But peace does reign!

By Razib Khan | October 8, 2011 8:12 pm

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is finally out. I can’t read it in the near future because of time constraint, but I’m heartened that a public intellectual of Steven Pinker’s stature is finally making people more aware of the fact that in some ways the world is better than it has ever been! This being Pinker the media has responded in force. Peter Singer has given it a thumbs up in The New York Times, as you’d expect. But John Gray has one of the more disgusting responses I’ve seen in The Prospect, Delusions of peace: Stephen Pinker argues that we are becoming less violent. Nonsense, says John Gray. The comments notice what I did: Gray’s attack on Pinker is rhetorical sophistry, making no pretense at engaging the data which Pinker reports. This is particularly interesting coming from me because in terms of political philosophy I share many sympathies with Gray. I worry a great deal that the progressive liberal Whig moment in human history is a transient, and that the medium term future may be less than cheery. Nor do I have much faith in a utopian “End of History.” But whatever my concerns about the present and future are, they need to engage what we know about reality. That is one reason I revel in data and analysis which go against my intuition and falsify my own preconceptions.

The data that Pinker reports on the decline of violence are real, and responding to it by citing a handful of horrible genocides and sneering elegantly are low tactics which degrade intellectual discourse. Pessimism can’t be based on sentiment alone, one has to draw upon facts and robust theory. If those of us who who are wary of an arrow of history have only bluster and rhetoric, then the prophets of progress have won the day.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
  • Garx

    I too value truth. That’s why I like your blog.

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

    #1, you aren’t a spam commenter, are you? so nice and complimentary ….

  • Sandgroper

    I too value truth. That’s why I like your blog.

  • Sandgroper

    Actually, all of the criticisms I have seen and heard of Steve Pinker’s thesis are of the ‘never mind what the data actually show in terms of individual risk, what about the Nazis as proof of the unchanging inherent evil nature of man?’ variety.

    People’s thinking is driven by scale effects – one event that kills 10 people is much less tolerable than 10 events that kill one person each, even though the frequency is much lower and the outcome is the same. Factor in a higher total population at risk and better dissemination of information with time, and I think that goes some way to explaining it.

  • mark

    From my observations and studies I get the sense that some people, including academics, want to emphasize the idea of violence in history. I suspect this helps create the assumption that violence is necessary for political change. I consider there is ample evidence that this assumption is not correct. A focus on violence, often masquerading as historical scholarship or social commentary, is something to watch out for.

  • Justin Giancola

    I too value truth. That’s why I like your blog.

    (This should be a re-occurring catchphrase…or better yet an option to click in the share/like section!)

  • Gunnar

    I don’t value truth.

    (That was a lie)

  • Onur

    What is truth?

    (The never antiquating question)

  • Charles Nydorf

    The idea that humans are intrinsically fallen is religious in origin and people who hold onto it firmly are generally motivated by religious faith.

  • Grey

    “The idea that humans are intrinsically fallen is religious in origin”

    So male stags headbutt each other during the rutting season because they’re religious?

    This book will be like “The End of History,” written just before everything goes into reverse.@@@

  • Sandgroper

    Modern humans are notably not very sexually dimorphic.

  • Grey

    Messed up first comment.

    @@@

    “The idea that humans are intrinsically fallen is religious in origin”

    So male stags headbutt each other during the rutting season because they’re religious?

    @@@

    I think his first trend is true – violence has been partly bred out of populations with the transition from hunter-gather to urbanized living proportional to how long those populations have been urbanized – although what happens when the US can no longer afford all those prisons?

    I think his second trend is the same as the first. It was clans, tribes, city-states and nation-states gradually extending the claim to a monopoly of internal violence that led to the violent hunter-gatherer traits being bred out through cultural and criminal sanction.

    However the rest is conditional on the mixture of emulation of and coercion from western hegemony which is collapsing as we speak. The inability of the USA to fund their military hegemony will lead to a massive buildup of national military power across the globe to fill the void. Enlightenment values will retreat when the emulation factor is reduced and there’s no western money pushing them.

    This book will be like “The End of History,” written just before everything goes into reverse.

  • Grey

    “Modern humans are notably not very sexually dimorphic.”

    Academics, maybe. The modern humans i deal with every day are very sexually dimorphic and the young stags butt heads every day.

    Either way it doesn’t change the point. Logically either humans are inherently violent and external forces make them less so or they’re inherently peaceful and external forces make them violent. The concept of being “fallen” only makes sense if applied to the first case.

    A theory that violent traits were adaptive for hunter-gatherers and the frequency of those traits has been progressively reduced over time among urbanized populations through cultural pressure has nothing to do with religion.

  • toto

    with the transition from hunter-gather to urbanized living proportional to how long those populations have been urbanized

    Er… The first cities were in the Near East, right?

  • Sandgroper

    “The modern humans i deal with every day are very sexually dimorphic” – do you want to give some numbers on that, or will we just get on with making stuff up?

  • Ferris Jabr

    I really liked a point Elizabeth Kolbert made in the New Yorker about how Pinker interprets some of the data he relies on:

    “As a proportion of global population, the casualties of the Second World War, he maintains, are easily outdone by other, less well remembered bloodbaths, including the battles leading up to and following the fall of Rome, the Mongol conquests and the campaigns of Timur Lenk, otherwise known as Tamerlane. Pinker’s math here is, at best, fishy. According to his own calculations, the Second World War was, proportionally speaking, the ninth-deadliest conflict of all time — in absolute terms, it was far and away the deadliest — yet the war lasted just six years. The Arab slave trade, which ranks as No. 3 on Pinker’s hit list, was an atrocity that too more than a millennium to unfold. The Mongol conquests, coming in at No. 2, spanned nearly a century.

    But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we accept that the Second World War was only the ninth-bloodiest conflict in the history of our species, and the First World War the sixteenth. Isn’t this still a problem? The heart of Pinker’s argument is that the trends and historical forces associated with modernity have steadily diminished violence. Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out-fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count.”

  • Terry

    @Grey
    >although what happens when the US can no longer afford all those prisons?
    I’d wager America would be a more peaceful nation. The rest of the developed world experiences less criminal violence despite soft-on-crime policies. If anything it could be argued that rotating a large fraction of your population though the prison system creates considerable social disruption, which fuels more crime.

  • Sandgroper

    #16 – No, that’s the effect I’m talking about at #4. Kolbert is hand-wringing.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Terry, the increase in the prison population occurred after a large rise in crime. In fact, there was a decrease in the arrest & conviction rate in the 60s coinciding with legal changes restricting the police, and those were popularly blamed for the increase in crime. This makes for a lot of resistance to any policy that seems like it’s going back to the “soft-on-crime” years. And from what I’ve heard the violent crime rate in America isn’t that much worse from many comparable nations, but the homicide rate is higher. This is often attributed to the use of guns rather than, say, knives, in violent crimes. I would say that America is simply different in a number of ways that make it hard to attribute crime differences to prison sizes. African Americans are the most disproportionately incarcerated group in the U.S, but the incarceration rate of blacks in England & Wales is apparently about the same:
    http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/3/3/5/5/p33558_index.html
    That being said, I agree the number of imprisoned is far too high and there can certainly be diminishing returns. The best take I’ve heard on this issue is Mark Kleiman’s “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment”.

  • http://www.usmc.org/7th/ Mustapha Mond

    You people all need to be taking your soma tablets on a regular basis and watching a little more network TV wouldn’t hurt either. The police have everything relatively well in hand and they are getting better every day. As soon as we have conditioned all the long-term unemployed gammas to accept their fate these aforementioned spikes in violence will continue to decline in severity.

  • Charles Nydorf

    @Grey
    Male stags engage in non-fatal mating competition. Its their way of making love not war.

  • Clark

    TGGP, I think what many argue for relative to incarceration is that new technologies (such as GPS tracking devices) make home arrest much more plausible for non-violent crimes. There are even arguments that they have more of a deterrent effect than outright incarceration (since the convict will be amongst the peers and they’ll see the effects of crime). The typical approach is to allow convicts to work from 8 AM – 6 PM after which they have to remain in their home. This is then combined with regular drug testing. Fail and then you end up in the regular prison population. The big advantage obviously is that not only do you not have to pay for incarceration but the prisoner also is able to work and provide for family and have more of a chance of a non-criminal career.

    How well this works across the field isn’t clear yet. I know they’ve had luck with this in Hawaii but there are obvious unique cultural characteristics there – especially for drug related crimes.

    Overall though I have to agree that I suspect the large drop in crime the past 20 years is in part due to the large incarceration rate. I don’t think that necessarily justifies imprisonment but given the huge crime surge in the 80′s I doubt you’ll be able to convince people to stop doing it. At best you can change the approach to a more economical one. (Added to this is that politicians are more concerned with signaling to voters about issues rather than necessarily solving issues – thus the large number of laws that are primarily about signaling)

  • Clark

    (Dang – forgive that horribly written first sentence in my last paragraph)

  • Grey

    toto
    “Er… The first cities were in the Near East, right?”

    Yes. Africa last. In very broad terms you could relate propensity to violent crime i.e frequency of traits that predispose to violent crime in a population, to length of urbanization and get some kind of relation like for example 50% drop in frequency of x per 1000 years. Following that process through would allow you to broadly predict violent crime rates in any town very simply as a function of numbers times historical region of origin.

    .
    sandgroper
    “or will we just get on with making stuff up?”

    We’ll carry on making stuff up, or rather the politically correct will carry on manipulating stats to hide politically incorrect truths until they can’t be hidden any more.

    “Male stags engage in non-fatal mating competition. Its their way of making love not war.”

    In itself, but even more so in the current context, that’s got to be one of the stupidest things i’ve ever read.

    .
    terry
    “I’d wager America would be a more peaceful nation. The rest of the developed world experiences less criminal violence despite soft-on-crime policies.”

    Well you’re going to lose that wager in the most dramatic and bloody way. Each ethnic group has their own average violent crime rate. Each ethnic group follows a rough pattern where the worst 10% commit 50% of that ethnic’s group violent crime, the second 10% commit 25%, the third 10% commit 12% etc. Prison generally deals with the worst 10% of each ethnic group which is why it has such a very dramatic and disproportionate effect on the total.

    Things *were* getting better. It started going backwards at least two decades ago which is when the stats started to be rigged. We’re getting closer and closer to the point where the PC illusion can’t be held together anymore. I give it 2-3 years before your blank slate blows up in your face.

    .

  • http://sciencepolice2010.com ж

    Don’t forget Elaine’s “Pinker’s List”. Very relevant.

  • miko

    Grey’s classic! Is he new here?

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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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