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Pinker and Progress September 3, 2010

Posted by Summerspeaker in Evo psych, Primitivism, Transhumanism.

David Brin’s IEET article prompted me to write a critique of Steven Pinker’s piece on the history of violence. I reproduce that post here for interest.

Prof. Steven Pinker  already has made it abundantly and decisively clear that humanity is now experiencing unprecedentedly-low levels of violence, per capita, compared to any time in (or before) history.

It’s awfully premature to declare victory for progress. Putting aside violence for a moment, the best anthropological evidence shows that civilization has only produced better health outcomes for the majority of people within the last century or two. See Health and the Rise of Civilization by Mark Nathan Cohen. Hobbes was in fact speaking only for his social class when he vilified the state of nature; the seventeenth-century masses actually lived worse than their primitive ancestors.

Furthermore, Pinker’s argument about present-day peace leaves much to be desired. The figure of 20-60% of tribal populations dying in warfare is utterly unbelievable. This statistic, if it has any basis at all, must come from modern studies of hunter-gatherer societies. As Robin Hansen has noted, surviving hunter-gatherers exist in a different context from their ancient cousins and this likely causes more bloodshed than happened in the past. The overall data suggest a moderate level of violence among prehistoric humans; Cohen writes that the shift to civilization had no clear effect on traumatic death either way. Pinker’s baseline stands too high and this flaw distorts his entire analysis.

Homicide rates certainly appear lower now than ever before, but mass violence complicates the picture. The grand percentage of the species intentionally killed may indeed have been lower in the twentieth century compared with the historical high score. World War II removed 2-4% of the involved population while the Thirty Years’ War and the Mongol conquest of China wiped out 15-30%. If you find that encouraging, remember that a bit of misfortune during the Cold War could have handily set a brand new record. That danger remains with us today. War in the Atomic Age has novel binary quality.

Pinker espouses exactly the sort of simplistic, self-congratulatory progress narrative Philippe Verdoux argues against in “Transhumanism, Progress and the Future.” It’s essential for transhumanists to realize the dubious foundations for these claims. Civilization has been a profoundly mixed bag.


1. BroadSnark - September 8, 2010

Thanks for this. I’m reading a book on the History of Violence right now and the grand claims he makes are so not supported by the evidence. I’m amazed the guy who wrote it has any credibility.

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