The Guardian has an interview with Steven Pinker about his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes . It presents me with a problem. In order to evaluate its claims properly, I’d actually have to read the book, but everything tells me that doing so would be an immense waste of valuable time, so I probably won’t. I can, however, comment snippily on the material that surfaces in interviews and reviews … so here goes.
Central to the interview (and certainly sourced from the book) is a table, detailing the casualty rates from various events in the past, scaled to present population size. Now anyone who has argued about the number of victims of the Iraq war will know how hard it is to come up with reasonable estimates for events taking place now, but let’s assume that Pinker has, magically, arrived at fairly accurate figures. Even given that, it is pretty troubling to juxtapose “Middle East slave trade” 7th-19th centuries (9th on the list and, according to Pinker the third worst atrocity in history) with “Second world war” (9th worst atrocity). Because, well, one was an “event” of around 1300 years in duration and the other lasted (depending on start and finish dates) around six (6) years.
But, hell, maybe I’m a member of the
science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.
(And, by the way I have a “nostalgia” (!) for “environmental sustainability”, which Pinker cheerfully compares to “dentistry-by-pliers or biting a stick for pain management during surgery”!)
Still, I’m relieved to know that the general ad hominem insults are permitted in this fight and that I’m under no obligations to be fair to “the thinking man’s Malcolm Gladwell”.
My suspicion that the claim that violence has declined massively (no great suprise for matters such as everyday street brawling I suppose) may depend on what you are willing to count as “violence” was reinforced by the material that is disclosed by John Gray in his review of Pinker for Prospect. Apparently, the mass incarceration of African-Americans by the United States is not itself an act of violence (nor presumably the many hittings, stabbings and rapings that go on within the prison system) but merely a response to the fact that
“By the early 1990s Americans had gotten sick of the muggers, vandals and drive-by shootings.”
Well there you go. (And read more of Gray’s review for further reflections on Pinker’s attitude to the “torturable classes”.)
So, readers and commenters, can anyone correct my impression? Does anyone want to?