Why Steven Pinker is Wrong About Violence
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In 2011, celebrity psychologist Steven Pinker published the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, putting forward his theory that humans are becoming more alturistic and less violent as we become more rational and form nation states based on reasonable rule of law. The book was an immediate bestseller, especially among that group of people who love the idea of science if not the exact reality of how good science is done. He gave a TED talk about it, where those sorts of people gather. Pinker’s conclusions became an accepted dogma among this group, including other luminaries like the equally media-friendly philosopher Peter Singer. They believe that humanity is entering the Long Peace, an era of previously unknown cooperation.
All of this happened despite an almost immediate refutation of most of Pinker’s points from other scientists, who criticized aspects of his book such as a giant statistical screw-up that means Pinker pulled his theory from nonsensical noise in the data. There are also more nuanced discussions that question whether he considers, for instance, the deaths of refugees in total war deaths, or the early deaths of raped women, or the death of children exposed to Agent Orange. And there’s the issue of Pinker dismissing the idea that several nations have not gone to war not out of altruism but due to the threat of nuclear weapons completely destroying them in a counterattack.
So there are problems with his data, and there are problems with his conclusions from that data even if the data are correct.
A new study, though, puts yet another nail in the coffin holding the final remains of the Long Peace. Anthropologists at Florida State University and the Washington University Medical School studied wartime deaths in 19 countries that fought in World War I, 22 that fought in World War II, and 24 “nonstates” (so less “advanced” non-democratic groups like hunter-gatherer cultures).
They did find that the percentage of a population who died in warfare decreased over time — however, that number was inversely proportional to the total population. The researchers found people haven’t evolved to be less violent — they’ve simply collected in larger populations that protect most people from the horrors of war. There are safety in numbers, and thanks to evolving military weapons there are fewer soldiers needed to be sent to war. Also thanks to those evolving weapons, the total number of war deaths does escalate as the population increases.
Interestingly, the researchers also examined eleven chimpanzee communities, since chimps exhibit the same kind of warlike behavior as humans. While they found that chimps are less violent than humans, they found exactly the same trend in those communities: as the population increased, the total percentage of war deaths in the community went down. And trust me, the chimps weren’t out there building democracies and sharing rational philosophies.
So it appears from this research that Steven Pinker is wrong, again. But like the many previous times he’s been shown to be wrong, there’s little chance that that message will get out there to all the people buying his books and watching his TED talks. All the hard science in the world can’t compete with the pure PR potential of that gorgeous grey ‘fro.