Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature is often held up uncritically as “proof” that the world is getting less violent over time and therefore better. This is similar to how Guns, Germs, and Steel is held up as evidence that the success of Western civilization was just a big fluke, and has nothing to do with the qualities of the people that built it. Both provide politically correct narratives that reinforce the ideology of the ruling progressive class. What a coincidence that two extremely popular historical books flatter the current system!
Reactionary blogger Foseti read Pinker’s book and gave it a review:
Pinker’s basic problem is that he essentially defines “violence” in such a way that his thesis that violence is declining becomes self-fulling. “Violence” to Pinker is fundamentally synonymous with behaviors of older civilizations. On the other hand, modern practices are defined to be less violent than newer practices.
A while back, I linked to a story about a guy in my neighborhood who’s been arrested over 60 times for breaking into cars. A couple hundred years ago, this guy would have been killed for this sort of vandalism after he got caught the first time. Now, we feed him and shelter him for a while and then we let him back out to do this again. Pinker defines the new practice as a decline in violence – we don’t kill the guy anymore! Someone from a couple hundred years ago would be appalled that we let the guy continue destroying other peoples’ property without consequence. In the mind of those long dead, “violence” has in fact increased. Instead of a decline in violence, this practice seems to me like a decline in justice – nothing more or less.
Here’s another example, Pinker uses creative definitions to show that the conflicts of the 20th Century pale in comparison to previous conflicts. For example, all the Mongol Conquests are considered one event, even though they cover 125 years. If you lump all these various conquests together and you split up WWI, WWII, Mao’s takeover in China, the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the Russian Civil War, and the Chinese Civil War (yes, he actually considers this a separate event from Mao), you unsurprisingly discover that the events of the 20th Century weren’t all that violent compared to events in the past! Pinker’s third most violent event is the “Mideast Slave Trade” which he says took place between the 7th and 19th Centuries. Seriously. By this standard, all the conflicts of the 20th Century are related. Is the Russian Revolution or the rise of Mao possible without WWII? Is WWII possible without WWI? By this consistent standard, the 20th Century wars of Communism would have seen the worst conflict by far. Of course, if you fiddle with the numbers, you can make any point you like.
Foseti quotes another reviewer, writing at Foreign Affairs:
Yet even if Pinker is right that the ratio of violent to peaceful deaths has improved over time (and he probably is), his metric of progress deserves a bit more attention than he gives it. His argument about decreasing violence is a relative one: not that more people were killed annually in the past than are killed in a given year of recent history but that more people were killed relative to the size of the overall human population, which is of course vastly larger today than in earlier eras. But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another.
Pinker’s argument isn’t as clear-cut as people make it out to be. Remember that Pinker is first and foremost a cognitive scientist, not a historical analyst. He has a fantastic reputation for being a cognitive science genius, but this shouldn’t hold us back from examining his historical arguments with a skeptical eye. Too often, Harvard professors are regarded by high-tier intellectuals as beyond criticism.