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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!