Steve Pinker’s new book

September 18, 2011 • 9:48 am

Expect a lot of press over the next few weeks about Steve Pinker’s new book, a massive tome (832 pages long) called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It will be released October 4, and can get it for about $25 on Amazon.

The title tells the tale: it’s a meticulously documented argument about how much violence has declined from our hunter-gatherer days ten millennia ago through medieval times to the modern day.  Such a rapid decline argues, of course, that either we are not innately violent or that, if we are, we’re increasingly able to control our genetic endowment.  Such a steep decline in violence can’t reflect the action of natural selection weeding out our “aggression genes,” for the change has simply happened too quickly.

Over at The Guardian, Andrew Anthony briefly summarizes the book and gives a longer, and pretty good, account of Pinker’s life as a public intellectual, which at times has been tempestuous.  Anthony does mention one potential criticism that I find strange:

As both conservative pessimists, such as the philosopher John Gray, and postmodern relativists dismiss the post-Enlightenment understanding of progress as pure folly, Pinker is likely to stand accused of Panglossian naivety. Indeed, he says that when he told colleagues what he was writing, they said he reminded them of the man who jumped off the roof of a tall building and halfway down observed: “It looks good so far.”

To be tagged as a credulous optimist is one thing, yet Pinker also risks being condemned as a scientific racist. His graphs on the incidence of murder show present-day tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures to be far more homicidal than even the most lethally armed developed nation, a fact that is bound to bring censure from those Pinker derides as the “anthropologists of peace”.

If the data indeed show that difference—and given Pinker’s meticulousness and awareness of what is at stake here, I’m sure they do—it would be foolish to claim he’s a scientific racist.  It’s of immense scientific interest if populations living the way our ancestors did not so long ago were more prone to violence, and ethnicity is the last thing that I would think could explain that.

You can see Pinker’s nascent ideas for this book in a 2007 TED talk here.

54 thoughts on “Steve Pinker’s new book

  1. I was also thinking along the lines of the “Looks good so far.” punch line. The problem is that, with our current capacity for mass destruction, we don’t need to have a broad culturally retrograde period to see the trends “so far” reversed. All we need is a spasm of madness in the “elites” who are running the show.

    1. I’ve always assumed the evidence is that the show that runs the “elites”. Isn’t it what Pinker claims after all, regardless of who tries to “run”, society has developed in a certain direction?

      [Besides that the other direction looks like conspiracy theory. Extraordinary claims needs extraordinary evidence, and all that.]

  2. If the data indeed show that difference … it would be foolish to claim he’s a scientific racist.

    Actually, it would be idiotic and a case of gross professional misconduct on the part of any journalist who parroted that line. (Incidentally, it’s just a half-assed version of “one of the lowest forms of journalism”, He Said She Said.)

  3. 832 pages!? Can that man not be brief? It’s just that, I’d like to read it, but it’s not gonna happen when it’s that long. With papers to read, research to do, papers to write, children to raise, I juts can’t find the time for such tomes. Who exactly is the audience? Sigh.

    1. For me that’s about eight hours total reading time. So about a week and a half if I’m just reading on the bus to and from work, and not reading on the weekends at all.

      1. A hundred pages per hour? Doesn’t sound like you can absorb too much…especially with Pinker’s books which tend to be pretty dense also.

        1. My normal reading speed is about 60 pages an hour, and my daughter’s speed is a good bit faster than that.

          I can easily believe that some people would read 100 pages an hour at normal levels of comprehension if it’s well written.

  4. Notice that Anthony doesn’t make the criticism himself. It’s become so much an unthinking, reflexive response that it’s presumed to be part of the discussion, whether anyone says it or not.

  5. Preordered for my Kindle, which I have to say is another example of the awesomeness of the modern world.

    Back on topic, one of the things that struck me as I learned more about history, especially the history of ancient Greece and Rome, is how much more brutal life was. The 20th and 21st centuries have had plenty of blood flowing, but the almost casual way that people were slaughtered. In 88 BC, Mithradates VI had 80,000 Roman and Italian civilians living in Asia Minor executed in one day. In raw numbers, that’s more than 26 9/11s, and in proportional terms it’s around 70. As awful as modern humans can and have been towards each other, they were that much and more in the past.

  6. This fits perfectly with my understanding of morality.

    Think of it as societal evolution.

    Imagine two societies. In one, murder runs rampant; in the other, murder is unthinkable. The former will have multiple opportunities to outcompete the latter. There’s the obvious and trivial, such as the sheer weight of numbers, but there’s also the fact that the civilized society isn’t as likely to lose its best-and-brightest to random violence at an early age, and the fact that in the civilized society individuals don’t have to commit significant resources to protecting themselves from being murdered themselves.

    And, of course, that applies to all other crimes and non-Biblical forms of morality. In a society without rape, women may devote the energy they would have to self-defense to something more productive. In a society without theft, rather than invest in bulletproof glass windows, people invest in useful and beautiful things. In a society without lies and deception, people spend more effort deciding what they want than trying to figure out how much of what’s being offered is true. Etc., etc., etc.



    1. Ben, you wrote: “Imagine two societies. In one, murder runs rampant; in the other, murder is unthinkable. The former will have multiple opportunities to outcompete the latter.”

      Did you mean to say that the latter would outcompete the former? Because that would seem to fit better with the rest of your comment.

        1. ‘Incompetent poorfeeders’? Even if I tried, I couldn’t come up with something this good, but the spell check on my iPad does it every time.

  7. But Mark Shea at the National Catholic Register just told us that we are a fallen race; he apparently read this in a newspaper.

    Only through the eating of magic crackers in a cannibal ritual recapitulating the torture and violent death of a jewish zombie can we redeem ourselves.

    And Edward Feser agrees with him but you also have to read a lot of his books about Aquinas as well to be saved (which sounds more like hell to me).

    Ergo Steve Pinker must be wrong, the human race can not becoming better without the direct intervention of an invisible sky fairy (with a beard).

  8. I was just thinking to myself yesterday that Pinker should come out with a new book! I didn’t know this one was in the works. It’s not the subject matter I expected from him, but I love his stuff, so I’m sure I’ll read it.

  9. Fear sells. You can’t give away good news or realism, evidence-based social, inter-tribal findings or ideas — no matter how many hundreds of pages.

    Pinker is likely dead-on and right but our brains will continue to force the media to manufacture scary stories. We will also do really dumb things based on those scary, mainly tribal, stories — like go to war. Continue to hate ppl with darker skin colors, different dress or superstitious beliefs, etc.

    Bet the media pretty much ignores the book and ideas. Predictable.

  10. What, all of his colleagues told him he reminded them of the man jumpimg from a tall building who says “it looks good so far”? That’s a hell of a coincidence.

  11. I wonder, has any other commenter read Sex at Dawn? The authors devote quite a few pages to refute Pinker’s TED argument, and quite persuasively, too.

    1. The Sex at Dawn authors took exception to Pinker’s assertion that hunter/gatherer societies were violent. Their claim is that the incidence of violent death among true nomadic hunter/gatherers is extremely low and that in such a society all relations are intergroup and cooperative. They claim that Pinker’s examples of hunter/gatherers are tainted, that they are at least partly agricultural and have had contact with modern society. They therefore are not exemplery of true hunter/gatherers. The authors never dealt with any of the other examples Pinker uses in his analysis of declining violence but seemed to dismiss him with their one complaint though he seeemed to me to be addressing a wider issue.

      I couldn’t ever find a real review of Sex at Dawn or find any response from Pinker or any other credible scientist challenging their assertion. I’m dying to know if he deals with them in the new book.

      1. Both Gwynne Dyer and John Keegan have come to the same conclusion as Pinker concerning rates of violence in primitive societies. Dyer and Keegan are well-respected war historians and they’ve both written about this very topic in their respective war histories (Dyer’s “War” and Keegan’s “A History of Warfare”). I believe it was Dyer who showed how similar human tribal warfare is to chimpanzee warfare. It shows our evolutionary roots.

  12. Sex At Dawn ? Refuting Pinker’s TED talk ? I shall try and find it-nonetheless i’ll be getting Pinker’s book anyway-from up here in Socialized Canada it looks interesting.

  13. First, is it really too short of a time for
    genetic proclivities toward violence to be selected out? Wild foxes can become domesticated in what, between 3 and 10 generations?

    Now, I obviously haven’t read Pinker’s upcoming book yet, but having read The Blank Slate, I can guess on the basis of his premise: comparing deaths as a percent of population. Is that the right metric to use? Industrial civilization is highly compartmentalized; we no longer send off every male to fight our wars (and even the military is highly compartmentalized; most personel do not participate directly in combat), we have professional police forces to maintain order, and can build prisons to house criminals.

    These institutions might explain why industrial society has less violent death per capita (indeed, one imagines the population density of the modern world necessitates it), but I’m not convinced that per capita is the right metric here. If a nuke were dropped into a sparsely populated tribal culture and killed off an entire tribe of 200 (per capita deaths: 100%), would that event have more gracitas than wiping out 150,000 Japanese in Hiroshima, a mere fraction of Japan’s population? Is the moral weight of a life inversely proportional to the population of it’s organizational sovereign?

    Per capita statistics may let one say a lot about aggregate values, but it is a fallacy to interpolated those values to the individuals in the population.

    1. I wouldn’t mind seeing an answer to this, actually.

      I find Pinker’s TED argument very persuasive, but there’s a good point to questioning the metric.

      Someone else has to have made this criticism already. Has Pinker answered this criticism anywhere online?

      To anyone who has read the book: Is there an answer in the book itself?

    2. I haven’t delved too far into his argument yet, but I think Pinker is using per capita figures to get at an approximation of the level of violence in a society.

      The slice of history with which I’m most familiar is Late Republican Rome, which was a highly civilized time in the ancient world. All the same, the level of threat that your average person experienced was much higher. In Rome itself, there was often violence, often of a political nature. Outside of Rome in the countryside, there was the threat that armed gangs of bandits would assault and murder you on the roads. On the seas, the threat of piracy was significant, and taking a sea journey involved the risk that you’d be murdered or captured and sold into slavery. For the vast majority of people living in America (the modern world’s analog to Rome), these aren’t realistic threats.

    3. I’m sure that Pinker is not saying that we’ve genetically changed, I suspect it’s more of an outworking of our social model… we’ve learned ways of controlling violence (including aspects you refer to as ‘highly comprmentalized’) and have adopted these rapidly because they work.

      The power of human social organization is the speed at which it can adapt to internal and external changes. The ability to adapt is evolutionary, the specific changes are not.

  14. Damnit!

    I just promised myself last week to stop buying books until I opened up some space on my bookcase’s to-be-read shelf, or more accurately my bookcase’s to-be-read-shelf-and-surrounding-floor-area.

    Grr. I wants this.

    1. That’s why I got a Kindle, it has other advantages but the main one is that I am no longer is danger of reading myself out of house and home! Of course many books are not available on it which is irritating, but on the other hand it helps keep outgoings down. You can’t read everything.

      1. Hmm.

        I do also have a Kindle – and it’s great and all. But it makes it hard to lend books to people.

        Some of my friends and I regularly get into (usually drunken) pseudo-intellectual discussions about highfalutin subjects, and human nature is one of them. A lot of what is in the Blank Slate would be brilliant background that I’d like one of my friends in particular to have… But I can’t lend it without lending my entire Kindle. Which I don’t want to do. Because if I’m not reading something on it, my girlfriend probably is.

        So I made that mistake once. I’m not going to make it again.

        Besides… I like having a book collection on display in actual bookshelves. There’s books I have in my Kindle that I’ll probably buy in hardcover one day just to fill out the shelves a bit more.

        Incidentally, I just checked and I can’t seem to find a Kindle edition of that book online.

        Is it only released for Kindle pre-order in America or something? That seems a bit weird… Or am I just failing at the internet again?

        1. What you say is true, but there’s a couple of solutions to your dilemma: send your friends to the library, or loan them out your e-reader. 🙂

          (Actually some books can be “loaned” for a limited time on Kindle or Nook, but it’s up to the publishers to enable it.)

          1. Interesting.

            Tah for that.

            Of course, now I have to download Linux and feel really stoopid while I completely fail to get it working.


  15. Since “race” doesn’t exist objectively, the argument without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

    “Primitive” or tribal warfare was and is in some places pretty ubiquitous, though the casualy rates are usually fairly low, they may well be higher as a proportion of the population than in larger societies and I imagine Pinker has check his facts pretty well.

    One great difference, I would suggest, is that inter-tribal killing was, until very recently, up close and personal, while modern warfare allows, or even demands distancing of the killer from the killed. Dropping bombs, firing rockets or artillery can seem just like any other faily mechanical task, you don’t usually have to view the results. I would suggest that many people who can perform these tasks would be less inclined to kill someone face to face. Non-firing is a recognised military problem in the infantry, let alone non-slashing with a sword or striking with a spear.

    So comparing historical violence with today may not be comparing the same things at all. Certainly think that the majority of people in the modern world are less likely to encounter violence personally. We would need to do the impossible experiment of dropping modern humans into a pre-modern setting.

    1. Also, I wonder if he takes into consideration close calls. For instance, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nobody wound up getting killed, but if it had gone the wrong way, everyone might have wound up getting killed.

      The realization of our proximity to creating our own apocalypse may be the only thing that pulled us back from the brink. And it didn’t take the form of everyone foaming at the mouth… such crises are arrived at under relatively banal situations with political tension ratcheting up. Most people were not preparing for war during the Cuban Missile Crisis (because they didn’t have to); they were preparing for death.

    2. Since “race” doesn’t exist objectively

      If “race” refers to a human subpopulation defined by a set traits such as skin color, hair color and texture, and the shape of certain facial features, then it most definitely “exists objectively.”

    3. Since “race” doesn’t exist objectively

      Even if race doesn’t exist (as a definition in biology), racism does exist (as a belief a person can hold). So someone could still accuse Pinker of racism (a real thing) even if biology doesn’t define race. I’m not accusing Pinker of racism, I’m just saying racism is real.

  16. I’m more interested in understanding why people in the past were more violent. For example, I’d like to know why a educated man like Cicero enjoyed gladiator deathmatches or why Thomas Jefferson had slaves (please note this isn’t an accusation or a judgment, but a question). In general, it would be cool to understand what makes values and customs fluctuate through time.

    I suppose a historian would be the right person to teach me that.

    1. It’s generally supposed to be something about demonstrations of Roman virtue – courage & dignity in the face of pain & death. Cicero was widely supposed to be squeamish about gladiator death-matches, but it seems he was more complex than that. In his writings he actually objects to them only among free men. A-OK as a way to punish criminals, though.

      (Not a historian, just read lots of classics for interest.)

  17. The TED talk was great – I’m now up to speed on his general thesis. The other question is how we have created governments which help us to see our neighbour as ourselves, rather than the-other. The book which is helping me most is:

    ‘The Origins of Political Order : From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.’ by Francis Fukuyama, where he traces the sine qua non of a civilized, ordered society (note, not perfect!).

    He suggests three components, the concept of ‘the state’, the rule of law and an accountable government; and takes us for a giddy ride through history as various components are achieved or not. And I know its Hobbes rather than Rousseau that understands our political nether regions.

    As I have an iPad, I buy on the kindle app, and it is a pleasure not to be littered by books, as I’m often reading 20 at a time. So I will buy his book as long as it’s on the kindle app for Australians.

  18. The argument in Sex At Dawn against Pinker’s view of violence in pre-history is a serious one, not to be so easily dismissed with one-liners about “anthropologists of peace”.

  19. I like to choose extreme examples with which to graphically & forcefully illustrate a point:-

    I cannot imagine many once tribal Papua-New-Guineans disagreeing with Pinker’s thesis.
    The highlander males, at least, are nearly unique in having undergone the transformation from compulsive head-hunting xenophobic hair-trigger murderers into pacific cultured pilots, University educated engineers, physicians etc in one generation.

    Once again: Pinker is correct. His detractors are in error.

  20. Calling Pinker’s theory racist entirely misses the point. AIUI he’s not claiming New Guineans are violent or Amazonians are violent, but that hunter gatherers of any race or color are going to be more violent. IOW, we would be, too.

    Sounds like his conclusions are very similar to the ones given in Keely’s War Before Civilization (which, incidentally, only ran about 150 pages in length). While we certainly have a much greater potential to do harm, modern warfare practices have actually shrunk the number of annual violent deaths per capita by war, as counter-intuitive as that may be.

  21. There is a recent book or two maybe, about how humans have domesticated themselves as we did with sheep/cattle etc. All exibit smaller brains than their wild cousins & are selected for less aggressive traits. We also select against aggressiveness…

  22. A book that Pinker has undoubtedly drawn upon is the salutary and horrifying ‘War Before Civilisation’ by Lawrence Keeley, who was and still may be Professor of Anthropology at – believe it or not – the University of Illinois at Chicago, a book that was published by the Oxford University Press in 1996, that is to say, well over twenty years ago – something that makes what appears to be Pinker’s claim to be saying something radical wholly unfounded, and he seems also to be taking the same sort of ill-considered dismissal of anthropology that he has previously indulged in with respect to the arts.

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