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Neither Angels Nor Demons: Don’t Believe Pinker June 20, 2012

Posted by Summerspeaker in Evo psych.

In relation to the argument about progress going on over at IEET, I decided to post yet another critique of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. This time I emphasis the uncertainty of historical casualty figures and knowledge about past in general. Skepticism and epistemology intrigue me on their own, but my political disagreements with Pinker animate this debate. Pinker exemplifies the academic elite, espouses Hobbesian statism, and exalts self-repression. We could hardly differ more. By my assessment, Pinker wields fuzzy math and bizarre associations in order to promote the nightmarish aspects of the Enlightenment project as objectively correct. As discussed previously, Pinker’s assertions about the ridiculously high rate of violence in hunter-gatherers societies come from recent (and disputed)  murder statistics from groups that don’t even qualify as hunter-gatherers. The idea that current groups living in the same broad material conditions as our distant ancestors presumably did give us a window in prehistory already counts as speculative, but grabbing some twentieth-century numbers from non-hunter-gatherer societies and applying them to the distant past makes the project an absurdity. Pinker’s use of skeletal evidence – another troubled source, as who knows the context of any given grave site? – encounters equivalent problems. The archaeological record from before 10,000 BCE in particular implies a negligible level of murder and assault. While more conceptually valid than eir claims about hunter-gatherers, Pinker’s statistics from beyond a few centuries ago overwhelmingly arouse doubt. Over at Quodlibeta, Humphrey wisely quips that “anyone who claims that they have a reasonably accurate ‘death toll estimate’ for something like the Mongol Conquests is being ludicrously over-confident.” Ey goes on to show how Pinker’s characterization of the An Lushan Rebellion in China as one  of the proportionally most deadly conflicts in human history rests on the shaky foundation of government census numbers that find no conformation in archaeology or narrative accounts of the fighting. Similar problems affect all of Pinker’s figures for the medieval period and before. For instance, although impressive when put on a graph, the grand decline of European murder rates fragments under scrutiny. Between lack of surviving records, unknown scope of period documentation, and contested population estimates, you almost might as well resort to a random number generator. As disconcerting as this may be, we have a profoundly limited ability to understand the past. Historians take extant documents, guess about their credibility, and tell stories. Archaeologists do the same with the artifacts they manage to dig up. I’m relatively less skeptical of statistics for nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries – though still quite skeptical, as determining casualties remains a monumental task fraught with politic implications  – but here Pinker obscures the intensity of modern massacres by looking at things like male warfare deaths and comparing them with made-up numbers for supposedly savage prehistory (see above). We have no stable basis upon which to judge Pinker’s sweeping thesis. I accept without complaint the relative decline in butchery since World War II, though our future in this continuing atomic age remains frightfully open. Murder rates have dropped in much of Europe yet have climbed stratospherically high in cities like Juárez. As alternative framework, I offer the hypothesis that specific circumstances influence the prevalence of killing and injury in any given community more than temporal positioning. Provisional data indicate that some hunter-gathers groups live devoid of interpersonal violence while others perhaps conformed to the Hobbesian trope. Likewise, civilized peoples – those practicing agriculture and living in towns or cities – range from sanguinary to tranquil. I detest the state and coercion but don’t think that we’ll magically or inevitably play nice in the absence of bosses. Abolishing the government only eliminates one band of domineering thugs. The outcome of anarchy depends on the individuals, communities, and relationships involved.

Once you walk through the wall with me, then as I see it you are one of us. We are responsible to you and you to us; you become an Anarresti, with the same options as all the others. But they are not safe options. Freedom is never very safe. – Shevek

Pinker’s thesis critically ignores nonlethal violence of police terror, self-discipline, and capitalism integral to modernity. So what if we live if alienation, impotence, and despair define our lives? Were all the charts of declining violence accurate this would not redeem the physiological horrors of contemporary civilization and its omnipresent repression, both internal and external. I conclude with a passage from anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón that condemns the sort of security Pinker advocates. I don’t share Flores Magón’s insistence on armed revolution or heteropatriarchal concept of revolutionary masculinity but I appreciate the passionate commitment to transformation.

And so to preach peace is a crime. To preach peace when the tyrant imposes his will and humiliates us; when the rich extort us to the extent of turning us into slaves; when the government, big business, and the church kill all aspiration and all hope; to preach peace under such circumstances is cowardly, vile, criminal. Peace in chains is an affront that should be refused. There is peace in the dungeon; there is peace in the cemetery; there is peace in the convent. But this peace is not life; this peace does not elevate; this is the peace of Porfirio Díaz, the peace in which the eunuch thrives and the citizenry prostitutes itself. It’s the peace of the pharaohs, the peace of the tsars, the peace of the Caesars, the peace of oriental satraps. Let such peace be damned!


1. Brad Peters - June 22, 2012

Great post. It is sad that most people are persuaded by Pinker’s view regarding the purported decline of violence. It is even sadder that something called ‘evolutionary psychology’ still passes as a ‘science.’ I am very happy to know that there are others out there challenging this bunk.

Here are my own thoughts on Pinker

Summerspeaker - June 22, 2012

Excellent! You’re perhaps more respectful of Pinker than I am, but I resent elite intellectuals by default and hold a personal grudge against statists (especially fans of Hobbes). Three of my comrades just got snatched up by the system Pinker adores last night.

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