Singer lauds Pinker’s new book

October 9, 2011 • 11:58 am

At the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in Hartford, Steve Pinker gave a very good 45-minute talk about his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. (I’ll have a fuller report on the FFRF meeting, with pictures, when I’m able to stay in one place for a bit.) As you probably know by now, the book’s thesis is that violence in our species has declined drastically since the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Steve documents that decline and then tries to explain it.

In today’s New York Times, philosopher Peter Singer gives the book a three-thumbs-up review (on the cover too!)  Snippets:

In 800 information-packed pages, Pinker also discusses a host of more specific issues. Here is a sample: What do we owe to the Enlightenment? Is there a link between the human rights movement and the campaign for animal rights? Why are homicide rates higher in the southerly states of this country than in northern ones? Are aggressive tendencies heritable? Could declines in violence in particular societies be attributed to genetic change among its members? How does a president’s I.Q. correlate with the number of battle deaths in wars in which the United States is involved? Are we getting smarter? Is a smarter world a better world?. . .

Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought. . . .

Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution. . . .

“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline.

You can’t get a much better review than that, and I’m happy for Steve.

33 thoughts on “Singer lauds Pinker’s new book

  1. The Blank Slate was already a very good book (not to mention The Language Instinct, a classic of its field), and here comes another one that’s directly relevant to my work. Can a guy not get a couple of years of relative quiet, without having to incorporate the quasi-anticipations of an army of pretty bright fellows into his work? Your cooperation would be much appreciated! 🙂

    1. precisely. reviewing this mammoth will be tediously long, however a succint reading and summarized arguments and interviews (Pinkers’) makes Pinkers’ case for an enlightened peaceful world very weak, to say the least.

    2. A rather vapid review that doesn’t even bother to lay out the case Pinker is trying to make. Instead the reviewer—a historian who seems to be grumpy because Pinker has stepped on his lawn—just picks out a couple of quotes that, without any supporting context, he makes out to be nonsensical. Without giving any specific evidence or arguments, mind you. By his own standards, I would just have to point to this passage in the review:

      Myth and anecdote are used extensively when they suit his purpose. His source on the Altamont riot is Wikipedia.

      To think that Wikipedia in its entirety is in a league with myth and anecdote and that it would be unprofessional to consult it for a relatively insignificant historical detail is completely idiotic. I can hardly see anything of worth in that review apart from the credentials of the author. Which, in contrast to argument, shouldn’t count for anything, so I guess there’s really nothing there. Meh.

      1. I did notice a few times when Pinker cites Wikipedia, especially since he explicitly notes this in the text saying that it is sometimes the best single source for timelines or summaries that he could find. He makes sure to cite the time he retrieved the page, showing he is also aware of its changeable nature.

      2. I haven’t read the new Pinker, so of course I can’t judge the overall justice of the Washington Post review. But I recognise what he’s describing from, in particular, The Blank Slate – that is, that the basic, general argument is persuasive, but Pinker throws in so many daft arguments along the way that sometimes you want to throw the thing at the wall.

        (For instance, in The Blank Slate he suggests that violence is – I’m simplifying, obviously – more to do with genes than environment. You can’t help wondering what neighbourhood Pinker lives in).

        1. This could be an honest mistake, so I’d just like to ask you to cite a reference page in the book where you think Pinker says that violence “is more to do with genes than environment”.

          Still, I might perhaps point out that the whole point of the whole book is to say that all of human nature is a complex interplay of dispositional and environmental factors, and especially that we need to stop closing our eyes to the dispositional ones as if they didn’t exist. One typical example (p. 44 of the paperback edition): “differences in … violence are not entirely learned” (my emphasis). Your characterisation is not a simplification; it is flat out wrong.

  2. Didn’t animal rights concerns and legislation precede and lead to child labor laws and the like in the USA?

    1. To a great extent, yes. This is pretty well documented in Ian Hacking’s Rewriting the Soul, a book I cannot recommend too highly. It’s actually a social history of th multiple personality movement and the Satanic Panics of the 1970’s-1990s as a “transient mental illness”, a mental illness that seems to emerge in a wave as a response to social concerns.

      Hacking has another awesome book, Mad Travellers, about the “fugue” plague late 19th century France and Germany and its connection to modern concepts of dissociative disorders.

  3. Peter Singer would of course recommend ‘the Better Angels of Our Nature’. It has a strong plug for several of Peter Singer’s books, one of which I immediately purchased for my non-carbon based data retrieval unit.

    It’s not as long as 800 pages. I think the text runs to about 560 pages, with the endnotes and other things making the rest. The publishers didn’t include page numbers in the eBook version.

    I’m finding it a good read, ‘confirming’ my innate optimism.

    Bill Bryson noted that in Britain the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established long before the similar one for the protection of children, which still doesn’t have royal imprimatur.

    Steven Pinker notes that in both Britain and America, before there were laws preventing cruelty to children, authorities used the laws protecting animals to prosecute negligent parents and guardians.

  4. Pinker is going to be in Kansas City, Mo on Oct. 12th

    I am going to ask him if his thesis will be affected if nuclear war ever breaks out.

    I will try to post it on You Tube if I can pull it off.

  5. I have begun to read the book; very interesting, to say the least. I I kind of have to strongly disagree with his agreement with Hobbes’s apologetic for the state (i.e. before the state, life was “nasty, brutish, and short”).

    Pinker is wrong on theoretical grounds in his argument about the effects of anarchy (his “Hobbes was right” argument); he conceives the situation between people in anarchy as a n-person prisoners’ dilemma in game theoretic terms, and hence comes to the conclusion that every individual will have an incentive to encroach on others’ territory and steal their resources. The trick here is the breezy allusion to “their resources,” which implies the existence of resources that some people call “theirs,” i.e. property over which individuals have a claim. As political theorists since at least Rousseau have noted, the emergence of so-called private property needs to be explained first; and the latter most certainly cannot be an outcome of a prisoners’ dilemma-like situation; in fact the latter presumes co-ordination among humans (recognition of respective mutual properties). The game is definitely not prisoners’ dilemma (which, for those interested, has a dominant strategy of mutual defection, in the jargon of game theory), but one of coordination where the best strategy could be cooperation (again in the jargon of game theory, multiple equilibria are possible). For a nice accessible review of all this, see Russell Hardin’s “All for One.” Also he should at least have looked at David Hume’s rebuttal of Hobbes’s argument.

    So in its own terms, THIS PART of Pinker’s argument does not even get off the ground. I am surprised the reviewers did not catch this glaring hole.

    1. The trick here is the breezy allusion to “their resources,” which implies the existence of resources that some people call “theirs,”

      it’s hardly a “breezy allusion”, I can show you endless examples of innate exhibitions of resources defense where clearly the organism defending it considered it “theirs” (for want of having to describe the gamut of related behavior).

      in fact, it’s exactly what selection would predict.

      you have to explain the specific evolution of cooperation in context BEFORE you can dismiss as “breezy allusion” selective pressures favoring individual resource control.

      so, no, Pinker is not wrong here. Not theoretically, and not observationally.

      1. The point is the resource defense–at least on the part of humans–is a collective action (Rousseau’s stag hunt). So starting at the level of the individual, the coordination–or cooperation–is prior to the exchange problem (i.e. the PD is normally an exchange situation). Also when one is talking about individuals, it is not clear that cooperative behavior is also not selected for (again, even before Kropotkin made this kind of an argument,it could be read into Hume’s rebuttal of the behavioral assumptions underlying Hobbes’s argument).

        I’m not saying that protective behavior is not selected for; what I am saying is that unlike what Pinker–or Hobbes–argue, a lack of state does not necessarily lead to a “war of all against all” (in fact Pinker seems to think that in the absence of a state, mutual conflict between humans is most rational, from an individual perspective; hence the Prisoners’ Dilemma-like situation).

        1. Also, I wanted to add that if you actually study the evolution of states (or “State Formation”, as it’s called in the social science literature), all the details contradict Hobbes (there’s a vast literature on this covering History, Political Science, and Sociology). In fact the process of state formation itself was several times more brutal and destructive than what existed before. So yes, compared to what came before, once a particular group established monopoly over violence (in the process destroying large swathes of humanity)things became relatively peaceful (notwithstanding INTER-state violence now).

  6. I’m about 25% finished (according to the Kindle progress) and it’s a beast. Extensively footnoted with many long examples and citations in the book itself. He walks through many different perspectives and show how they either succeed or fail and frequently discusses work that would undermine his argument. So far, I have to say that his attitude and research impresses me.

    There may be problems and I’m waiting for other experts to chew it up but so far it sounds a bit like the critiques leveled against Dawkins’s discussion of the Zeitgeist – individual examples may be lacking, but the theory as a whole is sound.

    It’s not a breezy read by any means, but it’s keeping me engrossed.

    1. Since you’re reading on the kindle, could you tell me if the footnotes and endnotes are properly hyperlinked? Proper as in clicking on the note number gets you to the note and back. I’ve often had that not work with my ebooks, and for a book so festooned with notes I’d want it working before buying an e-copy…thanks!

  7. I have ordered it, and look forward to reading it since I have been impressed by Pinker’s other books, though not by his thoughts about the arts. Doubtless it will be neither so good as the NYT says it is or so bad as the Washington Post says it is. If, as tveb suggests, Pinker is in fact juxtaposing, in Hobbesian fashion, some supposed ‘natural’ state of anarchy (anarchy surely comes about in consequence of the collapse of a social order and does not precede it – hunter-gatherers certainly do not live in a state of anarchy)with the peace brought about the political order imposed by the state, that part at least does sound rather dubious.

  8. I swear, every book he writes is uber interesting. I saw his lecture on this subject and the graph after graph after graph eventually will make your eyes glaze over…I imagine reading this book would make it 10x worse. lol

  9. Gotta also plug Singer’s Practical Ethics Anyone who fancies themselves well informed should have a go at it. It’s a pretty easy read and has been highly influential.

    Singer is sometimes said to be an animal sights activist. He says these people must have never have read his books as he does not think rights are a primary concept in metaethics, though rights might be suitable social constructs for day to day living. Interests are primary. I haven’t read Sam Harris’ most recent book, but I understand it takes a similar approach.

  10. I had high hopes for Pinker’s latest book. I still do, despite Singer’s approbation. I usually find Singer’s preferences to be anathema to mine, so an effusive review from Singer would normally warn me away. But, this book is one of Pinker’s—none of which have failed to be enlightening and informative in the past. I suspect the same is true for this one, and Singer just got lucky for once.

  11. It surprises me that so many people seem to be surprised by Pinker’s main claim. You don’t need to have read that much history to know how violent the past was, both in terms of intra and inter-state violence.

    “Warfare in Civilisation” by Azar Gat, which covers the role of warfare in state formation, reaches the same conclusion as Pinker.

  12. Pinker’s wife, Rebecca Goldstein, is on the current podcast of Rationally Speaking. In the last few minutes where the guest gets to recommend a book, she spoke about The Better Angels of our Nature. Given the number of graphs in the book, Goldstein referred to it as Pinker’s “graphic argument”.

  13. “Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815” is an illusion: wars in Spain, in the Balkans, Crimea, Italy, Austria, the Franco-Prussian war. The only truly peaceful period occurred between 1878 and 1911, with far-sighted pessimists like Bismarck desperately seeking to preserve the delicate equilibrium they had wrought by force, and major powers occupied in pissing contests in other parts of the world. The backlash was only proportionate.

    Still awaiting the book, I have only press reviews to go by. I am not unduly impressed by the few historical excerpts related here and elsewhere. The technological case I find more convincing: it takes a lot more adrenaline to kill a human by thrusting a silex point or a metal blade through skin, muscle, sinew, vessels, nerves to the bone, and even through that, than to press a trigger or a button, to open a gas valve, or to control a joystick. To that extent, modern technology renders killing less directly brutalising; physical distancing may be soothing to the psyche of the killer. We should realistically strive to humanise conflicts by curbing the manufacture of machetes and subsiding the export of AK-47’s and ArmaLites. I’m very much looking forward to solar-powered Raptors (the drones, not the xkcd obsession): clean, efficient, hygienic, intelligent, economical.

    Unendowed with wealth or pity,
    Little birds with scarlet legs,
    Sitting on their speckled eggs,
    Eye each flu-infected city.

    Altogether elsewhere, vast
    Herds of reindeer move across
    Miles and miles of golden moss,
    Silently and very fast.

  14. Peter Singer makes me a little uneasy. He insists that if developed nations fail to prevent deaths in the third world due to starvation and preventable disease, they are morally guilty of active murder. That is really a stretch.

    1. “He insists that if developed nations fail to prevent deaths in the third world due to starvation and preventable disease, they are morally guilty of active murder. That is really a stretch.”

      What makes you say so?

    2. Yes, Singer really does tear down the killing vs. letting die distinction. We can all see there’s no not much distinction between them in his “drowning child” argument.

      Singer’s ethics is very relaxed in some ways, but very stringent in others. We all understand that the person who does not rescue the drowning child right next to him because of minor inconveniences is a monster. Singer argues that it makes no difference if the dying child is halfway around the world.

      I really think bottom up economic development is the solution. Education and empowerment of women too. I know that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is 50% bullshit, but that book did convince me that government foreign aid is mostly a scam and is mostly spent on inappropriately scaled projects. But Singer doesn’t argue that we lobby our governments to give more money, we should give our own money directly.

      I’m pretty lame here. All I got is 300 bucks kicking around in Kiva for the last three years. That money is now helping a latrine builder in Nigeria buy a second tractor.

    3. » Peter Singer makes me a little uneasy.

      Which, of course, is exactly Singer’s point. It is philosophy’s primary job to challenge our prejudices and flag up the inconsistencies in our thinking. The unease you’re feeling is that of suddenly having to make a choice in justifying your opinion to yourself, instead of just taking it for granted.

    4. “That is really a stretch.”

      Of course one who does not want to be viewed (by others or oneself) as a murderer would be inclined to think so.

  15. Here is a criticism of Pinker’s theses:

    “There is a deeper difficulty. Like so many contemporary evangelists for humanism, Pinker takes for granted that science endorses an Enlightenment account of human reason. Since science is a human creation, how could humans not be rational? Surely science and humanism are one and the same. Actually it’s extremely curious—though entirely typical of current thinking—that science should be linked with humanism in this way. A method of inquiry rather than a settled view of the world, there can be no guarantee that science will vindicate Enlightenment ideals of human rationality. Science could just as well end up showing them to be unrealisable.” Yup.

  16. Cheers to Pinker, who demonstrates that human evolution not only allows for our conceptions of higher power, it demands it. We will continue to build upon an understanding of oneness (or die fighting).

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