About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A review of The Better Angels of Our Nature in Foreign Affairs

This review by Timothy Snyder contains food for thought, though some of the points that it makes are, as far as I can see, nit-picks. After all, Snyder seems to think that Steven Pinker is correct overall in his view that the violence of human societies has tended to decline.

The main point seems to be that Pinker underestimates the contribution that has been made to the decline of violence by the rise of the welfare state. Snyder then blames this failure on what he sees as Pinker's tendency towards political libertarianism.

I'm going to re-read large amounts of The Better Angels of Our Nature over the next few days, as I've promised a review for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. I'll watch out for the points that Snyder makes. How far does Pinker ignore the rise of the welfare state? How plausible is it, in any event that the rise of the welfare state has had an effect in reducing the violence of human societies? My gut feeling is that it has had some effect (and, for the record, I favour the welfare state) ... but how well does attributing a large or even decisisve effect fit the data sets that we have? And how far does Pinker really seem to be showing political libertarian biases?

Moreover, could Snyder himself be showing certain biases in his interpretation of Pinker, and of the historical record? We shall see.


MichaelF said...

While most of the criticisms of the book seem to be ideological and frankly ridiculous, I have been encountering some criticisms from historians that claim that the book's factual claims are dubious, even to the point of gross error. One example would be http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2011/12/this-is-bogus-statistic.html

Have you come across and/or investigated this type of claim and if so what do you think?

Russell Blackford said...

No. I haven't. I'll have a look at that link.

Anonymous said...

I recommend Steve Sailer's review:


Evan said...

I found Timothy Snyder's review to be unfortunate. He critiques Pinker based on a just barely plausible, piecemeal and negatively motivated reading; but a good critical review should attack an author's strengths, not his weakest interpretation.

To respond to two of Snyder's points, though: First, he raises an issue many critical reviewers think (erroneously) is a big deal; the question of relative vs. absolute violence. But even if a good case can be made that absolute numbers matter in a moral evaluation, the relative decline still matters and needs a scientific explanation (and this is how Pinker justifies his focus). Violent death rates have gone down 1000-fold, and that's a big deal.

In terms of the "libertarian" critique, I think it rests on a misreading of the structure of the argument Pinker was making. Pinker talks about the state first, because it was the innovation that happened first. If you look at his numbers, (violence in state vs nonstate societies), I suspect that its also the largest source of violence reduction. But Pinker certainly doesn't think that the state is "simply... "an exogenous first domino" that fell long ago". He does write that it fell first, but "simply" is Snyder's word, and it is a foolish reading. Pinker also explicitly discusses the wave of violence and civil war in the decolonialized global south as caused by the loss of the Leviathan. And more to the point, Pinker's thesis is that a series of *cumulative* innovations, including the state, commerce, civil norms, and the enlightenment, have caused, and *continue to cause* the current low levels of violence. To me, this seems like the most full throated defense of the modern left's progressive agenda... I honestly didn't see libertarianism here at all.

Finally, the link at http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2011/12/this-is-bogus-statistic.html isn't an example of a "gross [factual] error". Its a critique of one line in a chart Pinker adapts from another source, and the issue isn't whether 20 million American Indians died or not, its whether the cause (smallpox etc) should be classified as genocide. Probably not, but this is a matter of interpretation, not fact, and more importantly, the point that atrocities have been similarly bad throughout history still stands.

MichaelF said...

Evan, that link was just one example -- they have quite a few posts on the book and I think I've seen similar claims in several other places although I can't recall the specifics.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Glad you're commenting on this. I read it the other day and was wondering if you'd seen it and how you might react to it. Some of it seems a little suspicious, but much of it is compelling--for someone like me, who hasn't read Pinker's book.

Accurate or not, I don't think Snyder's main point is that Pinker underestimates the role of the welfare state in the decline of violence. I think his main point is that Pinker's analysis is unscientific, biased and simply not compelling. I'm not planning on reading it, at least not any time soon, but I'm skeptical of what he appears to say. Considering the complexity of the topic and the ease with which the data could be misconstrued or shaped to fit our agendas, it's hard not to suspect Pinker of bias and a lack of scientific rigour.

steve oberski said...

Jason, perhaps you could review some other books that you haven't bothered to read. Please do continue to focus on bias and lack of scientific rigour.

I'm about half way through The Better Angels of Our Nature so I'll refrain from commenting on it.

Anonymous said...

Also interesting, though I wish it were less condescending, as whatever strength his points may have don't require it: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/12/the-precious-steven-pinker

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't see how what I wrote could be construed as a review of Pinker's book.

Russell Blackford said...

I'll probably open another can of worms here, but the book doesn't seem to me to be an exercise in "science", even if Pinker calls it that. The kind of statistical analysis used perhaps gives it a more "scientific" look than most works of historical investigation and interpretation do, but it's not foreign to the humanities these days.

What we have here is historical investigation and the kind of interpretation of historical evidence that goes on in the humanities all the time.

My view is that the sciences and humanities are continuous with each other, and the differences are mainly of emphasis and degree. There is essentially only one "way of knowing", but there are many useful techniques, some of which are more applicable in some fields than others, and some of which are more distinctive of "science" (understood historically and culturally) than others.

In the end, I don't care that much what gets classified as "science" what gets classified as "the humanities" what gets classified as "philosophy", etc. I do care, though, whether a book is judged for what it is. E.g. this one can't be rigorous in the same way and to the same extent as a physics experiment.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Is Snyder necessarily using the term "scientific" in such a restricted way? I didn't get the impression he was saying Pinker isn't up to the par of a physics lab. I thought he's saying Pinker isn't up to par with the scientific rigour we should expect from historians. Might Snyder have just as liberal a notion of science as you do?

On the other hand, and in defense of Pinker, Snyder accuses him of trying to carry out a sort of scientific experiment with history. Is this how Pinker frames it? Considering that Pinker is a cognitive scientist, and not a historian, I'm curious just how Pinker frames his analysis.

In any case, when I expressed skepticism about Pinker's lack of scientific rigour, I was using the term "scientific" loosely. Of course history isn't physics.

steve oberski said...

Jason, in the spirit of the Ambrose Bierce book review - "The covers of this book are too far apart." - I'd have to say that the contents of your post contained too many words.

Now there are many books that I have not had either the time or the inclination to read but I'm sure I could pull up random internet reviews that support my particular set of prejudices and that would allow me to claim that the authors had committed any number of literary excesses and perversions.

Or I could read the books and then make some comments and observations about them.

Which is something that I plan to do when I've finished the Steven Pinker book.

I will note that the question of relative versus absolute violence is absolutely essential to Pinkers thesis that violence is declining and if detractors could demonstrate that Pinkers use of relative violence is erroneous then that would invalidate his claims.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Geez, Steve, you're being a bit bizarre. First of all, I haven't made any claims at all about Pinker's book, so your accusation is off base. Second, you imply that I've gone looking for negative reviews of Pinker's book and that I'm on some anti-Pinker campaign. Why on earth?

Not that it matters, but I happened across this review of Pinker's book because it was linked to on another blog I follow, and I only commented about it here because I had something to say about the review, and not about the book itself.

But, really, you seem to not see a difference between skepticism and antagonism. I am skeptical of Pinker's book, just as I would be skeptical of any book which sets out to draw the conclusions he is drawing. It's not Pinker that makes me skeptical, but the nature of the task. Right or wrong, this review indicates a number of ways this kind of research can get the better of us. I'm still keeping an open mind about Pinker's book.

Point being, you don't seem to be responding to me, even though I'm the one you keep addressing.

steve oberski said...


Based on your previous post I assumed that:

a) You have not actually read the book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker.


b) You claim that you are "skeptical of what he appears to say" and "it's hard not to suspect Pinker of bias and a lack of scientific rigour", presumably in the aforementioned book, although your prose is so twisted and convoluted that your meaning is not readily apparent and perhaps you have not read either the book or any reviews.

In my (possibly naive) view of the world it is not possible to have an informed opinion on a book that one has not actually read and in fact borders on the bizarre to pretend otherwise.

Russell Blackford said...

Jason, I was making a general comment about "scientific" not being a good word in the context even if Pinker introduced it into the debate (I can't recall what he may have said about this - it's a very long book, and it's difficult, at least for someone with a brain my size, to keep it all clear after only one reading).

As I say, I'm relaxed about it, but elsewhere I've been involved in some convoluted discussions about the nature of science as opposed to the humanities, etc. So it was just a general observation.

March Hare said...

I'm not sure I agree with Pinker's thesis. Sure, neighbour on neighbour violence has decreased dramatically but we have simply enabled uber-powerful state violence to stop that (police) and his account seems to minimise the impact of the impact of anti-biotics in the number of deaths in warfare.

His idea that the early 20th century is an anomaly is a bit dubious, as was very nearly shown by the USSR and America going to the brink over the Cuban missile crisis - how many would have died in that conflict?

He also appears to ignore the passive aggression of economic sanctions and legal restrictions on life saving medicines, agricultural techniques and the various other ways the rich west tends to keep down the poor at the expense of many lives albeit indirectly. Just because we're not sticking swords into people doesn't mean we're not at least partly responsible for their deaths. Also, climate change might be one of the biggest killers in history and by not changing our habits we are killing possibly billions of people (over time) yet that doesn't seem to count in Pinker's analysis.

Mike said...

Hey Russell: Blogger haz threaded comments now: http://buzz.blogger.com/2012/01/engage-with-your-readers-through.html

You will have to change this page to make them embedded comments though, per the instructions.