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Once More against Pinker: Science and Colonialism August 29, 2014

Posted by Summerspeaker in Uncategorized.
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A Facebook argument with James Hughes has prompted me to return to the task of refuting Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. If not for Pinker’s popularity – particularly among futurists – I wouldn’t bother, as the absurdity. self-indulgence, and sloppiness of Pinker’s arguments strike me as overwhelmingly obvious. As Louis Proyect writes, Pinker’s views amount to Thomas Hobbes plus Pangloss. But since the Hughes’s “Problems of Transhumanism” series remains one of my favorite things to come out of the whole scene,  I figure I might as well reflect on why such a seemingly clear thinker would positively cite Pinker. I suspect it’s based on either unfamiliarity or – more likely – the sheer appeal of statism sanctioned by scientific authority. The amount of support Pinker and eir ilk receive from futurist and rationalists indicates the potency of colonial discourse and its imbrication with scientific discourse.

As ably described by Stephen Corry, Pinker’s narrative of ever-declining violence retreads a old colonialist path and relies on dubious if not downright fallacious numbers. R. Brian Ferguson examines Pinker’s invocation of archaeology and finds it wildly inaccurate. The archaeological evidence in fact suggests no warfare and little interpersonal violence for thousands of years in some regions. Surveys of skeletons in certain regions and periods indicate a violent-death rate of 0-1%.  “When considered against the total record,” Ferguson writes, “the idea that 15 percent of prehistoric populations died in war is not just false, it is absurd.” I’m skeptical of any firm claims about prehistoric violence rates, but by my reading of the data Douglas Fry’s “n-shaped curve” constitutes the best generalization. I think it’s more useful to look at violence specifically and historically.

At best, prehistoric skeletons that show trauma only indicate a likelihood of death by interpersonal violence. Even an arrowhead in a spine doesn’t unambiguously demonstrate an intentional killing; the same might well have been a hunting accident. Conversely, some or many of those who left skeletons with no signs of trauma may have perished via human attacks that did not damage bone. The evidence doesn’t allow for much beyond thoughtful guesses; it certainly doesn’t provide the statistics Pinker asserts.

On the whole, Pinker spins a dreadfully familiar tale based on European colonial tropes of savagery and Western progress. Ey’s characterization of nonstate tribal peoples as dramatically more violent than European-based state societies that continue to practice settler colonialism and genocide actively enables the latter processes. The supposed violence of the colonized serves as an alibi for colonial horrors, the idea that colonialism was and is necessary to tame the fierce savage. Pinker likewise notably downplays recent violence from the United States military in Asia and the Middle East. It’s all for the greater good, of course! A war to end all wars and all that.

Pinker’s celebratory progress narrative has to date proved irresistible to multitudes in the futurist scene. We all like to imagine mighty force of science on our side. Various anarchists and communists have staked the same claim. It’s a valuable rhetorical bludgeon, but I’m dubious that science can ever offer solid answers to political questions. As we see with Pinker, those who trumpet science often fail to fulfill its ideals at even a basic level. Nor can science necessarily ever escape its association with European colonialism.

The notion of transhumanism guided by luminaries like Pinker and their civilizing mission makes my blood run cold.

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