it reaffirms the human spirit's lunatic and heroic capacity to believe a beautiful falsehood, not only in excess of the facts, but in resolute defiance of them." Hart continues:

In the end, what Pinker calls a "decline of violence" in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: So what? What on earth can he truly imagine that tells us about "progress" or "Enlightenment" or about the past, the present, or the future? By all means, praise the modern world for what is good about it, but spare us the mythology.

Craig S. Lerner, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, in an appreciative but ultimately negative review in the Claremont Review of Books does not dismiss the claim of declining violence, writing, "let's grant that the 65 years since World War II really are among the most peaceful in human history, judged by the percentage of the globe wracked by violence and the percentage of the population dying by human hand," but disagrees with Pinker's explanations and concludes that "Pinker depicts a world in which human rights are unanchored by a sense of the sacredness and dignity of human life, but where peace and harmony nonetheless emerge. It is a future—mostly relieved of discord, and freed from an oppressive God—that some would regard as heaven on earth. He is not the first and certainly not the last to entertain hopes disappointed so resolutely by the history of actual human beings." In a sharp exchange in the correspondence section of the Spring 2012 issue, Pinker attributes to Lerner a "theo-conservative agenda" and accuses him of misunderstanding a number of points, notably Pinker's repeated assertion that "historical declines of violence are 'not guaranteed to continue.'" Lerner, in his response, says Pinker's "misunderstanding of my review is evident from the first sentence of his letter" and questions Pinker's objectivity and refusal to "acknowledge the gravity" of issues he raises.

Professor emeritus of finance and media analyst Edward S. Herman of the University of Pennsylvania, together with independent journalist David Peterson, wrote detailed negative reviews of the book for the International Socialist Review and for The Public Intellectuals Project, concluding it "is a terrible book, both as a technical work of scholarship and as a moral tract and guide. But it is extremely well-attuned to the demands of U.S. and Western elites at the start of the 21st century." Herman and Peterson take issue with Pinker's idea of a 'Long Peace' since World War Two: "Pinker contends not only that the 'democracies avoid disputes with each other,' but that they 'tend to stay out of disputes across the board...' This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of US assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings, and invasions since 1945."

Two critical reviews have been related to postmodern approaches. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a critical review in The New Yorker, to which Pinker posted a reply. Kolbert states that "The scope of Pinker's attentions is almost entirely confined to Western Europe." Pinker replies that his book has sections on "Violence Around the World", "Violence in These United States", and the history of war in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Japan, and China. Kolbert states that "Pinker is virtually silent about Europe’s bloody colonial adventures." Pinker replies that "a quick search would have turned up more than 25 places in which the book discusses colonial conquests, wars, enslavements, and genocides." Kolbert concludes, "Name a force, a trend, or a ‘better angel’ that has tended to reduce the threat, and someone else can name a force, a trend, or an ‘inner demon’ pushing back the other way." Pinker calls this "the postmodernist sophistry that The New Yorker so often indulges when reporting on science."

An explicitly postmodern critique—or more precisely, one based on perspectivism—is made at CTheory by Ben Laws, who argues that "if we take a 'perspectivist' stance in relation to matters of truth would it not be possible to argue the direct inverse of Pinker's historical narrative of violence? Have we in fact become even more violent over time? Each interpretation could invest a certain stake in 'truth' as something fixed and valid—and yet, each view could be considered misguided." Pinker argues in his FAQ page that economic inequality, like other forms of "metaphorical" violence, "may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralization with understanding. Ditto for underpaying workers, undermining cultural traditions, polluting the ecosystem, and other practices that moralists want to stigmatize by metaphorically extending the term violence to them. It's not that these aren't bad things, but you can't write a coherent book on the topic of 'bad things.' ... physical violence is a big enough topic for one book (as the length of Better Angels makes clear). Just as a book on cancer needn't have a chapter on metaphorical cancer, a coherent book on violence can't lump together genocide with catty remarks as if they were a single phenomenon." Quoting this, Laws argues that Pinker suffers from "a reductive vision of what it means to be violent."

John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School criticized the book in Foreign Policy for using statistics that he said did not accurately represent the threats of civilians dying in war:

The problem with the conclusions reached in these studies is their reliance on "battle death" statistics. The pattern of the past century—one recurring in history—is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically. In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since".

Stephen Corry, director of the charity Survival International, criticized the book from the perspective of indigenous people's rights. He asserts that Pinker's book "promotes a fictitious, colonialist image of a backward 'Brutal Savage', which pushes the debate on tribal peoples' rights back over a century and [which] is still used to justify their destruction."

Anthropologist Rahul Oka has suggested that the apparent reduction in violence is just a scaling issue. Wars can be expected to kill larger percentages of smaller populations. As the population grows, fewer warriors are needed, proportionally.

Sinisa Malesevic has argued that Pinker and other similar theorists, such as Azar Gat, articulate a false vision of human beings as being genetically predisposed to violence, while they focus on the last forty to fifty years.

Statistician and philosophical essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb used the term "Pinker Problem" to describe errors in sampling under conditions of uncertainty after corresponding with Pinker regarding the theory of great moderation. "Pinker doesn’t have a clear idea of the difference between science and journalism, or the one between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements. Science is not about making claims about a sample, but using a sample to make general claims and discuss properties that apply outside the sample." In a reply, Pinker denied that his arguments had any similarity to "great moderation" arguments about financial markets, and states that "Taleb’s article implies that Better Angels consists of 700 pages of fancy statistical extrapolations which lead to the conclusion that violent catastrophes have become impossible... [but] the statistics in the book are modest and almost completely descriptive" and "the book explicitly, adamantly, and repeatedly denies that major violent shocks cannot happen in the future." Taleb with statistician and probabilist Pasquale Cirillo went on to publish a formal refutation in the journal Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications where they investigate the theses of “long peace” and drop in violence and find that these are statistically invalid and resulting from flawed and naive methodologies, incompatible with fat tails and non-robust to minor changes in data formatting and methodologies. They propose an alternative methodology to look at violence in particular, and other aspects of quantitative historiography in general in a way compatible with statistical inference, which needs to accommodate the fat-tailedness of the data and the unreliability of the reports of conflicts.

In March 2018, the academic journal Historical Reflections published the first issue of their 44th volume entirely devoted to responding to Pinker's book in light of its significant influence on the wider culture, such as its appraisal by Bill Gates. The issue contains essays by twelve historians on Pinker's thesis, and the editors of the issue Mark S. Micale, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, and Philip Dwyer, Professor of History at Newcastle University write in the introductory paper that "Not all of the scholars included in this journal agree on everything, but the overall verdict is that Pinker’s thesis, for all the stimulus it may have given to discussions around violence, is seriously, if not fatally, flawed. The problems that come up time and again are: the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western-centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world."

See also




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