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October 20, 2011 9:40 AM   Subscribe

The Better Angels of our Nature is a new book from Steven Pinker. While much is made of the violence of the 20th century, how does it stack up historically? According to Pinker, among others, actually the days we live in are a lot less violent than those in the past.

Pinker also gave a TED talk about the Myth of Violence in 2007, and wrote an essay about the History of Violence.

Previously on AskMeFi.
posted by Megami (106 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Developing and deploying biological weapons, two world wars, constant warfare throughout the globe and the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations (with this possibility existing forever now that the box has been opened) does not indicate, no matter how much Pinker argues, that we live in a safer time.

I think for Europe and much of the western world, perhaps we do. However, the other side of the coin includes the desolate slums in South America, Africa and Asia where the idea of tabulating crime rates is an absurd Herculean task.

Not convinced.

(Hits 'Post Comment' and enjoys coffee in comfortable, first-world office setting)
posted by glaucon at 9:46 AM on October 20, 2011


I can't comment on Pinker's work in his own field, but he's kind of out of his depth when he tries to engage anthropology and history. It's pretty sloppy analysis.

Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.

That kind of pot-shot is pretty telling pf the guy's work really. In theory, personal politics are supposed to be separated from research. This reads like a crappy op-ed piece.

Besides, weren't the Contras right wing? :D
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:52 AM on October 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Yes, glaucon, yet in spite of that, there's STILL less untimely deaths from violence relative to population. I'm no panglossian, but that's a pretty good thing. I think we tend to vastly underestimate how much it sucked to live in the past.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:53 AM on October 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


but he's kind of out of his depth

That's a good summary of Pinker generally, I think.

Because of the scale of threat and warfare in our modern era, there is no real sense that we are any safer. I was going to say that at least the culture around warfare has changed, i.e. that it isn't like, say, ancient Greece, where a Polis might attack another or the Persians might attack Attica or whatever just because they are there, because war is glorious, because doing something else is sort of unthinkable, etc. I was going to say, you know, it isn't like THAT anymore.

But it pretty much is.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:58 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


That said, Stagger is spot on that Pinker's comment indicates an anthropological dilettantism that is regrettable. As soon as academics graduate to 'public intellectual' stage, they tend to start assuming that their expertise is general in nature, and proceed to say the stupidest things imaginable. c.f. Cornell West
posted by leotrotsky at 9:59 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think we tend to vastly underestimate how much it sucked to live in the past.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:53 AM on October 20 [1 favorite +] [!]


Eponysterical.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:59 AM on October 20, 2011


I think he got skewered pretty hard the other night on the Colbert Report. The difficulty with broaching a topic like this is he defined and refined and generalized his points until the number he was using was kind of pointless: The best jab Colbert landed on him was in regards to scaling - something to the effect that if 1M people died out of 2M that was bad, but if 1M people died out of 10M that was progress....

The whole excercise felt pretty disingenous - I can see this book coming back in the aresenal of the right wing schtick - pointing out that hey - so what if a few Iraquis and Afghanis die - they're better off than they were a hundred years ago... And that felt like the basis of Pinker's argument - that in the grand scheme of things - everything is hunky dorey with violence since on a global scale stretched to irrelevant and arbitrary time boundaries it looks better...
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:59 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


The best jab Colbert landed on him was in regards to scaling - something to the effect that if 1M people died out of 2M that was bad, but if 1M people died out of 10M that was progress....

I think that's exactly right.
posted by empath at 10:04 AM on October 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


FWIW ...

When I was in elementary school in the 70s, fistfight between two students was a daily occurrence. In high school in the 80s, it was weekly, and the crowds they would attract would quickly grow to an arena, complete with cheering sections. This was in an ordinary middle-class American suburb. I imagine the inner cities were like gladiator academies.

My wife, the schoolteacher, says fights are almost unheard of today in similar suburbs.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:04 AM on October 20, 2011


...does not indicate, no matter how much Pinker argues, that we live in a safer time.

posted by glaucon at 5:46 PM on October 20


This is not the same thing as saying we live in a less violent time.
posted by Decani at 10:08 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


In absolute terms, I'm sure we're more violent today. World War II alone is more violent than anything that came before the 20th century, in raw number of casualties. But if looked at from a relative point of view in terms of overall human population, there's no doubt earlier centuries were way way worse.

However, the other side of the coin includes the desolate slums in South America, Africa and Asia where the idea of tabulating crime rates is an absurd Herculean task.

An Lushan Rebellion
Taiping Rebellion
Mongol Conquests

Keep in mind also that as meaningless and often violated as war crimes laws and the Geneva Conventions may seem, at least those concepts exist nowadays. Previous warfare rarely considered civilians privileged at all.

All this of course is not to say that just because things are better nowadays, relatively, that everything's hunky-dory. People are still shit to people, and we can always strive to better. 1M dead out of 10M is progress from 1M out of 2M dead, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for no dead.

Do you want to live in the "good ol' days"? That's reactionary bullshit. The good ol' days were very rarely good for anybody.

c.f. Cornell West

What's wrong with Cornell West?
posted by kmz at 10:12 AM on October 20, 2011




This is not the same thing as saying we live in a less violent time.


While that's true, Pinker is quite specifically arguing for some kind of progress. This quote is extremely telling:

"Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."


He's not contenting himself with discussing whether there's been a relative decline in violence, he's trying to claim that mankind is becoming less cruel, less violent, and more "noble."

There are more than a few warning signs in there. In his opening rhetoric, he leaps from discussing the burning of live cats to Darfur and Stalin.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:13 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Meh, I'd take whatever Pinker says with a healthy dose of skepticism. His methods are, shall we say, rather unsound.
posted by clvrmnky at 10:13 AM on October 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


One human life still equals one human life. If we look at mortality in terms of rates then we implicitly accept the economic principle that humans are a fungible commodity whose individual value decreases as overall supply increases. I consider that analysis fundamentally antisocial.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:17 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's widely accepted that inter-personal violence is down, I think. This essay has a good graph showing the drop in murder rates in selected English towns since medieval times. I also recall reading that the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (aka the English Civil War) resulted in the deaths of a higher percentage of the population than either of the two world wars (of course, being fought on home ground would be a major factor). But does still leave open those questions raised above about the potentials of modern warfare and weaponry.
posted by Abiezer at 10:18 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


His methods are, shall we say, rather unsound.

Example?
posted by John Cohen at 10:18 AM on October 20, 2011


"...violent mortality in terms of proportional/relative rates..."

The value of human life is one of the few things that should always be reckoned in absolute terms.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:19 AM on October 20, 2011


While much is made of the violence of the 20th century ...

Individual on individual violence has waned considerably since feudal times, but our ability to massacre large numbers of people at one time has increased considerably, starting mostly with WWI?

This is not the same thing as saying we live in a less violent time.

Ditto.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:19 AM on October 20, 2011




One human life still equals one human life. If we look at mortality in terms of rates then we implicitly accept the economic principle that humans are a fungible commodity whose individual value decreases as overall supply increases. I consider that analysis fundamentally antisocial.

Or we say that human life is still worth what it was 2000 years ago, but that there's greater total human wealth in the world. You don't need to assume that all people added up have the same value they did at the dawn of man.

Losing a million to violence still has the same cost, but as individuals we're all better off because it's less likely we're going to get stabbed in the eye with a spear. Society is better off because we're better able to absorb the costs. Yay?
posted by pjaust at 10:24 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."

What does he propose this something is? Mass communication? Democracy? Education?
posted by pracowity at 10:24 AM on October 20, 2011


I consider that analysis fundamentally antisocial.

So when you look at crime statistics you consider it antisocial to consider a place with 100 people and 10 murders less safe than a place with 5,000,000 people and 20 murders?
posted by Justinian at 10:27 AM on October 20, 2011 [12 favorites]


I've read a few discussions of Pinker's argument on Metafilter before, and the level of our conversation always frustrates me. He's offering a statistical argument with citations to research, and our rebuttal is purely anecdotal.

For example, here's a few quotes from the essay link:

According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

...

Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade.

...

The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply—for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.


If he's using bogus research, or it doesn't support his conclusion that per capita violence is declining, then surely some expert has explained why by now somewhere on the internet, and I'd love to read it. But instead we get "he's wrong because of X recent conflict" or "he's wrong because he used the word 'leftist'." It's frustratingly anti-scientific.
posted by Honorable John at 10:29 AM on October 20, 2011 [29 favorites]


Doesn't pinker also exclude violence in certain poor minority communities in the US in his analysis? I'm not sure if that's true, but someone else claimed as much in a previous discussion of this analysis.

I get that Pinker is trying to give us hope that it's possible for humanity to make progress on the big issues, and I guess that's noble in its own way, but it seems too soon to go unfurling the mission accomplished banner, or to conclude that whatever progress we've made is more than a statistical anomaly that'll just be reversed overnight.

Or we say that human life is still worth what it was 2000 years ago, but that there's greater total human wealth in the world.

I just don't like the idea of looking at the value of human life in economic terms (like wealth) at all. But I'm old fashioned in that respect, I know.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:30 AM on October 20, 2011


Hasn't this concept been introduced several times in the last ten or more years? I remember reading a paper on this years and years ago, I was surprised that it was being touted as a new conclusion rather than a known fact.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:34 AM on October 20, 2011


So when you look at crime statistics you consider it antisocial to consider a place with 100 people and 10 murders less safe than a place with 5,000,000 people and 20 murders?

My point is we had more people in absolute terms dying violently in the 20th century than in the past. The absolute weight of that suffering shouldn't be discounted in any analysis. People have interior lives, and in those interior lives 1 life easily equals a million. A proper analysis would somehow account for that.

A million dead today does not equal 100 dead yesterday just because there are more of us now. The value of human life doesn't scale rationally.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:37 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The phrase Better Angels of our Nature brings on a song in my head. That is all. Now back to the topic...
posted by MtDewd at 10:38 AM on October 20, 2011


Father Dragon, I heard an author arguing the same point as Pinker on ABC Radio Late Night Live some time in the past 18 months but couldn't find a link. But yes, Pinker is not the first to be making this point lately.
posted by Megami at 10:38 AM on October 20, 2011


Peter Singer had a review of Better Angels in the NYT.
posted by box at 10:39 AM on October 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's a good thing we killed all those indigenous people so that we don't have to tally their violent lifestyles. In our primitive past, we wouldn't have been able to kill all those people to keep them off the books.
posted by mobunited at 10:45 AM on October 20, 2011


To quote Lenny Bruce:
"Do you think yourselves better
because you burned
your enemies at long distance...?"

Does this type of thinking lead to creating TV comedies about predator drone pilots?
posted by joetrip at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2011


Not to be confused with Michael Halleran's excellent book The Better Angels of our Nature: Freemasonry in the American Civil War.
posted by usonian at 10:51 AM on October 20, 2011


This is not new information- I've seen multiple studies over the last decade that show a long-term decline in violence. Given the variety of methodologies, the evidence is strong, and I haven't seen good arguments about the data.

What's interesting is that this evidence so strongly conflicts with what people WANT to believe. People in the highly comfortable and wealthy Western world clearly want to believe that this is a terrible, violent, horror of a time, and they want to believe the future will be even worse.

It's weird, and I don't quite know the reason for this semi-religious belief. Is it to justify their cynical attitude toward mankind? Is it so they can keep believing that things will get worse until a revolution sets things straight? Is it some sort of phonological Munchasen Syndrome by Proxy where they think humanity is sick and dying? Or is this some sort of bizarre remnant of Calvinism combined with a fear of the Other? A sublimated desire to return to childhood?

I really don't know. But it's fascinating how it's not just that perceptions don't match reality, but people are determined to believe the present is worse than the past.
posted by happyroach at 11:08 AM on October 20, 2011 [21 favorites]


Doesn't pinker also exclude violence in certain poor minority communities in the US in his analysis? I'm not sure if that's true, but someone else claimed as much in a previous discussion of this analysis.

It's not true. The claim was made-up because the poster found it convenient to win an argument. Now it's spreading as a meme.

I'm humored by the Pinker-hate on MeFi, the guy is really brilliant and the sort of knee-jerk reactions to his latest book don't take into account his book as written. It's a shoot the messenger thing. People don't like to hear that our times are not as bad as they think they are, in comparison to the past. It goes against current cultural zeitgeist, no one wants to hear it. If the economy was booming and this was 1999 Pinker's message would be better received.

Another stat: more Americans died in the past 30 years from traffic accidents than Americans died in the past 300 years from all wars combined. It's a quiet violence, the kind we don't talk about. I posted a FPP yesterday of a notable traffic accident in China and it was deleted in 5 minutes - can't talk about it, unacceptable to examine the death occurring all around us every day.
posted by stbalbach at 11:10 AM on October 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


..and what happyroach just posted, agree 100%, I've seen these stats for years showing declines in violence. The evidence is from multiple sources over a long time, not just Pinker and one book.
posted by stbalbach at 11:12 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think some people aren't getting the point of Pinker's observation that death rates are lower than they used to be. The point I think is being made here is that if you had to choose being born as a random person now or as a random person centuries ago, you'd pick now.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:15 AM on October 20, 2011


If we look at mortality in terms of rates then we implicitly accept the economic principle that humans are a fungible commodity whose individual value decreases as overall supply increases. I consider that analysis fundamentally antisocial.

This is nuts.

If you consider violence a social disease, than reducing the incident rate of the disease is an improvement. You absolute must consider it as a percentage and not raw numbers.
posted by empath at 11:15 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interpersonal violence is way down, destructive capabilities of war are way up. I'm intrigued to read the book itself. If someone has a substantive repudiation of his book's arguments, then I'm interested in seeing that as well.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:17 AM on October 20, 2011


Would you rather live in a village of 20 people where 10 people are going to die of malaria in the next year, or a town of 20,000 where 100 people are going to die of malaria of next year?
posted by empath at 11:17 AM on October 20, 2011


Would you rather live in a village of 20 people where 10 people are going to die of malaria in the next year, or a town of 20,000 where 100 people are going to die of malaria of next year?

That's an inapt comparison. Rates, not just absolute numbers, of interpersonal violence are way down. What's more dangerous nowadays, or at least has been more dangerous over the past 120 years or so, is the greater destructive capabilities of the automated war machine. When all-out wars do happen, they have the potential to be far worse, as far as deaths are concerned.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:22 AM on October 20, 2011


Sticherbeast: Pinker explicitly documents that war fatalities are also becoming much less frequent. For example the per capita death toll of the Huns outdo the worst of the 20th century.
posted by idiopath at 11:26 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Right, but at the same time, Attila the Hun never had to contemplate a Dr. Strangelove scenario in which the entire planet explodes due to nuclear weapons.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:28 AM on October 20, 2011



I'm humored by the Pinker-hate on MeFi, the guy is really brilliant and the sort of knee-jerk reactions to his latest book don't take into account his book as written. It's a shoot the messenger thing. People don't like to hear that our times are not as bad as they think they are, in comparison to the past. It goes against current cultural zeitgeist, no one wants to hear it. If the economy was booming and this was 1999 Pinker's message would be better received.


I'm going on the article posted, and it's full of blatant political posturing, empty rhetoric and weak analysis. Maybe the book is a lot better, but it wasn't linked here, and after reading the linked stuff I'm going to be somewhat skeptical.

As I said earlier, he may be brilliant in his field, but he's not terribly brilliant at history or anthropology. It's not about disliking his conclusions, it's about his research, writing and analysis.

If the economy was booming and this was 1999 Pinker's message would be better received.

Maybe so, but that wouldn't transform it into quality scholarship. I guess I'm starting to understand why academics are so suspicious of "popular" histories and sciences.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:33 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


> I posted a FPP yesterday of a notable traffic accident in China and it was deleted in 5 minutes - can't talk about it, unacceptable to examine the death occurring all around us every day.

Aye aye aye aye aye aye aye.

That is a deeply disturbing story but it deserves attention. Not surprised it got nixed as a metafilter fpp.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that in another thousand years humans will look back on our personal automobile culture with the level of disdain that we look back on the Aztecs sacrificing humans to Quetzocatl or whatever it was they were doing.
posted by bukvich at 11:35 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Stagger Lee:

There was a notable fashion of explicitly leftist noble savage bullshit in 1990's anthropology. All that matriarchy and anarcho-primitivist garbage. As a leftist I found it very inspiring, but it was built on really bad science. Not "sloppy methods" bad science as much as "making shit up because wouldn't it be nice if it was that way" bad science.

So yeah, contra the leftists hunter gatherer society was quite violent, and we have no evidence to suggest otherwise.
posted by idiopath at 11:39 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Decani: This is not the same thing as saying we live in a less violent time.

I think that's a pivotal point in this discussion, and one that Pinker acknowledges outright.
posted by stroke_count at 11:40 AM on October 20, 2011


I should add, I am still a leftist (as I was before I found the noble savage anthropology of the '90s), but outright fabrication poisons the movement and the entire discourse. Seriously, fuck that kind of shit.
posted by idiopath at 11:43 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who here has actually read the book?
posted by Che boludo! at 11:45 AM on October 20, 2011



Stagger Lee:

I have a background in history and anthropology, I understand full well what "noble savage" means.

But if you're claiming to any kind of academic credibility, you're not going to get anywhere by throwing in political potshots.

There have been plenty of deconstructions of the "noble savage" idea. Here though, the author positioned himself in opposition to so called "leftist anthropologists," implying that to him at least, this study is political. That massively undermines his credibi8lity in my opinion, not because he's right wing, but because he drags his own political ideology into the context of a supposedly objective study.

Honestly, I can't see any situation where peer review wouldn't totally devastate this stuff. Now I realize that his essay wasn't written for peer-review or submitted for the same, and I think that we should all think very seriously about what that means.

I'll go to psych professors for history lessons the same day I go to a massage therapist for heart problems.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:46 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Come to think of it, "noble savage" is a bit of a strawman anyway, since I don't think that it's really serious credited by any modern academic history. Nobody with any credibility is even claiming that there was a uniform nobility to per-agrarian.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:59 AM on October 20, 2011


*pre-agrarian life.
Where's that edit button.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:59 AM on October 20, 2011


a massage therapist for heart problems.

You'll be real sorry when you have a heart attack on a plane and Dr. Smith, cardiothoracic expert and part-time massage therapist, is the only doctor onboard.
posted by kmz at 12:01 PM on October 20, 2011


Come to think of it, "noble savage" is a bit of a strawman anyway, since I don't think that it's really serious credited by any modern academic history.

I'm sure you're right about history in general. For what it's worth, though, the idea is nonetheless parroted by many people who read other pop history books, or by people who read older narratives about the alleged superiority of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, without reading other perspectives.

I don't know very much about anarcho-primitivism, being a tool-using ape myself, but I was under the impression that among its ranks (and among its sympathizers) count a number of respected academics. (Not that their views would hold water among respected historians.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:11 PM on October 20, 2011


Read the book: it's an (800 plus page, massively referenced) expansion of the article that doesn't contain (at least as far as I saw) the kind of stuff that people are attacking here.

I think he makes a compelling case. I interviewed him here. We don't think cat or human torture is acceptable entertainment any more, we don't think bullying should be ignored as "boys will be boys," the murder rate is down exponentially over the course of European history and we're now to the point of wanting to extend human rights to animals.

In the interview, he discusses the main arguments he makes for how we got "civilized."

And I have to say that I haven't seen anyone address his arguments well enough to make an effective case against them: all I've seen is people dismissing the data or making snarky remarks about his language use, rather than dealing with the claims he actually makes. I don't see how you can possibly say it's not an improvement to dramatically reduce violence per capita.
posted by Maias at 12:39 PM on October 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Right, but at the same time, Attila the Hun never had to contemplate a Dr. Strangelove scenario in which the entire planet explodes due to nuclear weapons.

The fact that we have to contemplate that is a big part of the reason that we have had far few deaths due to war.
posted by empath at 12:41 PM on October 20, 2011


Honestly, I can't see any situation where peer review wouldn't totally devastate this stuff. Now I realize that his essay wasn't written for peer-review or submitted for the same, and I think that we should all think very seriously about what that means.

I'll go to psych professors for history lessons the same day I go to a massage therapist for heart problems.


He has an 800 page, thoroughly-referenced book you can argue with instead of a very brief pop-science essay, if you prefer.
posted by empath at 12:43 PM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm about 600 pages in. His claims seem valid and backed up by an enormous amount of data. Have I checked all the sources? Of course not. I'm going to go ahead and trust the data provided. It doesn't really matter anyway. I'm reading it for entertainment.

His ultimate claim is death rates from human on human violence have fallen dramatically. After WWII there rates have declined faster than ever. Yes we have "weapons of mass destruction", but after Hiroshima and Nagasaki nobody has dared to use nukes against another country. He claims as nukes have raised the stakes on modern warfare, it has increased our reluctance (first world at least) to enter into wars between nuclear states and the current conventional wars are resulting in significantly lower death counts.

Lutoslawski states that, "Because of the scale of threat and warfare in our modern era, there is no real sense that we are any safer." The key word in this statement is SENSE. Our sense of a more violent world comes from endless news coverage of violent events, potentially violent events, and fear of large scale violent events. Pinker is trying to argue that our sense in this case is incorrect.

Also, the book gets pretty detailed into the psychology of violence. I would assume he earns a little credibility in the psychology dept.

Cut the guy some slack until you have read the book.
posted by Che boludo! at 12:56 PM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


> but people are determined to believe the present is worse than the past.

I think the main reason people think the past was better is because we know what happened next.
posted by mmrtnt at 1:00 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree that the present is less violent than the past, but "a statistical anomaly that'll just be reversed overnight" is about how the situation looks to me. The first world has been relatively restrained in war because we can afford to be: our wars are distant and hardly involve our own land or our own civilians. That could change in an instant, and if it does we're likely to see mass death on a tremendous scale. Followed by another period of peace as we all lick our wounds, of course, but there it is.

Countless humans have crowed about living at the dawning of the Great Age of Peace, and over the long view all of them were wrong -- particularly the ones who were wrong in 1909 or so, and again around 1925. I think we'd be better off if we battened down the hatches (getting out of the pointless wars we're in; promoting stability, quality of life, and meaningful achievement via economic and social policy) rather than lauding ourselves for "creating" a peace that might just be the usual calm before the storm.
posted by vorfeed at 1:00 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


His methods are, shall we say, rather unsound.

Example?


He wrote one of the worst brain imaging papers I've ever read, in which he pointed to a huge swatch of activation likely covering a dozen different motor and pre-motor areas in frontal cortex and said that it was a network responsible for syntactical processing.

He also has a tendency to dismiss hugely influential books with pithy put-downs that reveal that he hasn't so much as skimmed them. I've seen him criticize books for not addressing issues to which they devoted whole chapters, for example.
posted by IjonTichy at 1:04 PM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


...that should have been "swath". Damnit.
posted by IjonTichy at 1:05 PM on October 20, 2011


We are restrained in war these days because we can't afford the ultimate cost of a large war. It's not in our interest or the interests of developed nations to waste and risk our resources in a large war.

It could be we are in a great age of peace. Of course, all good things.........
posted by Che boludo! at 1:08 PM on October 20, 2011


I'm about 3/4 through the book. I've also read a lot of Lawrence Keeley's work and rebuttals to it. I don't think there is any way to get around the fact that there is no way to get a statistically valid data from the Paleolithic regarding violence considering we have non-random samples of random bones. Modern foragers are not Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, their cultures have been shaped for thousands of years through interactions with farmers and pastoralists. It's stupid to even argue about to what degree Paleolithic peoples were violent. Some much have been, as there are skeletons with pretty unequivocal injuries from interpersonal violence, but how often that happened is lost to time.

But as we get closer to the present, the data is much better and shows that for a growing segment of the world's population, violence is becoming quite alien to their day to day lives and therefore becoming quite unacceptable. This is an important trend, but for how long will it last and will it continue to grow?
posted by melissam at 1:08 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't see how you can possibly say it's not an improvement to dramatically reduce violence per capita.
In the good old days it was a democratic violence where anyone who was game could have a go; now you have to join the police or army to play, or face some pretty dire consequences!
posted by Abiezer at 1:08 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not true. The claim was made-up because the poster found it convenient to win an argument. Now it's spreading as a meme.

Thank you for clarifying that before I accidentally spread it around without at least a qualification. I don't quite understand the depth of the hate for Pinker either (and I didn't mean to suggest he personally was antisocial for using comparative rates of violent mortality in his analysis; I only meant to use that term to contrast with what I consider to be a more pro-social way of thinking about human life and the impact of large scale violence on humanity). On the contrary, I've personally always had kind of a soft spot for Pinker, though I don't always completely agree with him.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:11 PM on October 20, 2011


So when you look at crime statistics you consider it antisocial to consider a place with 100 people and 10 murders less safe than a place with 5,000,000 people and 20 murders?

Again, to be clear, antisocial as opposed to prosocial--not antisocial in the everyday sense of criminal or cruel.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:13 PM on October 20, 2011


I was an anthropology major in the late '90s/early 'aughties, and I actually agree with Pinker that, at least back then, the discipline was infested with just a preposterous degree of ideologically-driven rejection of empirical evidence about the more miserable parts of the human experience in hunter-gatherer cultures.

However, I think his analysis of the decline of violence is sort of fundamentally flawed in the same way that somebody in 2005 saying that fundamental changes to the economy mean that real estate prices will always continue to rise would be. In point of fact, we may have just concentrated all of the risk into a few really terrible edge cases. When you look at the history of the nuclear weapons era, there have been numerous occasions where the risk of a nuclear war was extremely high - including even instances, such as Able Archer 83, where neither party that nearly went to war even wanted one, but one party erroneously thought the other was about to launch a preemptive strike and felt it had no choice but to respond.

That so far we haven't actually experienced the failure case certainly doesn't make it impossible - we may simply not be looking at trends in violence with a long enough timeline. Even if nuclear weapons buy humanity 500 years of peace, if that period of peace is ended with an extinction even, clearly it would have been better just to have lots of little brushfire wars in the meantime.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:15 PM on October 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


I haven't read the book, but I am wondering if he accounts for increased medical capability as a reason why there are not more deaths. I know that as medical technology has advanced an injured soldier's chances of surviving have increased and deaths have decreased.

I think I would more readily believe the idea that fewer people are dying than in the past, but I would hesitate to say that's because we are "better" now than we were in the past.
posted by Horatius at 1:32 PM on October 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Also, if incarceration counts as violence then I'm not sure Americans are any better off now than we were at the height of the Vietnam war. If we took the 1968 incarceration rate and applied it to today's population, around 360,000 people would be in prisons or jails every year, not 2,292,133 (with another five million on probation or parole).

That's a hell of a lot of casualties. How can this be justified, especially given that we're living in a much less violent society than we were in 1968? I can certainly buy the idea that many of these people are themselves violent... but six times more so than they were in 1968, even as the entire world has become much less violent, including in countries without skyrocketing incarceration rates?

Over the last thirty years we've moved the crosshairs over more and more of our own citizens, even as they became less and less violent. I don't think we have much room to crow about how "noble" that is.
posted by vorfeed at 1:37 PM on October 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


It seems to me that ever since the cheerful and enlightening The Language Instinct the tone of Pinker's books got gradually more and more miserable and paranoid. So it's nice if he's at least got an upbeat thesis.
posted by Segundus at 2:19 PM on October 20, 2011


Sure are lots of cites about terrible leftist 90s anthropology that doesn't actually cite any anthropology so much as hazy memories of something John Zerzan might have said, that somebody maybe read about on a message board somewhere. Funnily, I, who have read some Zerzan in my time, have not read any claim by him that hunter-gatherers are nonviolent. He claims that a society without technology or symbolic culture is preferable for a number of not-easily-summarized reasons which I do not agree with, but are not the popular cartoon, either.

Now the reason we Awful Leftists are down on the idea of progress is that our hearts positively bleed for all the people not counted in these progress estimates because they were systematically murdered. Certainly, there is something obscene about lauding this sort of progress when it was achieved after not only eliminating much of the population of a continent and large numbers of several others, but measured without counting the destruction of these people as a loss -- it is simply rendered invisible. Of course, Awful Leftists are used to such things. Pretending the people you killed to get stuff never existed is not only standard practice, but enshrined in the colonial fiction of terra nullius. But these are big words used to complain about all the cool stuff we have, so they must be some kind of bleed-heart bleating.
posted by mobunited at 2:39 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


So mobunited, are you saying that more people are being systemically slaughtered these days? That the number has increased over the last century? Because otherwise I can't tell what in the world your statement has to do with the topic.
posted by happyroach at 2:59 PM on October 20, 2011


Because otherwise I can't tell what in the world your statement has to do with the topic.

Pinker's value judgments are corrupt because they implicitly condone genocide. They implicitly condone genocide because he applauds a history that required genocide to reach the narrative that pleases him, and assigns no countervailing weight to genocide beyond the fact that it removed a number of human beings.
posted by mobunited at 3:11 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


If he's using bogus research, or it doesn't support his conclusion that per capita violence is declining, then surely some expert has explained why by now somewhere on the internet, and I'd love to read it.

...

If someone has a substantive repudiation of his book's arguments, then I'm interested in seeing that as well.


I enjoyed this takedown in Prospect Magazine very much.

I hate it when popular academics start drinking their own kool-aid.
posted by smoke at 5:15 PM on October 20, 2011


It feels like humanity keeps getting more civilized and safer, and ordinary people are more free from harm.

But I'm probably speaking from a position of massive privilege.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:42 PM on October 20, 2011


It feels like humanity keeps getting more civilized and safer, and ordinary people are more free from harm.

It probably doesn't feel like that so much if you've lived through seeing your neighbors all just suddenly rise up and start slaughtering each other with machetes, or if you lived through watching them being led into ovens, is I think the counterargument. But while it's one I find persuasive, I'll be the first to admit it's not a particularly scientific argument. Luckily, not all legitimate arguments or personal viewpoints have to be scientifically sound or peer reviewed.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:36 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, does Pinky need a new boat or have a kid in college?

Shamelessly opining on anything at all in pursuit of intellectual celebrity, the worst of the entrepreneurial academy on display, always willing to engage in the odd ad hominmen, and hasn't done serious science in forever.

So of course this will be a best-seller.
posted by spitbull at 6:37 PM on October 20, 2011


Seriously, this guy is the Glenn Beck of popular science.
posted by spitbull at 6:38 PM on October 20, 2011


Horatius, obviously, has the missing piece, nailed it in two sentences.
posted by spitbull at 6:40 PM on October 20, 2011


John Gray doesn't engage in Pinker's argument at all, nor does he present any counter-evidence. All I hear are sneers, but where's the data? If you believe violence is worsening, provide the numbers.
posted by Maias at 6:41 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


In point of fact, we may have just concentrated all of the risk into a few really terrible edge cases.

In fact, this is exactly what Pinker says, if you actually read the book. He doesn't say violence is forever over and done, that we can't slip back or that a terrorist can't suddenly wreak massive mayhem. He argues rather persuasively, however, that where literacy, government, democracy, markets and other practices that have encouraged self-control and intellectual development have arisen, interpersonal violence declines and so do wars. I'm still not seeing a good counter-argument, merely sniping about one sentence on anthropology in an old article.
posted by Maias at 6:45 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]




John Gray doesn't engage in Pinker's argument at all, nor does he present any counter-evidence. All I hear are sneers, but where's the data? If you believe violence is worsening, provide the numbers.

I think this really misses the whole point of Gray's critique, which is that even if the numbers are correct, Pinker's anaylsis is at the same time based on cherry-picking examples, ahistorical and elliptical. I've not read the book myself, so can't comment on that, but I think it's logical enough. Gray's whole criticism is that there is much more to this story than data.
posted by smoke at 6:49 PM on October 20, 2011


At some point, you become Stephen Pinker or Thomas Friedman, and the onus is no longer on your critics to specify all of your assumptions, biases, and errors of fact or interpretation. You earn a reputation for bullshit, the onus is on you to stake out slightly narrower claims.

This hypothesis is not simply testable, and that's part of the joke here. Like much ev psych reasoning, it's post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking, influenced as much by a desire to play bad boy conservative (ooh, this will sting those lefty anthropologists! -- and that plays well with a certain middle aged-boyzone crowd of pop science reader) as by any engagement with an actual problem we need to solve.

He's engaged in a philosophical defense of modernity, and a pretty narrowly Western version of modernity at that. No more, no less. Most of us on the left are past that. The one who's caught up in the old debate about human difference here is Prof. Pinker.

My beef with Pinker goes back to his slandering of an entire distinguished lineage of language science in his first popular book, where he developed the characteristic style of constructing a straw man capable of uttering idiotic versions of complex arguments and then beating it into dust with ad hominem pronouncements.
posted by spitbull at 6:55 PM on October 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeesh. If that New Yorker piece accurately characterizes the bulk of Pinker's work at all, then that soft spot of mine might be starting to harden...
posted by saulgoodman at 7:30 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gray's point about the export of conflicts from a stable developed global North was well worth making, if nothing else. But I've not read the book either.
posted by Abiezer at 7:38 PM on October 20, 2011


"Oh, does Pinky need a new boat or have a kid in college? ...

My beef with Pinker goes back to his slandering of an entire distinguished lineage of language science in his first popular book, where he developed the characteristic style of constructing a straw man capable of uttering idiotic versions of complex arguments and then beating it into dust with ad hominem pronouncements."


rofl, ad hominem you say?
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 7:43 PM on October 20, 2011


Thanks spitbull. I read that idea somewhere else, but can't remember where and it seemed applicable.

Reading Gray's article this really struck me:

Pinker is now ready to entertain “the possibility that in recent history Homo Sapiens has literally evolved to become less violent in the biologist’s technical sense of a change in our genome.” He concludes that there is very little evidence that this is so, but the fact that he takes the possibility seriously is telling.

Pinker would need to have a great deal of evidence to justify that possibility. How can this stuff even get published?
posted by Horatius at 8:23 PM on October 20, 2011


Would the fact that intelligence (at least as measured in terms of IQ) appears to be non-biologically deterministic have any implications for Pinker's ideas?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:44 PM on October 20, 2011


I've seen multiple studies over the last decade that show a long-term decline in violence. Given the variety of methodologies, the evidence is strong, and I haven't seen good arguments about the data.

What's interesting is that this evidence so strongly conflicts with what people WANT to believe. People in the highly comfortable and wealthy Western world clearly want to believe that this is a terrible, violent, horror of a time, and they want to believe the future will be even worse.


Okay, here's my stab at it. I'm going to tie it to the liberal Enlightenment view of human perfectibility, or at least improvement. I understand that as a belief that, through human action, humanity can be improved. (In "the West" this is a current running against the view that only Jesus/God/your favorite super-natural entity can save us.)

Violence in the past is over; nothing can change it, no matter what you do you cannot help those who suffered from it. But current violence is preventable, and thus more horrific.

Misery is not distributed evenly; those in the wealthy West know they have it good, really much better than the rest of humanity. Many are also aware that people in the past sacrificed to put them in their current comfort, and feel a need to continue this work. Dramatizing current violence is part of an effort to spur themselves and to bring others on-board their project.

They feel that the future will be worse, if we do not work to improve it.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:48 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd love to read this book. It sounds very interesting to me-- and it touches on a lot of issues I've been thinking about lately.

To be more specific, I've been researching classical Greece, and figuring out what a modern person would think if dropped into the middle of it. In a word: traumatic. Those were not nice times, especially not to modern eyes, with its rampant, violent misogyny, casual acceptance of infanticide and ceaseless warfare. As much as many modern people like to decry the times and the morals, I can't imagine how any contemporary western person in his or her right mind would voluntarily accept to live 2500 years ago. Things have definitely improved.

Now, in ancient Greece, there was this idea that there was a "Golden Age" in the past, to contrast with the "Iron age" of the present. A lot of people still kind of subscribe to this, even in light of the fact there is a lot of evidence that (at least in the west) lifestyles have improved greatly. Maybe I'm wrong, but I like to think that people now possess a slightly less rosier vision of the past then they did, say, 80 to 100 years ago. I say this, because I would often see, in novels and textbooks about antiquity from the 1920s and before, this idea that ancient Greece and Rome were like the most awesome times ever, and even with skyscrapers and electricity and women's suffrage, things sucked now, and by golly wouldn't it be wonderful to live back then! (I call such sentiments "Miniver Cheevyism" after the poem.)

So anyway, yeah. I am quite happy I don't live among "Priam's neighbors" and I'm glad my guy friends don't miss "the medieval grace of iron clothing." But I agree with benito.strauss-- we can't just rest on our laurels, such as they are. We have to keep working to improve the future, or it could start sucking again.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 11:18 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sometimes when I'm listening to someone argue that racism is worse now than it was during Jim Crow or that income inequality is worse than during the 19th century or that we live in more violent times than ever before, it makes me think, oddly enough, of that U2 song One:

"Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same? Will it make it easier on you now? You got someone to blame."

I don't understand why so many progressives (I consider myself one) seem to hate progress so much. A recent example in a area close to my heart is the recent evidence of an overall decline in child abuse and neglect in the US. Child welfare agencies continue to bend themselves in knots trying to explain away the data or shift the focus. Not only is it wrong on some ethical level, it undercuts everything else they do and say.

It really does seem like a psychosocial blind spot among many people working for positive change. So many progressives are like Bono's target: espousing "one love, one life" in the abstract, but incapable of giving and receiving love in reality.

I have issues with the oddball leaps that Pinker takes with data in the work of his that I've read, and the few interviews I've read and heard make him seem like an insufferable person.

But let's accept progress and extend it, not deny it. There is plenty of work left to do toward greater peace and justice.
posted by Cassford at 1:20 AM on October 21, 2011


Seriously, this guy is the Glenn Beck of popular science.

Just for the record, in this Guardian interview, Pinker says the following about his research and preparation:

"I had one research assistant, who did the graphing, spreadsheet-crunching and internet surveys. Even with those, I scrutinised the raw numbers to make sure that nothing screwy was going on with my data sources, such as wars being double-counted (for example, the second world war in Europe versus the second world war overall) or some decline being an artefact of a shift in inclusion criteria.

I spent a bit more than a year doing nothing but reading, to educate myself in fields I was not trained in – mainly criminology, history and international relations. The writing took 14 very intensive months. I had a sabbatical from Harvard, moved to our house in Cape Cod, and worked on it day and night seven days a week, taking time out only to exercise and spend time with my wife, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein.

I depended on guidance and feedback from Rebecca and from experts in many fields, whom I badgered for advice, clarification and feedback, on everything from which data sources to trust, to whether data in one of their graphs went from 1800 to 1824 or from 1801 to 1825."

Now, the above doesn't magically guarantee that Pinker's conclusions are sound, but I somehow doubt that Glenn Beck puts in the same effort.
posted by martinrebas at 2:41 AM on October 21, 2011


I like John Gray as much as the next Will Self fan, but his criticism isn't exactly a silver bullet. Gray's criticism is not so much about Pinker's data on declining violence, but about Pinker's conclusions as to what the data means. The most incisive part is when Gray challenges Pinker's claim of declining violence by pointing out that, at least in the Western world (especially the US), we've traded brutal incarceration for crime in the streets.

In the spirit of fair's fair, here's A. C. Grayling giving John Gray's Black Mass a similar treatment. I liked Black Mass myself, but it seems to be a product of the mirrorverse Pinker - a smart guy making interesting arguments, mixed in with overly broad claims and cherry-picking.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:30 AM on October 21, 2011


Sometimes when I'm listening to someone argue that racism is worse now than it was during Jim Crow or that income inequality is worse than during the 19th century or that we live in more violent times than ever before,

One of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn't belong...

Here's a hint: one of these things can actually be very simply proven with math.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:18 AM on October 21, 2011


But in general, I think I agree with your point. If we don't even allow for the possibility of progress, what are we struggling for?

Then again, on the other hand, the honest answer might just be the same as it ever was: we will always have to struggle so we don't get eaten up. Maybe the problem is with thinking it's possible to make stable progress that won't just be reversed the second we let our guard down, or participating in the common delusion that history is something we only made in the past, and not something we're still making and living with now.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:25 AM on October 21, 2011


I don't think there is any way to get around the fact that there is no way to get a statistically valid data from the Paleolithic regarding violence considering we have non-random samples of random bones. Modern foragers are not Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, their cultures have been shaped for thousands of years through interactions with farmers and pastoralists. It's stupid to even argue about to what degree Paleolithic peoples were violent. Some much have been, as there are skeletons with pretty unequivocal injuries from interpersonal violence, but how often that happened is lost to time.

quoted for truth - thank you melissam
posted by jammy at 6:54 AM on October 21, 2011


It's weird, and I don't quite know the reason for this semi-religious belief [...] that this is a terrible, violent, horror of a time, and [...] the future will be even worse.

This was recently addressed by a blog I frequent.

"If the world really is getting better, why do we feel that it's worse? If strong central control reduces violence, why have the people always opposed it? Our culture tells us that lack of pain is the best measure of quality of life, but it's not, or we would all live in padded cells. The best measure of quality of life is meaningfulness of life, and most of us will risk a lot of pain to feel alive."

Which turns the question to "Why do we feel our lives are less meaningful?" I can't come up with a satisfying answer to that question.

Sure, it's easy to think that flipping burgers for min. wage is less meaningful than hunting wild game, but there's really nothing inherently meaningful about one or the other.

Something to do with bureaucracy? Or maybe meaning is just overused these days (it's used to sell everything), or that use is just really shallow, and this shallow overuse makes many of us antagonistic towards all meaning? I dunno. Like I said, I can't come up with a satisfying answer.
posted by symbollocks at 9:51 AM on October 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


How has no one attempted to explain why violence is decreasing Jared Diamond style? Looks like horatius took a stab at it.

We have more resources, and our skill at using these fossil fuels to easily secure many of our basic needs has been steadily increasing as well, so we really have a lot less to fight about.

Of course, this brings up the question: What does peak-everything mean for the future of violence? The answer should be apparent in the next few centuries, and damn do I wish I could be around to find out.
posted by symbollocks at 10:06 AM on October 21, 2011


I don't agree that a nuclear event leading to human extinction wipes out the value of hundreds of years of peace (depending on the exact nature of the event). I think that calculus severely undercounts the 'value' of individual lives and suffering. If it's not my family I'm watching die painfully in front of me of violence, disease, and hunger, then it's easy to say that the long term survival of the species trumps our current suffering. But if I had to choose how to die, I'd rather live in relative peace and health with my family and ten go all at once and leaving no one behind (and possibly not even knowing what was happening until there's no knowing left) than one by one, watching each other suffer from violence, rape, hunger, disease, etc, slowly and painfully and mourning one another - and then ultimately having the human species almost certainly die out anyway, since that seems the way of earth species).
posted by Salamandrous at 11:57 AM on October 21, 2011


Which turns the question to "Why do we feel our lives are less meaningful?" I can't come up with a satisfying answer to that question.
Sure, it's easy to think that flipping burgers for min. wage is less meaningful than hunting wild game, but there's really nothing inherently meaningful about one or the other.


There may be nothing inherently meaningful about one or the other, but as anyone who has ever hunted can tell you, one of them is inherently much more satisfying than the other. Our brains naturally reward the process of hunting, seeking, solving and resolving; they do not reward the performance of repetitive tasks which have no beginning, end, immediate reward, or obvious positive effect on the quality of our daily lives. That sense of reward and accomplishment is central to the feeling of meaningfulness. The effect of society on social relations can't be overestimated, either. Our post-modern notions of "success" and "family" practically require weeks, months, and even years of aloneness. For a species of social primates that's a recipe for widespread unhappiness and lack of fulfilment.

In short, we've got topsy-turvy values: our sense of the "good" isn't derived from what makes us feel happy or strong or fulfilled, or even from what feeds us and keeps us warm, but from unquestioned first-principles which are divorced from such consequences (and often define them as "bad" in and of themselves).

We are at war with ourselves across a battlefield of denial and self-hatred, and unfortunately we seem to be winning.

I think Rat Park has a lot to say about our current condition. We tend to blame meaninglessness on specific social problems -- inequality, unemployment, poverty, violence, drugs and alcohol -- but I suspect that we've got it backwards. Meaninglessness generates many of these social problems, and will continue to do so unless we create a society which values quality-of-life in all its forms over ideology in all its forms.
posted by vorfeed at 1:13 PM on October 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Re: incarceration. That's an American problem, Europe hasn't done this and *has* had a much greater decline in the murder rate. The idea that we've just replaced one type of violence with another is bizarrely America-centric. Just look at comparisons in incarceration rates between the U.S. and Europe and murder rates. We're something like 7 or 8 times worse on both.

Second, that New Yorker review is not of this book!!!!
posted by Maias at 1:24 PM on October 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think we've "traded" one type of violence for another, as it's ridiculous to claim that there's a causative link -- as you said, Europe hasn't done this and violence has declined there, too.

I do think that incarceration is the elephant in the room here, though. Pinker is an American; Europeans may be able to ignore the violence of incarceration, but it seems awfully convenient for Pinker to do so. Besides, incarceration is a world problem -- prisoners in China, Russia, South Africa etc. are hard to ignore, too.
posted by vorfeed at 1:46 PM on October 21, 2011


Incarceration isn't killing: I'm not saying it's good, but it's clearly less violent than killing so he can ignore it. he's arguing that the worst form of violence—killing— has declined. And that this is being followed by declines in other forms of violence, obviously not always evenly and not in places that have not gone through the processes he describes that most reduce it. But incarceration cannot invalidate his argument and the worldwide growth in condemnation of and decline in the death penalty certainly validates it.
posted by Maias at 2:11 PM on October 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Incarceration isn't killing: I'm not saying it's good, but it's clearly less violent than killing so he can ignore it.

Incarceration is violent, and he is talking about violence, not just killing. If incarceration "cannot invalidate his argument" then it should be trivially easy to take it into account... even in America.
posted by vorfeed at 2:33 PM on October 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think Pinker diminishes the value of his work when he says ridiculous stuff, like in the interview maias linked where he suggests that the decline of manners amongst hippies may have caused an uptick in overall violence. If you want to be taken seriously you can't say totally ridiculous stuff for publication.
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