13 fallacies of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”

It only took me half an hour to find significant criticism of Pinker’s work and write this up.  If I had more time I could find a lot more. Hopefully this will spare you many days of wasted time reading this 832 page book.

John Gray (2015) describes Pinker’s thesis as:

“For an influential group of advanced thinkers, violence is a type of backwardness. In the most modern parts of the world, these thinkers tell us, war has practically disappeared. The world’s great powers are neither internally divided nor inclined to go to war with one another, and with the spread of democracy, the increase of wealth and the diffusion of enlightened values these states preside over an era of improvement the like of which has never been known. For those who lived through it, the last century may have seemed peculiarly violent, but that, it is argued, is mere subjective experience and not much more than anecdote. Scientifically assessed, the number of those killed in violent conflicts was steadily dropping. The numbers are still falling, and there is reason to think they will fall further. A shift is under way, not strictly inevitable but enormously powerful. After millennia of slaughter, humankind is entering the Long Peace.It is now not uncommon to find it stated, as though it were a matter of fact, that human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic. Ranging freely from human pre-history to the present day, Pinker presents his case with voluminous erudition. Part of his argument consists in showing that the past was more violent than we tend to imagine. Tribal peoples that have been praised by anthropologists for their peaceful ways, such as the Kalahari !Kung and the Arctic Inuit, in fact have rates of death by violence not unlike those of contemporary Detroit; while the risk of violent death in Europe is a fraction of what it was five centuries ago. Not only have violent deaths declined in number. Barbaric practices such as human sacrifice and execution by torture have been abolished, while cruelty towards women, children and animals is, Pinker claims, in steady decline. This “civilising process” – a term Pinker borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias – has come about largely as a result of the increasing power of the state, which in the most advanced countries has secured a near-monopoly of force. Other causes of the decline in violence include the invention of printing, the empowerment of women, enhanced powers of reasoning and expanding capacities for empathy in modern populations, and the growing influence of Enlightenment ideals.”

This is not a new thesis. Gray discusses the many writers who preceded Pinker.

Fallacy #1: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Please read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The “Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion” at http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/longpeace.pdf if you have a degree in statistics.

John Arquilla writes in Foreign Policy:

There are better ways to parse the problem of war’s prevalence and its patterns over time. One approach would be simply to look at the number of armed conflicts under way at any given time. The Human Security Report actually does this for the period 1946-2008, its compelling graphic showing a steady rise to over 50 wars per year in the early 1990s. The rest of that decade saw a drop of about 40 percent — to a great extent driven by the winding down of the Balkan and post-Soviet wars — and then a rising pattern once again post-9/11. Yes, the number of wars is down by over a third since the peak 20 years ago, but ongoing conflicts today are still more than double the totals seen in the years from the end of World War II until the mid-1950s, and are equal to the numbers of wars ongoing during the Vietnam era. It is hard to describe this as a world in which war is on the wane.

The argument that the world has become more peaceful is even harder to sustain if one focuses on the patterns of the most destructive wars of the past few centuries. In my own work, I chose to search for what I call “big-kill” wars, during which a million or more die — soldiers and civilians. From 1800-1850, only the Napoleonic Wars surpassed the million-death mark. In the latter half of the 19th century, there were two such wars: the Taiping Rebellion, during which 20 million or more Chinese died; and the Lopez War between Paraguay and its neighbors. The latter conflict resulted in “only” a million deaths, but Paraguay lost roughly 80 percent of military-age males during this war, which had a shattering societal effect.

Between 1900 and 1950, the number of big-kill wars doubled, if one is willing to accept the view of some that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) reached a million deaths. About the two world wars there is no doubt. The same is true of the civil war in China that ultimately brought Mao Zedong to power. And if one wants to consider the forced collectivization of farms that Stalin pursued as a form of internal war — which also saw the deaths of millions — then the total for this period would rise to five.

The troubling rise in big-kill wars in the first half of the 20th century was followed by an even more disturbing pattern in the second half: they doubled once again. There was nothing of the magnitude of World War II in sheer numbers of dead, but the million-mark in war deaths was steadily surmounted, mostly in societies in which such losses had staggering effects.

Six of these wars occurred in Africa. In rough chronological order they took place in Biafra, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Congo. Some debate whether the Rwandan genocide reached a million or fell slightly below, and the Human Security Project asserts that the International Red Cross’s estimate that five million people have died in the Congo war (an estimate echoed by many other reporting agencies) is a bit high — but both wars clearly fit the “big-kill” category in terms of percentages of the populations that have died from these wars and their societal effects. Besides, the more common historical pattern in the statistics of deadly quarrels has been to under-report deaths, so Rwanda and Congo should be kept in the count.

The other four big-kill wars occurred in Asia: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Afghanistan — the last just counting the Russian war there (1979-1989), not the civil strife of the ‘90s and the American intervention over the past decade. All four easily surpassed the million-mark in war deaths. There is debate about whether the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s reached this level — though there is little doubt about the profound effect of the conflict on both countries.

The rising number of the deadliest conflicts over the past two centuries belies both the conclusions of the Human Security Report and those of Professor Pinker.

there is another alarming trend that has been getting under way alongside the big-kill wars: the rise of smaller conflicts that nevertheless cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The Balkan wars of the 1990s fit this pattern. As does the Chechen resistance to Russia, both before and since the millennium. The civil war in Burundi (1993-2005) and Somalia (ongoing) fit this bill as well. The same goes for the strife in Darfur, and Syria is on the edge of entering this category as well. Most of the conflicts that fall into this category will occur in failed or failing states — see this magazine’s Failed States Index as a guide to where the next disaster may occur. The “red zones” of critical concern are massive.

No, war is not on the wane. The second horseman of the Apocalypse remains with us. Indeed, it seems he may even have found a fresh mount. 

Fallacy #2: ignoring how many people a future nuclear war might kill

What keeps many politicians awake at night is the day when a terrorist group gets a small nuclear bomb and detonates it in a large city. Given the massive amount of oil money these groups receive this is bound to happen someday.

John Gray writes:

It’s a mistake to focus too heavily on declining fatalities on the battlefield. If these deaths have been falling, one reason is the balance of terror: nuclear weapons have so far prevented industrial-style warfare between great powers. Pinker dismisses the role of nuclear weapons on the grounds that the use of other weapons of mass destruction such as poison gas has not prevented war in the past; but nuclear bombs are incomparably more destructive. No serious military historian doubts that fear of their use has been a major factor in preventing conflict between great powers. Moreover deaths of non-combatants have been steadily rising. Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war were of non-combatants, whereas around half of the more than 50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.”

Discussing the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in which nuclear war was narrowly averted, Pinker dismisses the view that “the de-escalation was purely a stroke of uncanny good luck”. Instead, he explains the fact that nuclear war was avoided by reference to the superior judgment of Kennedy and Khrushchev, who had “an intuitive grasp of game theory” – an example of increasing rationality in history, Pinker believes. But a disastrous escalation in the crisis may in fact have been prevented only by a Soviet submariner, Vasili Arkhipov, who refused to obey orders from his captain to launch a nuclear torpedo. Had it not been for the accidental presence of a single courageous human being, a nuclear conflagration could have occurred causing fatalities on a vast scale.

Fallacy #3: Ignoring modern violence

John Gray writes in the Guardian:

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. According to many estimates the US also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example. Around a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are held in American jails, many for exceptionally long periods. Black people are disproportionately represented, many prisoners are mentally ill and growing numbers are aged and infirm. Imprisonment in America involves continuous risk of assault by other prisoners. There is the threat of long periods spent in solitary confinement, sometimes (as in “supermax” facilities, where something like Bentham’s Panopticon has been constructed) for indefinite periods – a type of treatment that has been reasonably classified as torture. Cruel and unusual punishments involving flogging and mutilation may have been abolished in many countries, but, along with unprecedented levels of mass incarceration, the practice of torture seems to be integral to the functioning of the world’s most advanced state

There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a vice of “backward” peoples. Destroying some of the most refined civilizations that have ever existed, the wars that ravaged south-east Asia in the second world war and the decades that followed were the work of colonial powers. One of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda was the segregation of the population by German and Belgian imperialism. Unending war in the Congo has been fueled by western demand for the country’s natural resources. If violence has dwindled in advanced societies, one reason may be that they have exported it.

It may not be an accident that torture is often deployed in the special operations that have replaced more traditional types of warfare. The extension of counter-terrorism to include assassination by unaccountable mercenaries and remote-controlled killing by drones is part of this shift. A metamorphosis in the nature is war is under way, which is global in reach. With the state of Iraq in ruins as a result of US-led regime change, a third of the country is controlled by Isis, which is able to inflict genocidal attacks on Yazidis and wage a campaign of terror on Christians with near-impunity. In Nigeria, the Islamist militias of Boko Haram practise a type of warfare featuring mass killing of civilians, razing of towns and villages and sexual enslavement of women and children. In Europe, targeted killing of journalists, artists and Jews in Paris and Copenhagen embodies a type of warfare that refuses to recognise any distinction between combatants and civilians. Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.

Deaths on the battlefield have fallen and may continue to fall. From one angle this can be seen as an advancing condition of peace. From another point of view that looks at the variety and intensity with which violence is being employed, the Long Peace can be described as a condition of perpetual conflict.

Fallacy 4: It has been less violent for a while, therefore it always will be

I am tired of the arguments that just because something hasn’t happened yet or for a while, such as limits to growth, or peak oil, it will never happen. Pinker makes this argument about violence, that nation’s (especially democracies) have had less violence for many decades, human society has evolved to the point that there will be less violence in the future than in the past.

Fallacy 5: ignoring the role fossil fuels and other abundant resources played in reducing violence temporarily

What if the reason there’s been less violence is that fossil fuels allowed humans to be the most wealthy at any point in the history of the planet, both past and future?  Each of us in the U.S. has hundreds of energy slaves working for us.  Even the poorest of the poor in the most remote highlands of Peru have energy slaves — trucks that take them and their goods to the nearest market.

The Haber-Bosch process of making fertilizer from natural gas or coal allowed the human population to grow by at least 4 billion people, and oil another 2.5 billion.  Fossil fuels make all resources available. There is no aquifer too deep for oil to pump up, no school of fish too distant to find, and no problem to make as much concrete, steel, aluminum, plastic, and trucks, ships, and other goods as you desire.

But oil masks the destruction of all our other resources. Industrial farming has eroded so much topsoil that when natural gas and/or oil run scarce, we will no longer be able to grow enough food to feed 7.5 billion people, and all the other thousands of actions made possible by oil, coal, and natural gas that allowed population to rise from 1 to 7 billion people. And then you have centuries to millenia of climate change as the coup de grace.

Fallacy 6: thinking that people will continue to behave well when times get hard after Peak Oil shrinks all resources

Look at America now, at a time when there is enough food for everyone, and health care for most.  Yet Donald Trump is the main Republican candidate, reminiscent of the Nazis in wanting to keep track of every Muslim and in other hate talk (not to mention Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and so on).

Does Pinker seriously think that on the downslope of oil decline, also known as Hubbert’s curve, when up to 6.5 billion people will die, that there will be no violence?  Does he believe that people will quietly starve to death? And that gangs won’t invade homes for food and other goods, that nation’s won’t attack one another for the remaining oil, agricultural land to feed their people, and other natural resources? What planet does he live on?

Fallacy 7: Cherry-picking data to suit his thesis that modern violence has gone down

John Gray writes:

If great powers have avoided direct armed conflict, they have fought one another in many proxy wars. Neocolonial warfare in south-east Asia, the Korean war and the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Vietnam war, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, covert intervention in the Balkans and the Caucasus, the invasion of Iraq, the use of airpower in Libya, military aid to insurgents in Syria, Russian cyber-attacks in the Baltic states and the proxy war between the US and Russia that is being waged in Ukraine – these are only some of the contexts in which great powers have been involved in continuous warfare against each other while avoiding direct military conflict.

While it is true that war has changed, it has not become less destructive. Rather than a contest between well-organised states that can at some point negotiate peace, it is now more often a many-sided conflict in fractured or collapsed states that no one has the power to end. The protagonists are armed irregulars, some of them killing and being killed for the sake of an idea or faith, others from fear or a desire for revenge and yet others from the world’s swelling armies of mercenaries, who fight for profit. For all of them, attacks on civilian populations have become normal. The ferocious conflict in Syria, in which methodical starvation and the systematic destruction of urban environments are deployed as strategies, is an example of this type of warfare. Advertisement

It may be true that the modern state’s monopoly of force has led, in some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become clear that the “Holocaust-by-bullets” – the mass shootings of Jews, mostly in the Soviet Union, during the second world war – was perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realised. Soviet agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million. Along with fatalities caused by state terror were unnumbered millions whose lives were irreparably broken and shortened. How these casualties fit into the scheme of declining violence is unclear. Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any history of the last century that represents it as having been especially violent may be “apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history” (the italics are Pinker’s). However, there is an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of a spurious quantitative precision.

There are many kinds of lethal force that do not produce immediate death. Are those who die of hunger or disease during war or its aftermath counted among the casualties? Do refugees whose lives are cut short appear in the count? Where torture is used in war, will its victims figure in the calculus if they succumb years later from the physical and mental damage that has been inflicted on them? Do infants who are born to brief and painful lives as a result of exposure to Agent Orange or depleted uranium find a place in the roll call of the dead? If women who have been raped as part of a military strategy of sexual violence die before their time, will their passing feature in the statistical tables?

While the seeming exactitude of statistics may be compelling, much of the human cost of war is incalculable. Deaths by violence are not all equal. It is terrible to die as a conscript in the trenches or a civilian in an aerial bombing campaign, but to perish from overwork, beating or cold in a labour camp can be a greater evil. It is worse still to be killed as part of a systematic campaign of extermination as happened to those who were consigned to death camps such as Treblinka. Disregarding these distinctions, the statistics presented by those who celebrate the arrival of the Long Peace are morally dubious if not meaningless.

Herman & Peterson write:

How does Pinker get around the seemingly large numbers of wars and militarization process that bother so many ordinary people and specialist observers such as Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, and Winslow Wheeler? One Pinker method is to confine his focus to post-1945 wars among the great democracies, which have not fought one another in this sixty-seven-year interim, and to ignore or downplay the numerous wars that the great democracies have fought in the Third World. He calls this the “Long Peace,” while the other wars have no name. Pinker contends not only that the “democracies avoid disputes with each other,” but that they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” an idea he refers to as the “Democratic Peace.” This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of US assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings, and invasions since 1945. For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the “Democratic Peace,” no matter how many people die.

“Among respectable countries,” Pinker writes, “conquest is no longer a thinkable option. A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, embarrassment, or laughter.” This is an extremely silly assertion. Presumably, when George W. Bush and Tony Blair sent US and British forces to attack Iraq in 2003, ousted its government, and replaced it with a regime operating under laws drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, this did not count as “conquest,” as these leaders never stated that they launched the war to “conquer” Iraq, but rather “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger,” in Bush’s words. What conqueror has ever pronounced a goal other than self-defense and the protection of life and limb? It is on the basis of devices such as this that Pinker’s “Long Peace,” “New Peace,” and “Democratic Peace” rest.

It also rests on a patriotic rewriting of history and use of sources that will support this rewriting. A dramatic example is his treatment of the US-backed war in Vietnam. Pinker makes that war a case in which enemy fanaticism and the “life-is-cheap” mentality of the Vietnamese were responsible for the heavy casualties. He tells us that “the three deadliest postwar conflicts were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents.” It was thus the Vietnamese resistance and willingness to absorb the large casualties inflicted on them by the US invaders that fueled the war. There is not a word of criticism of the invaders who sent large forces across the Pacific Ocean to ravage a distant land; certainly no suggestion of “fanaticism,” no mention of the UN Charter, no word like “aggression” is applied to this attack. And there is no mention anywhere in the book that the United States had supported the French effort at recolonization, then supported a dictatorship of its own choosing; and that US officials recognized that those fanatical resisters had majority support as they killed vast numbers of Vietnamese to keep in power the minority government the United States had imposed. Claiming eight hundred thousand or more “civilian battle deaths” in the war, Pinker never explains how vast numbers of civilians could be killed in “battle” or whether these deaths might possibly represent a gross violation of the laws of war. Or how this could happen in an era of rising morality and humanistic feelings, carried out so ruthlessly by the dominant “civilized” power.

Nowhere does Pinker mention the massive US use of chemical warfare in Vietnam (1961–70), and the estimated “three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, . . . suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals” used during this ugly and very un-angelic form of warfare.2 What makes this suppression especially interesting is that Pinker cites the outlawing and non-use of chemical and biological weapons as evidence of the new evolving higher morality and decline of violence, so his dodging of the facts on the massive use of such weapons in Operation Ranch Hand and other US programs in Vietnam is remarkably dishonest.

Pinker’s Vietnam analysis relies heavily on Rudolf Rummel as a source for what Rummel calls “democide,” or the “intentional government killing of an unarmed person or people.” Rummel, a far-right analyst who believes that Barack Obama is an antiwar activist attempting a coup d’état in the United States, estimates that while the “communist” North deliberately killed 1.6 million of their fellow Vietnamese civilians, the United States deliberately killed only 5,500 Vietnamese civilians—or one-three-hundredth as many as were allegedly murdered by the “communists.” Rummel matches this kind of extreme apologetics for US violence in other areas as well, but for Pinker he is a preferred source.

In dealing with the US treatment of Iraq (1990–2010), Pinker’s bias is equally impressive. He ignores the “sanctions of mass destruction” imposed between 1990 and 2003, which according to John and Karl Mueller resulted in more deaths than “all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” Although Pinker cites John Mueller often in Better Angels, he never cites his (and Karl’s) 1999 article on this subject in Foreign Affairs or mentions this “violence” landmark. Pinker minimizes the US role in the Iraq invasion and occupation that began in March 2003 by distinguishing the invasion violence from the follow-up violence, allegedly strictly internal. He says that the initial stage of the war was “quick” and “low in battle deaths,” and the major deaths occurred during the “intercommunal violence in the anarchy that followed.” This ignores how all the violence flowed from the invasion/occupation, and the US involvement in that “intercommunal” violence never stopped.

Pinker’s analysis and use of sources on war-based deaths in Iraq is also compromised. The study of Iraqi casualties by the Johns Hopkins researchers published in the British medical journal the Lancet reported that 655,000 Iraqis had died during the roughly forty-month period from the March 20, 2003, invasion through July 2006, with some 601,000 of these deaths due to violence. This is unacceptable to Pinker, who prefers the much lower estimate of Iraq Body Count, which relies largely on news media reports of deaths, while the Johns Hopkins team used a standard retrospective survey method. Pinker objects to the “Main Street bias” of the Johns Hopkins sample, but he raises no questions about Rummel’s bizarre conclusions or the systematic low-ball estimates of “battle deaths” by an array of government- and foundation-supported organizations devoted to showing that modern wars have become more and more civilian-friendly since 1945. Elsewhere in Better Angels, Pinker reverses course and reports that there were “373,000 deaths from 2003 to 2008” in the Darfur states of the western Sudan, accepting a body count produced via the same retrospective survey method used by the Johns Hopkins teams for Iraq. This is the preferential method of research in action.

Fallacy 7: exaggerating violence in the distant past

This was written by Hugo at amazon.com:

Pinker’s records don’t reflect “man in a state of nature” at all. Instead of being a pacifier force, at first, the encroaching state wreaks havoc in the native population. Tribal groups have been affected by expanding states for at least 5,000 years, not only by Europeans but also by the Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Chimu and Inca peoples in America; Ancient Egypt in North Africa and the Near East, and many more. There is convincing evidence that Ancient Egyptian imperialism affected local patterns of warfare (see “The Prehistory of Warfare in Europe and the Near East” by R. Brian Ferguson, from the book ”War, Peace and Human Nature”) but no assessment has been done about the impact of other civilisations on the patterns of warfare in nearby tribal peoples. Worse, Pinker’s data about deaths in warfare was taken during the 20th century, when almost all indigenous groups were being robbed of their lands and being victims of genocide: “Dispossetion often forced enemy groups into intense competition for greatly reduced resources and the availability of firearms made the resulting conflicts far more destructive than previous conflicts. These increased conflicts combined with other new disturbances in economic and social patterns often placed new stresses on tribal societies and weakened them often to the point that they willingly accepted outside control and welfare” (book “Victims of Progress”). So, instead of ‘pacifying’ the peoples, at first, the colonial powers robbed them of much of their land making them fight for increasingly scarce resources only to impose their iron fist when the damage was done. It is estimated that from 1780 to 1930, the world’s tribal populations were reduced by 30 to 50 million, not only by direct killing but also by disease, suicide, and lack of will to have children. In Australia, the aboriginal population was reduced from 500,000 to an all-time low of 65,000. Indeed, for the Ache and Hiwi peoples, the 1st and 3rd with the highest rates of warfare deaths, all the so-called war deaths involved frontiersmen killing the indigenous peoples. To say that this table represents the level of war deaths that existed prior to the Agricultural Revolution is not just preposterous: it is ridiculous. Jonathan Haas and Matthew Pisticelli summarize this perfectly:
“(…) in turning to the historic ethnographic record to support their claims of the ubiquity of warfare in the prehistoric past, [they] fail to consider how hunters and gatherers of the ‘ethnographic present’ may be profoundly different from hunters and gatherers of the more distant archaeological past. How many of these societies were surrounded and circumscribed by existing states; pushed by the rippling effects of other refugees; armed by traders; provoked, directly or indirectly, by missionaries; cut off from traditional lands? The short answer to this is that all of them, by the very fact of having been described and published by anthropologists, have been irrevocably impacted by historic and modern colonial nation states” (p. 173-174 of the chapter “The Prehistory of Warfare: Misled by Ethnography” part of the book “War, Peace and Human Nature”).

Fallacy #8: Confirmation Bias

Epstein (2011) argues in Scientific American that “There is, however, another psychological process—confirmation bias—that Pinker sometimes succumbs to in his book. People pay more attention to facts that match their beliefs than those that undermine them. Pinker wants peace, and he also believes in his hypothesis; it is no surprise that he focuses more on facts that support his views than on those that do not. The SIPRI arms data are problematic, and a reader can also cherry-pick facts from Pinker’s own book that are inconsistent with his position. He notes, for example, that during the 20th century homicide rates failed to decline in both the U.S. and England. He also describes in graphic and disturbing detail the savage way in which chimpanzees—our closest genetic relatives in the animal world—torture and kill their own kind. Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker’s entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease? By this logic, when we reach a world population of nine billion in 2050, Pinker will conceivably be satisfied if a mere two million people are killed in war that year.”

Fallacy #9: making excuses for modern violence

Pinker wrote: “There is no indication that anyone but Hitler and a few fanatical henchmen thought it was a good idea for the Jews to be exterminated.” Recent research has found 42,500 institutions set up to perpetrate the Holocaust.

According to Goldhagen (1998) and also Geoffrey Megargee, “Many more people knew about it and took part in it … it was central to the entire Nazi system … many other countries had their own camp systems.”

Fallacy #10: Only counting battlefield deaths and ignoring the dramatically increasing numbers of civilians killed:

John Arquilla writes in Foreign Policy:

The problem with the conclusions reached in the studies Pinker cites is their reliance on “battle death” statistics. The pattern of the past century — one recurring in history — is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically. In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since. Perhaps the worst, but hardly the only, terrible example of this trend can be seen in the Congo war — flaring up again right now — in which over 90 percent of the several million dead were noncombatants. As to Pinker’s battle-death ratios, they are somewhat skewed by the fact that overall populations have exploded since 1940; so even a very deadly war can be masked by a “per 100,000 of population” stat.

Fallacy #11: Exaggeration and misrepresentation of past violence 

Stephen Corry (2013) writes: “As proof of Middle Age depravity, Pinker cites a 1480 manuscript, which he calls “a depiction of daily life.” He reproduces drawings of people behaving grossly, entitled Saturn and Mars, but omits to tell us that they are intended to show the effects engendered by those planets, not “daily life” at all. Plenty of other drawings in the book show people going about their lives perfectly politely (busily undermining his theory).

This, of course, is the time of the extraordinarily original European cathedrals, of Thomas Aquinas, whose work has been called the philosophical foundation from which science originates, the age when Renaissance ideas started to be forged, when Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen promulgated revolutionary notions about humanity.

Fallacy #11: Ignoring inconvenient truths that don’t square with his “childish simplicity way of thinking”

Gray (2015) writes: “You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi “scientific racism” was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton. Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith.”


Arquilla, John. December 3, 2012. Rational Security The Big Kill. Sorry, Steven Pinker, the world isn’t getting less violent. Foreign Policy.
Corry, S. June 11, 2013. Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong.  Truthout.

Epstein, R. October 7, 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Rates of violent deaths have declined. But psychologist Robert Epstein argues in this review that it is too early to praise human nature’s “better angels.” Scientific American.

Goldhagen, D. J. 1997. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans & the Holocaust. Vintage.

Gray, J. March 13, 2015. Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war. The Guardian.

Herman, E.S.; Peterson, D. 2013. Steven Pinker on the alleged decline of violence. ISR #86.


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