Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

A primer for Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of our Nature’

This is for the March book club of the BC Humanists, and is simply a collection of links to things related to Steven Pinker’s excellent book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’.

First of all, here is a summary of all salient arguments and the most original and interesting data Pinker adduces to support his conclusions that we are spectacularly less violent now than we ever have been before, and that this decrease in violence is due to the growth of the state, the expansion of market networks, and the spread of Enlightenment values. If you need a refresher for this long book (or if you didn’t read it but still want to come to the club), this is your first stop.

Here is a review of the book from the marvelous Peter Singer, and a follow-up blog post by a NY Times writer, both with some mild but poignant criticisms.

Here are some harsher reviews, including one I think is a bit besides the point with its critique, and a brief jab at Pinker’s methodology for his statistical analyses.

Here is an interview of Pinker by Sam Harris – whom I find endlessly sophomoric and irritating, but who is perfectly fine here, largely due to restricting his questions to short prompts that allow in none of his personal character. Another interview of Pinker, a bit more speculative.

For people interested in reading a bit more on the relationship between institutions of power in society, such as the state, and violence, you could check out one or two of my previous blogposts on the subject, the former being very on-topic and the latter being more about theories explaining why people carry out political violence..

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6 responses to “A primer for Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of our Nature’

  1. skepoet May 16, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    I have read on critique of Pinker’s numbers that were actually somewhat convincing, aside from anthropologists I know really pointing out the problems in some of his tribal demarcations, he doesn’t really take into account the acceleration of violence in spurts. The marginal revolution piece gets at it, but that seems more than a passing jab if one thinks through the implications of the work.

    By the way, even though I am of a dirty continental philosophy in training, and more dialectically ambivalent the Englightenment than you seem to be, you have an excellent blog and it is quite informative.

    • Said Simon May 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      I’d be very interested to read that critique, if you can find the source information for me. My general understanding is that while Pinker’s numbers can be criticised for oversimplification, there aren’t any credible attacks upon the overall arguments for which he adduces those numbers as support: namely, that anarchic, tribal societies have far higher rates of homicide than societies with strong and pervasive state-like institutions.

      I’m very glad you have enjoyed my blog, since I post a lot of stuff that is amateurish and largely just my own introspection made public. Dirty continental philosopher or not, I’d be delighted to discuss the Enlightenment with you. I will say that I have a self-consciously ideal-typical model of it, though, and not just to avoid pesky empirical disconfirmations 😉

      • skepoet May 17, 2012 at 1:57 am

        On the homicide rates, I have seen one and only good rebuttal, which doesn’t deny the truth of the claim in all cases, but was pretty clear that statistics from hunter-gather societies just aren’t known, and some of the modern tribes he treats as hunter-gatherers aren’t. I will dig up the critiques somewhere around here.

        I tend to dislike Pinker’s work to be honest–I thought his “Blank Slate” book was one long strawman argument actually–but this looks pretty sound like his work on language and the mind is.

  2. concocted glimpse August 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for this primer! My youngest sister chose this book for our sibling book group and I appreciate your trove of links.

  3. Andy Rhodes July 31, 2015 at 4:55 am

    Thanks for posting that. I’m a huge fan of this book.

    I’ve been in a weekly book group for six years and after one year of my salesmanship and heartfelt convincing they agreed to read Pinker’s exploration of the decline of violence. I’ve debated the contents for the past three years in person and online with liberals and conservatives. They have knee-jerk criticisms that they tend to maintain no matter how much data one puts forward. Of course, Pinker writes about a lot more than the data in his book. He has many theories and analyses that one can challenge. Many academically oriented people in my group did. My point is try and make sure lots more people are exposed to the overall fact that violence has declined. Then, we can listen to Pinker and others who may help us understand or formulate our own theories as to why this happened and what might be done to continue and even improve the trend.

    I’ve included a few dozen nice color charts related to the text here:

    https://persuademepolitics.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/now-most-peaceful-time-in-world-history/

    More can be found through an image search for “steven pinker better angels charts”.

    Through my many discussions on “Better Angels”, I’ve developed and revised multiple times an overview statement for the book along with attaching or copying many charts that Pinker put together. Here is my latest version:

    ——————————————————————–

    Much of the information below comes from Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. Terrible things like warfare, rape, murder, legal and illegal slavery, bullying, lynchings, racism, sexism and animal abuse are all in radical decline. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and afterward. By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior.

    Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving. That’s just not the case when it comes to acts of violence. There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it’s far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585. Through a very large range of historical narratives, archaeology and statistics, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks. On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common. According to the FBI, from 2001-2010, the crime rates went down in categories of violent crime (20%), forcible rape (13.8%), robbery (19.7%), aggravated assault (20.8%) and motor vehicle theft (44.5%).

    When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don’t top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th. Archaeological evidence from almost 40 pre-state societies of eras as far back as 14,000 years ago and up to those active today show an average of a 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%. The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%. That’s 500 times less than typical pre-state levels of brutality. Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of the American Wild West, where the percentages ranged up to 30% or higher in each town. England, for another example, now has a murder rate that is 35 times less than in the Middle Ages.

    The Wikipedia page about this book summarizes the proposed causes for the decline in violence:
    ——————————————–

    Pinker identifies five “historical forces” that have favored “our peaceable motives” and “have driven the multiple declines in violence.” They are:

    The Leviathan – The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent…self-serving biases.”

    Commerce – The rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”;

    Feminization – Increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”

    Cosmopolitanism – the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which“can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”;

    The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’s, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

    From – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature
    ——————————————–

    For an interesting video presentation/summary of the contents of this book, see this link:

    A great web site that can be used as a reference to double-check this data is necrometrics.com, where typically a half dozen or more historians contribute their estimate on the death toll for each significant historical event. As far as I have been able to study, Pinker many (if not most) times chose one of the conservative numbers in the ranges.

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