The darker angels of our nature


The Katyn massacre.

Steven Pinker, The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined (2011) is a hugely ambitious book, that has been praised and criticised in equal measure. I’ve cited it in n.2 of my post on Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, where I noted Ian Johnson’s discussion of figures for deaths under Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

Pinker cover

In over a thousand pages, Pinker argues—quite against intuition—that violence in the world has vastly declined over the long sweep of world history, and that “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence”.

Among his explanations for this, based on the research of many scholars, are the decline of warfare and the rise of the modern nation-state; commerce (other people becoming more valuable alive than dead); the spread of Enlightenment values (not entirely limited to the Western world) of literacy, reason, and empathy, along with greater legal protection for women and children and the abolition of slavery and sadistic punishment. In detailed sections on the “Long Peace” after World War Two, and the “New Peace” since the end of the Cold War, Pinker claims that civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks have declined throughout the world. He even claims that the two world wars of the 20th century were spikes in the major downward trajectory.

From the FAQs on his website:

How do you define “violence”?
I don’t. […] I focus on violence against sentient beings: homicide, assault, rape, robbery, and kidnapping, whether committed by individuals, groups, or institutions. Violence by institutions naturally includes war, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, and deliberate famines.

Major related issues such as instability, insecurity, exploitation, migration, and injustice are not part of his remit, although one might surmise that Pinker also considers these to be in retreat under the march of progress, following Norbert Elias’s theory of the “civilizing process”. But their notion of moral progress, according to a useful critique by John Gray, is “wishful thinking and plain wrong”. And as colonialism spread, Enlightenment values didn’t preclude massive slaughter.

Isn’t economic inequality a form of violence?
No; the fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralisation with understanding. Ditto for underpaying workers, undermining cultural traditions, polluting the ecosystem, and other practices that moralists want to stigmatize by metaphorically extending the term violence to them. It’s not that these aren’t bad things, but you can’t write a coherent book on the topic of “bad things.”

Pinker does, however, discuss “evil” in several sections. He considers not just death tolls but psychology and individual propensity for evil, siding with Hobbes. From a distance, today’s media exposure brings us an acute awareness of violence; but beyond (notionally) “peaceful” Western societies, countless lives around the world are also affected directly.

While he doesn’t neglect the societies beyond Europe, or the violence of colonialism, reviewers have criticised his Western neoliberal agenda (cf. his 2019 book Enlightenment now, even more harshly reviewed).

Pinker adapts a table from Matthew White’s “(Possibly) the twenty (or so) worst things people have done to each other”, noting that “when you scale by population size, only one of the 20th century’s atrocities even makes the top ten”.:

Pinker 1

Pinker 2

But despite Pinker’s assembly of a wide range of disciplines, and many favourable reviews, criticisms won’t go away.

Wiki can be really useful (cf. Veiny, weedy, wiki); its substantial article on the book makes a good introduction. Much discussion has been quite vitriolic, as outlined in the article under “Criticism”. See e.g. John Gray’s review here. For statistics, note Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Having attempted to respond to FAQs on his website, Pinker goes on robustly to refute such criticisms—which, however, are based not merely on our widespread sense of the violent nature of the modern world, but on sensitive statistical analysis.

Darker angels cover

In particular, I’ve been reading the 2018 book The darker angels of our nature: refuting the Pinker theory (ed. Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale), which disputes Pinker’s arguments in detail. Among its eighteen chapters are essays on the nature of violence in history, human rights, archaeological evidence, medieval history, Russia, Japan, British imperial violence and the Middle East, indigenous peoples, sexual and racial violence, and the environment.

As the editors note,

The problems that come up time and again are: the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western-centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world.

Quite so: Pinker’s argument for long-term moral and material progress seems to play into a Western liberal mindset that sees things as “getting better all the time”.

Among topics for discussion, the authors observe that far more people died in the aftermath of the civil wars that proliferated during the “Long Peace” of the Cold War than during the conflicts themselves; and they query Pinker’s view of modern human trafficking as minor compared to the Atlantic slave trade. Still, the criticisms in The darker angels of our nature have in turn been criticised.

In a 2017 post Pinker addresses the apparent recent upsurge in violence around the world, with further graphs.

Of course it’s important to note (as historians do, indeed) the violence of ancient and medieval societies, and the growth of “Enlightenment values”. And while Pinker recognises types of violence that don’t necessarily lead directly to death, such social/economic systems are not within his remit. He does at least discuss famine in several sections.

Deaths of non-combatants increased hugely from the first to the second world wars. In the FAQs, Pinker describes the comment “I’ve read that at the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of deaths in warfare were suffered by soldiers, but at the end, 90% were suffered by civilians” as a “bogus statistic”—but his reference there (to pp.317–320) doesn’t seem to apply to the edition I have. Meanwhile, Gray specifies:

Around a million of the ten million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than fifty million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.

While statistics, and their interpretation, may be disputed, there are interesting perspectives here. It’s salient to evince the massive slaughter of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition (for which he cites Rummel’s huge overestimate of 350,000 deaths), genocides in south and north America, Ottoman pogroms, and so on.

For China scholars, the death toll of the An Lushan rebellion (755–63) is another case in point. Again citing Matthew White, Pinker describes it as “the worst atrocity of all time […] that resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time”, a figure that he notes is controversial—a great understatement. Historians attribute much of the apparent depopulation to the reduced efficiency of the census system and the removal from its figures of various occupations no longer to be taxed, and White later revised the death toll down from 36 million to 13 million; still, even the lower estimate is proportionately far higher than any of the disasters of the 20th century. Also on White’s list are the Mongol conquests (coming second), the fall of the Ming dynasty (4), the Taiping rebellion (10), the mid-20th century civil war (21), and the Maoist era (11).

* * *

However we attempt to digest these emotive and portentous squabbles, perhaps we can both acknowledge the violence of the past and find causes for long-term optimism while neither encouraging complacency nor scaling down our search to reduce all the ongoing disasters and injustices of our own times. As Pinker himself would recognise, even a detached observation of long-term decrease in violence will be scant consolation for the millions around the world still dying violent deaths or leading lives of severe insecurity. At least his work stimulates a thought-provoking debate.

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