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Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Steven Pinker)

This is a sprawling mess of a book. Flashes of arguably brilliant insight alternate with meandering musings. Fascinating narrow conclusions are drawn from carefully parsed evidence—and then sweeping conclusions are drawn from highly dubious evidence. Historical insights are used incisively in an argument—then the next argument is undermined by total historical illiteracy. At the end, the reader is left uncertain whether he has read 800 pages of genius, 800 pages of authoritative-sounding-but-meaningless fluff, or something in between. But I’ll go with the last one.

Other reviews available online cover most of the ground from nearly every possible angle, so I’ll confine myself to a few, reasonably fresh, points. There is plenty positive to say about the book, but it’s all been said by others, so I’ll mostly steer away from praise, with the note that the entire book is a mixed bag.

The only truly fresh point I have is really not substantive, but is interesting and perhaps shows some tendencies in the book. This is that Pinker makes a bizarre claim about table manners. First, Pinker states that historically people were terrified of being stabbed at the dinner table. Maybe. But in any case, to introduce this concept he spends a lot of time talking about how, as a child, he questioned the Western modern “pointless prohibition” in table manners against using one’s knife to move food onto one’s fork. He concludes that such a prohibition is a type of knife taboo preventing spontaneous stabbings at the dinner table. But I have never heard of such an etiquette prohibition. I cannot find any reference to it in any etiquette manual. I cannot find any reference to it on the Internet. In fact, all etiquette references to knife use I can find specifically REQUIRE using a knife to move food onto one’s fork, in lieu of fingers. As far as I can tell, this “rule” is purely a figment of Pinker’s imagination, and maybe an oddity around his house growing up. Why no editor questioned this, I don’t know. It doesn’t really undercut Pinker’s hypothesis in any material way, but it’s just strange, and maybe symptomatic.

It’s important to note that for Pinker, violence means not only actions like war, homicide and assault, but more generally any cruel action with a physical component. For Pinker, war and torture are on the same continuum (though not the same thing) as corporal punishment of children and men having fistfights over insults. Reductions in both are considered progress, rather than the first group being considered progress and the second group being considered the sissification of a moribund society. In fairness, though, Pinker does have limits to this continuum—he concludes that some “reductions in violence,” like the elimination of dodgeball for children and the grossly inflated fears of child kidnapping, are silly and not progress at all.

Pinker uses no primary sources and the secondary sources he uses are mostly popularizations, many of dubious accuracy, suggesting that he relies little on fresh research and puts his faith in fresh perspectives. Similarly, most of his analysis is analysis by anecdote. Yes, he does have a fair amount of statistics in the first part of the book. But those statistics are confined to two general groups: improvements in European civilization (largely taken, with full attribution, from Clark’s “A Farewell To Alms”), and the prevalence and damages of war. Other than that, it is anecdotes all the way down. And as Lincoln apocryphally said of Spiritualists, for people who like that sort of thing, it’s just about the sort of thing they’d like. But the result is, as with Spiritualism, much of what Pinker has to say is less proof than belief.

And to be clear: Pinker’s conclusions are, fundamentally, predicated on his belief system. For Pinker, his belief system has two related pillars: that religion is evil, and that progress is inevitable, as long as we realize that religion is evil. Pinker is a big believer, whether he admits it or not, in the Whig view of history. He views its driver as the removal of religion from human life. In Pinker’s rosy view of the future, everything (at least in European-origin societies) is getting more moral, as people realize that morality has nothing to do with religion, but automatically arises from “the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.” Of course, Pinker’s desired end state of empathy, minimal violence, and human happiness is exactly that prescribed by Christianity (and not, contrary to myth, by all religions). The Eschaton is nigh, says Pinker!—just without any eschatology. Pinker thinks that we can all ultimately behave like Francis of Assisi but be totally without religion. Maybe. If history is any guide, though, probably not—no atheist society has ever flourished on Earth. But hey—maybe the future will be different!

There are many possible criticisms of Pinker’s belief system. One threshold criticism is that Pinker’s violent opposition to religion clouds his judgment badly. Pinker is very anti-religious, and not in an educated, thoughtful way, but in the same way the Ku Klux Klan is violently anti-Catholic. A second threshold criticism is that Pinker is entirely focused on Europe, and his core hypothesis, that we’re becoming less violent people, is confined entirely to advanced modern societies that are both European in their culture and Christian in their ethos, whether or not they are Christian in their observance. Pinker adduces little or no evidence, other than post World War II global statistics of wars, that non-European societies are becoming less violent, and he fails to consider alternative hypotheses for the reduced violence of European societies, such as that they are moribund and declining, in the Lotos Eater phase of their existence. (Again, to be fair, Pinker does draw a pretty clear picture of reduction in European intra-societal violence from 1200 or so on, long before anyone could claim European civilization became moribund as it is today.)

Pinker’s obsession with demonstrating that religion only creates evil leads him into nearly continuous gross historical and logical errors. He repeats the silly canard (fabricated by 19th Century American Protestants to smear Roman Catholics) that Giordano Bruno was executed for believing in heliocentrism, a position accepted today by exactly nobody who knows anything (although repeated by noted flim-flam man Neil deGrasse Tyson in the recent re-make of “Cosmos”). He gullibly buys into the Black Legend hook, line and sinker. He actually cites for the cruelty of Pope Paul IV “the ‘Inquisition’ coffee table book.” He specifically cites, in-line with the text, as his major source for “the human toll . . . . in medieval and early modern Christendom” a book called “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things.” He confuses the First Crusade and the People’s Crusade. He cites the Anabaptists as “pacifist forerunners of today’s Amish and Mennonites,” apparently unaware of their activities in Munster (which would actually have reinforced his hypothesis). He explicitly equates as identical the judicial murder of Thomas More with random, on-the-spot beheadings of entire companies of dancing girls who displeased an Indian potentate. And on and on.

Pinker says with a straight face “Christian ideology was hostile to any commercial practice or technological innovation that might eke more wealth out of a given stock of physical resources.” His source for this is a quote from popular historian Barbara Tuchman, to the effect that the medieval Church rejected interest and that St. Jerome said “a merchant can seldom or ever please God.” Of course, the cite lends little support to his conclusion, and the conclusion is ludicrous. In reality, the adoption of new commercial practices and technological changes up until the Renaissance was led by or cooperated with by religious entities, in large part to expand the productivity of the vast lands owned by the Church. These advances ranged from corporate, long-time-horizon management of land by monks to a wide variety of technological advances, such as improvements in plowing, threshing and grinding.

Pinker also ignores that the medieval Church was the primary instrument of opposition to medieval violence. He talks about how the Church celebrated saints who were gruesomely martyred, implying that rather than being used to show heroism, such examples were somehow used to show how violence against others was good. He ignores the pacifism of the Church (complete until about 1000 A.D., incomplete thereafter, when feudalistic concepts infiltrated, leading in part to the Crusades). He ignores the Peace of God. And so forth. For Pinker, religion is an unmitigated bad, and when it is gone, we will all be happy and free. And he tailors his facts and analysis to fit his conclusion.

On the other hand, even with its lacks, the book has many good points. It’s refreshing in its lack of ideology (apart from the ideology of atheism). Pinker does not shrink for ideological reasons from addressing unpleasant points. For example, when he talks about the decline in infanticide, he directly addresses whether it is correct to say infanticide has dropped at the same time that abortion has increased by at least the same amount, since abortion logically is indistinguishable from infanticide. (He concludes, in essence, that people don’t feel that abortion is infanticide, and anyway abortion rates have recently dropped too, which he interprets as reinforcing his hypothesis.) Most writers would have simply said that abortion is not the same thing as infanticide and moved on, afraid of being denounced by their liberal friends and no longer being invited to the right dinner parties.

At the same time, Pinker does manage to pretty frequently fall into occasional silly left-wing tropes. For example, when talking about the demonization of political opponents, he talks about the “victims of Communist atrocities”—but then feels obliged to add also “the victims of their opposite number, the right wing-dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Indonesia and El Salvador.” Equating 100 million people exterminated as part of a deliberate ideological program of Communism with maybe 100,000 killed in civil wars is silly, but pretty much par for the course among leftist types. But, to be fair, given his general ability to resist being politically correct, it’s hard to fault Pinker’s occasional lapses in this area.

Finally, and oddly, most of the bad reviews on Amazon of Pinker’s book are not objecting to his anti-religious bigotry. Instead, they object to an underlying premise of his thesis—that prior to recorded history, violence was extreme and endemic. I had thought that this was unexceptional—all primitive societies were horrifically brutal and had stratospherically high rates of battle death. This has been common knowledge since Lawrence Keeley, using detailed anthropological data, exploded the myth of the Noble Savage. But apparently there are a large number of, or at least a small number of loud dead enders in this area, who maintain that pre-historical peoples were gentle, meek and mild, gathering nuts and berries hand-in-hand while singing paeans against sexism and racism, in contrast to eeeeevil modern societies. It’s really not worth even considering such silliness, but it’s interesting that fantasists of this sort exist and are willing to attach their names to their fantasies.

Anyway—this book may be worth reading if you have a ton of extra time, or if you’re particularly interested in the topic. It has certain parallels to studies of the Great Divergence, and once you realize that what Pinker really means is that Europeans have reduced violence over time, leading to improved societies relative to the rest of the world’s societies, it has even more parallels. But unless you’re interested in reading this bookstop for some specialized reason, you’re probably better off spending your time doing something else.

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