Steven Pinker, the history of violence, and the misuse of 'anarchy'

Steven Pinker, the history of violence, and the misuse of 'anarchy'

I've not yet purchased his new book yet, though I'm sure I'll grab a copy sometime, but already all the interviews with him and reviews I've read are fairly infuriating.

His new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes looks mammoth, much bigger than any of his previous books, about 800 pages. Previous stuff of his like Stuff of Thought and Language Instinct are decent readings in psycholinguistics, while his treading into moral philosophy inThe Blank Slate is nauseating.

So far the interviews (see list below) with him reek of whiggish history - 'things are getting better' and violence is on the decline. Of course it depends on how you define violence. So far in most interviews he seems to think violence simply means physical violence, and discounts instituitional violence and the implied threat of physical coercion that exists in all states. Nor does he seem to think poverty and cuts to every aspect of social existence are of importance in discussions of violence.

Some bloggers have already called bullshit on some of his specific claims, though I know little about the history either way - but it's interesting to see historians chellnging him.

His constant misuse of 'anarchy' to describe every situation from drug cartels to Somalia grates every single time he uses it.
He has previously made claims in The Blank Slate that he was an anarchist, who loved Bakunin, in the late 60s as a student radical until he witnessed some civil unrest during a police strike in Montreal.
He must have a been a really shit anarchist and not taken-in any Bakunin if he thinks drug-cartels and Somalian despots have anything to do with anarchism.

I have no doubt the book will be infuriating, but I'll probably still give it a go next year. Anyone else any thoughts?

Recent interviews:
Bloggingheads.tv Science Saturday
BBC Life scientific
BBC Thinking Allowed
Guardian science podcast
BBC Nightwaves

Comments

aquacrunk
Nov 7 2011 18:30

i skimmed through blank slate and it made my eyes roll. pretty much "capitalism is human nature!" bullshit. his new book looks like an interesting idea but i don't think i can stomach more of his writing :/

Shorty
Nov 7 2011 19:51

The few reviews I read summed the book up as violence is decreasing (if you exclude all those wars). grin roll eyes

tastybrain
Nov 7 2011 20:07

I remember reading Blank Slate and being irked by that story of him being an anarchist. I mean, clearly dude had no understanding of anarchism. If you think removing the cops suddenly but keeping the capitalist structure of society is "anarchy" clearly you have no understanding of the relevant theory. He is a fairly reactionary thinker but I remember thinking parts of Blank Slate were interesting. I will be interested to read your review of Better Angels. His Hobbesian politics are truly absurd and need to be criticized ruthlessly. I also don't know what the fact that hunter-gatherers (pre-state peoples) killed each other at high rates has to do with the need for the state in current society. One could argue that the primitive state of the economy made such violent conflict inevitable and that the cooperative/social economic structure that we rely on today (notwithstanding capitalist exploitation) facilitates peaceful cooperation without the state.

Joseph Kay
Nov 7 2011 20:56

Imho the worst thing about the Blank Slate was how infuriatingly unscientific it is, considering it's purporting to be the REAL SCIENCE OF HUMAN NATURE vs WISHFUL THINKING. Massive reliance on anecdotes, appeal to popular prejudices etc. Which is annoying, because I do think hard social constructivism and lefty politics does often neglect science and evolution, and so some critique of 'blank slate' style utopianism is needed. But Pinker isn't it. Steven Rose's '21st century brain' seemed much better in terms of the evolutionary basis for social construction of our 'nature' via neural plasticity and so on; rejecting the nature-nurture dichotomy altogether.

On the history of violence thing - yeah you're right it's about how you define it. As a % of the population, wars may well kill less people than in previous centuries as war has become increasingly mechanised and less labour intensive in large parts of the world. On the other hand, until the 19th century industrial scale murder wasn't even possible, let alone real, and iirc civilian casualties have increased over the course of the 20th century as the nature of wars have changed. And that's only on the narrowest definitions of violence - what about endemic rape, domestic violence, denial of medication (e.g. HIV) and so on. Almost certainly he's distorting or cherry-picking stats to make a Whiggish argument, as you suspect.

baboon
Nov 7 2011 21:02

I don't know where his evidence comes from about violent death rates in prehistoric society but I would have thought that such societies, without idealizing them, needed to cooperate just to survive. The idea that there was continual warfare in prehistory has long been a component of bourgeois ideology.

Capitalism on the other hand, a system based on rivalry, competition, dog eat dog and a century and a bit of wholesale imperialist war has, whatever figures Pinker comes up with, demonstrated its utter barbarity and slaughter.

And this rational, improving picture that Pinker paints of capitalism - with all its "problems" of course, is somewhat tainted by the fact China, the US, Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia, France, North Korea and Britain are all spending hundreds of billions of dollars (the US alone $700 billion) on upgrading their nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

Boris Badenov
Nov 7 2011 21:09

This is the guy who was a "teenage anarchist" until he witnessed some people doing some BAD STUFF during a police strike, after which he concluded law and order capitalism is the only way for humanity. I think it's safe to say logic is not his forte, regardless of his prowess in evolutionary biology.

Choccy
Nov 7 2011 21:30

What's striking is the currency he has in both academic and popular intellectual circles. I mean, those links above were only the ones I'd listened to, there's a tonne more as well as a stack of reviews.

Wallace in Getting Darwin Wrong* briefly charts Pinkers evolution from linguist (Language Instinct) to cognitive scientist (How The Mind Works) onto moral philosopher (Blank Slate) and now you can add social historian (Better Angels....) to that list. And Wallace isn't the only one to pick up on him moving way beyond his remit and training.

There's a fantastic blunt exchange in Greg Graffin's PhD thesis with Lewontin talking about Pinker. On Pinker straying into biology, Lewontin says 'there's this guy Pinker who doesn't know shit about biology... he's an autoinflator of some kind. Why would anyone pay attention? I understand his books sell very well'.

I suspect more historians will go mental over Pinker's cherry-picking. The one I linked to above, James Hannam, is a fairly conservative catholic historian, but even he has a problem with Pinker's apparent whig reading of history.

The thesis alluded to in Pinker's interviews also reeks of panglossianism - THE BEST WORLD THERE HAS EVER BEEN - EVERYTHING IS GETTING BETTER.

*which is as much a critique of cognitivism as it is of evo.psych.

Choccy
Nov 7 2011 21:33
Boris Badenov wrote:
This is the guy who was a "teenage anarchist" until he witnessed some people doing some BAD STUFF during a police strike, after which he concluded law and order capitalism is the only way for humanity. I think it's safe to say logic is not his forte, regardless of his prowess in evolutionary biology.

Thing is, he doesn't have prowess in evolutionary biology! Again to quote Lewontin - 'there's this guy Pinker who doesn't know shit about biology... he's an autoinflator of some kind. Why would anyone pay attention? I understand his books sell very well'.

I fucking love Lewontin, he does the most awkward interviews. There's a horrible he did for Susan Mazur's shamles of a book 'The Evolution Industry' where he simply refuses to give her what she wants.
I'm goign to post up some more of his interviews.

Cooked
Nov 7 2011 23:35

Don't know anything abou the book or the guy but I'm curious about the confident comments about violence not decreasing. Do you have any *real* basis for this or is it just ideological blinkers being put on?

I know very little about this but have heard that the level of violence in society has been reduced massively. The fact that there are people walking the streets that have *never* been the victims of violence is a new thing. This is not necessarily about wars but rather domestic abuse, child abuse state violence etc. I'd be curious to know if anyones got any proof that this incorrect.

Joseph Kay
Nov 7 2011 23:58
Cooked wrote:
Don't know anything abou the book or the guy but I'm curious about the confident comments about violence not decreasing. Do you have any *real* basis for this or is it just ideological blinkers being put on?

I know very little about this but have heard that the level of violence in society has been reduced massively. The fact that there are people walking the streets that have *never* been the victims of violence is a new thing. This is not necessarily about wars but rather domestic abuse, child abuse state violence etc. I'd be curious to know if anyones got any proof that this incorrect.

what's your timescale? most of the arguments in this vein (democratic peace theory is the main one i'm familiar with) don't really stand up, and history is generally far too messy to exhibit linear world-historical trends. many human societies are pretty violent, but the onus is on the claimant to prove we live in the most peaceful of all. e.g. rapes in the US rose steadily in the second part of the 20th Century, but rape wasn't even considered violence for most of that, but a property offence against the father/husband (source). today in the UK 1 in 4 women have experienced rape or attempted rape (source). might have been higher in the past, but i struggle to believe that's a world-historical low.

Choccy
Nov 8 2011 07:12

Further to what JoeK has said, I don't think anyone has expressed particular confidence (thought as I said, some historians are now ripping apart his specific claims) in the idea that as a % of total global population certain forms of violence may not have decreased. Though to be honest I'd be surprised at this, for the same reasons others have stated - industrial scale slaughter was simply not possible until late 19th C, problems with defining violence as simply acts of war and physical violence as opposed to the violence of poverty, denial of goods/services to huge proportions of the earth's population etc.

And again, he's written an 800-page book on this, yet in every interview gives the impression that he's cherry-picked all the evidence in what appears to be a logical extension of the programme begun in the Blank Slate - 'things are as they are because it's human nature but we're getting better' kind-of thing. A Panglossion 'rational optimist', much like Matt Ridley, who also thinks everything is getting better.

Choccy
Nov 8 2011 08:04

The really annoying thing is that, his use of 'anarchy' is intentionally misleading. In his interviews about Chomsky, he displays an understanding of anarchism that simply would not allow a definition of 'anarchy' that merely means the 'breakdown of order' or 'chaos'. There he demonstrates at the very least an understanding, however simplified, of the distinction between anarcho-syndicalism, and the libertarian-right.

Given this basic knowledge, he can only be using 'anarchy' as synonymous with drug-cartels and every fallen despotic regime ina deliberately misleading ideologically-biased form, rather than the detatched empirical impression he'd rather give.

Joseph Kay
Nov 8 2011 13:04

If he's talking about international relations (e.g. war), then 'anarchy' is a technical term from realist theory referring to the fact that internally states are hierarchical, but the international order is 'non-hierarchical' insofar as there's no sovereign power above states.* If he's referring to 'failed states' like Somalia, that might be an extension of that, i.e. 'anarchy' just means the absence of sovereign power. It's still a bit suspect if someone has some understanding of anarchist political philosophy, then uses the term uncritically to mean 'everything that isn't a sovereign state' though.

* obv there's problems with this, i'm not a realist!

Choccy
Nov 8 2011 13:16

That's my point, I realise there's a usage outside our understanding of political philosophy that simply refers to absence of government (and thus in their terms implies, wrongly, absence of order) and it's precisely because Pinker had previously self-identified as an anarchist, and clearly is familiar with Chomsky's tendencies (and syndicalism, libertarian socialism etc) that his blanket abuse of the term 'anarchy' can only be understood as a deliberately misleading misuse

Joseph Kay
Nov 8 2011 13:32

George Monbiot does exactly the same thing, as it happens, in his 'Age of Consent'. It's a kind of unintended compliment, in that they don't actually have a critique. If someone wanted to write a review article of Pinkers new book alongside Graebers, that would be interesting (Graeber argues states and markets co-ermerge through violence, so covers similar ground, but also shows how violence was avoided in many non-market, non-state societies through e.g. ritualising tensions).

Joseph Kay
Dec 29 2011 18:32

Quite a scathing review in Foreign Affairs. Tbh I still think they give him too much credit, e.g. assuming that hunter gatherer societies were the most violent ever. The review also points out that he simply ignores the two world wars as 'unfortunate anomalies' so that his argument of ever-increasing peace isn't challenged by the pesky problem of 100 million corpses.

revol68
Dec 29 2011 19:18
Joseph Kay wrote:
Quite a scathing review in Foreign Affairs. Tbh I still think they give him too much credit, e.g. assuming that hunter gatherer societies were the most violent ever. The review also points out that he simply ignores the two world wars as 'unfortunate anomalies' so that his argument of ever-increasing peace isn't challenged by the pesky problem of 100 million corpses.

does he really paint over the two world wars as "unfortunate anomalies"? That's really quite incredible if he does, it's not like they were just a bit of flare up at chucking out time, they were explosions of total violence between states over the worlds resources. Should hardly be surprising that in world market organised through massive nation states that there would tend to be less constant skirmishing as you'd get between small tribes but that when violence over resources and territory does arise it does so on a massive industrialised scale. If he wishes to just refer to these as outliers on a nice little graph that otherwise shows a decrease in violence generalised across societies then he is even more of a whiggish ideologue that I presumed.

Joseph Kay
Dec 29 2011 19:31
Foreign Affairs wrote:
THE WORLD WARS

A similar intervention Pinker makes in his own experiment is to dismiss the two world wars and the episodes of mass killing that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. Pinker describes these horrors powerfully and eloquently but claims they are irrelevant to his argument. He is right that historians often impose too much coherence on that time period, wanting all the violence to somehow make sense. But Pinker errs toward the other extreme, portraying the two world wars as "horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution," and the major episodes of mass murder as resulting from "a few contingent ideas and events." In other words, it was bad luck to have two big conflicts so close to each other, and more bad luck that they were associated with especially bad ideas.

I haven't read the book, but the Foreign Affairs review suggests he only looks at states as pacifiers of internal civil violence (following Hobbes' thought experiments, but taking them as historical fact), but doesn't really analyse the role of states in external violence/war. Which would be a pretty huge oversight (even the liberal peace theorists acknowledge liberal states tend to make war on non-liberal ones).

revol68
Dec 29 2011 19:47

That is pretty fucking mental, especially since the start of the review points out that Pinker approaches prehistoric war and violence not as irrational outbursts but as rational outcomes over competition for resources. Somehow though the two world wars are just the product of "bad ideas".

Choccy
Dec 29 2011 20:07
tastybrain
Dec 29 2011 20:13

He made the same argument in Blank Slate, and did factor in both World Wars I believe.

Choccy
Dec 29 2011 21:03
revol68 wrote:
Should hardly be surprising that in world market organised through massive nation states that there would tend to be less constant skirmishing as you'd get between small tribes but that when violence over resources and territory does arise it does so on a massive industrialised scale.

Exactly, it's precisely the nature and sheer scale of inter-state wars that means they couldn't happen as often as small tribal conflicts because humanity wouldn't last very fucking long wink - and that exceptional nature of interstate wars makes them stand out, not as outliers, but to be expected when states compete for limited resources on a global scale.

Choccy
Dec 29 2011 21:21

It's good that the Foreign Affairs review tackles his economic libertarian bias. This is common in popular science (eg Pinker, Matt Ridley), and the 'skeptic' movement (eg Penn & Teller, Michael Shermer)

You can add to Pinker's book a list of others taht claim everything is getting better and that capitalism is natural and the free market will make everything even better!:
Ridley - The Rational Optimist
Shermer - The Mind Of The Market

revol68
Dec 29 2011 22:48

Also I notice the review says Pinker treats the Reformation and Counter Reformations as just religious anomalies too, what a clown.

Choccy
Aug 8 2012 23:45

Says David S Petersen not Chomsky, but I wanna get round to reading that, cheers!

Joseph Kay
Aug 9 2012 07:37
Herman & Peterson wrote:
in Pinker’s view there has been a “Long Peace” since the end of the Second World War

Wait a minute... so he (1) ignores WWI and WWII as anomalies (according to Foreign Affairs); (2) ignores all the wars since WWII as a "long peace"; (3) declares the 20th century more peaceful than any before it. Cool methodology bro.

Edit: apparently he also explicity references the democratic peace theory. Except he distorts it to claim democracies are generally peaceful, when influential proponents of the theory (e.g. Michael Doyle) concede that while democracies are seemingly more peaceful towards each other they're prone to liberal imperialism against non-democracies. And apparently Pinker also doesn't include the Iraq war as violence, because it was disarming Iraq for peace. Just ouright imperial apologetics then.