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Historians in Darker Angels of our Nature deliver a devastating debunking to Steven Pinker’s liberal imperialist theory of violence in history, finds Dominic Alexander

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The Darker Angels of our Nature: Refuting the Pinker Theory of History and Violence, eds. Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale (Bloomsbury 2021), xv, 393pp.

There is a long pedigree for claims that capitalism brings about the end of wars, as trade inevitably means interconnection and mutual advantage. One of the most famous of these arguments was made by Norman Angell in The Great Illusion, who said that a general European war would be too destructive to begin, or to last long if it did. Angell published his book in 1909, and it would be many decades before the proposition could be taken up once more.

In 2011, Steven Pinker became the latest purveyor of a version of the theory, with The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, and two further books, which have continued some of the themes of the original. For Pinker, the present is the least violent period of humanity’s history, following a long-term trend of decline in the magnitude of war and violence, particularly since the European Enlightenment. In Pinker’s view, ‘reason’ and its associated values, linked to the pacific impact of capitalist trade on the world, has made the present the best of all hitherto existing worlds.

This book was received with enthusiasm in certain quarters, and indeed it was a huge bestseller, despite its length, but to others there were many obvious problems with the whole project, from its basic conceptions to Pinker’s approach to evidence. There have been some good, trenchant critiques of the book, but The Darker Angels of our Nature, a comprehensive analysis by a range of historians, is a very welcome addition. The chapters cover the range of periods and problems that Pinker considers, or doesn’t, with a focus on his use and understanding of historical evidence. It adds up to a demolition of the argument’s viability, while revealing its highly ideological nature.

All this is extremely important to establish, since the book, and those that followed, have received considerable positive, sometimes adulatory receptions in the mainstream press. This was the case even in The Guardian, where you might expect more critical caution; but then, it is an essentially liberal argument, and clearly appeals to that sort of liberal who loathes the left. Reviewers seem to have been impressed by the mass of material, and Pinker’s use of statistics to make his case, but these turn out not to be all they appear.i Pinker himself dismisses the objections of humanities scholars as coming from people who don’t understand science, and in fact have been engaged in ‘“a demonization campaign” against science, reason and Enlightenment values’ (p.309).

Debunking the statistics

It would be one thing if this all came down to a fight between the humanities disciplines and scientists, but some statisticians in 2016 had some interesting things to say about Pinker’s scientific procedures:

‘at the core, Pinker’s severe mistake is one of standard naive empiricism – basically mistaking data (actually absence of data) for evidence and building his theory of why violence has dropped without even ascertaining whether violence did indeed drop. This is not to say that Pinker’s socio-psychological theories can’t be right: they are just not sufficiently connected to data to start remotely looking like science. Fundamentally, statistics is about ensuring people do not build scientific theories from hot air, that is without significant departure from random. Otherwise, it is patently “fooled by randomness”.’ii

These scientists also object at one point that ‘the way in which he [Pinker] reads and interprets the results of scholars like Richardson reveals an attempt of bending empirical evidence to his own theory.’iii This study not only eviscerates Pinker’s statistical pretensions, but also raises questions about his scholarly capabilities in a way that echo quite strongly the objections of many of the contributors to The Darker Angels of our Nature.

The past: red in tooth and claw

On his account of the Middle Ages in Europe, one contributor concludes that he ‘is wrong about the facts he has presented … This inattentiveness to the rules for assembling and citing evidence is troubling in a work that otherwise extols the virtues of Western reasoning’ (p.32). As a telling example of the many quite shocking errors that the contributors found in Better Angels, Pinker claimed an erroneously high number of deaths due to the Spanish Inquisition, while actually citing the book which disproves his statistic; ‘This is an old, transparent tactic: dramatize your point … even if that requires parody, simplification or distortion’ (p.9). In fact, for Pinker’s ‘hyperviolent’ Middle Ages, he relies heavily on two non-academic, sensationalist books: ‘He is eager to tell his audience a shocking story’ (p.126).

The earlier periods are in fact very important to Pinker’s argument as he requires humanity to have been as brutal and violent as possible, in order for the modern period to show a clear improvement. He assumes that the emergence of states entails a structural decrease in the prevalence of violence compared to non-state societies (p.35). In fact, his basic assumptions are drawn from the seventeenth-century English apologist for the absolutist monarchy, Hobbes, who famously declared that in the ‘state of nature’ life was lived in ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ This thus required an all-powerful state, the ‘Leviathan’, to enforce law and create civil society. Despite Pinker’s claim that he is arguing that human nature is not inherently violent, it is precisely this picture of human conduct in the absence of a coercive state that he relies upon for his argument (p.24, p.35). He even explicitly praises ‘Leviathan’ in chapter two of the book (p.32).

This all rests, then, on whether pre-state societies can in fact be characterised by the Hobbesian conceit. Pinker certainly thinks so, claiming extremely high rates for interpersonal violence in hunter-gatherer societies, but, as has to be pointed out very many times by the authors in Darker Angels, this is based on a very partial selection of evidence, with no serious questioning of the nature of the data. One study from a graveyard in Denmark, for example, cannot be taken to represent the whole of northern Europe, and is a highly problematic comparison to use across the palaeolithic period generally (p.111). Much depends upon the inevitable vagaries of archaeological discovery, so that for prehistoric Japan, for example, the more that has been found, the lower the rate of violence overall appears to be (p.180). Pinker ignores a whole body of specialist opinion that warfare was not at all ubiquitous in prehistory, and is something that emerged only gradually in the course of economic development (p.44).

One major problem with the archaeological evidence that Pinker fails to consider is whether violence varied very greatly with different ecological and social contexts. As a result, even if the evidence were to support a high level of violence in early periods, this on its own would not support his case for the causes of a decrease in violence in modernity, as he seems to think it does. Nonetheless, his ‘data’ are compromised by his ‘illiteracy when it comes to reading and understanding the prehistoric record’ (p.118).

Colonialist evidence and outlook

His discussion of non-state societies generally is further undermined by his dependence on figures from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which ‘all represent societies profoundly affected by contacts with state societies’ (p.44). He consistently breaks the well understood rule that you cannot assume present-day hunter-gatherer groups to represent the reality of such societies in pre-history. All of those known today have suffered the impact of colonialism one way or another, and their levels of violence represent precisely the effect modern Europe, its trade and its ideologies, has had on the world. However, Pinker represents exactly that tradition of liberal imperialism which saw itself as bringing civilisation to its inferiors. In consequence, he is uncritical about his sources that attribute cultures of atrocity to others, while consistently minimising and downplaying the violence perpetrated by modern Western civilisation.

This attitude is thrown backward into the European past, as well, as can be seen in his portrayal of medieval Europe, which was little more than an age of sadism in his depiction. Of course, there was plenty of violence in the period, but medieval people were as concerned about such things as anyone else. Pinker, however, has no grasp of the difficulties of assembling statistics from the available medieval sources, which tended to exaggerate numbers to unfeasible levels, particularly in such shocking contexts as mass violence. Even where court records provide some apparently more concrete data, Pinker is just unaware of the pitfalls, and the extensive methodological debates within the field (p.130).

Pinker’s understanding of medieval history is, at best, drawn from a very old historiographical model where it was a time of relentless tyranny based on crazed superstition. This is a caricature which once had some historical relevance, in the time of bourgeois revolution against the early modern absolutist state. Yet, this lazy impression betrays his own argument. He relies on the idea that more complex societies, those with coercive states, reduce the prevalence of violence. In the case of the European Middle Ages, the reverse is far more likely to be the case. The hideous tortures and executions, of which he makes so much, are precisely the product of kings attempting to build states with a monopoly of violence. Violence was being perpetuated by the pretension to Leviathan, not being reduced by it.

This process began gradually from the twelfth century, but starts reaching a more intense pitch from the thirteenth century onwards. The more capacity medieval monarchies had, the more they used such terrors as public executions to make up for their relative weakness. There is in fact a reversal of violence that occurs during the Middle Ages that is revealed by the patterns of witch persecution. For most of the medieval period, the Church attempted to suppress any belief that devils, and hence witches, could cause any physical harm. It was only when rulers began to realise that it could be used as a weapon for the creation of state power that they began to endorse and encourage the executions of witches. Most of these horrors, which are commonly assumed to be associated with medieval superstition, are really the result of the growth of the ‘rational’ bureaucratic state in the early modern period. Pinker’s whole trajectory is upended here, if he would only care to read some modern research.

Imperialist apologist

Perhaps one of the most offensive claims that Pinker makes comes out of the notion that ‘the Enlightenment’ led the way in turning Western cultures, and subsequently the world, against public corporal and capital punishment, and slavery. The new ‘ideology’ of ‘humanism’ meant that ‘people … lost their thirst for cruelty’ and people ‘began to sympathize [original emphasis] with more of their fellow humans, and were no longer indifferent to their suffering.’iv Pinker shows little first-hand knowledge of the relevant writers, who did not form a coherent body of thought as he supposes, ignores the fact that some defended slavery, and further, that the right of the state to execute people publicly ‘was never really questioned by Enlightenment thinkers’ (p.150). Indeed, in Britain, the rate of executions continued to rise during and after the ‘Enlightenment’, while public executions continued until 1868, not 1783, as Pinker erroneously claims (p.151).

It is very difficult to see the age of settler colonialism, the height of the slave trade, and early industrialisation as a time of decreasing violence, but Pinker’s very narrow focus on what constitutes violence allows him not to see deaths by dispossession, overwork, and poverty. As Michael Wert puts it here, in the context of the impact of capitalism on Japan, ‘structural “gentle commerce” is always ungentle for someone else’ (p.188). If the late eighteenth century did see a rise in movements that could be seen as demanding human rights, the most important of these did not come from elite thinkers in the West, but from slaves, the Black Jacobins of Haiti, without whose revolution, it is unlikely that slavery would have been abolished elsewhere during the decades afterwards.

Pinker’s coverage of the modern period appears as little more than a disingenuous apology for colonialism and imperialism. Outlining the true nature of colonial violence against Native Americans ‘arguably’, for another contributor, ‘is sufficient to pull the rug out from under Pinker’s larger narrative, not least because of its connection to colonialism and neo-colonialism by the West, and the centrality of the West’s triumph to Pinker’s world view’ (p.234).

He effectively excuses colonialist violence by depicting the societies they destroyed as more violent than that of European settlers, but this characterisation relies on wholly discredited sources that were, in fact, imperialist propaganda efforts. Naturally, the Aztecs take up a large part of case: ‘they are depicted as among history’s most extreme devotees of torture and sadistic violence, often with reference to alleged data that are wrong to absurd degrees.’ The picture Pinker gives of this civilisation is one that ‘no scholar of the Aztecs believes … nowadays, and very few ever have’ (p.225). His evidence for the violence of other pre-colonial American societies is similarly based on colonial propaganda.

When it comes to the British Empire specifically, there are huge lacunae in his coverage. His trumpeting of the new age of humanitarianism after the Second World War fails entirely to register a range of imperialist crimes, not least the grotesque tortures and killings of the Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950s. Caroline Elkins, in a chapter on British imperialism in the Middle East, makes a point of showing how Pinker ought to have been aware of the distance between post-war British governments’ moral façade and the reality. In the end, however, Pinker wants to close his eyes to the fact that ‘liberal imperialism, or the twinned birthing of liberalism and imperialism in the nineteenth century gave rise to liberal authoritarianism.’ This complex produced legal structures and military doctrines which enabled ‘systemized violence’ across various theatres, to the point that in the late 1940s and 1950s, this was deployed on ‘a massive scale’ seeing the use of ‘detention without trial, torture, forced labour and starvation’ as ‘routine tactics’ (p.201). This is what imperialist liberal humanism amounts to in practice.

Pinker himself, perhaps in subconscious deflection against what he has omitted, makes the blatantly chauvinist observation that the absence of certain norms of behaviour ‘may explain why today it is so hard to impose liberal democracy on countries in the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords, and feudal tribes’ (p.303, emphases added by Susan K. Morrissey in Darker Angels). It’s hard to imagine a more unreconstructed statement of the worst attitudes found in nineteenth-century liberal imperialism than this.

Structural violence and social murder

The answer, of course, to Pinker’s colonialism is to uncover the web of structural causation behind violence in the contemporary era, such as ‘racism, systematic economic exploitation, resource extraction, the international military industrial complex, active support for repressive governments and extensive military intervention and war making’ (p.303).

Pinker’s focus on mainly Western states and history, and his narrowly defined parameters for understanding violence, are the twin methodological blinkers which allow him to see a decline in violence linked to liberal ideas and capitalist economics. Yet structural violence is very real indeed: ‘when the poor die, those deaths add nothing to the body counts in Pinker’s tables, because the violence involved, such as malnutrition and displacement, is invisible to a definition of violence that has been arbitrarily restricted to war and criminality’ (p.35).

Pinker effectively denies the very real existence of what Engels called ‘social murder’. The industrial revolution in the West was nothing if not a violent process in the lives of the workers in mines and factories there, not to mention the dependency of development on the slave trade, its profits and its products. Moreover, these restrictions to Pinker’s outlook shields him from having to take into account the real impact of structural racism in the US, or elsewhere in the West, in recent decades (see pp.255-65 in particular).

Pinker sells his book as ‘exploding myths’ and being a ‘counter-intuitive’ argument against violence being inherent to human nature, yet his thesis is actually based on ideological fallacies that have long since been discredited. It is perhaps for this very reason that he systematically avoids serious engagement with any of the historical fields he is discussing. Rather than being in any way iconoclastic in his wielding of a supposed ‘scientific reason’, his lengthy tract serves instead as reassuring confirmation to a broad audience of right-wing liberals that their world view is the best and only one possible. This is why it received such a warm welcome in the media, and sold widely; it is not against the establishment, it is the establishment.

Darker Angels is not just an efficient and revealing demolition of Pinker’s scholarship and argument, but a valuable contribution in itself to a debate about violence in history, and what we can know about it. It reveals that a more nuanced understanding is possible of how and why violence arises in societies, and why its rate might rise and fall. A mature view would involve recognising the systemic violence needed to maintain states and international systems of political and economic power. It would neither demonise nor idealise hunter-gatherer societies, or other social systems, but would take seriously how ecological, economic and social conditions give rise to different ranges of human conduct, for good and ill. In the wider frame this would allow, it would be clear that humanity makes its own history, but not under the conditions it would choose. Rather than being beneficently imposed by a paternalistic elite, freedom from violence is something that the great majority of people in this world have to struggle to obtain against ruthless overlords.

 

i Tellingly, within the Guardian, a seriously critical look at the quality of Pinker’s research, for the series of books referred to here, only comes from George Monbiot, whose specialist knowledge reveals the highly dubious basis for the claims Pinker makes about environmental issues in the follow up to Better Angels, Enlightenment Now (2018). Even here, Monbiot felt the need to preface his objections with the comment that, ‘I am broadly sympathetic to his worldview. I agree with him that scientific knowledge is a moral imperative, and that we must use it to enhance human welfare. Like him, I’m enthusiastic about technologies that horrify other people, such as fourth-generation nuclear reactors and artificial meat.’

ii Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, ‘The Decline of Violent Conflicts: What Do The Data Really Say?’, Nobel Foundation Symposium 161: The Causes of Peace, p.6. See also, p.22, ‘Figure 9: Violence drop since 1945. Divergence from the process to call it a “trend” is patently not statistically significant, .37% of a standard deviation away. No scientist builds a theory from .37 standard deviations.’

iii Ibid. p.5.

iv Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (2011), pp.133-4.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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