Rational optimist or scientific racist?

By Razib Khan | September 18, 2011 5:29 pm

I’m quite looking forward to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It’s coming out in three weeks, so expect to hear a lot more about it. That violence has declined is known outside of Pinker’s own work, and I try and spread this “good news” as much as I can. But I’ve always found it peculiar that some of the most pessimistic and skeptical individuals in regards to these data aren’t reactionaries pining for the ancient idyll, but self-styled progressives who seem to believe that we are fallen creatures. Many of the latter are clearly modern followers of Rousseau, previously discussed in The Blank Slate.

In any case, Jerry Coyne points me to a really strange aside in a review of Pinker’s book in The Guardian:

To be tagged as a credulous optimist is one thing, yet Pinker also risks being condemned as a scientific racist. His graphs on the incidence of murder show present-day tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures to be far more homicidal than even the most lethally armed developed nation, a fact that is bound to bring censure from those Pinker derides as the “anthropologists of peace”

If the reviewer is characterizing these “anthropologists of peace” correctly perhaps it’s a commentary on what modern anthropology has become. I’ll leave you with some charts….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History
MORE ABOUT: History
  • Kiwiguy

    ***violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages….To be tagged as a credulous optimist is one thing, yet Pinker also risks being condemned as a scientific racist. His graphs on the incidence of murder show present-day tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures to be far more homicidal than even the most lethally armed developed nation, a fact that is bound to bring censure from those Pinker derides as the “anthropologists of peace”***

    I wonder what the reviewer would say about Greg Clark?

    http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2010/07/social-darwinism-21st-century-edition.html

  • Darkseid
  • http://apesinelysium.blogspot.com/ Primateus

    Anyone who attempts to contrue Pinker as racist is truly an egregiously idiotic and mentally stunted person. But someone will try! By God do they love to try to get offended.

  • omar

    We need some more cross fertilization between blogs like this one and a more typical liberal blog like this one: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/09/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-the-decline-of-violence-in-history-and-its-causes.html

  • Grey

    “we1″ (the morally superior subset of “we”) saying they think “we2″ (the morally inferior subset of “we”) are worse in every way than “them” makes we1 feel morally superior.

  • miko

    Wait…isn’t pinker saying that those societies are more violent for environmental/social reasons? Isn’t that, like, the opposite of racism?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #6, kind of what i thought. but hey, i’m just a humble brown guy.

  • RafeK

    Does pinker propose the reason for the decline in violence are primarily enviromental/social? I think the greg clark model of selection for those traits resulting most likely in biological as well as cultural adaption is more likely. I will have to pick up the book.

  • gcochran

    I am sure that Pinker knows what the heritability of adult IQ is (in typical modern circumstances), and he most likely knows the correlation between brain size and IQ ( around 0.4). He knows that between-family effects (the way in which a child is raised) don’t have much effect on adult IQ. He might know the world pattern of average IQ (which varies by about three standard deviations, high to low), and certainly knows some of it. He knows enough quantitative genetics to see that selection could easily change a highly heritable trait (like IQ or height) in as little as a thousand years. I wouldn’t guarantee that he knows the population differences in average brain size (more than two standard deviations, high to low), but he might – and I ‘d wager that he understands that cranial capacity, and nowadays brain volume ( with MRI) are easy to measure.

    But he’s not a scientific racist. They’re bald, I think.

  • Charles Nydorf

    Unfairly calling Pinker a racist is only part of the problem with this review. It is generally unbalanced and invidious.

  • Kirk

    This is not exactly old news since it’s about ongoing trends. But William Golding wrote a piece of juvenile fiction about this that every high school freshman reads for Zeus’s sake. This is species-ism not racism.

  • Clark

    If the reviewer is characterizing these “anthropologists of peace” correctly perhaps it’s a commentary on what modern anthropology has become.

    Hasn’t anthro always been a bit problematic in this regard? The philosophical underpinnings tend to lead to some odd incentives for ways of understanding. A lot of it though seems to more arise out of the basic framework from sociology in general. (I tend to see anthro as a subset of sociology) That is a certain kind of egalitarian dream where equality is the aim and which underlies in subtle ways a lot of theory-making. Not that this ought be bad, but when applied to groups it often leads to some really ridiculous thinking that I think Pinker and others are right to call out.

    All that said, while I loved The Blank Slate as convincing as he is in the big picture in the small picture he’s often anything but. Every thing he attacked that I had more than a passing familiarity with he seemed to misrepresent. That is he fundamentally got wrong the arguments such groups were making, often transforming them in to a naive and simplistic relativism when they really weren’t. That makes me rather suspicious that he’s doing the same thing in all the attacks on groups I don’t understand well. Put an other way, I think he’s often attacking superficial group-think by “intellectuals” with only slight familiarity with an idea. Of course that’s often the case with a lot of people in the humanities – they read a little populist treatment of science and think they understand it. But it seems unfair to paint people attempting these things with the brush of supposed devotees who often don’t understand the work.

    That’s not to say that one can’t make real attacks on sociology, anthropology, feminism, Continental philosophy or so forth. Just that the kinds of attacks one makes ought be much more sophisticated and grapple with what the main figures actually mean and not over generalize.

    Kiwiguy, I’ve often wondered how much selection actually does have to do with the changes in broad human behavior. I suspect there is some for the reasons the link you gave suggest. However since most of the really big changes have taken place the last two centuries I’m much more inclined to think that it has more to do with the conditions under which we are raised in our early years (which may of course change how the brain actually develops — look at the difference between those raised under trauma such as in war conditions versus those who aren’t). To me I think the biggest effect on violence ends up being civil engineering projects like good sewage treatment, good transportation systems etc. It’s an indirect effect but I’d lay good odds swamps any other effect. (This should be easy to test of course by just looking at the effects as 3rd world countries modernize)

    I’m really curious as to how Pinker engages with this.

  • marcel

    @ Clark: “To me I think the biggest effect on violence ends up being civil engineering projects like good sewage treatment, good transportation systems etc. It’s an indirect effect but I’d lay good odds swamps any other effect. ”

    Don’t overlook the introduction and subsequent removal of lead from (1st) paint and (then) gasoline in modifying patterns of violence in modern societies.

  • 5371

    Cochran, if you think a process that in England was mostly completed in a couple of generations (second half of 17th century) could have been caused by genetic change, you should do some more reading or thinking.

  • http://westhunt.wordpress.com Henry Harpending

    A strong and heartless police presence helps too. An excellent essay about this topic in the context of the Roman Empire is

    Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389, http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08376389.pdf

  • http://changelog.ca/ Charles Iliya Krempeaux

    @gcochran said,

    he most likely knows the correlation between brain size and IQ ( around 0.4).

    Although there is a correlation between brain size and IQ[1] I thought that the main result of brain growth is not higher IQ[2] but something else? (Perhaps something I’ve seen labelled “expertise capacity”, which IQ doesn’t measure.)

    [1] http://changelog.ca/quote/2011/08/01/iq_and_brain_size
    [2] http://changelog.ca/quote/2011/06/22/brain_growth_cortical_columns_iq_and_an_unknown_enhancement_of_mental_capacity

  • http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/ nooffensebut

    The “optimist” label is more unfair because these societal changes might be accentuating the heritability of violence variance that biosocial criminology is uncovering and leading to diminishing returns, unless new therapies materialize.

  • Selphin

    I’m an anthropologist, and I don’t think Pinker is a racist. It’s hard to have a definitive opinion without reading the book, but I think you’ll find most social scientists will simply say his ideas are ‘problematic’.

    Anthropologists are trained to smash broad essentialisations (eg, tribal people are violent) and emphasise the wide variation in human cultural behavior. ‘Tribal’ people (presumably, I’m not clear as to how he’s employing the term) encompass an extraordinary range of societies. Some extremely violent, others extremely passive.

  • observer

    It may seem baffling that anybody might think of Pinker’s point as being “scientific racism” when he would seem (at least presumably, given many of the short periods of time in transition from grossly violent to relatively peaceful within the same population group) to be attributing the difference in levels of violence mostly to environmental factors.

    Yet the “racism” charge derives from the incompatibility of Pinker’s views with other dogma as firmly held among the self-styled “anti-racists” in the social sciences and the humanities. It is quite critical to their agenda that the more primitive people that were conquered or pushed aside by Europeans or their stock be portrayed as terribly victimized by the Europeans. Nothing could be worse for their agenda than that the Europeans, in fact, and by scientific evidence, be demonstrated to have enabled these people (or at least their survivors) to lead better lives. Nothing could muddy the only acceptable moral lesson — that Europeans imposed a great and nearly pure evil on innocent and contented peoples — more grievously.

    And it is the moral lesson that rules these social sciences.

  • Kiwiguy

    ***Tribal’ people (presumably, I’m not clear as to how he’s employing the term) encompass an extraordinary range of societies. Some extremely violent, others extremely passive.***

    Indeed, I wonder if Pinker discusses Cad/Dad societies?

    “The archetypes in the literature of anthropology of dad hunter-gatherers are !Kung Bushmen of southern Africa; the archetypes of labor intensive farmers are east Asians; and the archetypes of local anarchy are Indians of lowland South America like the Yanomamo. It is probably no accident that two of the best known ethnographies of the twentieth century are titled “The Harmless People,” about the !Kung who have few or no 7R alleles, and “The Fierce People,” about the Yanomamo with a high frequency of 7R.”

    http://www.pnas.org/content/99/1/10.full

  • Grey

    “To me I think the biggest effect on violence ends up being civil engineering projects like good sewage treatment, good transportation systems etc. It’s an indirect effect but I’d lay good odds swamps any other effect.”

    Easily tested by moving a load of Japanese to a swamp somewhere. No doubt they’d immediately start slaughtering each other.

    .
    “if you think a process that in England was mostly completed in a couple of
    generations (second half of 17th century) could have been caused by genetic
    change”

    Transportation. Natural selection on speed.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    Good book. I’m about 60% through.

  • DK

    Easily tested by moving a load of Japanese to a swamp somewhere. No doubt they’d immediately start slaughtering each other.

    There are a lot of Japanese in Brazil. Is their violence more on the order of Japanese in Japan or an more like an average that exists in Brazil? I’d bet the former.

  • http://www.jack-donovan.com/axis/ Jack Donovan

    Echoing what Henry Harpending said above, I’m curious to see how Pinker handles what I see as the simplest answer to the “why we are less violent” question–the Leviathan. Modern society is CSI society.

    Are we less violent due to “better angels” or simply due to more effective police, modern crime detection techniques, penalties for violence from schoolyard to grave, a world where your record follows you everywhere, and a very large portion of the population locked behind bars? Is it something good about our nature, or just good old fashioned iron-fisted rule by fear with a therapeutic, nicey-nice spin on it?

    I really enjoyed The Blank Slate and refer people to it often, but the whole “better angels” spin on this sounds like an aging man who wants to please the mainstream with something that sounds pleasant and Depak Chopra-esque.

  • ackbark

    Perhaps it’s a decline in the social cachet of honor-based societies as life becomes more urbanized around the world?

  • Clark

    Jack, if it’s the CSI effect wouldn’t you expect more violence per capita in places with poor police forces? I don’t think we see that.

  • Jack Donovan

    What information could you possibly be referring to, Clark?

    This link came immediately to mind.

    http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/world/2011/09/14/romo-mexico-hangings.cnn

    Mexico, the entire continent of Africa…

    Further, can information from these places even be considered reliable?

    What’s the likelihood of someone in America filing an official police report concerning violence vs. someone in Africa or Mexico?

    A friend of mine who lived in Mexico City as a young person told me that it was fairly common to hand police cash for auto violations, etc. What else do people hand police cash for?

    It seems to me that catalogs of data would be influenced by the amount of bureaucrats paid to track said data. There are a lot of people in America whose livelihoods depend on securing funding for projects by producing evidence of a problem that their agency/program can be charged with “improving.”

  • Chris T

    I would expect social and economic integration explains the long term trend well enough. As we have become more dependent on a larger and larger network of people for wealth, the cost of violence rises.

    For a person with little dependence on others for their wealth, violence carries very little cost. This is true of societies as well.

  • Clark

    Jack I’d prefer something more where other variables are kept equal. There’s so much going on in differing countries (especially culturally) that I’m not sure you can tease out a CSI effect in any meaningful way.

    I was more thinking of say rural vs. urban parts of the United States adjusting for age and income.

    The problem with Mexico is that the police are corrupt. So the issue is less their capabilities than the very aims of the police. Contrast this with two areas of the US where the police are reasonably free of corruption. (There may be outliers like LA, Chicago, etc.) Then look at police departments with good CSI type investigative capabilities versus say a more poorly funded rural police force which just doesn’t have the investigative capabilities.

    I don’t deny that police corruption is a huge issue for violence. But it’s not really a CSI effect.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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