The Better Angels of our Nature
For a while now, neo-Darwinian psychologist Steven Pinker has been promoting his theory that violence has, generally speaking, been progressively declining throughout history. My own response to this bold provocation was War & the Noble Savage, a short book that delved into recent debates about the nature of archaic societies. One chapter dealt with Pinker’s thesis—as outlined in a section of his book The Blank Slate—and found it simplistic and slanted. The Better Angels of our Nature, published in 2011, expanded greatly on the idea of a decline in violence—expanded to well over 800 pages. I thought that such an in-depth work might reveal a less blinkered assessment of band- and tribe-based societies. While there are a few fresh nuances, sadly Pinker remains entrenched in a deeply biased position that masquerades as ideology-free science.
As with The Blank Slate, despite its many flaws, there is much to be said for this book. Certainly it’s hard to disagree with the fact that many things have improved since Enlightenment values set in motion a series of revolutions in our collective morals regarding slavery, the treatment of women, children and animals, and—despite the horrors of the twentieth century’s two cataclysmic wars—in our attitudes to conflict and violence. For Pinker, the keys to these successes have been the rise of strong centralized states (Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan”, with a monopoly on violence), an increase in international trade (fostering practical, mutual bonds between people), and the increasing application of rationality, the abstracted nature of which makes it easier to put one’s own immediate biases to one side and take other people’s perspectives as having equal value. Much of the argument here is convincing or, at least, worthy of admission to our cultural discourse about the value of modernity.
When it comes to my own area of interest—prehistory, especially that vast stretch before the rise of agriculture—however, Pinker is still on shaky ground. The reasons for this are complex, but cut right to the heart of the problems with modern science. Pinker talks of “a switch from narratives to numbers” in assessing violence in different times and different cultures. “Only by looking at numbers can we get a sense as to whether civilization has increased violence or decreased it.” Now of course there is truth in this. But it is a partial truth, and the scientific appeal to quantities over qualities—Galileo’s foundations upon which his successors erected the edifice of modern science—is deeply problematic.
Pinker’s primary move is to focus on relative over absolute statistics. Sure, he says, it was tragic that such a vast number of people lost their lives in the two World Wars, and that people are murdered so frequently in many modern societies. But this violence occurs within the context of vast civilizations, millions or billions of people—and the victims of war or murder are actually quite a small fraction of this context. When we look at rates of violence (usually expressed as something like number of murders per year per 100,000 people), a different picture emerges: one in which hunter-gatherers with reputations for peaceability match or exceed the rates of modern urban hubs of savagery.
Pinker verges on self-parody when he makes a quip about the murder of Abel by Cain: “With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.” This attempt at introducing his argument with irreverent humour threatens to expose the way in which his attachment to the purity of abstract measurements is indeed dubious. Picture a band of 150 or so hunter-gatherers, among whom the murder rate is five to six times that of contemporary New York. One’s image will undoubtedly resemble that famously coined by Hobbes: nasty, brutish, and short. However, because of the tiny social scale, that sky-high murder rate pans out to about one murder every fifteen to twenty years—once a generation. Thus, despite the statistically high murder rate, “the general tenor of daily social relations observed by the ethnographer can readily be a strongly positive one of friendship, camaraderie, and communal sharing that is very rarely disrupted by argument or physical fighting.” (Raymond C. Kelly, Warless Societies & the Origins of War) What is more important: quality or quantity of life? This is clearly a deeply complex question, but surely most of us, in our hearts, would err on the side of quality. Pinker doesn’t seem to be a fool, and yet his entire argument against the virtues of ‘primitive’ life hinges on quantity over quality. Without making this overly detached and ultimately perverse move, the arc of his story is much vaguer and less striking. Here, we realize that the “switch from narrative to numbers” is, in the end, deceptive: the force of narrative is always at work.
Pinker is duplicitous, too. For him, “whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of one hundred to be killed or 1 percent of a population of one billion” is a “moral imponderable”. He proceeds to ponder it very briefly, however, and to quickly reach the conclusion that the latter is better. This is the foundation of his argument: a quick decision on a “moral imponderable”. For him the key question is: “If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?” In other words, it is a selfish calculation that deals with the easily measurable aspects of life. It is a perspective that seems necessary for a modicum of fairness in an overcrowded world, but it says very little that is useful about life in societies populated by dozens instead of millions of people.
Interesting light is shed on Pinker’s position by the recent lionization of controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon by the neo-Darwinian elite, in a conversation on Edge.org. Chagnon is famous for his work with the Amazonian Yanomami, “the fierce people” as he dubbed them. The debate around violence among the Yanomami is complex, and the easily accessible populist material that emphasizes their brutality should be balanced by the work of people such as R. Brian Ferguson. What seems amazing in conversations between Pinker and Chagnon is how blithely they treat a critical anthropological issue: to what extent can a particular contemporary tribal society be taken as representative of life in the Palaeolithic?
Chagnon starts by emphasizing “that the Yanomami are not necessarily the modern day survivors of the Stone Age.” Nevertheless, he believes they are “the best approximation that we have in the ethnographic world today of peoples living in a kind of environment … that is quite comparable to what must have happened during most of human history.” This is bullshit. There are great variations among hunter-gatherer societies, and Raymond Kelly’s important work has clearly shown that understanding these variations—in kinship structures, social obligations, resource usage and so forth—is crucial to understand the variations in conflict and violence. Kelly showed that relatively low levels of violence, and an absence of anything resembling “war” is generally found among hunter-gatherers who are individualist, lacking extensive familial bonds that can enmesh people in self-perpetuating feuds. The Yanomami are not such a group; indeed, they are partly horticulturalists. The long stretch of the Palaeolithic may have seen pre-agricultural foragers ebbing into and out of more and less complex social arrangements, so we cannot be sure that the more peaceable simple foragers we find today are uniquely representative of archaic humanity. But even less can we be sure that such an idiosyncratic culture as the Yanomami are representative.
Pinker follows Chagnon, frequently relying on the Yanomami as a tribal exemplar. And in his simplistic assessment of social structure, he follows another writer on this topic, Lawrence Keeley. Keeley’s War Before Civilization attempts to show that pre-state societies can be as violent as state-based societies, and does so easily. But in choosing the origin of the state as the cut-off point, he (and Pinker in his wake) miss the vital complexities that differentiate pre-state cultures. Pinker thinks that “for the purpose of testing a specific hypothesis, say, whether government reduces violence, it doesn’t matter whether they’re literally hunter-gatherers.” This is an inheritance of Hobbes’ obsession with the Leviathan, the state, and of the propensity for blinkeredness of scientific method. Pinker’s got his hypothesis, and factors irrelevant to it are chiseled off to make things manageable. He doesn’t care that the Yanomami are horticulturalists; as long as there’s no state, they’re taken as representative of all pre-state societies. This is nonsense, and makes for terrible science.
In fact, Chagnon goes on to make it clear exactly why the specific scale and structure of Yanomami society is relevant to their levels of violence:
They don’t like to fight, actually. They prefer to be friendly, amicable, and live life in harmony. But they’re caught in a conundrum of the following sort. The only way you can live that nice happy free life is if you’re in a small community, like 25 people, most of whom are children. So everything is happy and friendly. People get along with each other. But a village of 25 people is extremely vulnerable to raids from the outside, and the men will come in and steal the women, and send the men packing, or shoot the men and take the women. So they’re constantly being pressured to maximize the size of their village. And as you increase the number of people in the village, you get increasing amounts of conflict.
The question I always ask in all villages, why did such and such a group fission away from such and such a group? And occasionally they’ll say, “We’ve just got so damn many people that we’re on each other’s nerves all the time, so we just split apart.” But when the intensity of warfare is high, it would be really hazardous to split apart. And what I often found is, you know, the garden that might be 20 acres large, this is a big garden, and a fight might occur in the village that might be 200 people, and instead of picking up and moving the next valley over, they can’t, because they’re too dependent on their gardens.
So much for the supposed irrelevance of the Yanomami not being just hunter-gatherers! What we see among these people is more like the edge of the tragic consequences of agriculture than any guide to the pre-agricultural world.
In the Edge.org conversation Pinker makes much of Chagnon getting dirty in the field, picturing those critical of his views as cloistered lefty academics. But Chagnon’s immersion in the tangible realities of the Yanomami, according to Pinker’s own arguments in Better Angels, can be a distorting factor. The Yanomami are specific—not typical in any way of modern tribes, certainly not especially representative of archaic cultures. Immersion in fieldwork is essential for documenting specifics, but when it comes to generalizing to other times and cultures, the “god’s eye view” of dispassionate rationality is valuable. Is it just bemusing irony that Pinker loses his grip on the tool that he praises most highly in this way, lapping up Chagnon’s contested work and ignoring the wider-ranging surveys of people like R. Brian Ferguson and Raymond Kelly? Or is this simply a demonstration that, for all Pinker’s dismissal of anyone he deems as having an “ideological axe to grind”, he himself, of course, is grinding happily away? His valuation of Chagnon’s gritty fieldwork over the careful research of others seems to resonate with his championing of the values of the common businessman over the supposedly out-of-touch anti-capitalist academics. There’s a valid argument there. But the way Pinker wields it seems off, a member of the Ivy League elite giving himself a bit of the common touch in order to bolster (unwittingly or not) the contemporary status quo of state-enabled corporatism.
Pinker is aware that his narrative has an air of whiggishness, of the inevitability of progress. As a scientist, he tries to distance himself from this. In the final pages he admits that he is more grateful than optimistic when he looks at his research, happy to live at a time when violence seems to be declining (and when what violence there is is relegated to those less privileged than himself) but aware that no secure predictions about the future are possible. Nevertheless, he takes some time to dismiss several causes for seeing our current “peace” as fragile. He reasons away the threat of nuclear weapons, and (rightly) exposes the way in which the threat of terrorism is exaggerated. He spends a couple of pages dismissing the magnitude of the threat posed by climate change, and side-steps the perils of diminishing resources with some unconvincing theories that people don’t really fight over such things. In all, the way in which he treats the sources of potential violent conflict in the future tallies with the way in which he glosses over the complexities of prehistory to secure a kind of neo-Victorian view of us having emerged from primeval savagery: both of these aspects of the book testify to hidden biases actively shaping his supposedly neutral science.
The book is, of course, way too long. And when you’ve read over 700 pages, there’s 100 left to go, and you’re being told how “people in a society might boost their self-control … by improving their nutrition, sobriety, and health”, you question deeply why you’re still reading the damn thing and not getting pissed down the pub. Still, it’s written well enough to keep the task of reading it gliding along most of the time. And while there are real problems with his thinking and his thesis, his work demands to be given a hearing. It is right there at the heart of contemporary efforts to validate modernity, all tangled up with wonderful intentions, genuine progress, “post-ideological” partiality, and the seductive power of the reign of quantity.
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