Pinker’s new book: the Guardian summarizes the reviews and interviews the author

October 16, 2011 • 8:03 am

This is definitely a piece worth reading: in yesterday’s Guardian, John Naughton summarized not only the thesis of Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature, but also conducted an insightful interview with the author.

Not surprisingly, most of the major reviews have been positive, save that of the miscreant John Gray, who faults Pinker for attributing society’s decline in violence to the Enlightenment. (In his review in Prospect, Gray argued that Pinker not only was guilty of misusing statistics and data, but also neglected some thinkers, like Marx and Lenin, who could be considered part of an extended Enlightenment.)

Anyway, the two best parts of the article are the interview and a Pinkerian table of the worst atrocities in history, with human deaths converted to 20th-century equivalents. It turns out that history’s worst massacre was the eighth-century An Lushan Revolt in China, which cost 36 million lives. In modern equivalents (I presume this is calculated based on the proportion of the world’s population that was decimated), that’s 429 million deaths! In contrast, World War II, #9 on the atrocity scale, took 55 million lives.

Number two is the Mongol Conquest, with a loss of 40 million lives (278 million in modern equivalents). You’ll want to look over the list of the top 21 episodes, which will surprise you.

I won’t give away what Steve says in the interview, but two things impressed me.  First, he wrote the book in only 14 months (it’s 700+ pages long).  Second, he wrote it on a punishing schedule:

I spent a bit more than a year doing nothing but reading, to educate myself in fields I was not trained in – mainly criminology, history and international relations. The writing took 14 very intensive months. I had a sabbatical from Harvard, moved to our house in Cape Cod, and worked on it day and night seven days a week, taking time out only to exercise and spend time with my wife, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein.

How can you not admire his diligence? I now have a copy of the book, and will read it for sure.

h/t: Chris

50 thoughts on “Pinker’s new book: the Guardian summarizes the reviews and interviews the author

  1. That’s a great interview. I just finished the book yesterday and struggled to condense it into an Amazon review because it is a massive undertaking. Comparing it to a royal commission really hits the mark. It doesn’t feel like something a single person could have written yet Pinker’s erudite, conversational, occasionally joking voice follows through from start to finish.

    One odd thing I picked up was the number of times that the Chinese appeared in the book. Very few of their philosophers or diplomats appeared positively yet several of their civil wars and rebellions appeared in the Greatest Atrocities table. I asked my Chinese inlaws about this, whether there was some ethnocentric blindness and they were at a loss, so now I’m on a little quest to brush up on my Chinese history!

    1. Well China has always had a large population & we tend to ignore it in history in western Europe (& the USA?) so perhaps he is just putting it where it belongs in terms of world population, even if it has been a ‘nation’ that has rarely exported its culture or world view

  2. Dr. Pinker’s account of the Cuban Missile Crises is questionable to say the least: “…both the US and the USSR desperately tried to get out of the crises.” Really?

    As Alex Cockburn wrote, “I remember exactly where I was the day that John F. Kennedy tried to kill me*”. The superpowers should hardly be applauded for backing off at the very last minute after irresponsibly coming perilously close to the edge.

    The whole crises would never have started had JFK acquiesced to the Cuban missiles — the way the USSR did to the Turkish missiles. Cuba was a sovereign country that had every right to accept missiles within their borders (especially after the Bay of Pigs invasion). JFK, on the other hand, was acting illegally in initiating a blockade. Since a blockade is universally recognized as an act of war, JFK euphemistically called it a “quarantine”, as if that bit of word-play made it legal.

    There was an early offer (Oct. 23) from Khrushev to remove the missiles in exchange for JFK’s public pledge not to invade Cuba — before tensions rose, before Major Anderson was shot down and killed, before numerous near-apocalyptic confrontations with Russian submarines, before a U-2 strayed into Soviet airspace and nearly touched off a war — but JFK was more interested at the time in keeping Cuban invasion options alive and maintaining his “tough guy” image.

    The Cuban Missile Crises is a story of leaders being insanely reckless and lucky (as Dr. Pinker’s questioner maintained) — not being advanced or “enlightened” in any sense.

    Certainly, this isolated incident does not affect the over-all thesis of Dr. Pinker’s book. But I really think Dr. Pinker needs to brush up on his history before making fatuous comments portraying egregious hare-brained belligerence as polished statesmanship.

    * For those of you too young to remember, it once was common to say “I remember exactly where I was the day John F. Kennedy was killed”.

    1. Have you read his “fatuous comments” in the book or just some pullquotes in an interview or review?

      It’s a huge, well-researched book and seems bizarre for you to trash it without having bothered to read it.

    2. “The superpowers should hardly be applauded for backing off at the very last minute after irresponsibly coming perilously close to the edge.”

      What you’re trying to implicitly include in Pinker’s data are disasters that *almost* happened. This is a dead-end approach. No doubt history is filled with other disasters that *almost* happened, but didn’t. Whether these things didn’t happen due to luck or or due to inevitability is a problem that isn’t resolvable.

    3. JFK euphemistically called it a “quarantine”, as if that bit of word-play made it legal.

      That’s been US policy since the Department of War was reorganized into the Department of Defense. Kind of weird to single out this one instance.

    4. I think you’ll find the quote goes, “Like everyone of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was standing on the day that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly killed me.” [“Kennedy Lies,” Spectator, 11/19/83] by Christopher Hitchens

      1. To Tyro:
        A fatuous comment is a fatuous comment whether from a book or from a personal interview.

        I took Pinker’s analysis of the Cuban Missile Crises from extended comments he made in an interview. If you wish to refer to that as merely doing a “pullquote”, so be it. I think the comments Pinker made adequately reflect his views.

        To Greg Esres:
        I agree with your point that we should not include *almost* disasters in the data. I noted in my comment that it did not affect Pinker’s over-all thesis. I was merely noting that his portrayal of the Cuban
        Missile Crises is faulty — the superpowers’ behavior were mainly an extremely dangerous and childish exercise in brinkmanship, not a case of noble statesmanship drawn from enlightenment values as Pinker seems to think. Sort of like praising two teenagers for their great wisdom in agreeing to call off a game of “Russian Roulette” after only two rounds.

        To Steve:
        Thanks for the comment. I can’t quote chapter and verse, but I seem to remember Cockburn writing something similar. But, you may be correct that it belongs to Hitch.

        1. I was merely noting that his portrayal of the Cuban
          Missile Crises is faulty — the superpowers’ behavior were mainly an extremely dangerous and childish exercise in brinkmanship, not a case of noble statesmanship drawn from enlightenment values as Pinker seems to think.

          I thought you hadn’t bothered to read his actual words since your characterization is simplistic and ridiculous and wildly at odds with what he has actually written. No, he’s not saying that the Enlightenment values changed everything, no he’s not saying that modern leaders are statesmanlike.

          Perhaps before trashing someone and saying they’re badly wrong you could take the time to learn what they actually say. If you don’t have a copy of their book then I’d say the best spirit of scepticism is to button up.

          1. Tyro wrote:
            “Perhaps before trashing someone and saying they’re badly wrong you could take the time to learn what they actually say.”

            My comment IS drawn from what Pinker actually said. The fact that my commentary was not drawn from statements in the book is irrelevant: Pinker still said it.

            I never claimed that Pinker thinks Enlightenment values “changed everything”, but Pinker DOES speculate that Enlightenment values were a major factor that helped bring about progress. Here is a direct quote:

            “A number of the causes [for the ‘humanitarian revolution’] are summed up by the term ‘Enlightenment.’ For one thing, knowledge replaced superstition and ignorance: beliefs such as that Jews poisoned wells, heretics go to hell, witches cause crop failures, children are possessed, and Africans are brutish. As Voltaire said, ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'”

            By the way, I am NOT trashing Pinker’s book. I think his thesis is probably correct. I am merely taking issue with some comments made by him in the course of interviews about the book. Even though I have not read the book, the comments I listed here represent actual statements by Pinker. If you know of anything written in the book that puts Pinker’s comments in a different context, please list the context, because I am assuming that what Pinker said in his interviews is consistent with what he wrote in the book.

            1. Yes, it is one factor. Of many.

              By the time that the Cuban Missile Crisis hit, Pinker points to several larger trends which are at play. I don’t have the book in front of me (I could get it if you wish), but from rough memory, he was discussing several factors which were at play.

              For a start, bravado and machismo were no longer regarded as all important or worth killing for. Honour used to be worth killing for in duels and battles but this was now seen as gauche or even ridiculous. At one point, men would have to engage in violence as a display and deterrence but with better courts, attention to justice, and a growing international community this was no longer necessary and was viewed negatively. (Pinker looks at the wars fought to claim land, how these all but vanished after WW II and when they did happen, met international retaliation).

              When the US & Soviets did clash here, there was some bluster no conflicts and Pinker argues that both sides were looking for graceful ways to back out without conflict. Pinker compares this to the way two men today might “fight” in a bar. They want to talk tough and posture to keep their image but neither want conflict and they both easily let themselves be held back by smaller, weaker third parties. This is a reflection of modern values and thinking and is very different from the way warring nations behaved 150 years ago, just as it’s different from the way men fought in bars, when insults led to fights to the death.

              Pinker has 5 (?) chapters discussing different influences on our violent tendencies and when he explores examples and summaries, he doesn’t point to single causes in this simplistic “Enlightenment ideals” way you seem to be accusing him of doing.

              1. Well, I don’t think it appropriate to get into a “flame war” in these pages. Let’s agree to disagree.

  3. I have begun reading the book, and it is certainly fascinating and compelling. Most fascinating, as Naughton says, is the cruelty and inhumanity that was simply taken for granted as a fact about life. When looking at the various devices used by the Inquisition to torture people, it is obvious why showing the instruments of torture to a person was thought of as the fist stage of torture, and yet, at the same time, people could watch the torture of others without expressing any empathy at all — like Pepys, watching someone being drawn and quartered.

    I like your description of John Gray as a miscreant, since he so completely misses the point of the book, or, rather, perhaps he got the point so well that he realised that his own deeply pessimistic outlook is immediately threatened by the data provided by Pinker. I often wonder why a man like Gray goes on writing. Things have never been worse, and there’s no way to make things any better: that’s his basic philosophy. And if you add to this the fact that Gray doesn’t think there is any plausible way in which we can be thought to know the truth about anything, you have to wonder, aside from money, what he gets out of writing what he does. By his own premises, none of is remotely likely to be true.

    It’s a big book though, and will take awhile. If Pinker had to find out about so much before he could write the book, imagine how much one has to take in in order even to begin to understand it.

  4. I’ve read quite a bit into Pinker’s new book, and I can see already that his interpretation of the data has the potential to upset world views all around. The Leviathan thesis conflicts with what libertarians believe; the democracy thesis conflicts with what both libertarians and conservatives believe; the idea of a Capitalist Peace conflicts with what socialists believe; the Enlightenment thesis conflicts with what many traditional religionists, postmodernists and some conservatives like Gray believe.

    Pinker’s willingness to challenge so many beliefs at once may give his book staying power. It has probably also gotten attention because of the desire to latch on to some good news about the human prospect in a time of a bad economy and talk about the stagnation of technological progress.

    1. There is always the possibility that he may be misinterpreting, overstretching, or plain and simple misunderstanding his data.

  5. You know, I’ve been reading the thoughts of scientists and religion skeptics for years online, and the following seems to come up often as a talking point:

    “Actually, contrary to popular opinion, we’re much less violent than we used to be.”

    This is often said in response to some religionist claiming our current morals and behavior are so bad (worse than ever, even) that the Second Coming must be right around the corner. Or, conversely, it’s said in response to a different type of person who confidently claims that they’d never want to bring a child into a world that’s this bad, and getting worse.

    It’s good to see someone as accomplished and thorough as Pinker tackle this idea in a comprehensive way. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    1. The Christian doomsday cult has had to redefine sinfulness as a sign of the end times in light of the decline of violence. The signs have changed from wars and rumors of wars to the growing acceptance of, say, openly gay relationships.

  6. I have been reluctant to pick up the book because the idea seems somewhat moot in long view. At present there are a bunch of countries with nuclear weapons, 7 billion people overcrowding the planet, and a looming environmental crisis which will increase conflict over resources. It does not seem useful to pat ourselves on the back for being less violent when the numbers could easily tilt in the opposite direction at some point.

    1. It’s not a futurist book and makes no predictions. And From what I’ve read in numerous articles Pinker himself has a disdain for futurism. Even if there was a nuclear war tomorrow that wouldn’t really contradict Pinker’s thesis.

    2. I have not read it yet but I saw him questioned about whether competition for resources predicted violence and there seems to be little to no evidence of this. Ideology seems to be the much bigger predicter of violence.

    3. Pinker certainly addresses these issues so if you’re avoiding his book because you don’t think his scholarship will be complete, fear not. The book is thorough if it’s anything.

  7. Interestingly the Guardian doesn’t mention the most cogent critique of the book, Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece in The New Yorker. And even her piece left out assailable assumptions in Pinker’s book. I think the book is worth reading – but not without reading the critiques.

  8. I don’t have any particular beef with Pinker’s central thesis, but the value of his ranked list of atrocities seems very dubious. As far as I know, most of the deaths in World War II were caused directly by violence, but this is a very recent development. Before 1900, the majority of deaths during wartime were caused by disease and starvation, not combat injuries. I suspect the number of actual combat deaths in the An Lushan Revolt was tiny compared to the total number of 35 million dead. As most of the deaths were “inadvertent”, they hardly provide convincing evidence for a more violent society.

    1. At the risk of sounding flippant, I think that you should spend a year researching that, and then write a book about it in that case!

      1. It does not just sound flippant – it is. Norwonk raises very valid questions of elementary historical methodology here. It would be flippant not to address them. Do we agree that this website is dedicated to rational, critical, skeptical enquiry, the criteria of which apply to any endeavour? Just because an eminent scientist with whose worldview we generally agree is venturing outside his field of expertise does not exempt him from that same level of critical scrutiny. Pinker draws some very tall conclusions from his reading of the data. As I’m trying to show with a few examples below (post # 11), his treatment of the data, as well as the data themselves, give reason for skeptical pause. The burden of proof is on him.

        1. I also think Norwonk brings up an interesting point. It may be that we are not less violent, but merely more advanced in medicine and thus able to save those who would have otherwise died.

          I remember reading of Richard the Lionhearted, shot by an arrow and living many days — long enough to say to his assailant, “why did you kill me”? That is, Richard knew he was as good as dead because current medical science could not save him from what today would be a minor wound. What if all who received minor wounds in WWII were added to the list of dead?

          Just moving from the Vietnam war to Iraq –there is a huge difference in the number saved who would otherwise have died. Pinker perhaps should be talking about advances in medicine rather than advances in morality. I can’t state that for a fact, I’m just saying that it is a possibility that would un-do Pinker’s figures.

        2. Flippant is my middle name. Well maybe you both have a point, but this idea of areas of expertise in non-science subjects is interesting to me. I do not see why reading a lot about history does not qualify him to draw conclusions in the same way Marx or Toynbee did! At least with broad brushes. As I said though I have not read it yet so maybe his methodology is up the creek.

          1. I did neither state nor imply that Pinker’s straying from his domain of expertise disqualified him in any way from investigating other areas.
            On the contrary: I am firmly convinced that scientists should vigourously venture into fields traditionally deemed the province of scholars (an archaic distinction anyway). But when they do, they are accountable to the same degree of rigourous scrutiny as in their main areas. Especially when they are using quantitative tools and deriving rather grandiose hypotheses from results thus obtained. Painstaking fact-checking is required.

            Your examples, Marx and Toynbee, illustrate the latter point. It is hard to separate Marx the scholar from Marx the ideologue, in whose name unspeakable atrocities were perpetrated, but the fact remains that Marx was, in the best 19th century tradition, a great organiser and conceptualiser of empirical observations.
            He is one of the founding fathers of modern social studies. When he strayed into the philosophy of history and its political consequences, channelling a Hegelian mishmash on his bridgework, he went off the wall. Toynbee — I’m being as flippant as you like — eschewed much of the factual minutiae to begin with. His is a philosophy of history. I’m afraid it has withstood the test of time just as imperfectly as most other grandiose schemes. The irony may be that some of his intuitions and conclusions may turn out to be correct, despite a faulty analysis and flawed factual basis.

      2. Yeah, that’s glib, and it doesn’t adress my point at all (he said with a grin, knowing he can be quite glib himself). But I think Occam has elaborated on my case very convincingly.

        Now, I don’t think that one year of studies makes you an authority on history (if it did, I could speak with 50% more authority than Pinker…). That said, I have nothing against gifted amateurs, if they are indeed gifted. But while his theory is interesting, Pinker’s atrocities list looks like something a high school student might slap together after a few hours on Wikipedia. I fully expect that it is something Pinker created as an interesting tidbit for the press, and that he presents far more reliable evidence in his book. But if it should turn out that this list is central to his thesis, I can tell you right now that he has failed to make his case. That would be downright embarrassing.

        Just one quick example, to show how difficult it must be to quantify the level of violence in a society. I would think that statistics on violent crime probably is a much better source than the death toll from wars, but even there, numbers are tricky. On July 22, one of my countrymen killed 77 people and wounded 96 in just a couple of hours. This would probably have been impossible for one person in the Middle Ages. So does that mean that Norwegians are more violent today than they were back then, or is it simply a result of the fact that modern explosives and automatic weapons have increased the destructive potential of a single violent individual?

        It should be obvious that you have to look behind the numbers to get any idea of the level of violent intent they describe. I assume that Pinker is well aware of this, but it’s not reflected in his list.

        1. I assume that Pinker is well aware of this, but it’s not reflected in his list.

          Of course he’s aware of this. I assure you the 700 pages plus 150-250 footnotes per chapter are dense and go through many independent lines. You say that you trust Pinker yet you (and so many others) seem to imagine that his book is just a puffy, waffling version of a 1 page interview. Sorry if I act a little irritated but it seems to me that this posturing without evidence strikes me as the antithesis of basic scepticism.

          Anyway, the atrocity list is a tiny but graphic portion of the book. I think it serves to address those people who imagine that the 20th Century was the bloodiest in history, that things are getting worse not better, that high tech weapons are necessarily leading us towards more violence. What Pinker is doing is showing vividly that our recency bias is hard at work, that few of us can name half of the wars in the 1800s let alone the 800s, and that on an absolute basis and a relative basis, WWI and WWII are not vastly more bloody than other conflicts and, while they’re on the big list, they’re one of many and not even at the top.

          It’s a means of building some humility and getting us to check our intuition so that we can be open to his (shocking to some) thesis. I think the reason that it’s used in the interviews is because many people do find it surprising. It’s a simple way of opening our eyes to the idea that a decline in violence isn’t so obviously wrong as we might think.

          1. “What Pinker is doing is showing vividly that our recency bias is hard at work, that few of us can name half of the wars in the 1800s let alone the 800s,…”

            The ‘recency’ bias is itself of very recent date. The lack of broad historical knowledge is one of the consequences of dumbing down the school curricula. I see it at work in Europe, and, while lacking direct knowledge of the American school system, I can at least compare the general historical knowledge levels of the small sample of American students over here with those of a generation ago: now many of them would not do better than Michele Bachmann…

            One may doubt the practical utility of the classical history knowledge required for passing the Harvard Entrance exams of 1869 (*), but I sent the test around, and most of those students who tried it would have failed (the plurality rejected it out of hand as hopeless).


          2. Sorry, but Pinker does himself no favours when he uses a BS list to market his book and “open our eyes”. Indeed, he gives the impression of being someone who is “posturing without evidence”. I’m willing to give him the benefit of doubt, but people can be excused for reading that interview and concluding that his book isn’t worth their time.

            1. Why do you act as if newspaper interviews are Pinker’s creation or responsibility? He didn’t write it. While I assume they’re his words, he didn’t pick the questions and I’d bet he actually said a lot more but the paper’s writer and editor cut it to size.

              It’s curious that you, without having read his book or checked any of his thousand-odd footnotes, without having understood his argument or glimpsed his supporting data, should feel that you are in a position to dismiss it all with an airy wave as being posturing without evidence.

              You say you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt but that’s clearly not slowing down your condemnation. So well done, good example of scepticism in action.

              1. You know you are dealing with members of the Steve Pinker Fan Club when the argument goes from “Pinker is a famous scientist and you’re not, so there!” to “Of course the list is silly, but Pinker knew that all along, so you can’t criticize him for peddling it to the press!” We are not impressed.

                If you’re annoyed that you have to defend a hopeless position, I suggest you take it up with Pinker. He put you there.

              2. Now interviews are some sort of press release. Wow. You still don’t get that this article wasn’t written by Pinker do you, yet somehow it’s still all his fault.

                I guess lefty intellectuals like Pinker run the world but we still have to pretend like they’re different. I know you can see through it all but we can’t agree with you in public or we’ll spoil the illusion! So in private I would of course agree that Pinker is able to totally control the length, tone and words of all articles written about him and despite this awesome power he’s somehow failed to capture your interest. But we know why that is – you’re just too smart for him!

                I mean, you’re too smart for all of us. Some people (like me) actually had to read the entire book. That probably blinded us to what is actually going on. What appeared to be detailed, complex, nuanced arguments were just a smoke screen for him to cover up his ignorance. But dude, you’ve seen through it all.

                Kudos. You blow my mind. Don’t waste your superior intellect on this trivial problem. Why don’t you read the dust jacket blurbs of some more books and tell us how they’re lacking nuance and depth. That would save us all some time!

    1. What I want to ask him is about human ‘domestication’ – how we have domesticated ourselves. We have smaller brains than our ancestors, and to generalize we select against aggression in our societies and select for conformity and passivity. We have done the same with animals – domestic animals are less aggressive and have smaller brains than their wild counterparts…

  9. Still awaiting the book, reading the Observer review+interview, I am baffled.
    Much of what Naughton reports seems cogent, and Steven Pinker’s interview is on the high level to which he has accustomed us.
    But perusing the compilation of the worst atrocities, I cannot help feeling that Steven Pinker should partake of his own medicine:
    I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture.

    Indeed. I am not relishing the prospect of statistically inclined historians, anthropologists and social scientists tearing this list apart, but I fear it is inevitable.
    For one thing, Pinker conflates events of enormously diverse durations; a basic yardstick for the quantification should be the number of victims per annum per total population.
    Second, some of these phenomena are hardly single events at all: the Atlantic slave trade and the annihilation of Native Americans stretched over half a millennium, hardly with constant intensity over the entire period. A differentiation between immediate catastrophic events impacting an entire population and its reproductive prospects in a single generation, and protracted series of episodes over many generations and entire continents should follow as a matter of course. It does not.
    And the mere mention of the ”Fall of Rome, 3rd-5th century” as a distinct historical phenomenon will extract guffaws from any historian of European Antiquity whose reading progressed beyond Edward Gibbon: there is no such thing. That the Roman Empire ceased to exist in the West, whereas it continued for another millennium in Byzantium, is the result of a long series of far-ranging processes and events, among which demographic, climatic and other natural factors were beyond direct human control; the notion of ‘fall’ is utterly misleading.
    Third, this example illustrates the arbitrary mode of selecting and labelling some events as atrocities fit for the list, while leaving others, equally lethal if not more, completely out. The Black Death pest pandemic arguably affected Europe more durably than any war, with the possible exception of the Thirty Years War and the World Wars. It wiped out an estimated third, perhaps more than half the population. Yet its magnitude is unthinkable outside the period’s historical context: the Mongol conquest wars in the East probably served as proxy vectors and population bulldozers, the Hundred Years War in the West was an aggravating factor, and so was the dismally retrograde standard of Western post-antique medicine. The Black Death shows a civilisation struggling, and failing. (The role of religion and church during this period deserves an own study, and I’d like to see the sum of their direct and indirect victims on Pinker’s list of atrocities.) Arbitrary cherry-picking from “the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime” (Churchill) is questionable and misleading.
    Fourth: an estimated third, perhaps more than half the population: Many events and periods in even recent history which caused or resulted in a huge number or fatalities cannot be gauged more precisely. All we have is estimates, some better informed, some worse, but most with a massive margin of error. I consider it a serious breakdown of statistical practice on Pinker’s part not to lead by example, specifying the ranges and uncertainties in his data. The An Lushan Rebellion, for example, is credited with causing the death of 36 million people. I am no specialist of Chinese history, but the sources quoted rely chiefly on the divergence between the census data of 754 and 764 respectively. Comparing this to similar events in the West, from Roman times onwards, I should be very wary of the post-rebellion census data after any near-complete breakdown. I know of no parallel until very recent times where historical sources can be relied upon to represent the number of victims on such a scale with unimpugnable accuracy. An indication of a population loss ratio on the order of one third to one half would be huge enough, without straining the plausibility of the source.
    Finally, extrapolating the number of victims relative to modern population levels is spectacular. It would be truly informative to compute the impact of each event relative to the total population at the time, comparing it with demographic estimates. After all, even normal 17th century mortality rates are shocking to uninformed modern sensitivities.

    I sincerely hope that Steven Pinker’s book contains enough supporting material to confute objections such as mine, and invite readers who have read it to refute them.
    In the meantime, from what I know, I cannot yet join in the universal chorus of praise.
    As it stands by itself in the Observer, the ‘atrocities list’ does a disservice to Steven Pinker’s argument. I suspect it is not even central, or necessary.

    1. Indeed: you raise good points. However I don’t think your proposal to use “number of victims per annum per total population” is really tenable. Following this measure, a war that wipes out 10% of the population in a given area in five years is only 20% as bad as one which causes the same mortality in one year. That doesn’t seem to me plausible: in the memory of the survivors the former will surely be about as traumatic as the latter.

      Perhaps something could be done along the lines of “number of victims per average human lifetime per total population”, where events shorter than an average human lifetime count as having the same duration.

      1. Fair objection, but I am not trying to compare “amounts of human suffering”. Rather, following Steven Pinker’s general contention, I’m seeking a measure for “criminal intent”. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the mass famine in Ethiopia a decade earlier made victims on the same rough order of magnitude. In Ethiopia the Mengistu regime was certainly responsible in large part for the extent of the famine, through criminal malevolence and a “willingness to let die”. But in Rwanda there was a clear and precise intent to kill, to exterminate en masse, opposing a mass of individual killers and a mass of individual victims. There is a gruesome, gradual difference between criminal neglect and wholesale butchery. These distinctions hardly matter to the victims. But they would matter for us, if Pinker’s thesis of humanity’s progress were to hold.

        If we approach slaughter with statistical detachment, we should seek the appropriate metric.

    2. These are just the points I was going to raise but you beat me to it. Anecdotally it seems obvious that the chance of a randomly chosen individual dying violently has broadly decreased over time, but its good that someone has put in the hours to try to collate the data properly.

      Quite rightly he uses per capita deaths, but as noted above the “atrocities list” needs to be normalised for timespan as well as population. Something like Stephen P’s 2nd para seems about right.

      Most obviously, the arab slave trade being ranked as “worse” than the atlantic slave trade looks to be an artifact of this problem.

    3. Right on, I touched on one of these issues in a later comment before I read yours.

      The atrocities list is a problem, especially frustrating since as you say it doesn’t seem to be central to the thesis.

      Pinker does seem to have downplayed some recent events, which again I think is unnecessary since he allows for contingent events that suspend or reverse the trend.

      Still looks like a great book 🙂

  10. To state up front: I am looking forward to reading this book and from the reviews and interviews I’ve read so far, it seems to be making some great points.

    With that out of the way: I didn’t get a chance to read the entire New Yorker article, but my wife read me some parts, and there is a pretty fair criticism of his “top ten atrocities” list: It does not at all take into account the time over which the atrocities were committed. The Mongol invasion may have taken more lives per capita than WWII, but it took places over like a hundred years, whereas WWII only took six. That’s not really a fair apples-to-apples comparison there.

    The New Yorker article makes a fair case that Pinker’s efforts to downplay the violence of the 20th century go a step too far. But I don’t think it completely undermines his thesis, since he makes room for contingent events that can suspend of reverse the general trend (and if you subtract the two big wars out of it, the 20th century is indeed a very peaceful century). I look forward to reading the book!

  11. I have just started reading the book. His summary of the bible is the most damning I have ever read. Genocide after genocide instigated by a fountainhead of morality, the god himself.

    BTw, Pinker’s writing style is a joy in itself.

    I was surprised he skipped over the World Wars in the introductory chapters. I’m sure they are covered in the next 700+ pages.

  12. I’ve read most of Pinker’s books and am somewhat of a fan. However, it is interesting that, like Stephen Jay Gould and Roger Penrose, he seems to be something of a maverick in his own field. Who are the other great popularisers of science who are also leading scientists in some field (not necessarily in all of those they write about)? Carl Sagan was not a maverick (even his taste in fashion was par for the course for astronomers back then). George Gamow was not really a maverick but something of a gadfly. Any other examples?

    1. Daniel Shechtman, who recently won the Nobel Prize for “quasicrystals” was considered somewhat of a maverick, until vindicated.

      Linus Pauling was also considered such, albeit mostly for comments made outside of his field.

      There must be a few others.

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