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No Mr. Pinker, Violence Hasn't Declined

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In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker tells us that civilization, capitalism and the state have made us less violent. Even if Pinker was correct about human-on-human violence, his hypothesis wouldn't include the mass killing of other life forms--not just environmental destruction, but countless species wiped out and a daily holocaust of animals for human consumption. That massive violence against other species UTTERLY discredits this book.

No Mr. Pinker, Violence Hasn't Declined

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker tells us that civilization, capitalism and the state have made us less violent.

Even if Pinker was correct about human-on-human violence, his hypothesis wouldn't include the mass killing of other life forms--not just environmental destruction, but countless species wiped out and a daily holocaust of animals for human consumption. That massive violence against other species UTTERLY discredits this book.

But he is also wrong about the violence humans suffer.

He doesn't consider deaths from economic violence e.g. hunger or diseases due to deficiencies in micronutrients (36-40 million/ year) tobacco (6 million/yr) obesity (2.6 million /yr), car accidents (1.5 million/yr) work related death (2.5 million/yr) etc.

This stuff kills roughly 140,000 people every day or 50 million/year, significantly more than those who die from natural causes (about 30 million/yr).

Even assuming that our world population didn't grow and this number didn't increase in the next 100 years, we're talking about 5 billion dying this century (in the absence of a nuclear Holocaust or some other major disaster, of course). More realistic estimates put the number much higher.

And how many more would die without the advances of modern medicine?

We shouldn't forget the MANY MORE people who do not die from these causes, but still seriously suffer. For example, according to the ILO 2005 report, while work-related injuries and illnesses killed about 2.2 million workers/year; you have "between 184 and 208 million workers suffer[ing] from work-related diseases" and about "270 million" non-lethal injuries of varying severity "caused by preventable factors at the workplace".

Similarly, while it was estimated in 2004 that "only" 1.2 million people were killed in motor vehicles, 50 million more were injured.

Or while "only" 36 million died of hunger or diseases due to deficiencies in micronutrients in 2006, about 1 BILLION were undernourished, about 14% of the human population.

And how about violence by police, or against the incarcerated, or the emotional violence that results in mental illness, social alienation, massive drug and anti-depressant consumption, suicide etc?

You can add many more millions to the list.

Plus we have future projections of death and suffering due to global warming, depleted uranium and other types of contamination that are very, very large. And the possibility of a nuclear Holocaust during the cold war shouldn't be evaluated as a decrease in violence, because we came very close (look up "Vasili Arkhipov") and there was a high level of unpredictability (not to say the risk today is 0).

Notice I don't even mention Hitler, Stalin, Mao, massacres in Rwanda, Congo, colonial crimes, wars, city homicides etc.

As for Pinker's depictions of hunter-gatherers, he makes crucial errors:

He conflates them with

1) groups that have come into contact with European colonialists, or

2) groups practicing animal and plant domestication (farmers)

These are important errors because 1) Europeans made natives more violent, and 2) domestication/farming constitutes the most important step toward civilization and had profound influence in the human psyche--making humans generally more controlling of nature (hence toward each other) and violent.

Let's briefly examine these errors.

1) For example, with the Bushmen, anthropologists have pointed out how violence comes from their old way of life being shattered as they are settled into a new, sedentary lifestyle. And it's well known that Native Americans were involved in more violence after the Europeans arrived than before. Researchers examined thousands of Native American skeletons and found that those from after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World showed a rate of traumatic injuries more than 50% higher than those from before the Europeans arrived. And it's probably just the tip of the iceberg, because as many as half of bullet wounds miss the skeleton. Thus, their studies couldn't detect much firearm violence, though some tribes wiped each other out using European-supplied guns. Individual examples abound. For example, we know Plain Indians did not exist prior to European contact. They descended from refugees from other Native groups destroyed by the various European epidemics that wiped out 90% or more of North America's population in the years after 1492, with a new culture assembled around two important European introductions: the re-introduction of the horse as wild herds profligated and filled up the Americas, and guns traded from French fur trappers. The Plains Indians had a post-apocalyptic culture. Given the trauma of what was essentially the end of the world for Native groups, a surge in violence would be expected. 90% or more of the American population died from epidemic disease. Groups were displaced, and a massive rearrangement of tribal territories racked across the continent.

2) Most of the groups mentioned, like the Yanomamo, the Huli, the Dani etc are all farmers not hunter-gatherers. Although we have cave paintings back into the Upper Paleolithic 40,000 years ago, it is only about 10,000 years ago, with the invention of the bow, that we see the first cave paintings of groups fighting. We don't see paintings of people fighting with clubs or even atlatls, but we instead see them fighting first with bows and arrows. Some paintings even portray still-recognizable tactical techniques like flankings and envelopments. It is also at this time that the first skeletal evidence of warfare emerges, with bones showing evidence of violent death, arrow-heads in skeletal remains, and so forth. This is quite late in our history as a species, and once again correlates with the rise of food production.

Without any evidence, Pinker posits that all you need is one group in a fairly large region that decides to be predatory raiders and beat up on their neighbors and everyone has to either militarize their own society, or endure being periodically victimized. But studies show that most tribes don't immediately imitate the aggressive group and start organizing for war in self-defense, but endure the raids (which happen on average every five or ten years) just so they don't have to. If we have a natural tendency, it's not to organize ourselves for war, because even people with a very concrete material interest in doing so often don't do it.

Fast forward to civilization and to support the power of the state, praise the west, and discredit people left to their own devices in "anarchy", Pinker gives silly examples like the overcoming of the "normal" 16th century torturing of cats in Europe. How does this support his case for a pacifying state?

16th century Europe was probably the most violent and nasty society on that scale we even know about. 30-40% of the population of some areas were wiped out in the Wars of Religion. But that was the period of the rise of the absolutist state, not a period of "anarchy".

Why was it Europe that conquered the rest of the world, because they weren't extremely violent?

Pinker attributes improvements since then to the wrong forces: to oppressive elite institutions themselves (capitalism, the state) rather than to their victims fighting to constrain their destructive influence. In describing American slavery, Mark Michael Smith of the Economic History Society said: "although intrusive and oppressive, paternalism, the way masters employed it, and the methods slaves used to manipulate it, rendered slaveholders' attempts to institute capitalistic work regimens on their plantation ineffective and so allowed slaves to carve out a degree of autonomy." Using Pinker's logic, we could praise the institution of slavery for this improvement.

Indirectly, Pinker tries very hard to discredit the 2 main examples of decent sustainable societies: hunter-gathering and 1930's Spanish anarcho-syndicalism: both run without the greed and power concentration characterizing capitalism and the state.

Thus by contributing to the perpetuation of a violent system, Pinker's very book becomes its own refutation: symbolizing the extent to which it ignores expressions of violence.

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No Mr. Pinker, Violence Hasn't Declined | 1 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
No Mr. Pinker, Violence Hasn't Declined
Authored by: PrehistoricBeast on Thursday, November 03 2011 @ 10:34 PM CDT

While I haven't read the book the author is writing about,  there are some factual errors in this critique that need to be pointed out.

"1) Europeans made natives more violent"

While this statement might have some truth to it in that colonialism pushed native societies into more desperate situations, the idea that "tribes don't immediately imitate the aggressive group and start organizing for war in self-defense, but endure the raids (which happen on average every five or ten years) just so they don't have to" is wishful thinking. Every language I've encountered has a word for "warrior" of some sort, and I've never heard of indigenous peoples, at least in North America, simply enduring violence for philosophical reasons. War was known by "hunter-gatherers", just not on the genocidal scale introduced by European colonialism.

"Plain Indians did not exist prior to European contact. They descended from refugees from other Native groups destroyed by the various European epidemics that wiped out 90% or more of North America's population in the years after 1492, with a new culture assembled around two important European introductions: the re-introduction of the horse as wild herds profligated and filled up the Americas, and guns traded from French fur trappers. The Plains Indians had a post-apocalyptic culture."

This is another hyperbolic statement that isn't really true. There were Plains Indians before Europeans came to the Americas, but their culture obviously lacked the horse. And the inclusion of the horse and gun to their culture post-contact was not evidence of a "post-apocalyptic" culture, but a culture adapting to changing circumstances. 

Overall, there's a general problem of projection going on here, where indigenous peoples, yet again, are used as caricatured architypes for colonial fantasies.

 

 

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Even the mighty oak was once just a little nut who stood its ground