The following is the third part of our critical review from an animalistic perspective of Steven Pinker’s theory of an historical decline in violence.
The strongest blow that the enlightenment ideas received, regards to their significant role in the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. As a great henchman, Pinker is particularly eager to prove that the enlightenment project didn’t fail despite the 20th century. Therefore he devoted a substantial part of his book to claim that the 20th century doesn’t stand out of the historical decline of violence he argues for.
As mentioned in the first part of this book review, most of Pinker’s critics focused on the 20th century, mentioning colonialism, post colonialism, western imperialism, the not so cold war, the arms race and etc. So we prefer to focus on different areas. If you are interested, we highly recommend the following critiques:
Steven Pinker on the alleged decline of violence by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson
Or their long version: Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson
Peace in Our Time by Elizabeth Kolbert
The Precious Steven Pinker by David Bentley Hart
However we do want to address 3 issues regarding these parts of the book: The role of personal responsibility during the atrocities, his choice to work with relative numbers and not absolute numbers, and his general conclusion regarding violence regardless of his statistical approach.
The role of personal responsibility
The role of personal responsibility is related to Pinker’s shabby attempt to put all the blame of all the century’s horrors on several specific individuals.
From his perspective, if it is only a few fanatic charismatic individuals who are solely responsible for all the violence, then the century actually doesn’t stand out and doesn’t contradict his thesis. Violence was on decline, it is just some rotten apples…
And of course the most famous rotten apple in history is Adolf Hitler. And Pinker argues that he is solely responsible for World War II which could easily be avoided if…”had Adolf Hitler gone into art rather than politics, had he been gassed a bit more thoroughly by the British in the trenches in 1918, had he, rather than the man marching next to him, been gunned down in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, had he failed to survive the automobile crash he experienced in 1930, had he been denied the leadership position in Germany, or had he been removed from office at almost any time before September 1939 (and possibly even before May 1940), Europe’s greatest war would most probably never have taken place.”
Pinker is very eager to dismiss the common participators’ responsibility for the horrors of the first half of the 20th century (and the ones who have done nothing to stop them) but since there are no specific infamous villains related to the first world war, he seriously blames the nineteen-year-old Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip who assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A murder which was the war’s formal Casus belli but definitely not the actual reason and it definitely could not have been easily avoided as Pinker argues and adds: “and without it, there would have been no Lenin, no Hitler, no Eisenhower.”
That makes Gavrilo Princip responsible by himself for all the horrors of the first half of the century?!
Pinker knows it is ridiculous to blame one human for all that. So he blames three…
“The ideologies prepared the ground and attracted the men, the absence of democracy gave them the opportunity, but tens of millions of deaths ultimately depended on the decisions of just three individuals.” (referring to Hitler, Stalin and Mao)
And he simply sums his nonsensical defense line of the 20th century with unfortunateness:
“Together with whatever ideological, political, and social currents put the world at risk in the first half of the 20th century, those decades were also hit with a run of extremely bad luck.”
Pinker knowingly dismisses every single human who took part in the horrors or done nothing to stop them. And not because he thinks that the social, political, economic climate lessened their role but since they were mesmerized by their leaders. But he is wrong. Recent research has found 42,500 institutions set up to perpetrate the Holocaust (more than double the number previously known). According to the author 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”
Either way, the responsibility for the horrors of the first half of the 20th century lays on humanity. Either humans soberly took an active part or were mesmerized by charismatic leaders, in any case they are definitely morally unreliable.
Several researches in social psychology showed how easy it is for humans to torment other humans. As Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Leon Festinger, Albert Bandura, Herbert Kelman and others showed in their shivering field tests, humans don’t need charismatic leaders, eloquent speakers and alluring ideologies, they are willing to abuse for much less (We’ll specify some of these findings in the next part of this review). And obviously animal consumption is the most horrible living proof of it. Humans are routinely condemning sentient beings to a life of suffering, from birth to death, for a few minutes of pleasure.
Pinker approvingly quotes the “atrocitologist” (self-titled atrocities researcher) Matthew White who claimed that the most important person of the 20th Century is Gavrilo Princip.
But the most important person in the 20th century or any other century is John Doe. The ordinary person, the one who lets horror after horror, atrocity after atrocity go by, is the most important person in history. Unfortunately it’s the overwhelming majority of the human race.
It is much easier to live in a world where each horror has one face. But this is not Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s and certainly not Gavrilo Princip’s world, it’s everyone’s world. Everyone is responsible for everything happening.
It is not that a world in which so few humans can so easily cause so much suffering, is a world that mustn’t exist, it’s that a world in which so few humans can so easily cause so much suffering that no one stops – is a world that mustn’t exist.
Suffering is absolute not relative
But the core of the claim, that the 20th century is not at all a setback in the decline in violence, is statistical.
In an ostensibly scientific wonder, Pinker asks was the 20th century really the worst? Before we’ll get to the problems with his substantiation, the question itself is very manipulative.
To prove Pinker’s violence decline theory wrong, the 20th century doesn’t have to be the worst in history, it is enough that it would be worse or even the same as most of the former ones. If the theory is right then theoretically the 20th century is supposed to be the least or of the least violent ones. But it is not so. Not even with Pinker’s second manipulation.
Since he knows that when most people think about the first half of the 20th century they are thinking about the two world wars, he based his answer to the question about centuries, using data about the death toll in specific events that happened during them. But if he had summed up all the atrocities of each century, as he should have when presenting a question about a century and not about a specific event in a specific century, then even the answer to his original manipulative and deceiving question is definitely yes, the 20th century is the worst.
This begs the question, even though he divided centuries to specific events, was there ever a specific event with a greater death toll than the Second World War? Only if you rank according to relative numbers as he calculatingly did:
“The 20th century certainly had more violent deaths than earlier ones, it also had more people. The population of the world in 1950 was 2.5 billion, which is about two and a half times the population in 1800, four and a half times that in 1600, seven times that in 1300, and fifteen times that of 1 CE. So the death count of a war in 1600, for instance, would have to be multiplied by 4.5 for us to compare its destructiveness to those in the middle of the 20th century.”
That’s how the An Lushan Revolt of the 8th century and The Mongols Conquests of the 13th century are ranked first and second while world war II is ranked 9th. And that’s how Pinker concludes that the 20th century is not the worst in history.
Before we will elaborate about the inherent problem with his relative calculation, another crucial problem that comes up from his historical atrocities list can be best exemplified with the Mideast Slave Trade which is ranked third according to Pinker’s adjusted rank ignoring the fact it lasted 1,200 years, from the 7th to the 19th century. The mentioned Mongol conquests lasted nearly a century. World War II in comparison, which in absolute numbers was absolutely the deadliest in history, lasted only 6 years. Isn’t that a crucial violence element?
The philosopher David Bentley Hart wrote regarding Pinker’s relative calculations:
“Pinker’s method for assessing the relative ferocity of different centuries is to calculate the total of violent deaths not as an absolute quantity, but as a percentage of global population. But statistical comparisons like that are notoriously vacuous. Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents. Obviously, though, a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens. And even where the orders of magnitude are not quite so divergent, comparison on a global scale is useless, especially since over the past century modern medicine has reduced infant mortality and radically extended life spans nearly everywhere (meaning, for one thing, there are now far more persons too young or too old to fight). So Pinker’s assertion that a person would be thirty-five times more likely to be murdered in the Middle Ages than now is empirically meaningless.“
But the fundamental problem is not statistical nor empirical but ethical.
Even if the portion of the number of victims out of the number of humans has declined, the number of victims has definitely increased. What’s important is the number of victims. And there were more victims in the 20th century than any other century, and therefore it is the worst.
There is something fascistic about comparing centuries and all the more so from a relative perspective. Centuries are not sentient. A portion of the population is not a moral patient, individuals are. Societies are not moral entities only their members are, and they must be counted in absolute numbers.
From a moral perspective, only the suffering of individuals matters. And their numbers in the 20th century are far, far greater.
Pinker explains his moral stance:
“In absolute numbers, of course, civilized societies are matchless in the destruction they have wreaked. But should we look at absolute numbers, or at relative numbers, calculated as a proportion of the populations? The choice confronts us with the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of one hundred to be killed or 1 percent of a population of one billion. In one frame of mind, one could say that a person who is tortured or killed suffers to the same degree regardless of how many other people meet such a fate, so it is the sum of these sufferings that should engage our sympathy and our analytic attention. But in another frame of mind, one could reason that part of the bargain of being alive is that one takes a chance at dying a premature or painful death, be it from violence, accident, or disease. So the number of people in a given time and place who enjoy full lives has to be counted as a moral good, against which we calibrate the moral bad of the number who are victims of violence. Another way of expressing this frame of mind is to ask, “If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?” The reasoning in this second frame of mind, whether it appeals to the proportion of a population or the risk to an individual, ends in the conclusion that in comparing the harmfulness of violence across societies, we should focus on the rate, rather than the number, of violent acts.”
Pinker cluelessly describes humans as innocent beings living their harmless lives.
Obviously this fallacious view is totally ignorant to the tremendous suffering every single human inflicts. If Pinker would have made even the slightest effort to adopt even a slightly more serious and knowledgeable moral perspective than the one he presents in this paragraph, he would have observed humans as living destruction and harm machines. The “enjoy full lives” he is talking about is full of suffering lives for other beings. The fuller humans’ lives are the more devoid the animals’ lives are.
And therefore the answer to Pinker’s question “whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of one hundred to be killed or 1 percent of a population of one billion” is obviously that the death of 1 percent of a population of one billion is nonproportionally better, since it means 10 million humans less who otherwise would cause enormous suffering.
Clearly he meant what is better for those communities, however we refuse to participate in this rhetorical game without any serious moral criticism.
There is an essential problem with the question since it refers to humans only as victims and not at all as victimizers. In real life, more humans equals more suffering.
And regarding his question:
“If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?”
The chances of a rich white human male from the western world to fall victim of violence nowadays are lower than in the past. But again the problem is in the question which should have been: What are the chances of any being to be a victim of violence in a particular era? Then the answer would have been that the chances are greater in the present than they were in the past, and lower than they will be in the future. Actually we addressed this issue in the past in a video called One Sperm Cell.
The world is getting worse as there are more victims in absolute numbers and their portion out of the entire world population increases.
But even if there were fewer victims in sense of their population share, percentages don’t suffer, only sentient beings do, and their absolute numbers are rising and rising, year after year.
And that brings us to the biggest problem with his thesis, his ultimate conclusion regarding violence decline.
The Absent Graphs
Among the piles of data, it is not surprising or coincidental that pinker “forgot” the most important graph in the world. The global animal consumption graph expresses more than any other statistical evidence the violence rate in the world. And this graph is constantly rising.
Even if Pinker was right about humanity and there was a systematical decline in violence towards humans, it is the opposite regarding animals.
Every year billions of animals are born confined in their own distorted bodies, which are confined in crowded, moldy, stinky, sickening sheds, which are a part of the hugest production line of violence ever in history – factory farms.
The last chapter of the first part of the book is probably the most optimistic. It’s called The Rights Revolutions and it is about a decline in racial violence, violence toward women, children, gays and animals.
As usual pinker presents a lot of data and as usual it presents a very partial view on the issue.
As mentioned in the introduction, we have written a specific review on Pinker’s section about animals. And regarding the rest of the issues, we will not get into details here since we addressed violence toward women in the article The “Wrong” Gender and violence toward children in the article To Their Own Flesh And Blood, and to both as well as ethnical violence (globally and not only within the U.S as Pinker did) in several articles such as slavery, The World Debt, World Hunger, Water Deprivation and a more general article about Poverty.
Please read them and think if you can draw any optimism from the world reflected from them.
Probably the craziest thing about this book is the way it was born. Pinker tells it has originated from his answer to the question “what are you optimistic about?” How can anyone draw even the slightest optimism from this violence chronicle?!
Even when considering humans suffering only, humans’ ability to inflict so much violence and cruelty on so many people over so many years, is one of the harshest indictment we can think of.
One must be extremely biased, in a very comfortable position and obviously extremely speciesist to be optimistic about humanity.
More than anything, this book proves that historically, biologically, physiologically, culturally, politically, psychologically, socially, environmentally and morally, humans are extremely violent beings in an extremely violent world.
Many of Pinker’s good things list, are not really good but reversals of bad things humans did. Most if not all of the “improvements” weren’t necessary in the first place if humans weren’t so violent to begin with. It is not something to be optimistic or happy about. Only if you set the bar so crazily low, can you be optimistic that some of the endless crazy things human do, are in decline.
Pinker’s data prove how violent and oppressive humans were all along history. And that is while the information is very partial. There are no statistics about humans’ fear, trauma, depression, frustration, anxiety, diseases and etc. and certainly not about animals’. Maybe the scarier thing about this world is that as scary as this book already is, it can be much much scarier.
One can draw optimism but only under several premises. The speciesist premise that violence had declined, the false psychological premise that violence has only one form, the false historical premise that the line of events is linear and not capricious and so violence will continue to decline, the false economic premise that humans are rational beings who act to promote their happiness only, the false biological premise that percentages and relative numbers are sentient beings, the false political premise that western states are busy spreading democracy and liberalism, the false philosophical premise that science, reason and the enlightenment are synonymous to morality.
And most importantly – the implied ethical premise that it is justified to wait, no matter for how long and how many victims it would take, until the day the world is less violent.
But we mustn’t aspire for a less violent world, we must aspire for a nonviolent world.
We know it is theoretically impossible. That’s why we made this website and wrote this Manifesto.