Relative angels and absolute demons

By Razib Khan | October 9, 2011 3:04 pm

My post below defending Steve Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature elicited some responses on twitter. Robert Lee Hotz finds it odd that I defend a book I haven’t read. My logic here is simple: the outline of the argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature has been presented in shorter form. John Gray’s piece doesn’t even address this digest, so I am skeptical that it could address the data which is no doubt strewn across hundreds of pages. It is obviously theoretically possible that The Better Angels of Our Nature is thinner in results than the shorter essays and presentations I’ve seen over the years on the same topic from Pinker, but highly unlikely. If Gray does a disservice to the short form argument, I doubt he is being any fairer to a longer exposition.


Second, I already admitted that in many ways I’m more pessimistic than Steven Pinker when it comes to this issue. And from what I’ve seen I’m moderately skeptical of many of the rationales he presents for why violence has declined over time (though obviously I won’t be doing him justice if I come to any conclusion without reading the book with all its extended argumentation). But my issue with John Gray ultimately is not with his final assessment of Pinker’s argument on the net, but how he came by it. Steven Pinker is a serious thinker, who makes a good faith effort to arrive at the truth as he understands it. I don’t think he always succeeds, and I don’t always agree with his conclusions. But even if you disagree with him engaging someone like Steven Pinker can sharpen your own perspective, and refine your own models. Steven Pinker is not a fashionable intellectual whose aim in life is to receive adulation by the right people at the right time. He may be wrong, whether due to lack of background or faulty reasoning, but he’s a sincere person. I have friends and acquaintances who take great objection to his evolutionary psychology and representation of cognitive science, but even his false steps can serve as an opening to raise public awareness of your opposite perspective. Pinker’s stature, and the questions he shines the light upon, are opportunities to have a public discussion on the Big Ideas. If you’re going to criticize him, face his ideas full on, don’t just prance around preening so those with whom you already agree can see what a good and right person you are. That’s what John Gray did, and it disgusted me.

Next, several people have pointed to more substantive reviews of The Better Angels of Our Nature. In The New Yorker Elizabeth Kolbert has a relatively balanced opinion, taking Pinker seriously, though not as adulatory as Peter Singer. In my estimation there’s some good and some bad in it.

First, when it comes to the bad, Kolbert suggests:

…Pinker is virtually silent about Europe’s bloody colonial adventures. (There’s not even an entry for “colonialism” in the book’s enormous index.) This is a pretty serious omission, both because of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between the savage and the civilized. What does it reveal about the impulse control of the Spanish that, even as they were learning how to dispose of the body fluids more discreetly, they were systematically re butchering the natives on two continents? Or about the humanitarianism of the British that, as they were turning away from such practices as drawing and quartering, they were shipping slaves across the Atlantic?…

There are two separate points to note here; a specific and a general. I suspect Steven Pinker knows more history than Elizabeth Kolbert. I’ve talked to Pinker once at length, and just as in his books he comes across as very widely knowledgeable. I’ll be frank and say that I don’t feel many people I talk to are widely knowledgeable, and when it comes to something like history I’m in a position to judge. Ironically Kolbert is repeating the Anglo-Protestant Black Legend about the Spaniards, rooted in the rivalries and sectarianism of the 16th and 18th centuries, but persisting down amongst English speaking secular intellectuals. The reality is that the Spaniards did not want to kill the indigenous peoples, they died of disease and the societal destabilization that disease entailed. Europeans who arrived from Iberia in the New World ideally wished to collect rents from peasants. The death of those peasants due to disease was a major inconvenience, which entailed the importation of black Africans who were resistant to the Old World diseases like malaria which were spreading across the American tropics. The violence done to native peoples was predominantly pathogenic, not physical.

This is not to deny that the Spaniards were brutal. They quite certainly were. But they need to be compared to their non-Spanish contemporaries. The Aztec Triple Alliance which Cortez overthrew famously went to war to obtain captives for human sacrifice, who were also later cannibalized. Cortez won his war with disease and native allies who were chafing under the brutal Aztec hegemony. Additionally, the Spanish authorities were ambivalent about the brutality and exploitation which was being meted out by the European settlers. Much of the material in the Black Legend derives from the polemics of the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas. He made the case for the humanity of the native people who were now due the protection of the Spanish crown. This sort of dialogue and argument amongst the Spanish is itself an advancement across the arc of history. Consider the genocide which is celebrated in much of the Hebrew Bible as a contrast.* Was there an an Aztec Bartolomé de las Casas? Judging by what we know from antique Old World societies I doubt it.

The same point can be made about British slavery. It is correct that the enterprise of European civilization in the early modern period focused to a great extent on the trade in humans. But this is not exceptional. Kolbert alludes to Pinker’s mention of the Arab slave trade, but Europeans themselves long traded in humans from the north and east of the continent from antiquity down to the medieval period. This only dissipated when the supply of pagans outside of the Christian fringe was removed by the conversion of the last enclaves of the old religions (note, for example, that Slavs were common as slaves on both shores of the Mediterranean around the year 1000; cities like Venice rose to some extent on the slave trade). What was new was that in the early modern period there were those who made the case against slavery on humanitarian grounds. Though not all pre-modern civilizations had slavery, slavery as an institution was generally accepted as legitimate, if not always optimal (in contrast to cannibalism and human sacrifice, which were marginalized or banned by the world religions rather early on).

Finally, the last bone I have to pick with Elizabeth Kolbert is a general paradigmatic one. The reason that I suspect Steven Pinker does not talk much about European colonialism is that it was not exceptionally brutal, nor was it a very long period in much of the world. To make these assessments you need a thick understanding of world history which most people don’t have. The greatest mass death that occurred during the age of white European supremacy was that of the Taiping Rebellion. Though China was already coming under European pressure, and the Taipings claimed a Christian inspiration, the reality is that if you know Chinese history they were entirely explicable as the sort of disturbance which occurs near the end of a dynasty. In India the British decapitated much of the local elite, but primarily focused on extracting rents (the systematic brutality in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny was exceptional). I doubt that the British Raj was a time of greater violence than the political chaos of the 18th century, as the Mughal ascendancy collapsed and other powers arose to fill the vacuum and triggered a series of conflicts. And the European colonial adventures in Africa and the Middle East were fleeting at best, rarely lasting more than a century, and often far less.

I suspect that Kolbert’s emphasis on the European colonial experience of much of the world is influenced by the ubiquity of the postcolonial paradigm. Those who take postcolonial thinking as normative sometimes forget that not everyone shares their framework. I do not, and I would be willing to bet that Steven Pinker would also dissent from the presuppositions of postcolonialism. That means that the facts, the truths, that many take for granted are actually not taken for granted by all, and are disputed. One of the issues with postcolonial models is that they seem to view Europeans and European culture, and their colonial enterprises, as sui generis. This makes generalization from the West, as Pinker does, problematic. But for those of us who don’t see the West as qualitatively different there is far less of an issue.

A postcolonial model is ironically extremely Eurocentric, with a total blindness to what came before Europeans. To my knowledge they do not touch upon the genocide suffered by the Dzungar Mongols at the hands of the Manchus in the 18th century. The Manchu Empire, which in China proper were the Ching, was clearly a classic colonial enterprise. Ironically it served as the template for the nationalism of Republican and Communist China. Similarly, postcolonial theorists may discuss the British influence India, but they do not give the same space to the impact of West Asian Muslim elites via native Indian converts to Islam, as well as how they shaped Hindu society more broadly (e.g., West Asian Muslim elite norms of female modesty spread to Hindu elites, and to some extent remain in place in much of the subcontinent). But anyone who knows the structure of the Mughal Empire in the 17th century at its peak will observe that India was viewed to a great extent as a fat cow to be bled dry by Persians and Turks who arrived in large numbers during that period to staff the civilian and military apparatus of the Timurids, and were given preference to native born Muslims and Hindus, who were tacitly understood to be racially inferior.

In other words the differences between European colonialism and non-European colonialism were of degree, not kind. People who are aware of how the Gunpower Empires expanded will see similarities to the Spaniards. But very few people know this history, so the later European colonial missions seem entirely novel. It is easy to forget that the European colonialism of the Levant in the early 20th century followed centuries of Ottoman Turk domination of the Arabs, which Arab proto-nationalists around 1900 were beginning to chafe at.**

My own suspicion is that in a 700 page book like The Better Angels of Our Nature there are going to be many detailed quibbles which Pinker could rebut, but that would take a great deal of time and energy. I doubt I could convince Elizabeth Kolbert of my arguments above, she’d have to read 1491, Henry Kamen’s works on Spain, as well as books on Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese history. How many people are going to do this, and so give due justice to Pinker’s weighting of the facts? Rather, they’ll lean on “free information” derived from their a priori model of the world, which I think happens to often be wrong, and highly misleading in specifics.

So I want to finish with the good. It’s a big general point, noted by a reader:

“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.”

To be frank I trust Steven Pinker’s statistics more than Elizabeth Kolbert’s precise interpretation of them. She didn’t blow me away with detailed historical critique above, so I’m not going to take her assessments about the per capita killing of the Mongols vs. World War II at face value. Rather, it’s legitimate to wonder about the power of relative vs. absolute number of deaths. I lean toward Pinker’s position that we should look to relative death risk. One can construct a “thought experiment” where it would be obvious that you’d not want to have a small chance of dying in a world where many more die in absolute terms than a large chance of dying in a world where many fewer die in absolute terms. But there isn’t an “objective” answer here. There is no real simple utility calculation, norms always creep into it. This isn’t really any refutation of Steven Pinker, it’s an invitation for us to start discussing what “human flourishing” really entails.

I think Pinker’s description of the decline in violence is precise and accurate. As to whether that is sustainable, and his theories for how the description came about, I’m more skeptical. But I’ll get to that when I read the book!

* I am aware that Bartolomé de las Casas supported black slavery. He was certainly not a modern human rights campaigner!

** The Ottomans exhibited some solidarity with Arabs as fellow Muslims. But in practice Arabs suffered some limitations in terms of their advancement to various positions, and exceptions were noted with curiosity (e.g., Arab generals who operated in the Balkans were rare, Turkish and Albanian generals in the Arab world were common).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
  • Darkseid

    yeah, you don’t even need to read the book as he’s given several lectures and talks about it that take no more than an hour to listen. further, he’s been saying this stuff long before the book came out so i don’t see how you could be wrong. Pinker is money

  • http://www.emotionsarewe.blogspot.com Steve

    Obviously his theories about why we see these trends in decreased violence will turn out to be wrong or too simplistic, but who really expects one person to come up with complete answers to such extremely complex phenomena. I just hope that the book inspires more historians to use statistical models in the discipline to answer such questions.

  • Sandgroper

    #1 – +published essays. It was a cheap shot by Hotz, or else he hasn’t been paying attention.

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

    #3, my exp. is that it’s easier to seem dickish on twitter when you don’t meant to.

  • Jason Malloy

    Pinker’s video lecture/essay over at Edge is a detailed example of the kind of data in his book.

  • blindboy

    The question of absolute deaths vs relative deaths has some interest as a question of ethics but since the population is growing we cannot have an absolute decline until we have a relative decline. If what we are interested in is the future then the most important issue is to identify paths to a less violent world. It is interesting that Pinker’s approach, which could not be called dogmatic, has aroused so much criticism.
    I suspect that it is just a defensive response to the serious challenges evolutionary psychology and neuroscience are throwing out to philosophy and theology. It is ironic that his opponents should indulge in such characteristic primate behaviour as defending their territory. The great hope is that in decades to come the work of people like Pinker will lead to such clear evidence of the effective ways to reduce violence that it will be impossible for policy makers to ignore………though why I would even bother thinking that given their on going blindness to climate change I don’t know…..sorry just an outbreak of totally unjustified optimism!

  • Sid

    What would you say to a postcolonialist who replied, “The Congo Free State killed about 10 million people, totaling to half of the Congo’s population. British rule in India was so parasitic, that they reduced food crops so that opium would be grown. This contributed to numerous famines, such as the Great Bengal Famine, where about 10 million people died, and the population declined by a third?”

  • Roberto

    You write; “‘The reason that I suspect Steven Pinker does not talk much about European colonialism is that it was not exceptionally brutal, nor was it a very long period in much of the world.”

    You are not seriously thinking this statement holds any water. Balderdash! (or bullocks if you prefer)

  • Keith

    My knowledge of non-European colonial history is weak, but the European focus of postcolonialism always seemed narrowminded. Can anybody recommend some good, not-too-boring books about pre-European colonialism in, say, China, India, or the Arab world? Also good recommendations for comparisons of European and non-European colonialism would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    Khan:

    > I doubt I could convince Elizabeth Kolbert of my arguments above, she’d have to read 1491, Henry Kamen’s works on Spain, as well as books on Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese history. How many people are going to do this, and so give due justice to Pinker’s weighting of the facts? Rather, they’ll lean on “free information” derived from their a priori model of the world, which I think happens to often be wrong, and highly misleading in specifics.

    Roberto:

    > You are not seriously thinking this statement holds any water. Balderdash! (or bullocks if you prefer)

    I see…

  • http://artikcat.wordpress.com Roberto

    in this case buddy boy (or girl) the thing is define ‘exceptionally brutal” and “long period’. a succint review of todays’ press shows that world peace is flourishing, obviously (gimme a break). anyway you look at it, the system(s) sucked and still sucks and so do the bullshit attempts to sanctify it; no matter how many angels you throw into the mix, which i find rather curious for this assortment of nonbelievers.

  • omar

    Roberto, you seem to have succeeded in missing the point very completely…

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

    “The Congo Free State killed about 10 million people, totaling to half of the Congo’s population. British rule in India was so parasitic, that they reduced food crops so that opium would be grown. This contributed to numerous famines, such as the Great Bengal Famine, where about 10 million people died, and the population declined by a third?”

    are people stupid enough to think that famines did not exist before the british??? yes, perhaps they are! massive die offs are recorded due to famine wherever there are records (this is clear from china, which has pre-european records galore, where declines of 1/3 or 1/2 are attested regularly due to bad series of crop failures). the congo free state is a ‘best case scenario’ for european colonialism being particular bad. but 10 million is too high of a number. this was ~1900, don’t think the congo is that populated (i’m sure you’re of the literature about the controversy about the numbers here). anyway, i’m not saying european colonialism wasn’t brutal. i’m saying it wasn’t necessarily more brutal or distinctive in its character as a matter of kind (advanced tech like maxim guns made a difference).

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

    btw, if this gets into a discussion about the merits of postcolonialism, i’m going to start banning people. i find it as retarded as creationism.

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

    Can anybody recommend some good, not-too-boring books about pre-European colonialism in, say, China, India, or the Arab world?

    see s. m. adshead’s work. you might find it interesting. anything about the timurid period in india will also do.

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

    also, minor note re: postcolonialism. the main issue is not their characterization of european colonialism, if they’re total ignorance of anything that came before the white gods ushered in history. the paradigm is eurocentric to a fault.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Interestingly, if one measures civility or progress by the extent to which politics are not resolved through direct action and physical force, American politics has advanced much more than most of our developed nation counterparts, where general strikes, demonstrations, political violence and parliamentary melees play a much larger role, in most cases, than in the American Congress. Parliamentary melees pretty much vanished by the late 19th century in the U.S., but have been seen in Korea, Japan and a number of other modern first world democracies in the last decade. Direct action and the use of physical force in electoral politics in American history declined drastically in the post-WWII era compared to the pre-WWII era in the U.S.

  • omar

    Re postcolonialism, I agree with Razib most wholeheartedly. Not only is it incredibly ignorant of context and the rest of human history, its acolytes are so sure of their moral superiority that they are totally impervious to argument. Its like religion..and not just any religion, BAD religion ;)
    btw, Razib, have you ever updated your old post about the decline of postmodernism and marxism (http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2008/09/graphs-on-death-of-marxism.php)? I wonder if Marxism has had a bit of a recovery during the recession? and if poco has joined pomo in a downward direction or not?

  • Chris T

    It is a mistake to focus on defined events or periods as Kolbert did above. The overall trend is what matters.

    I lean toward Pinker’s position that we should look to relative death risk.

    Of course we should, otherwise we’re forced to accept absurdities like it’s safer to ride a motorcycle than a car because the absolute number of deaths is much lower!

  • Sandgroper

    Could someone please put #19 in flashing neon lights?

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    There are certainly episodes in which Western contact ushered in a dramatic escalation in violence for reasons other than disease. For example, the fire arms trade ushered in the extreme high casualty Maori Wars (aka New Zealand Wars) between Maori tribes in New Zealand.

    The Australian aborigines were specifically targeted for hunting as animals or genocide by Anglo settlers.

    In both those cases, relative death risk was immensely elevated as a result of colonial era contacts.

    @13 – while “natural” famine or at least pre-colonial regime famine certainly happens, not all famine is “natural.” For example, mass starvation under Stalin due to disruption of pre-existing agricultural economies is arguably a famine, but also arguably mostly a policy imposed one, rather than due to climate. Likewise, mass starvation in China under Mao was largely a product of policy rather than climate (and enforced with threat of violence sometimes executed, much like Stalin’s famine).

    One can also dissect the impacts of Colonialism by era. In 1492, mass death was probably unintended by colonists. But, the same can not be said of Native Americans killed in the Trail of Tears or the lynchings of Native Americans by settlers in the homestead era. Denver newspapers in the late 1800s sounded a lot like the Rwandan radio bigots that incited the genocide there. A graph that shows the decline of lynchings really doesn’t have an adequate context if you don’t extend it back to show the Reconstruction era rise of lynchings.

    Now, certainly, one is looking at trend lines. But, it is a bit premature, I think, to conclude that the patterns that Pinker is observing in the modern world are secular trends rather than cyclic ones. Perhaps World War I and World War II are illustrative of a modern pattern of big, short, intense wars interspersed with long peaceful episodes of resulting stability. If World War III comes along in 2020 and kills hundreds of millions of people, the trendlines won’t look so convincing. An effort to see a trendline in murder rates works much better for the last 40 years in the United States than it does for the last 40 years in Latin America.

    It is also worth observing that Pinker’s position is in some respects quite a conservative one. He is to a great extent noticing that the rise of central state authority leads to a decline in violence. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to devote much attention to historic “lulls” when maximal empires in places like China produce long, low violence episodes until the regime collapses. “Safer in Empires” may not be as hopeful as “Better Angels” but perhaps the former spin on the results is more valid.

  • Sid

    “the congo free state is a ‘best case scenario’ for european colonialism being particular bad. but 10 million is too high of a number. this was ~1900, don’t think the congo is that populated (i’m sure you’re of the literature about the controversy about the numbers here).”

    I’m not a postcolonialist myself, but I wrote my history capstone on the Congo Free State. Exact numbers are hard to determine, because the Congolese were preliterate, and Leopold had little interest in determining exactly how many were dying because of his reign. Nevertheless, E.D. Morel estimated that around eight million died, and a subsequent census in the Congo (1924) found that there were around 10 million people there. Every sign, from oral traditions to how occupied the villages looked, indicated that about half of the Congolese had died under the Free State. Most experts in the field agree that 10 million is a reasonable estimate, more or less.

    That may seem excessive for a preliterate society, but the Congo is a massive place.

    On the issue of famines under the British Raj, the question is whether the famines increased or not during that time period. That’s not a question I’m qualified to answer, and I imagine it would be difficult to assess due to the paucity of historical records in India.

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

    There are certainly episodes in which Western contact ushered in a dramatic escalation in violence for reasons other than disease. For example, the fire arms trade ushered in the extreme high casualty Maori Wars (aka New Zealand Wars) between Maori tribes in New Zealand.

    you’d have to look at the details. this may be so, but remember that many small scale ‘wars’ had lower casualty rates per war, but these ‘wars’ (really raids) may have been more common because their impact was less. so i don’t think the gap is as big as you imply. though i think technology is the real game changer…..

    @13 – while “natural” famine or at least pre-colonial regime famine certainly happens, not all famine is “natural.” For example, mass starvation under Stalin due to disruption of pre-existing agricultural economies is arguably a famine, but also arguably mostly a policy imposed one, rather than due to climate. Likewise, mass starvation in China under Mao was largely a product of policy rather than climate (and enforced with threat of violence sometimes executed, much like Stalin’s famine).

    i didn’t say anything about natural. why are you using quotations? a lot of pre-modern famines also have political reasons. armies and what not destabilizing social conditions. see china, where there are some records….

    Every sign, from oral traditions to how occupied the villages looked, indicated that about half of the Congolese had died under the Free State. Most experts in the field agree that 10 million is a reasonable estimate, more or less.

    50% die offs are not, unfortunately, exceptional in the pre-modern era generally. a lot of it had to do with war and disruption, and the inability of the producers (peasants) to support everyone and themselves.

  • Chris T

    ohwilleke – The question again is not whether violence has waxed or waned in a particular region, but what it’s doing on a global scale over all of human history. Pointing to specific regional or temporal calamities does not answer the question.

    Keep in mind that as horrible as events such as WWII were in terms of deaths, the fact that it remains so salient in our minds today indicates just how much of a historical outlier it was. In ancient times, complete extermination or enslavement was the expected fate of a conquered population. (The Odysey’s treatment of the subject is rather indicative of attitudes at the time.)

    wrt famine – I think a distinction between famine as deliberate policy and as a result of stupidity or negligence needs to be made.

  • omar

    India is a big place and the impact of British colonialism was not uniform. Punjab, for example, saw a huge increase in food production and a decline in deaths due to violence that was very striking. British rule in Punjab (1849 to 1947) seems to have been genuinely popular, though the exit was the worst managed in India. Punjab in the 18th century was riven by continuous wars, invasions and famines and law and order was practically non-existent. Unification under the relatively enlightened and shrewd Maharaja Ranjit Singh was an improvement, but British rule (as rulers go) was a distinct further improvement (and was regarded as such by many people). Since the bulk of the British Indian army was recruited from Punjab, the colonial administration was rather partial to Punjabis and made some effort to keep them happy…the attitude towards other Indians was not necessarily equally paternalistic..
    Of course nationalist propaganda now regards such talk as almost treasonous.

  • Sid

    “50% die offs are not, unfortunately, exceptional in the pre-modern era generally. a lot of it had to do with war and disruption, and the inability of the producers (peasants) to support everyone and themselves.”

    Yes, but the mass deaths in the Congo Free State weren’t a result of naturally declining living conditions. They were a result of the Congolese males being forced to retrieve rubber from trees, or else the Belgians would murder their women and children. The disease and starvation resulted from the coercion.

    “think a distinction between famine as deliberate policy and as a result of stupidity or negligence needs to be made.”

    What’s interesting, on this issue, is that Leopold didn’t try to deliberately starve his subjects the way Stalin did. He just wanted their rubber, and didn’t really care either way if they died off or not. Whereas Stalin was malicious, Leopold was apathetic.

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

    Yes, but the mass deaths in the Congo Free State weren’t a result of naturally declining living conditions. They were a result of the Congolese males being forced to retrieve rubber from trees, or else the Belgians would murder their women and children. The disease and starvation resulted from the coercion.

    sid, i’ve read a few books on the congo free state, so i’m not unfamiliar. but again, leopold’s behavior is not that exceptional over the long run, though by 1900 it arguably was. classical slave farms and mines were notoriously subject to the same ‘incentive structure’ issue, where the human labor was routinely terrorized and killed to death for maximize short term profit (i’m thinking for example of sicilian slave farms which exported wheat).

    again, i don’t understand the issue with people using ‘naturally’ like i’m using it. a lot of the mass starvation in the past seems to have been due to bad weather, but also due to the fact that at the malthusian margin disruptions to institutions could result in mass suffering because there was so little slack in the system (e.g., raids by bandits could result in people not being able to go to the fields, which naturally reduces productivity below the level needed to support a population).

  • Sandgroper

    “The Australian aborigines were specifically targeted for hunting as animals or genocide by Anglo settlers.” Evidence? This is a ridiculously sweeping statement – which of the ‘Anglo’ settlers? One of them? Two of them? All of them everywhere – certainly not. And the context of the day is that ‘Anglo’ people were sentenced to death in the UK for stealing, and Aboriginal law prescribed reprisal killing of family members.

    In any case, it’s totally beside the point.

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

    #28, this is a common impression reading the literature on australia in the USA. so i see where it comes from. but we don’t take THAT much interest in your nation’s history so we might be ignorant of the latest scholarship. there’s obviously a lot of political incentives in the scholarship in this area (e.g., i know the stuff around windschuttle for example).

  • Nameless_

    “Europeans who arrived from Iberia in the New World ideally wished to collect rents from peasants. The death of those peasants due to disease was a major inconvenience, which entailed the importation of black Africans who were resistant to the Old World diseases like malaria which were spreading across the American tropics.”

    That is inaccurate. Europeans wanted to extract maximum profits in minimal time, by whatever means necessary, and these profits happened to be maximized by the use of imported black slaves. They were not interested in collecting rents from peasants. This is easy to see, because (with rare exceptions) they weren’t importing blacks and turning them into peasants by giving them land, but instead forced them to work on their own land till they died.

    Slave trade continued into the early 19th century because slave populations weren’t sustainable without continued shipping. And that was because imported slaves were predominantly male and their life expectancies in Central and South America are said to have been in the 5 to 7 year range. Transatlantic shipping and slave acquisition industries were developed to such an extent that it was cheaper to bring new adult slaves to the plantation every five years, than to allow them to settle your land and then collect rents from them.

    There is a common underlying factor here that can connect many different forms of mass violence, including slavery, WWII, numerous civil wars and genocides, etc. etc. It’s an “us vs. them” syndrome. Even exceedingly civilized people can engage in incredible atrocities as long as they mentally divide the population into “us” (e.g. WWII Japanese) vs “them” (WWII Filipinos and Indonesians) and it is socially accepted that different standards may be applied.

  • Clark

    Nameless, wasn’t the life expectancy for a lot of Europeans quite low as well? I seem to remember a period where being assigned to the Carribean by either the British navy or to work in the cane plantations was nearly a death sentence. Which doesn’t justify in the least the horrible acts within slavery, but I was under the assumption the main mortality was due to various tropical diseases.

  • Nameless_

    @31, it wasn’t nearly as bad for Europeans. Slaves were often dying of dysentery, malnutrition and mistreatment.

    Besides, the two worst tropical diseases in the Caribbean, malaria and yellow fever, are actually both native to Africa and were brought to Americas with slave trade. The first recorded epidemic of yellow fever in America dates to 1648. Afterwards, African slaves were valued because they tended to have immunity to malaria and yellow fever.

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

    That is inaccurate.

    hey, don’t be a patronizing asshole. i’m not an ignorant idiot. if you keep it up i’ll ban you.

    your model is way too simple. the whole new world was obviously not a slave plantation economy for a variety of reasons. anyway, i don’t have time to discuss this with you. but if you keep up your superior attitude, i’ll ban you. your lack of self-awareness of your lack of omniscience already irritated me once (if you think this is an opening to start a discussion with me, i will ban you)).

  • Nameless_

    Then I guess it is goodbye.

  • Sandgroper

    #29 – If someone is interested enough to mention it, he ought to be interested enough to learn about it, instead of just spouting slogans from a few poorly informed acitivists. Even the most ‘black armband’ historian doesn’t go as far as to suggest that in any of the Australian colonies there was a deliberate policy of genocide. Sorry, but it’s bullshit, and Andrew ought to know better than just to spout stuff like that.

    “relative death risk was immensely elevated as a result of colonial era contacts” and contacts with Austronesian fishermen – indeed it was, as a consequence of disease.

    Conflicts between Aboriginal people and settlers did indeed occur, but the numbers of fatalities on both sides pales into comparison with the die-off from disease, and there is now pretty good evidence that not all of the fatal disease was transmitted by ‘Anglos’ for want of a better term.

    In the context of this discussion, in relative terms the scale of the fatalities from Aboriginal/settler conflicts is an irrelevance.

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

    When I read Charles C. Mann’s “1493,” I was impressed once again by how relatively conscience-stricken some of the Spaniards were from the beginning (e.g., Queen Isabella in the 1490s) about what they were doing in the New World. The money was way too good to pass up, but a surprising number of Spaniards did feel guilty about it. They might have been 130 years ahead of the English in this regard.

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

    I believe Pinker discusses the question of relative versus absolute numbers of deaths, and gives the arguments on both sides.

    One of the frustrations of reading “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is that whenever you think of a hole in his argument, a few hundred pages later Pinker gets around to acknowledging that there’s exactly that hole you thought of and then he attempts to fill it.

    It’s safe to say that a large fraction of the early reviewers of this 800-page book won’t have read more than half of it.

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

    One question I have about the big Chinese death tolls is how much were they related to the Chinese population growing closer to the Malthusian limit, so that when something happened to good government like the An-Lushan rebellion, or the Tai-Ping rebellion, or the Great Leap Forward, lots of people died as a side effect? (Or were they killed in mass slaughters, by saying drowning by breaking dikes?) In contrast, most of the people killed in WWI and WWII were killed directly.

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

    One model might be that war is rather like the mortgage business in which there was a trend to team up, first in banks, then in mortgage-backed securities, to diversify away risk. That worked great until it stopped working.

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

    If someone is interested enough to mention it, he ought to be interested enough to learn about it, instead of just spouting slogans from a few poorly informed acitivists.

    this is a fair point. but do remember that sometimes people don’t remember or know who activists are, or aren’t. i am pushing this issue because though i’m cautious of it, i too have seen references to aboriginals being hunted, and have repeated that “fact” before i got a touch more skeptical of this sort of thing.

    In the context of this discussion, in relative terms the scale of the fatalities from Aboriginal/settler conflicts is an irrelevance.

    the bolded part is key. a lot of the issues being mooted are sidelines to the main trendline pinker identifies, which can be disputed, but not by bringing up a half a dozen cases. perhaps hundreds of representative cases would be different….

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

    One question I have about the big Chinese death tolls is how much were they related to the Chinese population growing closer to the Malthusian limit, so that when something happened to good government like the An-Lushan rebellion, or the Tai-Ping rebellion, or the Great Leap Forward, lots of people died as a side effect? (Or were they killed in mass slaughters, by saying drowning by breaking dikes?) In contrast, most of the people killed in WWI and WWII were killed directly.

    right, killing people ‘directly’ is not too feasible in the pre-modern world. too expensive in calories to hack them to death? but natural disasters like floods did likely sweep away a lot of people periodically.

  • Sandgroper

    #40 Right.

    If I take the Aboriginal population of Australia in 1787 as 500,000, which is a reasonable average guess, and if the population had been reduced to 93,000 by 1900, that means that effectively more than 80% had been killed off – some 400,000. This number could have been greater, depending on what you guess the original pre-settlement population to have been. The upper bound guess is a million, which I feel is high, but if that were correct, then the die-off was of the order of 90%, or 900,000.

    Deaths from direct conflict at most would have numbered in the thousands, even if you total all of the claimed cases. Even if you assume the whole pre-settlement population of Tasmania was deliberately killed off, which was not the case, you get a total much less than 20,000.

    If the pre-settlement fatality rate from conflict was even as low as 2 -3%, which would be a very low rate for hunter-gatherers, it is a comparable number to the total deliberate Aboriginal deaths at the hands of settlers. In reality it was probably somewhat higher.

    The much greater killer was disease, and it is doubtful that British settlers were responsible for the introduction of smallpox, which was recorded as killing as many as 90% of local populations.

    That Aboriginal people fared badly from British settlement is unquestionable, but by far the major proportion of fatalities was inadvertent, and it appears at least possible that a substantial proportion should not even be attributed to the British.

    It doesn’t mean that the thousands killed by direct acts of commission are OK, they’re not, but in the context of this discussion they are really not material.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I don’t think the difference between peasantry and serfdom/slavery is one of long-term vs short-term (indentured servitude is arguably a more short-term strategy, used when high death rates made slavery a relative waste of money). In Evsey Domar’s view, which I find plausible, it is adopted when there is a lot of land peasants could use but authorities want to restrict them to keep the price of labor low. Closer to the Malthusian limit, the peasants will be paying most of their surplus in rent and there’s no need to actually enslave them.

  • Sandgroper

    Actually I’m being very generous with the numbers just for the sake of argument. My guess would be a couple of thousand tops, but I guess I should also include deaths in custody.

    If my feel for the numbers is about right, then the British (troopers plus settlers) killed far fewer Aboriginal people directly than the Aboriginal people routinely killed themselves. Which is what I would expect. (Excluding deaths due to disease.)

  • eug

    Not surprising that the First Things crowd just loves the John Gray review :
    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/10/10/the-delusions-of-liberal-humanism/

    Check out the comments there for a few laughs… Is it just me or is Joe Carter a caricature of the over educated Christian Conservative? By over educated as explained by Peter Medawar, a person ‘who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought’.

    That is from his famous demolition of Teilhard de Chardin, now that was a review worth reading:
    http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Medawar/phenomenon-of-man.html

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

    laughing or crying. who knows? :-)

  • pconroy

    @30 – Nameless,

    Some of the worst colonial atrocities were actually committed by the British against the Native Irish. Cromwell brought war and destruction and massive clearances of people from fertile land. The result was that the Irish population went from 1.5 million to 650 in a few short years. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Irish men, women and children were sold as slaves in Barbados and elsewhere around the Caribbean. Irish people don’t tolerate tropical climates well, and the die-off rate was 80% in 2 years. Then a different scheme was hatched, to breed Irish women with African males, to produce a higher priced domestic slave, which were then sold in the US South.

    Of course you won’t find too many residents of the Caribbean complaining about the fate of the Irish slaves, mostly because there are almost no descendants of these poor wretches. In fact for field work, the Irish slave was just worked to death, to get as much value out of him, before he secumbed to death. African slaves fetched almost twice the going rate as Irish slaves, as they could withstand the climate and diseases so much better. Eventually the demand for Irish slaves ceased altogether, as they just weren’t profitable.

  • syon

    RE: Ireland,

    The Wikipedia article on the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland gives the figure for slaves exported from Ireland as around 50,000. Depopulation due to war-related famine and disease is harder to estimate. One figure cited by the article is 600,000 deaths out of a population of 1.4 million.

  • Dunc

    Minor quibble:

    “in contrast to cannibalism and human sacrifice, which were marginalized or banned by the world religions rather early on”

    Well, “cannabalism” is a rather complicated one, but as for human sacrifice, they didn’t so much ban it as rebrand it. What is execution for allegeded witchcraft, if not a form of human sacrifice?

  • Grey

    syon
    “One figure cited by the article is 600,000 deaths out of a population of 1.4 million.”

    Every parish church in Ireland has records of births, marriages and deaths going back well beyond this time. If there was a massacre the numbers of births, marriages and deaths in all those thousands of churchs would show a dramatic drop. If there was no massacre at all then the numbers would be almost identical. I wonder if any objective Irish historians have thought of checking?

  • Grey

    “What does it reveal about the impulse control of the Spanish that, even as they were learning how to dispose of the body fluids more discreetly, they were systematically re butchering the natives on two continents? Or about the humanitarianism of the British that, as they were turning away from such practices as drawing and quartering, they were shipping slaves across the Atlantic?”

    It reveals that people make distinctions between “us” and “them.”

    There are multiple parts to this
    1) the moral rules that apply when it’s “us”
    2) the moral rules, if any, that apply when it’s “them”
    3) the changes over time in who is included as “us”
    4) the changes over time in the moral rules that apply when it’s “us”
    5) the changes over time in the moral rules, if any, that apply when it’s “them”

    “Us” groups want to reduce violence within the group. “Us” groups also want enough “warriors” to defend the borders of their terriotory and i would suggest the smaller the size of the “us” group the higher the proportion of men who need to be warriors. If so then if over time there is an increase in the average size of “us” groups the balance between the two pressures will tilt towards reducing predisposition to violence. If you believe certain genetic traits predispose individuals to violence e.g lack of impulse control, then cultural and criminal sanctions to reduce in-group violence creates selection pressure against those traits.

    This would reduce the total amount of violence within “us” groups across the planet. This doesn’t require any changes in the moral rules of the “us” group and certainly doesn’t require any change in the moral rules, if any, the “us” group apply to their “them.” All it requires is for the average size of “us” groups to increase and for sanctions against violent crimes within the “us” group to be applied over time.

  • Grey

    “but remember that many small scale ‘wars’ had lower casualty rates per war, but these ‘wars’ (really raids) may have been more common because their impact was less. so i don’t think the gap is as big as you imply.”

    I think this is the key point. If you read tribal scale history then you realise they were in a state of almost permanent small-scale war comprising of raids, ambushes and individual murder.

    If you picture a terriotory the size of say Korea and imagine one option where it’s divided into thousands of small clans constantly raiding each other – and as a partial consequence of the need for most men to be warriors, lots of in-group violence also – and then compare it to a second option where the same terriotory is divided into two very internally peaceful nations who every twenty-five years or so have an extremely destructive war then i think it’s quite possible that the first case would have a greater total of violence and possibly a much greater total.

    My quibble with Pinker is if his data was for example based on the number of stab wounds treated in urban western hospitals rather than the number of stabbing incidents the police record (or report they’ve recorded) then he’d see that under the surface things have been going into reverse.

  • dave chamberlin

    I just reread the history classic “A Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman and she discusses why people were so much more prone to violent sociopathic behavior in the middle ages. She says
    ” On the whole, babies and young children appear to have been left to survive or die without great concern in the first five or six years. Possibly the relative emotional blankness of a midieval infancy may account for the casual attitude to suffering of the midieval man.”

    When half of your children die before age ten the way to cope is to not get too attatched to the children. When children are unloved during their early years they are far more capable of becoming violent sociopaths as adults. I think people today do not appreciate the times they live in. It very sadly is not a great overstatement that people we now identify as dangerous and violent socoiopaths, that need to be locked up for the public’s good, once were accepted as part of everyday life.

  • toto

    Maybe the Western (i.e. European) actions are seen as “worse” not because of their intrinsic character, but because of their sheer extent?

    Various regimes in various locales committed various atrocities within their own spheres of influence. But Europeans extended their conquests to four continents, eventually affecting pretty much every other major civilization on Earth.

    That’s bound to make quite an impression – not a good one – regardless of what others may or may not have done.

  • omar

    Is there any literature (well, I guess there must be) about how people do or do not change their views when new facts are presented? On this particular topic, i have had discussions with friends and on liberal blogs where most college educated people really have never heard about thousands of Irish slaves taken to the West Indies, or English slaves sold in Algiers or the tens of thousands of Indians sold in slave markets in Kandahar and Kabul or the Zanj slave revolt in Abbasid Iraq (http://www.amazon.com/Revolt-African-Slaves-Century-Princeton/dp/1558761632)or the death rate among indentured servants from Scotland, or the everyday violence and cruelty of most of the “good old days”…but after they are given that information, it doesnt really change their opinions or arguments too much…at first they don’t seem to register at all. Eventually, the new data is acknowledged but not really integrated into the argument…what’s the scientific dope on this sort of thing?

  • pconroy

    @50,

    Grey, sadly the data is lost, as the 1916 rebels who fought the British for Irish independence, seized the Central Records Office in Dublin, as a stronghold in the street battle. The British then fired their cannons at the Records Office which destroyed it and set fire to all the records. Only Church of Ireland (Anglican) records exist at a parish level for the era, and a few tardy areas of the country (like Kerry), which hadn’t submitted all their records.

    Cromwell cleared about 3/4 of Ireland of people via genocide, and re-populated it from Britain. The West of Ireland, the province of Connaught, was reserved for Native Irish people, which has the poorest soil. His infamous phrase was, “To Hell or to Connaught”, and he did send people to hellish short life as a plantation slave in the West Indies. I and a bunch of Irish people who have tested on 23andMe have turned up Caribbean relatives of part African descent, which is probably not a coincidence. In fact one Irish guy I know, says there is a plaque outside a village in Co Kildare to 35 people from the community sold into slavery in Barbados by Cromwell, including a distant relative – Byrne – and he today has Irish/African relatives in Barbados, identified by 23andMe.

  • pconroy

    @54,
    I think that slaughter by a perceived outsider is always viewed as worse than that committed locally. Many Irish historian bemoan the ravishes of the Vikings on Ireland, but what they don’t often mention is that local violence was endemic during the period in question, and local chiefs raiding monasteries of opposing chiefs was a daily occurrence, and was recorded in the various Irish annals.
    BTW, the Dublin Vikings would go on to found the largest slave emporium in Europe in Dublin, and some of these slaves were actually English – bought through intermediaries in Bristol.

  • Chris T

    Maybe the Western (i.e. European) actions are seen as “worse” not because of their intrinsic character, but because of their sheer extent?

    Combine that with their temporal recency and the existence of far more reliable records.

  • pconroy

    BTW, here are some Black Irish (aka Redlegs aka descendants of Irish slaves) from Montserrat speaking – from an Irish documentary from 1976.

    Then at the end is a Monterratan of African descent singing an Irish ballad, that has Irish Gaelic words and phrases in in.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QHYFXDGf4Y

  • Clark

    I saw Tyler Cowen’s post this morning on the book. After reading various posts on Pinker’s book I’m beginning to think that one major component of the disagreement on the issue is the semantics of “violence.” For instance to me the following statement by Cowen seem inexplicable but many people appear to agree:

    Killing six million Jews in the Holocaust is not, in my view, “half as violent” if global population is twice as high.

    I know this gets at the absolute – relative difference you mentioned. But to me it just seems to confuse issues semantically. Whether or not it is “half as violence” the incidence of violence surely is half as much per capita. But it seems odd to say that were we to have hunter/gatherer cultures with typical violence and that if the world population tripled that the world became a much more violent place.

    I think both measures tell us something. But it’s only a problem when we equivocate between them. And I think much of the debate involves subtle equivocation but when it’s not it’s ultimately a kind of odd semantic debate about how we should define violence. Which strikes me as rather uninteresting (which isn’t to disparage those who find it interesting). To me what’s interesting is the particular question Pinker is asking and whether in terms of that question he’s answered it correctly. Many seem to just want him to answer a different question.

    PS – hope to order the book this week.

  • syon

    pconroy: “Cromwell cleared about 3/4 of Ireland of people via genocide, and re-populated it from Britain. ”

    I’m not sure that I understand this sentence. Do you mean that Cromwell killed 75% of the population of Ireland?That would indicate a death toll in excess of one million people (assuming an Irish population of 1.4 million), which is considerable higher than the Wikipedia upper estimate of 600,000. Or do you mean that Cromwell moved 75% of the population?

  • Mercy

    “think a distinction between famine as deliberate policy and as a result of stupidity or negligence needs to be made.”

    I don’t know how meaningful such a distinction can be given how prone people are to retroactive self-justification. For instance in Late Victorian Holocausts* Mike Davis quotes a bunch of british administrators taking about the need to reduce the indian population and the elimination of non-productive castes. But I noticed that all the quotes are after the famine had begun- often from people who beforehand had been boasting of how they had ushered in a new India where famine would be a thing of the past.

    It sounds like a particularly brutal precursor of the old laissez-faire two step shuffle, where first you say that your system is right because if people behave properly it will produce optimal outcomes, and then you say that the terrible outcomes are proper because the system is right. People decide which system to support based on the predicted outcomes but after that they want whatever outcome the system gives them.

    *is this one of the dreaded eurocentric poco texts? It certainly doesn’t shy away from discussing famines outside or before the european empires…

  • pconroy

    @61,

    Cromwell removed Native Irish from 3/4 of the country, and forcibly relocated them to the poorest 1/4 of Ireland, or deported them as slaves to the Caribbean, or killed them outright. Of course the massive relocation effort and destruction, caused by the introduction of cannons and firearms against sword and pike wielding Irish, was like Hitler’s blitzkrieg into Poland, where planes and tanks faced off against Polish horse-mounted cavalry. There was massive destruction of cropland, destruction of buildings, and this caused massive starvation and famine in its wake.

    The population of Ireland declined from about 1,500,000 to 650,000 in a matter of years.

    Rural areas of Connaught until recently had a population density greater than anywhere else in Europe, barring cities. The only food crop capable of supporting a huge rural population in poor soil was of course the potato, which had been introduced about 100 years before Cromwell to Europe via Galway by Spanish ships on their way to Spain. You had families of 13 living on a single acre of land. The rural poor began to rely heavily on the potato, and the population rapidly rebounded, climbing to about 9,000,000 only about 200 years later.

  • Onur

    Conroy, what happened to the Native Irish-removed, British-repopulated 3/4 of Ireland in the years and centuries following Cromwall? Did Native Irish return to those areas and become again the majority of the population there (especially after their population explosion)? And how is the situation today?

  • Nandalal Rasiah

    I thought the primary criticism of Pinker was of the much earlier time-period: that his data on hunter-gatherers comes from societies on which there is some (I don’t know how much or whether this is true)debate as to whether they were still hunter-gatherers or not (Yanomamo especially) at the time the data was collected.
    When did it become, “but colonialism”? You don’t even have to possess a”thick” understanding of world history to know that’s a paper crutch for the reviewer–native power structures are not described as mutually-masturbating-to-conflict-resolution bonobo communes outside of poco scholarship.

  • Grey

    toto
    “Maybe the Western (i.e. European) actions are seen as “worse” not because of their intrinsic character, but because of their sheer extent?”

    I think that’s a lot of it, which is largely a simple function of technology, especially ship-building, but the other aspect is a certain version of the history is used as a current political weapon within western countries which ironically enough leads to western anti-colonialists needing to colonize other people’s history.

  • pconroy

    @64,

    Onur, yes Native Irish streamed back from the West, many converting to the Church of Ireland (Anglican) to avoid being deported back. Many of these same people would leave the CofI again, when the winds of change favored being Catholic.

    I suspect that my father’s family were CofI for a hundred or more years, though I can’t quite prove it. I say this based on choice of first names, and professions during the period.

  • Chris T

    that his data on hunter-gatherers comes from societies on which there is some (I don’t know how much or whether this is true)debate as to whether they were still hunter-gatherers or not (Yanomamo especially) at the time the data was collected.

    Frankly I wonder how useful modern H/G groups are as a model. Most of them have been in fairly frequent contact with non-H/G groups over the course of history or live on land unsuitable for agriculture.

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

    #68, yes.

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

    I found factual errors in Pinker’s book, and I wrote a post about it: “Kill Popular Science.”

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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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