The Supposed Decline of Violence

ViolenceIn his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests that violence has been in steep decline over the last 20 years and argues that this drop in violence is the result of our being increasingly more rational creatures, capable of seeing the ‘futility’ of violence, while also developing more civilized ways of addressing differences through more effective forms of public policy and by being more capable within our international dialogues. Those interested can get an abbreviated review from the Guardian (here). Pinker has also attracted a lot of critical comments, some of which can be summarized here.

As one of the major proponents of Evolutionary Psychology, Pinker appears to be the master of the ‘just-so’ story. It is truly amazing how he continues to expand outside of his area of specialty to weave titillating tales that tell the rest of us how we ought to understand reality. However, it seems to me that he is again engaging in a kind of narrow-minded thinking and leaps of logic that distort the real picture.

Many critics have a hard time understanding how he can use such a narrow window of history (i.e. relying heavily on the years since the Second World War) to justify his belief in a continued trend toward a reduction in violence. As some critics have pointed out, we may find ourselves in a relative time of peace in part because we are still capable of remembering the Second World War. A brief oasis of peace tells us nothing, since it follows years of protracted violence of the kind and scale that still haunts the memories of our collective society. We may have developed an intense phobia toward engaging in this kind of violence, though I doubt the memories sustaining this phobia are resistant to fading.

But more importantly, I want to question Pinker’s claim that civilization and rational thinking has led to a more peaceful society, because here I believe he is presenting an oversimplified view that is dangerous, and in my opinion dead wrong. While he may be correct to surmise that that on a global scale, individual face-to-face physical violence has in the last couple hundred years be on the decline, this does not mean that modern societies have found a successful strategy to do away with violence. On the contrary, modern society may have just found different ways to package it, to outsource it, and to institutionalize it.

The common assumption is that civilization, politics, and reason, have helped to restrain an otherwise unruly populace that may have tendencies toward aggression and potential for violence. But I would argue that our modern societies create a potential for violence that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. The modern bureaucratic society is in part a product of rational thought: it is organized and compartmentalized into functional departments with checks and balances and with the goal of achieving a particular end – the result of which is deemed by that society as ‘progress.’ This leads to a ‘push button’ philosophy where ends justify means, and violence and murder have the potential of being automatized within the bureaucratic institution. Over the years, the individual has been removed from first-hand experience of violence, only to become part of the rational and efficient machine that may use violence as an instrument of societal ‘progress.’ This has the potential to make us less morally responsible, and not, as Pinker seems to think, more rationally aware of the consequences of violence.

For example, the decision for the US to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was the product of a modern and rational society looking for an efficient way of ending the war. The act itself was divided among bureaucratic levels that were each expected to accomplish an individual part – each with a clear ‘goal.’ The real persons involved were in a sense morally sterilized and psychologically detached from what part their additive role would play. The individuals dropping the bomb were miles above their victims and could never see their faces… this is a new side-effect of modern societies and modern technology. Participants of institutionalized forms of violence end up following ‘orders’ that are essentially part of their job description – they do what they are told. Milgrim’s experiments showed us that when persons of power (usually distant themselves from the process and higher up in the institutionalized setting) instruct someone to do something, including acts of violence, the moral responsibility that a person feels is dramatically lessened, to the point where they often end up doing things that are not within their individual nature. They feel no sense of ethical duty or moral responsibility because they were only a small part of the larger machine.

Zygmunt Bauman makes some of the above points in his book, Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman persuasively argues that the holocaust was only possible by it being a product of rational and modern civilization, and not as many seem to think, as being the result of a racist dictator who was able to sell his ‘evil message’ to the masses. It is noteworthy that the leaders within Hitler’s circle looked for ways to make it easier for the German military to exterminate the Jews with fewer psychological ‘side-effects’ – there was something in their human nature that made it difficult to murder helpless civilians. Their trials with carbon monoxide, and later with the gas chambers, allowed for a psychological detachment from the process with the added bonuses of it fitting within the highly detailed, efficient, and organized government plan for a ‘better’ society.

We may also be reminded of the Vietnam War. Soldiers were being asked to kill civilians and commit horrific acts of violence, the effects of which they would necessarily have to experience first-hand. As a result, many of them went AWOL and refused to follow orders. It seemed that the government could not get these men to do something that was not in their nature. When this became an apparent roadblock, the government resorted to using Agent Orange in an effort to finish their bureaucratic and political goal. Again we see that a modern and rational society, detached from face-to-face violence, and psychologically removed from its effects, often has the potential to be violent on a much grander scale.

In short, I think understanding violence is far more complex than Pinker would have us believe. We must be capable of looking at the larger picture, appreciating history, culture, and the complexity of our modern environments. It is not surprising to me that Pinker would misunderstand all of these, since it seems to be a common criticism of Evolutionary Psychology as well (Pinker being a staunch advocate of that view). But it ends up being nothing more than a justification for the status quo and a belief that our Western worldview and our particular place in history, has progressed beyond the problems that plagued those who came before us. It is an unfortunate, and I believe dangerous delusion.

9 Responses to “The Supposed Decline of Violence”

  1. Alicia Says:

    This is a wonderful post. I agree with what you are saying. This post reminded me of a poem that I studied in Intro to Eng. Lit. The poem’s point was about how throughout the progress of technology and society, we have become more detached in how we act in violence. i.e. facing someone when you stab them with your sword vs. today we can just drop a bomb out of a plane and not see our victim’s face.

  2. Derek Theriault Says:

    After reading the Pinker’s book and this review, it seems clear that the reviewer has not read the book. Whether or not Pinker’s arguments are sound is beside the point; this review does not seem to acknowledge most of them, let alone refute them. Unfortunately, people on all sides of a debate lose when we succumb to academic laziness.

    I am also curious as to why this blogger has not noted her/his name. Public discourse on violence is important and should involve transparency. The veil of anonymity too easily covers this author’s identity along with her/his ignorance of the book being criticized.

    Brad Reply:

    Derek, I did not claim to have read the book and this is not meant to be a thorough review – I took one of Pinker’s assertions and critiqued it. I do not see anything wrong with that.

    By the way, my name is Brad Peters. If you looked at the contact page you would have found that.

    Derek Theriault Reply:

    Sorry Brad. I was not aware that this was your cite. You did clearly put your name at the bottom.

    However, though you do not claim to have read the book, you critiqued one of Pinker’s assertions without reading all of his evidence. A good critique does not just critique a statement, it critiques the reasons behind that statement.

    In your summary to your critique you say “We must be capable of looking at the larger picture, appreciating history, culture, and the complexity of our modern environments.” I found that the book demonstrated a profound nuance in these areas, and was surprised how well he tackled many different areas of history and culture, considering its massive aim (only a small part of the book is based on psychology or evolution). Most people that have critiqued it seem to not have read it. Admittedly, is is quite long.

  3. Todd I. Stark Says:

    Brad, I just found your blog today and I have been enjoying your articles very much. I hope you don’t mind me interjecting some thoughts at this point after reading several of your articles.

    I wanted to be just a little critical of your critique of evolutionary psychology when I came across it, because not all people who do evolutionary psychology are equally strict adherents to the ideas you criticized, and in fact I suspect that some of the folks I know best would not recognize some of your characterizations of their ideas as their own.

    They tend to see the units of putative adaptive cognitive function as something akin to interconnected learning systems rather than the sorts of hardwired opaque modules that Fodor envisioned and which you seem to assume and eloquently critique. That was the reason I posted a link to the conversation between Gintis (an EPer who diverges very far indeed from Cosmides and Tooby!) and Robert Kurzban (an EPer who adheres largely to Cosmides and Tooby’s view but interprets it in a very lenient way closer to what I am calling interconnected learning systems).

    Still I think I understand your hostility to what you see as Cosmides and Tooby’s modularism, and in fact I went back and forth on that myself. When I first read The Adapted Mind I was fascinated by how it attempted to biologize cognitive science with a Darwinian sort of embodiment even though I thought they were rather excessive in their uncharitable view of social science. However their applications of the idea did often seem to be overly obsessed with dividing higher cognitive functions into terms of yet poorly identified adaptations.

    It doesn’t seem to much wrong to me as premature. The general idea of figuring out the historical origin of our human biological resources seems like exactly the sort of pursuit that psychologists should be concerned about even if they are not directly involved in the details. How else would we ever unify the scattered theories and conceptual foundations of the human sciences, except to eventually figure out where our basic features and functions came from? Just looking at the massively complex systems as the work now does not neccessarily give us the whole picture.

    So I think the general idea of evolutionary underatanding of psychology is right on the money, though I would agree that looking directly for specific Pleistocene adaptations for specific kinds of modern behaviors can and does sometimes produce very misleading results.

    I hope we’re at least in the same book, if not on the same page at this point. So I’ll get to my point about Pinker. I don’t always agree with Pinker, and in fact I’ve disagreed vehemently from time to time with some of his ideas, but even when I disagree with him I have enormous respect for his scholarship and his remarkable erudition. Don’t let his use of simple language in his popular books fool you, Pinker is very deep thinker who does his homework well, reads both deeply and widely, and unlike most of us with strong points to make, he knows his opposition’s best arguments quite well. This book is not something that you can dismiss as “just so stories” even if you really think that is what Pinker does best (which as I imply above, I consider rather uncharitable). I had problems with “How the Mind Works” by Pinker (although he makes his points quite well, it seems to be a limited view), and with “The Blank Slate” (significantly better but I thought it had a fair amount of fluff from my perspective). But this latest book is really a grand accomplishment.

    I’m sorry, but purely as a serious reader, I have to admit to a bit of resentment for your criticism of a book you didn’t read, based on a selective set of critical reviews. Based on the good thinking I’ve seen on this blog elsewhere, that’s an evaluation procedure that I know you would disagree with if you saw someone else doing it and reflected on it a bit. You seem to be criticizing his thesis based on your intuition that violence can’t possibly be as simple as you think his thesis requires, without actually reading the argument or the evidence.

    One of Pinker’s greatest strengths, as I said, is that he generally knows the opposing evidence and arguments and takes them seriously, he rarely makes that mistake of arguing to the weakest form of the opposing arguments and to his credit when he does he is usually pretty quick to correct it when it is pointed out. I’ve seen him completely disarm critics by acknowledging their points and even making their own argument for them. Does that sound like someone whose thinking is limited to just so stories or rationalizations of a priori opinions? I think if you read the book you might gain some new respect for Pinker, as I have, even if you still disagree with his premise.

    kind regards,


    Brad Reply:

    Hi Todd, I will likely end up addressing some of your evolutionary psychology comments in a new post (updated: here). I doubt you and I are capable of agreeing here – from my perspective, you appear to have already bought into certain theoretical assumptions about “the historical origin of human biological resources,” about “where our basic features and functions come from,” and the hope that EP can “unify the scattered theories and conceptual foundations of the human sciences.” In my reading of your comments, I believe you are perhaps unknowingly assuming what has yet to be proven – and I do not think I could convince you otherwise. However, if you are capable and willing of seriously entertaining the possibility that evolutionary psychology could be based on some very problematic assumptions that would jeopardize the whole paradigm, I would encourage you to read the neurobiologist J. Panksepp’s: “Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology,” and M. Derksen’s: “Against Integration: Why Evolution Cannot Unify the Social Sciences.” I suspect however, that you will remain unconvinced. Not because I judge you to be unintelligent (on the contrary your comments suggest the opposite), or that the criticisms are weak, but because you may have, in the Kuhnian sense, ‘caught the faith’ of the evolutionary psychology paradigm, which may make it hard for you to perceive the problematic assumptions in the way that the ‘non evolutionary-psychologist’ might view them.

    Now, on to Pinker – yes, it is true that I have not read his book, though I have read some of his other works with some displeasure. Maybe I was too hard on him because of these other readings. And yes, I will concede that perhaps it would have been in better taste to have read his book in its entirety – in the future I will likely do so – if only to avoid accusations of misunderstanding an author’s full argument. I based my assessment of his position, not just on reading what others have written, but by listening to his 35 minute lecture summarizing his key ideas. Some of his main assumptions were in my mind and at that time, absurd enough to bypass reading the book. Does he address my criticisms regarding his treatment of mid 20th century violence? Does he deal with the possibility that modern civilization may have the potential to be MORE violent? It was my impression that he does not consider it… rather he prefers to view the mid 20th century escalation of violence as some kind of complex aberration that is not at all linked to modernity. My argument is that it can be seen as a direct symptom of modernity.

    I do not doubt that Pinker is a smart man. I would hate to get into a debate with him, not because I think his arguments are logically sound, but because he thinks quick on his feet and has a wonderful mastery of the English language. That said, I know his theoretical biases and favored assumptions – we would not see eye-to-eye on much, I am afraid.

  4. Brad Says:

    I thought I would update this post by providing a link to Herman and Peterson’s lengthy critique of Pinker’s Better Angels. They do a good job, in my view, of exposing his assumptions and biases:

  5. Adrian E. Says:

    Obviously, the reviewer has not read the book. How else could he claim that “a narrow window on history” is used as a basis for the thesis that violence tends to decline? It would not even be necessary to read the whole book, but just to leaf through it in order to see that Pinker uses data and facts from many historical epochs – that is one of the reasons why it is a book with so many pages.

    The review seems to be motivated by some ideas (prejudices?) the author has about “evolutionary psychology”, but has little to do with the book The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.

    To me, it rather seems that the linked text is full of biases. It seems that the author of that text expects that an author should have a unified thesis and that all the facts should confirm this (therefore he cannot accept this that Pinker both shows that there was an increase in criminality and violence from the 1960es for some time, against the general trend, while other developments, like the resistance against war in democratic countries conform to the long-term trend). It is, of course, easy to call a subset of facts “reality” and claim that Pinker denies “reality”, but what Pinker does (in contrast to those who put together their simple picture of “reality” that Pinker denies in their view) is that he accepts that historical developments are complex, that on one hand there is a long-term trend that is clearly visible, but that there are also some shorter and smaller opposite trends.

    Brad Reply:

    Firstly, it does not seem right for you to call me a ‘reviewer’ when I never claimed to have read the book, so yes, it is obvious that I did not, as I state above. Secondly, I am not alone in criticizing Pinker about his biased selection of ‘data and facts,’ and his interpretation of history through a similarly biased ideological viewpoint (e.g. a capitalist one).

    Do I prejudge Pinker? Absolutely… in the same way that I would prejudge a Roman Catholic Priest about to present his argument about the history of humankind and about what happens after death. Pinker has a particular way of viewing the human being – it is one informed by his favored theory of evolutionary psychology, and his assumptions and biases will have a lot to do with how he interprets history with regard to violence. Evolutionary psychology is a religion, and Pinker is one of its peddlers.

    And yes, the linked text has a reactionary ‘feel’ to it, but the authors nonetheless make important criticisms of Pinker, and in my view, adequately point out some of this very many assumptions. Examples include:

    “In addition to his neglect of “aggressive commerce” and cross-border seizures of people, property, and resources, Pinker ignores the post-World War II growth of U.S. militarism, with its invested interests in weapons and warfare, and the expanding and self-reinforcing power of the “iron triangle” of the military-industrial-complex to shape national policy.”

    “Nowhere does Pinker mention the massive U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam… Pinker would never think of accepting Vietnamese communist estimates of causalities, just as he does not hesitate to use numbers provided by the U.S. State Department. But nowhere are Pinker’s biases more blatantly obvious than in this allocation of Vietnamese “civilian battle deaths” to the fanaticism of the communist resistance in not surrendering to an invader unleashing incredible violence from abroad for reasons its own leaders had difficulty settling on.”

    “Something else is almost surely at work behind Pinker’s advocacy for lower death tolls in Iraq and the DRC, and his reliance on sources that attack the work of researchers who have produced the higher-end estimates. Namely, his “New Peace” and “waning-of-war” agenda requires it. Two large-scale bloodbaths like those in Iraq and the DRC must be downsized to fit his agenda. Pinker therefore locates the lower-end numbers that he wants, ignores the “sanctions of mass destruction” in Iraq, attributes responsibility for the Iraq invasion-occupation deaths to “intercommunal” violence, thereby takign the United States off-the-hook, and clings to the “battle death” estimate for the DRC that ignores the many more indirect deaths…”

    “… Nor does the extremely violent nature of U.S. and Israeli actions cause him to use other invidious words, such as “aggression” or “mass murder,” to describe them. No, it is implied that the U.S. and Israeli violence is in some ways justified, whether “defensive,” or “policing actions,” or perhaps “retaliation,” so words like “terrorism,” “murder,” and “genocide” are reserved for the actions of Western targets.”

    “[he ignores how the US] wages wars against “Islamic” countries, militarily occupies them, terrorizes and kills lots of Islamic peoples, and frequently supports dictatorships in their countries to enforce the political outcomes it wants.(Herman and Peterson)”

    … and on and on.

    And yes, if Pinker is presenting a unified and generalizable explanation, it seems reasonable to expect that he have a unified thesis to back up his claims; its not that ‘all the facts do not support his thesis,’ but rather that if one accounts for all of the ‘facts and data’ that he does not talk about, it puts his overall ‘explanation’ in doubt. If anyone is guilty of presenting an overly-simplistic view of reality, it is most assuredly Pinker. Though please, since you have read his book, please point me to where he addresses some of the concerns that I and others have raised, and I will pick up his book and give it an honest read.