Review of “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker

I started this book 99.5% sure violence had declined over time. I finished it 65% violence had declined over time and 100% sure that Steven Pinker needs a more aggressive editor.

Everyone liked this book, but it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s also really long.

Here’s a basic summary. The book covers six trends that reduce violence: 1) the move to “agricultural civilizations;” 2) the rise of central authorities that dominate significant territories; 3) the humanitarian revolution; 4) the “Long Peace” following WWII; 5) the decline in organized conflicts more broadly; 6) the growth of the human rights movement.

Five historical forces are added to these trends to complete the explanation of the declining violence: 1) the leviathan; 2) commerce; 3) feminization; 4) cosmopolitanism; and 5) the rise of reason.

Once he lays these ideas, we begin a very long (seriously, it’s really long) analysis of just how violent old civilizations were.

I’m going to cut the BS right here. If you want to read some analyses of the good points of the book and how smart Pinker is, you can find such analyses all over the internet. I’m just going to tell you what’s wrong with this book and Pinker’s thesis that violence has declined over time. The fact that I’m only focusing on the bad should not be taken to mean that I thought the book was all bad – it definitely has some good portions and some very solid arguments.

Pinker’s basic problem is that he essentially defines “violence” in such a way that his thesis that violence is declining becomes self-fulling. “Violence” to Pinker is fundamentally synonymous with behaviors of older civilizations. On the other hand, modern practices are defined to be less violent than newer practices.

A while back, I linked to a story about a guy in my neighborhood who’s been arrested over 60 times for breaking into cars. A couple hundred years ago, this guy would have been killed for this sort of vandalism after he got caught the first time. Now, we feed him and shelter him for a while and then we let him back out to do this again. Pinker defines the new practice as a decline in violence – we don’t kill the guy anymore! Someone from a couple hundred years ago would be appalled that we let the guy continue destroying other peoples’ property without consequence. In the mind of those long dead, “violence” has in fact increased. Instead of a decline in violence, this practice seems to me like a decline in justice – nothing more or less.

Here’s another example, Pinker uses creative definitions to show that the conflicts of the 20th Century pale in comparison to previous conflicts. For example, all the Mongol Conquests are considered one event, even though they cover 125 years. If you lump all these various conquests together and you split up WWI, WWII, Mao’s takeover in China, the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the Russian Civil War, and the Chinese Civil War (yes, he actually considers this a separate event from Mao), you unsurprisingly discover that the events of the 20th Century weren’t all that violent compared to events in the past! Pinker’s third most violent event is the “Mideast Slave Trade” which he says took place between the 7th and 19th Centuries. Seriously. By this standard, all the conflicts of the 20th Century are related. Is the Russian Revolution or the rise of Mao possible without WWII? Is WWII possible without WWI? By this consistent standard, the 20th Century wars of Communism would have seen the worst conflict by far. Of course, if you fiddle with the numbers, you can make any point you like.

Another reviewer (perhaps the best review that I read) makes another good point:

Yet even if Pinker is right that the ratio of violent to peaceful deaths has improved over time (and he probably is), his metric of progress deserves a bit more attention than he gives it. His argument about decreasing violence is a relative one: not that more people were killed annually in the past than are killed in a given year of recent history but that more people were killed relative to the size of the overall human population, which is of course vastly larger today than in earlier eras. But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another.

Finally, I think Pinker needs to adjust for improvements in technology. Medical advances alone, should make death in modern society much less frequent. He doesn’t try to adjust for this obvious difference.

Again, I think Pinker’s thesis is generally correct, but besides these definitional problems, he includes tons of wildly irrelevant anecdotes. For example,

Yes, the fate of dodgeball is yet another sign of the historical decline of violence.

No. Dodgeball wasn’t violent – no one ever had anything more than their feelings hurt. The fate of dodgeball is a sign of our culture’s overwhelming sense of moral superiority, a sense which rings loudly in the pages of Pinker’s work. Why would he include this silly statement in his book?

At one point he launches in a hundred-page discussion about how people used to eat stuff with their hands and straight off knives and now they don’t. I don’t know what this even means or how it relates to declining violence. The discussion seemed to go on forever.

Anyway, everyone seems to like Pinker, and I think this is a result of his writing style. You can read this book and, regardless of your viewpoint, he will acknowledge your favored arguments. He then quickly dismisses some of them while claiming that his historical anecdotes support others. Let’s look at a few cases.

Colonialism

Here are two quotes from Pinker:

In South Africa, the apartheid regime will be dismantled, and the white minority will cede power to the black majority. This will happen with no civil war, no bloodbath, no violent recriminations against the former oppressors.

and:

One of the tragic ironies of the second half of the 20th Century is that when colonies in the developing world freed themselves from European rule, they often slid back into warfare, this time intensified by modern weaponry, organized militias, and the freedom of young men to defy tribal elders.

In South Africa, we know that the first statement is wrong and the second statement is correct (the report on farm attacks also makes interesting reading), and Zuma agrees.

Every time Pinker says something like the first statement here, he says just enough (see the second statement) to ensure that you can’t criticize him for his oversight/factual incorrectness.

Infanticide and abortion

In another section of the book, Pinker has a very long discussion of infanticide. Then he notes that we don’t have infanticide anymore. Then he notes that we do kill almost exactly the same proportion of babies today that infanticidal societies killed, we just do it via abortion. Then he concludes with some fuzzy language that probably satisfies most of the people on both sides of the issue. You can’t criticize him for ignoring the fact that abortion is so common.

The problem, in this case for Pinker, is that we’ve turned the infanticide of old from an unfortunate practice into a fundamental right. Surely this should give pause to someone making an honest argument that violence has declined over time.

HBD

Pinker notes that crimes are committed more often by blacks in the US. He pays the shortest possible lip service to potential biological explanations of this phenomenon, before concluding that the cause of the discrepancy is that “the civilizing mission of government never penetrated American South as deeply as it had the Northeast, to say nothing of Europe.” This retort is, of course, unfalsifiable, unmeasurable, and absurd by any reasonable standard.

We have two competing explanations. On one hand we have the forces of biology and evolution and evidence across black populations in many many countries of the world. On the other hand we have the pixie dust of the civilizing mission of government and some selective evidence in certain parts of the US. My money is on the former and Pinker’s book offers no evidence in favor of the latter beyond mere hand waving. Don’t get distracted by the fact that there’s a lot of hand waving going on.

Democracy

Pinker likes democracy. His understanding of its workings are remarkably consistent with those taught in my fourth grade social studies class. He is convinced that modern government is not as obsessed with conquest as governments of the past and that democracy is “one of the greatest violence-reduction technologies since the appearance of government itself”. I respectfully disagree with him on these points. America – the government of America – has been among the most successful conquerors of all time. Only a few of the countries in the world don’t essentially sing to the American tune these days. America’s wars of conquest – the Civil War, WWI and WWII – are readily apparent. It’s fine to conclude that “democracies” are less violent, but you should at least mention the fact that democracy’s enemies have a tendency to be brutally exterminated every time they pop up.

Women

Pinker believes big time in the civilizing nature of women. Marriage helps to civilize men in his telling, but then he turns around and criticizes middle-Americans for believing in the sanctity of marriage (you see this is just a vestige of wild west times, when marriage was necessary to civilize men). Apparently, he’s unconcerned that marriage is disappearing. Too bad that manosphere won’t stop criticizing Charles Murray (whom they shouldn’t be criticizing) and direct some of their fire on Pinker, whose analysis of this topic is borderline idiotic.

Genetics

Pinker has a massive section on how the brain works. I was getting really excited that he was about to conclude that some of the decline in violence was due to evolution (if for no other reason than justifying the amount of time I was spending reading about how the brain works in relation to violence). Nope. I have no idea why this section is in the book as it doesn’t end up accounting for declining violence in Pinker’s telling.

He rejects the notion that decreased violence is due to genetic changes, because he believes the consequences of such a conclusions would be too politically incorrect. Just kidding, he rejects this assertion because “we have no good evidence that is actually has” happened, while in contrast we have good evidence that declines in violence (that he’s described) have happen in short periods of time (i.e. about 1,000 years). Obviously, the latter is a highly scientific conclusion unlike my joking conclusion, just kidding. Something more than hand waiving and unscientific analysis of declining violence should be required here to dismiss genetic/evolutionary theories of declining violence. If violence is heritable, criminals commit crimes when they’re young, and we do a decent job of locking them up/killing them after they commit crimes (i.e. effectively prevent many of them from reproducing), wouldn’t we expect criminality to decline pretty quickly from genetic factors alone? I don’t know, someone will have to write a book it at some point.

Pinker’s science here might not be that good. Pinker’s saying that something like 50 generations is too short a period of time for evolution to work (his earliest charts for England, for example, begin at or before 1200). My understanding is that evolution can occur over a much shorter time period.

Randoms

Pinker loves the Long Peace, but doesn’t mention the Pax Romana.

He makes a few hysterical statements that seem highly relevant to his analysis, but he immediately moves on without making the necessary conclusions. My favorite one was:

The laws and practices of many Muslim countries seem to have missed out on the Humanitarian Revolution.

No shit?! I hadn’t noticed. Nothing to see here anyway.

He makes fun of pessimists, but his maps of where violence occurs are eerily similar to maps of fertility rates (i.e. lots of violence equates with lots of children). I guess we’re fortunate that declining violence isn’t cause by evolutionary changes. If it were, we’d be screwed!

36 Responses to Review of “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker

  1. Red says:

    A lot of the violence reduction that Pinker alludes to is the result of humans being stripped of their rights to protect their property. Such changes in rights are course enforced by government officials who will shoot them if they try to protect it.

    The other problem with Pinker’s work is that violence is the biggest drivers of human evolution. I don’t understand why you’d want to eliminate it.

  2. The Pax Romana damn near shatters the notion that democracies are less violent than solid empires.

    What’s more is that it’s not an isolated event.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Romana#Similar_terms

    Of the eight listed here, only two refer to non-autocratic states, and of those two, only one refers to something that actually happened.

    Over and over again we see empires, even the ruthless Mongols, generating peace. Among the various “official” Paxes, we have a total of 2,795 region-years of peace generated by empire in the last 2,000+ years.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    Yes, he bit off more than anybody can chew.

  4. sardonic_sob says:

    I normally don’t approve of comment-spamming, but you need to post that first paragraph as a review on every. Single. Website. Where this book is offered for sale. That’s an absolute gem.

  5. Alrenous says:

    Said it before and gonna say it again now: even if Pinker’s thesis that violence is in long-term decline, it is an anti-state argument, not the pro-state one he wants it to be, because it means states are bucking the trend. If his projections of violence decreasing in the future are true, eventually states will have to die out or else they put a lower bound on violence.

    This goes double, as I recognize that the 60-crimes guy must be being protected by the state. Without a risk of a trial and jail, one of those victims would have shot him and that would have been the end of that.

    In related news, I have never played dodgeball and would rather like to. It sounds like fun.

  6. Leonard says:

    Great review. sardonic is right: the 1st para is a killer. I also want to commend your example of the guy arrested over 60 times.

    On evolution, there are really two aspects of it that are distinguishable, that confuse the issue a bit. Natural selection — changes in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool — is always happening based on existing variation. Thus, for example, the famous peppered moth-coloring example in England during (and after) the industrial revolution. No novel genes were needed; both kinds of moth already existed. Just the proportion changed. This kind of selection can be very rapid indeed, given sufficient evolutionary pressure. If 50% of the dark moths are being eaten by birds and 80% of the light moths, within just a few generations the dark moths will become most common.

    That is, I think, how we can think about the eugenic effect of killing criminals, particularly if they are killed young. It should exert a significant evolutionary pressure. The existence of an effective state must have domesticated men in this sense. This predicts that the longer a race has been subject to effective government (effective enough to kill most criminals), the more domestic that race should be. Thus the pattern of HBD which we see.

    The other aspect of evolution is the generation of novel alleles, via mutation, DNA transcription errors, etc. This is a much slower process, since almost all such new alleles are detrimental. It is unlikely in a just a few generations. I do note, though, that even this meaning of evolution has its champions as having happened in the human population over the last few thousand years.

    As you say: someone really ought to write a book about this.

  7. aretae says:

    2 issues:

    1 with Leonard…we know, for instance, that the Chinese have been much more effective at controlling their women (not letting them choose on what they would naturally prefer, but requiring them to choose based on starvation economics) than have Africans, because the Chinese have much smaller sperm-volume and lower testosterone than do Africans. And we’re pretty convinced that the timeframe on this is something less than 6000 years.

    2. Evolution is known (now) to be occurring at a faster rate recently (last 50Ky) than before

    3. Abortion. A huge part of the abortion debate is around the extent to which a baby and a fetus are morally equivalent. Your analysis glibly assumes that they are.

    4. Nice review

    • Foseti says:

      I don’t mean to assume anything p abortion – I’ve had mixed feelings on it myself.

      But a book on declining violence should be more troubled by the modern celebration of the “right” of abortion than Pinker was.

  8. [...] and Confront”Foseti – “Progressive Porn and the No_Limit_Nigga“, “Review of “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker”DW – “The Aged States of America”John Derbyshire – [...]

  9. Peter says:

    Your remarks on African-Americans discredit your critique. African-Americans are comprised of many different nationalities: Native American, European, and African. Furthermore, in communities where Afican-Americans have a modicum of economic stability, crime is low. Also, the greatest mass murderers of the last century were European and Asian ( Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot). And add this: we are all- every human being- exiles from Africa, the origin place of humankind. Youare

    • Foseti says:

      I live in DC, perhaps the world’s most economically stable area. Your statement that in such stable locations blacks don’t commit crimes is refuted by reading any local paper or checking crime stats.

      • Diego says:

        He won’t listen. For them human uniformity is a religious tenet. An axiom.

      • Daryl says:

        Excellent reply Peter. I was going to say in terms of evolution, skin color is a relatively recent adaption with links to environmental factors. Violence just may be more common in areas of inequality between groups. Skin color isn’t a factor. Race does not exist biologically we all come from a single lineage.

  10. humberto vivas says:

    There are two very different forms of violence, socially organized violence such as ocurrs in wars or through the repression of crime and personal or group violence such as happens when individuals or small groups engage in it basically for three kinds of motives , to feel narcicistically gratified about how strong they are in being able to hurt others weaker than themselves ( the bully) , to obtain some easy gain or profit from the expoliation of others ( the professional criminal) , the violence perpetrated on others to feed on ones feelings or rightous indignation and indirectly boost ones pride at ones superior morality ( the fanatic ) . Sometimes people who are driven to incurr in the second kind of violence manage to participate in socially organized forms of violence so as to mask their own predilection for the use of violence in their treatment of others. There are two other forms of violence which ocurr when a person is personally deeply offended at something another person does and responds in blind fury , and linked to the latter the rancorous and vengeful violence of those who vent the anger arising from their lives frustrations and failures by finding someone appropiate to convert into the victims of their violence. There are also non bodily forms of violence such as violence which is purely verbal or violence which results in pain being caused to others through deeds which are not in themselves phisically violent ( a lawsuit , a divorce etc)

  11. Steve says:

    I’m impressed with this review and most of the well-thought-out comments above by people who know a lot about evolution and I’ll leave that area alone. But a comment is needed, I think, about the “Better Angel” of the nature of Pinker himself. He means well but is vastly prone to reductionism and over-generality, despite the length of his arguments, like his buddy Dawkins. I bought “The Nature of the MInd” on an optimistic note, having read positive reviews, only to find that the mind is really a computer (?). Seems with Pinker that there is not thing as choice but we’re all just a bunch of population trends. Maybe I’m fooling myself by thinking I”m more than that.

  12. I detest the manner in which Pinker throws ideas and statistics around as if he were tossing a salad. I detest the way in which so-called intellectuals and scientists blandly stand around and make mildly humorous comments about Pinker’s appaling methodolody, ideology and weak-minded conclusions. What the friggin’ Hell, guys?! The book’s author has wtitten 800 pages of the most transparently eggregious misinformation ever. EVER. This book is an unmitigated piece of pseudoscientific crap. And don’t get me started on how offensive many of Pinkertons glib assertions are to anyone who is truly informed regarding world politics. According to Pinker, slavery as an institution is dead. Guess the millions of women, men and children who are trafficked daily and the millions of them in the past 20 years who have died from slavery didn’t get the memo. That is just one correction of the glaring insconsistencies and incomprehensibly sloppy research of the author. The book is rubbish. Every page. Every assertion. Glaringly, appallingly, patently wrong. It is a testament to how our institutions of education have failed us that nobody has eviscerated the book either in review or in comments. The arguements are flimsy, unsupported by intelligent or accurate data and none have been subjected to any sort of scientific standard. Reading stuff like this will rot your brain.

  13. Luis says:

    ”We have two competing explanations. On one hand we have the forces of biology and evolution and evidence across black populations in many many countries of the world. On the other hand we have the pixie dust of the civilizing mission of government and some selective evidence in certain parts of the US. My money is on the former and Pinker’s book offers no evidence in favor of the latter beyond mere hand waving. Don’t get distracted by the fact that there’s a lot of hand waving going on.”

    Straight, unadulterated Nazi propaganda. Your problem with Pinker’s book seems to be that it doesn’t pay enough thanks to the white, Christian middle class male. I haven’t read the book so I won’t claim that there isn’t plenty I won’t find disagreeable about it, but some of the reasons given here for why you don’t like it are almost comical. Apart from your simple-minded misunderstanding of ‘the forces of biology’, you offer the case of the the serial car vandalist. Pinker’s point on the matter of punishment of criminals is that the relative lack of ruthlessness in dealing with criminals is part of the general trend of viewing violence – even against that group of people we find most reprehensible – less palatable as a solution to problems.

    • Foseti says:

      “Pinker’s point on the matter of punishment of criminals is that the
      relative lack of ruthlessness in dealing with criminals is part of the
      general trend of viewing violence – even against that group of people we find most reprehensible – less palatable as a solution to
      problems.”

      Two points: 1) it’s not a “solution” in any meaningful sense; and 2) his thesis is then totally uninteresting – it’s true that civilization in the 21st Century is more compatible with 21st Century morality than the civilization of the 17th Century was, but it’s a really uninteresting point.

      • Luis says:

        ‘Two points: 1) it’s not a “solution” in any meaningful sense; and 2) his thesis is then totally uninteresting – it’s true that civilization in the 21st Century is more compatible with 21st Century morality than the civilization of the 17th Century was, but it’s a really uninteresting point.’

        Actually, it is and was a solution (and was certainly viewed as a solution): to that individual criminal, not criminality in general.

        Your second point stems from your confusion about the first.

    • Diego says:

      Pinker’s point is that overall violence has diminished. My point is that violence has changed focus and has changed in nature.

      Your “solution” is backed by huge mammoth-like amounts of violence and repression, since childhood, over millions upon millions of individuals. Only with that “education” and the menace of force by the State’s thugs is possible to create a society where a serial burglar can steal hundreds of times without real punishment by his victims or where a serial rapist is feed and protected with the violence-backed taxes of the fathers, brothers and husbands of his victims. Only to see how he’s set free again some years after and he goes raping again.

      For Pinker, that’s a decline in violence. For me that’s a gigantic shift of focus, and transformation in its nature, in violence, not a decline. In no way that’s a decline.

      The State fears a whole lot more the existance of independent sources of sovereignty, that is, of *force*, than the existance of criminals. That’s why it represses so much the general population while only providing a weak simulacra of justice to keep the populace quiet enough to avoid the riots.

      P.D.: from a white hispan (never “hispanic”) male.

  14. [...] Mangan digs up an example of anarcho-tyranny.  I think that story is a better of example of how retarded Steven Pinker is for thinking that violence is on the decline.  In the old days, those two criminals would have [...]

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’m afraid I can’t agree. While your review is intelligent and probably useful next to gushing reviews Pinker has received, I encourage you to separate your own morality from the reading of Pinker’s language. Most notably, you seem to correlate “violence” with negative morality. While that is a pretty solid generalisation for most people, you can’t reverse that process by telling Pinker to not count violence that you see as just as violence. His thesis is NOT that only justified violence has declined, it’s that All violence has declined. I feel that your largely intelligent review is seriously flawed by what you wish a book about violence would say, morally, about people. What comes through above is that you are just deeply disappointed that he didn’t justify moral positions that you brought with you to the book.

    For example, your hope that evolution would be spoken of as a cause of violence reduction; you bring this belief to the book, and criticise Pinker for not agreeing, even though it is absolutely legitimate that there is no evidence for it. You may have a wide hypothesis, linking cause to result over a chasm of unverified linkage, but it’s unreasonable for you to expect Pinker to address all such blue sky theories while criticising the length of the book!

    As to the length of the book, I agree that I wish it was shorter. But as many beliefs and wishes I brought into the reading of this book, Pinker showed me, meticulously and rigorously, why I was wrong. I wish you had brought a similarly open mind to this book.

  16. […] (The worst recent book on this subject was Pinker’s). […]

  17. Xanax says:

    Good post. I’m going through a few of these issues as well..

  18. Pinker is full of shit says:

    USA is NOT a DEMOCRACY it is a PLUTOCRACY.
    Mr pink is just fooling himself.

    • Rob says:

      It is neither, it is a Republic.

      Also democracy is not the pure path people paint it to be but the tyranny of the majority.

  19. […] Reactionary blogger Foseti read Pinker’s book and gave it a review: […]

  20. […] but Anissimov refreshed my memory of it. Anissimov’s also re-tweeted-blogged Foseti’s classic review of Pinker’s Better Angels, which has no doubt contributed to the illusion among reluctant reactionaries mentioned above that […]

  21. […] The book is long and I suspect a good editor would have cut some of his graphs and lengthy explanations. And I don’t think all of his statistics are entirely accurate: on page 237, he refers to Shaka as “a Zulu Hitler who killed between 1 and 2 million people during his conquest of southern Africa between 1816 and 1827″. I’m not sure the entire Mfecane can be attributed to one man, and even these numbers, as Wikipedia authoritatively informs, are dubious. (Also, given that Shaka came first, is it not more appropriate to call Hiter the German Shaka?) But the few generalisations are a low price to pay for what is, at the minimum, a thought-provoking book. The book really deserves a better review than what I have space for here. But here and here are good reviews. Of course, not everyone agrees. […]

  22. This review omits the extremely conjectural nature of the pre-nineteenth-century statistics Pinker uses, particular eir absurd prehistoric baseline drawn from supposed hunter-gather groups in the twentieth century: http://queersingularity.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/neither-angels-nor-demons-dont-believe-pinker/. The overall archaeological evidence does not support they idea that human health increased with civilization until the nineteenth or twentieth century. Thus, if violence decreased, health decreased enough to balance out this difference. Of course, this analysis indicts aristocracy and monarchy, so you might not like it.

  23. […] who (for whatever reason) would like you to believe that moral-political “progress” isn’t destroying civilization are likely to […]

  24. Rob says:

    Pinkers data is faulty. First off murders and missing persons skew the actual murder rate. Secondly, it is based upon reported crimes. assault and rape are two crimes that only a small fraction that get reported and at least in my country (Canada) the reported rate of sexual assaults has gone up substantially

    A lot of people here and around the world either outright fear the police or have no faith in the legal system and don’t report a lot of crimes that occur. This is true in both developed nations and especially so in developing nations that often have rampant corruption. Yes, we live in an age where we are aware of more crimes on a daily basis but his data is flawed and I have lost a lot of respect for him as as scientist.

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