On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme recently, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker claimed that the world is retreating from violence and cruelty. According to the good professor, it seems we are in the midst of a Panglossian age. Such claims need to be treated with extreme caution.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (2011), Pinker asserts that “the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection”, began only recently. He thinks that the “medievals” were childish and gross, lacking “refinement, self-control, and consideration”, and that civilisation is a function of upper-class leadership trickling down to the lower orders. All of us were supposedly “morally retarded” and less intelligent until the last 60 years or so (about as long as Pinker has been alive).
Pinker wants history rewritten because “the biggest delusion of all” is “nostalgia for a peaceable past”; those who live without state intervention are supposedly subject to more violence than those under its control, including tribal people.
Such ideas reflect the classic justification for colonialism, which underpinned the invasion of tribal lands and their “pacification”, dispossession and destruction. Theories about our (or anyone’s) dead ancestors are academic, but when living people are involved, jumping to the wrong conclusions has serious consequences.
Implying that certain people are brutal savages – Untermenschen – always engenders violence towards them. It matters little whether such savagery is inherent, as “scientific” racists pretend, or because of the lack of a “civilising state” – Pinker’s thesis. He thinks he has proved this and that it is science: he is wrong on both counts.
For example, he separates tribes into two categories, “hunter-gatherers” and “hunter-horticulturalists and others”. Nearly half the data he uses to characterise the latter group (outside New Guinea) come from studies of one Amazon tribe carried out by a single scholar – Napoleon Chagnon on the Yanomami. It is easy to question that anthropologist’s data, but Pinker accepts them. He also doesn’t mention that the only two other Amazon tribes he cites are special cases with a long-held reputation for belligerence.
Pinker cherry-picks data to fit his thesis and gets many facts wrong. His conclusion, that life has never been more peaceful, at least for those in the liberal democracies, is political opinion dressed up as scientific fact. As this week’s conference on hunting and gathering societies, held at the University of Liverpool, shows, Pinker’s ideas remain influential. As long as they do, we will continue to challenge them.
Director, Survival International