Steve Pinker and his new book profiled in the NYT

December 1, 2011 • 9:39 am

Several readers sent me “Human nature’s pathologist,” Carl Zimmer’s New York Times profile of Steven Pinker and his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  Many of you might have already seen Zimmer’s piece, but I’ll highlight it here, for Pinker’s book is superb and you should read it.

At least that’s my opinion after having gotten through 250 pages. As you know, the book is a long analysis of and explanation for why various forms of violence have declined in the millennia since our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. The thesis, in other words, is that the world—and human behavior—is getting better.

I find that thesis so far pretty convincing. Pinker backs it up with a ton of statistical analysis (the book is loaded with graphs) and a lot of thoughtful commentary.  Yes, the book is very long—696 pages of text, with tons of footnotes and references—and many of my friends won’t take my recommendation, saying that they have no time to read such a big tome.  I mourn the trend of avoiding big books, since many of the greatest ones (including, of course, Darwin’s Origin) fall into this category, and I really do think that everyone who wants to consider themselves educated should put Better Angels under their belt.

But though the book is long, it’s not a slog. Steve always writes with a light and graceful touch, and peppers the text with anecdotes that are edifying (and horrifying, as in his graphic descriptions of medieval torture) as well as with his patented references to modern culture.

I’ll include just one excerpt that I liked, for it bears on recent discussions we’ve had on this website. I particularly like his characterization of “science” in the second sentence, which is how I construe oue discipline broadly:

(p. 181) Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it.  The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science.  The progress of science with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge—not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.

Zimmer’s profile in the Times is good, though many readers may already know about Pinker’s intellectual history and his previous books.  But if you want to see what Better Angels is about before you buy it (and you should buy it), Zimmer gives a good precis.  As Carl notes, critical reception has been pretty favorable, with a few exceptions (I read the New Yorker’s hatchet job and thought it was way off the mark).

Steve’s books have been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes twice before, but the award has so far eluded him. I predict that Better Angels will finally nab him that honor.

59 thoughts on “Steve Pinker and his new book profiled in the NYT

  1. Zimmer’s piece is pretty good, but don’t read the comments unless you want to be frustrated.

    There’s a relentless assault on straw men by people who have obviously read neither Pinker himself nor the piece by Zimmer they are commenting on.

    The modus operandi of detractors is taken right from the evolution or global warming denier handbook. They just know that the world is more violent than it has ever been, and any dent they (believe they) put in any claim by Pinker automatically scores a win for their view.

    1. …and even some of the “supporters” are depressingly clueless. Primitive peoples are genetically more violent? I’ve only just started the book, but I’m pretty sure that’s not part of Pinker’s thesis.

  2. One of the objections I’ve heard multiple times to Pinker’s claims is that they are statistical in nature, that is, that a lower proportion of people die violently now than ever. This is seen as illegitimate because the population now is bigger than it has ever been so in absolute number, there are many more people dying.

    However, his approach is legitimate, because the proportions reveal how much violence is a part of the average person’s daily life. Here’s an analogy. A psychotic dictator forces you to make a choice between two rooms in which a certain number of people will be randomly selected for execution: five people from Room A and 100 people from Room B. It seems like it would be better to be in Room A. You’d probably change your mind, however, if you were told that there would be six people Room A, and 10,000 people in Room B. Twenty times as many people die from Room B, but your chances are 83 times lower of being one of them.

    1. I hate those kinds of thought experiments. They present false dichotomies that make far worse the horrific tendencies uncovered by Milgram.

      The right answer is, “loosen the grip of the dictator or die trying,” and could involve anything from preaching rationality to your captors to seizing a weapon from a guard and using it to gun down the dictator. Or, if you have a reasonable expectation of delayed success, playing along with the madman until you have a chance to carry out your plans. Under no circumstances should you ever simply choose between Room A and Room B, any more than you should keep pressing the “electrocute” button simply because the man in the white lab coat sternly tells you to do so.

      What I’d instead observe is that, despite overcrowding, resource depletion, and pollution at unprecedented levels and ready access to weapons of mass destruction, your chances of dying a violent death today are negligible compared to the chances of one living at the dawn of history, when the whole world was ripe for the taking.

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. All right, no choice then, which is beside the point because none of us gets to choose in which era we live: the mad dictator shoves your helplessly bound form into Room A or B. Happy now?

        The point that criticizing Pinker for using statistics to claim that we live in the least violent era in history is not legitimate still stands. While the raw numbers might be much lower in an earlier time, the likelihood that a average individual would meet a violent end was much, much higher.

        1. And not only that, but with more people in the world, there’s also more potential murderers with the potential victims. (In theory, assuming the null hypothesis of nothing changing.)

          So if nothing would have changed, then we should see the percent of people still dying off on a constant scale (and that would too mean more absolute numbers) but this is not something we’ve seen over time, but just the opposite.

          So not only has your chance of dying violently dropped, but violent people have not held constant either with the rest of the population, but dropped as well.

  3. OK, just bought it. TIP: Buy the Kindle version so you can copy quotes and spread all over the web. There is a free Kindle reader for your computer.

    Jerry, you should get credit if we buy any book thru your c/site.

  4. I still have to begin the new Trivers book, plus I have “The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness” by Oren Harman from last year to get through – among others!

  5. Funny, I just shared my thoughts last night on a forum I belong to about being in the very same place in the very same book.

    So far I’ve been very impressed with the amount of detail presented without tipping the scales into tedium. Pinker does a great job of maintaining a narrative quality even through the massive amount of data presented. I whole-heartedly agree that this is a must read for ‘everyone who wants to consider themselves educated’.

    This is the first book of his that I’ve read and in light of how good it is I am definitely going to take a look at the others.

    1. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”……though I found “The Stuff of Thought” impossible to get into. Just thought I’d endorse it, in case you were undecided on which one to read next.

      1. He mentions Blank Slate in Better Angels so that was the first on the list to look at. Thanks for the additional pointer – nice to know I likely won’t be disappointed.

  6. I just finished reading ‘Better Angels’ last night. My friends are all quite tired of my recommending it to them. I’m hoping to somehow bring up the topic of the book next time I visit with my Jehovah’s Witness parents.

  7. Interesting review but I think Dr. Pinker’s assessment is too naively optimistic. The rate at which Hollywood makes violent movies and glorifies violence refutes his contention. He relies on the evidence from the 15th century England while we are not quite sure what is happening right under our noses. I agree that the death tolls in Stalin’s Russia and Vietnam war used to be in millions and now thanks to smart bombs – albeit just as dumb bombers – the death toll in Iraq is only 200,000, in Afghanistan it’s in tens of thousands and in Libya the estimate ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 deaths and an even bigger number of wounded. But we should give credit to the media and the investigative journalists that at least the militarists don’t use battlefield nukes, napalm and agent Orange any more. Killings are still done but more humanely.

    But I agree with his statement that “Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.” Human nature is capable of competition for survival and cooperation for wellbeing, both at the same time. Most sociobiologists underestimate the value of cooperation and empathy in our lives which is a serious mistake. I’ve written a blogpost on it which you might like to read:

    http://naumanpk.blogspot.com/2011/11/meaning-of-life-social-and-moral.html

    If you can spare some of your precious time. Thanks.

    1. The rate at which Hollywood makes violent movies and glorifies violence refutes his contention.

      The fact that Hollywood produces more violent fantasy somehow means that the world is more violent now than it used to be?

      Couldn’t you make the reverse claim? The fact that Hollywood has a market for violent fantasy suggests that people are using violent fantasy as an escape and hence experience less violence in their daily lives?

      I’m not sure that the datapoint “Hollywood makes violent movies” necessarily means what you seem to want it to mean. It could mean many different things.

      1. I think you’re being rather too kind. The assertion that depictions of violence refute a claim about levels of actual violence makes about as much sense as an assertion that the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel refute biological evolution.

        1. We would propose that actually all pop culture depicts the opposite of real experience.

          So the more violence in pop culture the less in real life. This seems to be true of porn as well. The more porn the less real-life sex anyone is getting.

          The covers of magazines are the best “tells” for contrary indicators. The more “getting rich” is touted the worse everyone’s financial situations are. The more doom and gloom in headlines the better things are.

          The more available women are portrayed on the cover of men’s magazine, the less available and more competitive it really is.

          Pop culture is a simple compensatory sales scam.

          1. FWIW, I think I read somewhere years ago that it is sexually outliving persons that consume most porn. No refs, but someone should dig into that if you want to make the example robust.

      2. I think the violent entertainment is evidence on the question of ‘why’ we may or may not be as violent. Given the way we eat up depictions of violence, any reduction in violence that has occurred is not because we’ve developed a cultural abhorrence for violence.

        (By contrast, you don’t see many depictions of child rape, and I think we *do* have a strong cultural abhorrence of child rape. At least in the US, anyway, some of the stuff out of Japan… ew.)

        Personally, I think we may be less violent, on average, in normal circumstances, but it’s clearly not very difficult to tip a modern, cultured society into an orgy of killing, even today. (See: Yugoslavia under Milosevic)

    2. Have you read the book? Optimistic? How is Hollywood related to this? He doesn’t by far rely “only” on evidence from 15th century England (again; did you actually read the book? Have you even seen any of his book tour video talks?).

      Pinker doesn’t underestimate cooperation or empathy, though he does point out that empathy goes both ways, and is overinflated these days, and he also makes the point that reason is the new underestimated force of good these days.

      Again, did you read the book?

  8. I’m about a chapter into the book[1], and as Jerry says: excellent. As it happens, the main thesis is not a surprise to me since Dan Gardner made the same argument in Risk (so if you want a shorter read that captures the gist, see the appropriate chapters in Gardner).

    [1] Autographed, as I was at Pinker’s Ottawa talk the other week.

  9. I’m surprised people saw the New Yorker review as being so negative. I thought it was overall a relatively positive review, albeit with a number of criticisms that were mostly unfair (to the nearest I can tell without having read the book, of course) (there was, IMO, one criticism that seemed pretty on the mark, but not one that was fatal to Pinker’s thesis).

      1. Yeah, I saw Pinker’s response to it the other day. I knew something was fishy about the “colonialism in the index” remark, because transcripts of talks from Pinker I have read didn’t seem to shy away from that aspect at all.

        The one criticism I felt like was a good point — again, without having read the book yet, so this is based mostly on talks Pinker has given about the same topic — was the failure to take into account the duration of an atrocity when counting the worst of them. It’s not at all cut-and-dry, but to leave that completely out of the picture gives somewhat of a skewed perspective. For one thing, you can imagine a reductio ad absurdum that goes something like this: Imagine that, beginning today, humanity is embarking on a single “atrocity” that will result in one person being killed per year for the next billion years — does that mean we’ve now entered the most violent point in history? And for another thing, it calls into question whether extended “atrocities” can really be labeled a single event: If a Mongol conquest lasting over a century is considered one “atrocity”, why aren’t both World Wars lumped together as a single “atrocity”?

        It doesn’t undermine the overall thesis, and I’m very excited to read the book. But I think it’s a fair cop about the atrocity list, at least. Pinker should not shy away from the uniquely widespread destruction of WWII (in absolute terms, of course, not in per capita terms), and the effect it had on humanity, as well as its randomness: It is a reminder that, while the trend he shows has been pretty reliable over long time periods, it shows many short-term reversals, and could be reversed entirely by unpredictable contingent events.

        1. Thank you, James.

          In the nuclear era, the “contigent event” scenario you mention seems all too possible (and perhaps not even entirely unpredictable). Though possibly less so than when I was subject to bomb drills in elementary school in the 50’s.

    1. Thanks for the link–what a fascinating discussion! Oh, how I wish we could get more of our tv interviewers in the states to ask such thoughtful, probing questions. Steve Paikin did a brilliant job.

      1. Get a suitably-sized audience to demand it, and we would. (Get our interviewers to ask such questions, that is.)

  10. The evidence that violence has been declining is well documented in Pinker’s book. What I didn’t find convincing, however, was his explanation for why it’s been declining.

    I am afraid we’ll never see another “Blank Slate” from Pinker, a book for which he should have gotten the Pulitzer. This book doesn’t have “it,” in my opinion.

  11. I have just started reading this and I am blown away by his compilation of all the violence in the bible(s). I always feel like I’ve gained something after reading Pinker’s work. He is a treasure.

  12. Oh, yeah for those of you in Chicago we see the Neuroscience Chicago Meet Up group is going to have a Meet Up get together on the book.

    Just search Neuroscience Chicago. Wish we could go.

  13. I’ve read the book. If you accept Pinker’s interpretation of the voluminous data (and I do), the book makes you feel that, over the long run, civilization is working.

    Pinker is careful to say that that doesn’t mean that some outlier event couldn’t devastate our world (though that’s less likely since the end of the Cold War), and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t violence and suffering right now that we could ameliorate. Still, the big picture is heartening.

    It also makes those of us who are professional transmitters of civilization (I teach) feel a bit better about what we do for a living.

    I strongly recommend the book.

  14. I’ll certainly get Steven Pinker’s book on your recommendation. A while back you strongly recommended “The Eighth Day of Creation” by Horace Freeland Judson. What an absolutely brilliant book! Most definitely one of the best researched science books about a specific discipline ever written.

    1. I also purchased a used copy on Dr. C’s recommendation; but I haven’t started it yet. (My book-pile is about 12-deep, even though I get through about 1/week …)

  15. Thanks for this strong endorsement, Jerry. I agree. Connie and I are almost finished listening to the entire unabridged audiobook, which is excellent! (The professional reader is perfect for Steve’s content and personality.) Keep reading. The rest of the book is worth it. I agree with you that this book will probably win him a Pulitzer.

  16. Another book recommendation:

    The new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. It’s very, very good. And it’s a beautifully turned-out book too (Simon and Schuster).

  17. I am surprised by the suckers buying Pinker’s wrappers. Pinker is not a serious scholar and his new book is lousy research (hiding behind all those darn tables; but that appears to be how to enamor a certain readership). Pinker’s “scholarship” is selective: his understanding of anthropology is either dishonest or ignorant (I favor the former given his false claims about Benjamin Whorf in The Languag Instinct). His counting of “violence” is clearly selective. His book is, as is much evolutionary psychology, shockingly ahistorical.

    Pinker doesn’t write for serious scholars and doesn’t want to engage serious scholars. Why has Pinker repeatedly refused to discuss his claims about language universals (most of which are empirically false) at Max Planck? Ask Stephen Levinson (http://www.mpi.nl/people/levinson-stephen-c.). Pinker is a celebrity “intellectual”, nothing more. His pseudoscience then needs to be taught out of students in college. For those already outside college, they get ignorance in the guise of “knowledge.” Pity.

    I prefer serious scholarship to the snake oil of a Pinker. See for example, with its wonderful tables, Edwin Wilmsen.
    1989. Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari. Chicago: University of
    Chicago Press. Or, on literacy, Frank Salomon and Mercedes Niño-Murcia. 2011. The Lettered Mountain: A Peruvian Village’s Way with Writing. Durham: Duke UP. On language, see, http://www.cse.iitk.ac.in/users/se367/readings/evans-levinson-09bbs_myth-of-language-universals.pdf. (Pinker and Jackendoff’s response is embarrasing, but included. They simply do not know anything about Athabaskan verb stems and ideophones are not “response cries”; that is just a false claim. Pinker has not done rigorous work and suggesting that his work is rigorous in the same way that Evans and Levinson’s empirical work is, is misleading.)

    1. How do you rate “The Blank State’? I am not a scientist in the humanities and thus would not be qualified to professionally judge Pinker’s new book. I only read his “The Blank Slate” and found it very good (to me). In this book Pinker describes the event in his hometown Montreal where the police went on strike. All hell broke loose with looting, banks robbed, arson and even a sniper killing a provincial police officer. Pinker starts this description with; “Adjudication by an armed authority appears to be the most effective general violence-reduction technique ever invented.” (p. 331)

      Is it not then good practised law and order of a country that is responsible for the decline in violence?

  18. Pinker’s book torpedoes the core sales point of right wing ideology and politics, and hyper-gun ownership – fear of immediate personal attack.

    If the world is not an intensely dangerous place, why accept control by others?

    So it is going to be attacked all over. The standard avenues of attacks are ad hominem and attack the methodology — of course, never with data of your own.

    The reality is that:
    – Some individuals have trouble processing their experiences and with self-control so are hyper-fear triggered and defensive
    – Also defensively they have to make up external threats to justify their brain impaired based emotions
    – They bunch up with other such impaired ppl

    1. Amazingly, the demographic most likely to have a concealed-carry permit in the US is … wait for it … middle-aged, white, middle-class males. Basically, as a group, the least threatened people in the history of humanity. Sheesh!

      1. But people with:
        – The highest inherited status
        – Also facing cognitive declines in old age, specifically effecting abilities to process and experience > fear and in creased disinhibition: aka, Grumpy/dirty old man.

        Of as another commentator pointed out “GET OFF MY LAWN!!”

  19. Who are the great popularizers? Gould for evolution, Pinker for psychology. I’m not an expert in either field, and was somewhat surprised to learn that both are considered to be mavericks to some extent. While he isn’t up there in terms of popularity (though he is in terms of academic prestige), Roger Penrose has written a few popular books on various aspects of physics and, while he has a great “straight” research record (the envy of many), does differentiate between his own views and that of the mainstream and while some of his ideas are unconventional but might be right (e.g. the influence of gravity in quantum decoherence), in other areas he is definitely a maverick.

    A counter-example is Carl Sagan, who was a great “straight” scientist in addition to being a great popularizer. (Asimov, Clarke etc don’t count since their main claim to fame is writing, not science, as they would be the first to admit.)

    1. During his heyday, though, Sagan was also the target of many barbs from academia, considered a showboat, etc.

  20. Readers here might appreciate the critique of Pinker’s work outlined in these two blog posts:

    http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/2011/10/kill-popular-science.html

    http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/2011/12/blacks-with-bullets-embedded-in-bone.html

    Quotes:

    “I have little reason to critique his central thesis, other than to say that I am not sure the trend entirely represents genuine progress.”

    “…the overriding paradox of this work. How could this man, who wrote The Blank Slate to passionately declare that we are not and that behavior is part heredity, reconcile with a belief that societal evolution pushed radical behavioral modification?”

    “…Pinker flubbed his summary of the decades of research on the best understood violence gene, including his citation of a copy-and-paste error.”

    (Note: I’m not the critic so blast him or her, not me!)

  21. I look forward to reading this as I’m always glad to have my basic pessimism & misanthropy disproved by data!

    I wonder if some of the negative reviews simply reflect the attitude of some of us that after the Enlightenment humanity should have progressed much faster than it has? Sounds as if Pinker’s deep historic survey may be a helpful reminder that in the long view of things, the post-Enlightenment era accounts for only the tiniest portion of our cultural “evolution.”

    But still . . .

  22. Those of you who haven’t read the entire Angels book – don’t let that stop you from opining about it. It doesn’t bother Pinker.

    Why do I say that? Because in his response to the New Yorker he calls on Razib Khan for backup:

    +++++++
    But aren’t you just being defensive? Authors always think that negative reviews of their book are wrong. Has anyone else replied to Kolbert?

    Razib Khan has a response in the Gene Expression blog on the Discover magazine Web site: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/10/relative-angels-and-absolute-demons/

    +++++++

    But Khan admitted he had only read 20% of Pinker’s book:

    ++++++

    “I should also mention I started reading The Better Angels of Our Nature over Thanksgiving. I’m only ~20% through it, and probably won’t finish until Christmas season gets into high gear…”

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/11/the-new-york-times-on-violence-and-pinker/

    +++++

    Who is Razib Khan? According to his online bio he is an “Unz Foundation Junior Fellow.” The Unz Foundation was created by Ron Unz, publisher of The American Conservative.

    Stave Sailer gives Better Angels a good review in The American Conservative BTW.

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/blog/steven-pinkers-peace-studies/

    Pinker is what anthropologist Marvin Harris would call an “eclectic” – he chooses whatever research paradigm suits the situation. Most of the time he’s part of the socio-biology crowd, but since evolution doesn’t fit his theories about human violence he switches to “idealist” mode – he believes that humans have basically thought ourselves out of violence.

    R. Brian Ferguson, a student and later colleague of Marvin Harris and someone who has made a career of studying war, compares the socio-biological, idealist and cultural materialist (his and Harris’s research strategy) approaches to human violence in this excellent paper:

    Materialist, cultural and biological theories on why Yanomami make war

    http://www.nku.edu/~humed1/darkness_in_el_dorado/documents/0559.pdf

    I only wish Ferguson would review Pinker’s book.

    1. We are making our way thru and learning a lot.

      To us this is mainly a work of descriptive scholarship and anti-polemical. Of course, this drives the polemical folks (more) crazy.

      His explanations are tentative and preliminary as he constantly reminds the reader.

      He is mainly trying to get the historical facts right and then mention correlations. His neurocognitive approach is more social psychological with a focus on “words” (written words mainly) — ie, cultural events and social behaviors.

      For example, very little on evo theory, other animals neuroanotomy and experiments or data from those fields.

      So mainly we are getting a clear exposition of the “problem” (rapidly declining violence at same time as increased population and density) and it’s social-historical-cultural context.

      This is not the book for the overheated brains that want “THE/AN ANSWER”

      We are coming away with far more questions than when we started. Something we seek out.

  23. Here is the core of our questioning or disagreement with Pinker:

    “The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason”

    Pinker, Steven (2011-10-04). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Kindle Locations 4094-4096). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

    We just don’t think words matter. How could they. This is also the problem with Pinker as a “neuroscientist.”

    If words are so important for life, why don’t other animals have them?

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