Monday, July 6, 2015

Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Don't bother with The Better Angels of Our Nature. I think you have to be very careful before buying anyone's ponderous 800 page tome. (I wasn't fooled into buying Piketty, but look how many copies of his are going to have to be pulped.) Unless the author is an utter genius crystallizing some subject for the rest of us, the result is going to be a muddled mess.

Since Pinker uses "'six trends' interacting with 'five inner demons,' 'four better angels,' and 'five historical forces,'" to attempt to explain his hypothesized decline of violence, I think we can tell it fits squarely in the muddled mess category. (Twenty degrees of freedom in the model!)

And with one paragraph, Steve Sailer crushes Pinker for writing a politically progressive, anti-Christian book:

[T]he single most obvious bit of evidence in support of Pinker’s theory that there has been a long trend away from violence is the change in morality from the Old Testament to the New. Pinker recounts at length some hair-raising anecdotes passed on without criticism—indeed, often with approbation—in the Hebrew Bible, such as the tale of what the 12 sons of Jacob did to Hamor the Hivite. Yet when the author’s attention turns to the New Testament, with its radically different moral climate, he’s barely able to begrudge an acknowledgment of this epochal change. He quickly quotes Jesus saying, “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
I am actually convinced by Pinker's argument that homicide has declined precipitously, and that people value life much more than 500 or 1000 years ago. This makes sense because untimely death from accident or disease is less common and life is easier.

I am not convinced that there is anything meaningful about the current 70 year break since the world wars. Isn't it just a nuclear stalemate that will one day be broken? Remember E.O. Wilson,
"The foreign policy of ants can be summed up as follows: restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies, wherever possible. If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week."
Territorial conquest and genocidal annihilation was the foreign policy of early humans, too. Ask the Neanderthals. Well, since they aren't around to ask, then ask Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending.



CP said...

"This is my take from Gregory Clark’s “Farewell to Alms.” It took a very special malthusian stew of dozens of generations to change the European man from the one that entered the middle ages to one that exited in the fruits of the industrial revolution. Once the farmlands were filled the excess population had little choice but to try and survive as best they could in urban areas. The conditions in these urban areas were horrible for a majority of the population. Malthusian limits have often been pressed upon humanity before but what made this environment different in fundamental ways was that those that flourished and raised another generation had to outsmart, as opposed to out work or out fight, other struggling townsfolk placed in this hellish population sink continuously fed by the surrounding countryside. Gregory Clark did something far more difficult than hypothesize this, he went out and found direct evidence that showed evolution in motion working upon mankind.

whydibuy said...

Books like these start out with a certain premise and opinion and proceed to try to support that premise. Yes, history was very brutal and life was cheap back then. It is interesting to read about pirates and learn that back then, a ship owner could kidnap a man to work on his ship and that man essentially became property of the ship owner as written in the laws of the day.
Or that Bart Roberts, being a navigator on a slave ship before becoming a pirate captain, understood that he would have a life expectancy of 3 years once he put to sea. Thus his motto "A short life and a merry one".
Contrary to public belief, slaves were valuable cargo so they got the food and water before the sailors did. Roberts speaks of seeing a sailor trying to lick the morning dew of some dirty sails.

And when people talk of the good old days, I say just look in any 100 year old cemetery and see how good the past was. You will see a mass of young people dead before the age of 15. Lots of women dead in their 20s. Yeah, the good old days. Get real.

James said...

A couple years ago I came across a blog that chronicled all the mistakes, logical flaws, bad data, etc. in Better Angels. I wish I could remember the name because it was a really damning critique-- it's hard to take a book seriously when you know there's a serious error on every page.

"This is my take from Gregory Clark’s “Farewell to Alms.”

My takeaway from the book was similar, i.e. declining violence was the byproduct of specific social arrangements, and that the welfare state has completely reversed those arrangements. Unsurprisingly, homicide rates bottomed in the 1950s and have risen a lot since then. They would have risen much more if medical technology hadn't improved (i.e., in the past many people died from attacks they now survive) and the incarceration rates hadn't surged.

Clark's book is vastly better than anything Pinker has ever written.

James said...

I put Pinker in the same category as Jared Diamond-- he's become famous by telling people what they want to hear and doing it in a way that appeals to their intellectual insecurities. Pandering pays.

CP said...

Is it this?

Steve Pinker’s bogus statistics: A critique of The Better Angels of Our Nature (Part Two)

CP said...

"Many of us today still want government to have lots of power. We are, in this way, holding to the failed pagan idea of human perfectibility through the leadership of the better educated and more virtuous. We are trusting in the idea that if we can just give enough power to someone or some group of people, they will solve the big problems for us."

CP said...

If we confine ourselves to the 18 wars and atrocities that killed more than 1% of the human race (i.e. where the death rate was 1,000 deaths per 100,000 people), we see that they break down over 500-year periods as follows:

500 B.C to 1 B.C.: 1 event
1 A.D. to 500 A.D. 3 events
501 A.D. to 1000 A.D. 1 event
1001 A.D. to 1500 A.D. 5 events
1501 A.D. to 2000 A.D. 8 events (2 occurring in the 20th century)

What! There were eight violent events that killed off more than 1% of the human race in the last 500 years, and two of these occurred in the last 100 years? That hardly inspires confidence in human progress, does it?

James said...

Is it this?

Steve Pinker’s bogus statistics: A critique of The Better Angels of Our Nature (Part Two)

No, although that makes some of the same points. The one I read had a blogspot address and wasn't ID-related.

Anonymous said...

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.