Pinkers New Book Has A Fundamental Flaw …

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… that probably ruins the whole thing. I have not yet read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, so I could be wrong, but if you have a copy check it out and tell me if I’ve got it right.

Breifly, the book says: ” it’s a meticulously documented argument about how much violence has declined from our hunter-gatherer days ten millennia ago through medieval times to the modern day. ” [from WEIT Website]

Here’s the thing. The data Pinker (and others) have been using over the last few years for “hunter-gatherers” includes mostly, or at least in large number, groups that are not hunter gatherers, such as the Ya̧nomamö or various groups in New Guinea .

These groups have exceptionally high rates of violence. There is not valid argument to force them into a hunter-gatherer category, and for some (but not all) they were hunter-gatherers not too long ago. But this is where the Evolutionary Psychology way of thinking about human behavioral becomes embarrassingly wrong.

If groups like the Ya̧nomamö underwent recent technological change from hunting and gathering to horticulture, which is likely the case (the transition would have happened around the turn of the 20th century, or about 50 or so years before they were first studied by anthropologists, at the latest), then it would be reasonable to argue that some of their features relate to that lifestyle. But the Evolutionar Psychology line is that we are adapted to our past (the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness) and not to our present (which makes a certain amount of sense but in a limited way). Therefor the psychological adaptations of the Ya̧nomamö are still forager like and not horticultural like because their brains are still being formed by forager genes and not horticultural genes.

However, it is also true that the Ya̧nomamö have undergone a very significant change in their economics, to the extent that they went from being people who benefit from low levels of violence and high levels of cooperation to people who benefit from being fierce. Therefore, their rates of violence have gone way up. The homicide and violence rate estimates for the Ya̧nomamö are for a group of horticulturalists living in a particualr setting at a particular time in their history, not for foragers.

It is interesting to contemplate for a moment the once-a-forager always-a-forager for a few generations idea for a moment. The implication here is that there must be people in the world who are foragers, were foragers recently, or those that have gone way beyond this and are very evolved into some other state. But the usual list (and again, I’ve not seen it) of “foragers” that Pinker uses includes people from New Guinea, and the evicence is that the kind of agriculture practiced in that part of the world, that the New Guinea people practice now in their traditional modality, is among the oldest in the world.

So, two things are almost certainly true: 1) The list of foragers who are not foragers that Pinker and others use includes people who’s foraging EEA goes back a century or two and people who’s foraging EEA ended thousands of years ago; and 2) There are probably people on Pinker’s list of non-foragers who are less violent (and more evolved?) who have shorter non-foraging histories than those on the list. Like many European groups.

Pinker’s book is in the mail. I may be wrong about the hunter-gatherer part, but I doubt it. Doubtless, the book has other stuff in it too, which may be just fine (but I suspect difficulties there as well, as Pinker seems to have a uni-lineal one-way view of history, as most non-experts do).

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19 thoughts on “Pinkers New Book Has A Fundamental Flaw …

  1. And then there is also the issue of agricultural regression…I was reading Sick Societies and the author mentions the Siriono as a dysfunctional foraging group, but there is strong evidence they were once farmers. I think James Scott’s controversial The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia was where I first learned about agricultural regression and he has an interesting theory on horticulture in that book. Still looking forward to reading Pinker’s book, I hope it sparks discussion.

  2. Possibly it’s a fatal flaw, but I saw him talk on this a few years ago and I don’t remember the Yanomamo being a particularly important part of his argument, although he certainly mentioned them. I could be wrong, of course. It was a few years ago.

  3. I guess it depends on how the argument is stated. Is it that violence declined because of a change in economic system (hunter-gatherer v horticulture) or a change in societal structure (chiefdom v tribe or state)? The Yanomamo still live in a chiefdom. Would their relationship, possibly violent, with other chiefdoms be similar to hunter-gatheres groups. Perhaps trade forces a certain cooperation among societies. Perhaps I’ll give Pinkers book a read as well.

  4. The arguments he’s made so far start with the homicide rat for hunter gatherer groups recently documented and studied being high, and extending that rate to the socio-culturally ancestral societies. However, that rate is based on mixing a large number of non-forgiving groups including some who were studied because they have high violence rates with handful of forager societies to produce a baseline that is simply incorrect, wrong, never happened made up, etc.

    I’m giving him a bit of a break by suggesting that he is using non-foragers as foragers because he does not understand the situation. One could simply call it academic fraud because it is so blatantly wrong. It is similar to cherry-picking, but instead of picking some of the cherries, he’s thrown some water melons in with some cherries to make the cherries look on average larger.

    I will give his book a very careful look and I’ll do it as fairly as I can. When I get it.

  5. I always dismiss Pinker, and you put one reason very well. Technically, he’s not an originator, but a popularizer. In this case (and you can basically date this back to his TED Talk), he’s simply popularizing Keeley’s War Before Civilization. In addition to the problem Greg put VERY well, another glaring flaw is the degree of cherrypicking Keeley did, and his tendency to focus on his pet theories and disregard evidence for confounders.

    As for Pinker, why do I dismiss him? When he was fighting alongside E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins against, among others, Lewontin and Gould, he very clearly followed the Republican War on Science methodology of politicizing science. He very much red-baited people who disagreed with “his team’s” opinions on anything and everything, including the units of selection (gene-only was their team’s dogma, vs. multiple units per Lewontin, Gould, etc.). Among other things, a claim was made that the Progressive Labor Party – a Maoist campus group that mostly disrupts left-wing meetings and is very cultlike – represented Gould et al. because they are all “Marxists.” The PL disrupted a speech by E. O. Wilson and Pinker and others tried to make hay of that.

    The significant issue with Pinker I can set out is that, even stipulating Keeley’s work – which I do not – and even stipulating that it really is about hunter-gatherers – which I don’t – and even stipulating that his ultra-Derrick-Jensen strawman positions are something that need to be refuted by people like him, there’s a remaining flaw that’s enormous.

    He says things like trade and law and order including cops, courts, troops were needed because what caused hunter-gatherers to murder each other was the ambiguity when they met each other. But he’s not controlling for the most simple and obvious factor of all – the availability of resources. When the Derrick Jensen types spin their – as Pinker correctly labeled them – treacly stories of hunter-gatherers, they extoll their “balance” with nature. But that sort of balance comes from fighting to the death over resources when they become too scarce to support an existing and growing population.

  6. And my overarching reason for always dismissing Pinker is that his arguments depend on pushing the hackneyed right-wing trope that American academia is controlled by PC Marxists who push egalitarianism, environmentalism (in the anti-hereditarian sense of the word) and left-wing values. It really ignores the actual history of American social and anthropological research. It’s pretending all we ever had was Margaret Mead, and no Robert Ardrey or Konrad Lorenz or Lionel Tiger or even Desmond Morris. Only Paul Ehrlich and Richard Lewontin, and no Richard Herrnstien, Charles Murray, Arthur Jensen, Wm. Shockley, etc.

  7. I guess we will all have to look at the book. However, if I may be permitted to elaborate a trope that Pinker used in “The language instinct”, I would not be surprised if he depends more on argument by comparison from the range of (carefully selected) modern peoples, and uses relatively little evidence from the archaeology. This is like the drunk who does not want to be guilty of looking for the keys to his car under the lamp post making sure all the lights are turned off before he starts looking.
    As it happens there is some evidence for violence in the archaeological record, at least from Australia, where large numbers of skeletons have healed defensive fractures on the forearms and healed depressed fractures on the skulls. I do not have the figures but you can find them, for example, in Sutton’s “The Politics of Suffering”. And there is an argument (that I have expressed my reservations about) from the rock art of Arnhem Land.
    On the other hand, Sutton’s argument also points out that before the introduction of alcohol to the communities he has been studying for 40 years, the rates of violence were very low. You could easily construct a counter argument about rates of violence in fgh communities from that, except for the fact that maybe the settlement of them in missions isolated them from the sorts of competition that induce violence. Then again, competition is more likely to arise from higher population densities (relative to available resources) and it is not among fgh societies that you would necessarily look for higher populations.
    Maybe we will have to look at the book. But then again, why should we all rush out to buy a book by a bloke who we think has indulged in some dodgy arguments in the past in order to check whether he has been dodgy this time?

  8. Well, I don’t have to buy the book since I’m an influential science blogger and all.

    There certainly is an argument for variation in levels of violence in forager societies, but mixing homicide data from Enga, Yan, etc. with San and Efe does not make a useful data point for anything.

    And, again, I suspect he’s using tine straight line telescope version of history (becuase he’s used that in the past and it is part of the evo. psych. approach). We stand here and look at great grand dad through a transit scope and notice that he was shorter. Therefore, as we go back in time everyone everywhere is ever shorter. Etc.

  9. Greg, are you going to take this bait:

    Now as for Pinker’s argument, is he claiming that the introduction of the State, reduces violence? Because from where I’m standing, the State (and by extension, corporations) are inherently violent. One can defend their existence, but you shouldn’t ignore their violence.

    In fact, you could say that modern society’s attitude to violence is more about “out of sight and out of mind”, than any reduction. After all, how many 9/11s have Iraq and Afghanistan experienced since 9/11?

    Here’s an interesting graph from a British perspective – see how crime changed during the 20th century (chapter 6):

    Also, have you seen this:




    One of the “green anarchist” types who “venerate” primitivism that Pinker excoriates actually agrees with Keeley mostly, but points out that HGS didn’t have bloody histories or newspapers or TV to make their world seem more violent than it is, so even a somewhat larger per capita combined war and murder death rate wouldn’t mean they’d experience society as violent – it might amount in practice to 1 or 2 murders every generation in a medium sized village, and that could mean a whole generation without a murder goes by.

    Yet another g-a site (about “wilding” yourself) made another point that I left out — also pretty simple and obvious: violence and starvation are not the only ills they were subject to, another was potentially being enslaved – some of the violence is because they don’t WANT to be organized into a large empire or even nation and told what to do, so maybe violence is better than losing your freedom.

    So even the venerators of primitives actually have less problems with this school than I would have thought.

  11. There’s also the rather important point that “modern” foragers exist in a very different context than “ancient” foragers did. There is extensive archaeological evidence that interaction with more centrally-organised, militaristic and expansionist cultures radically changes more decentralised cultures long before they radically alter their modes of subsistence. (I’m specifically thinking of tribalisation in central and northern Europe during the late Bronze / early Iron Age here, but I’m sure there are plenty of parallels…) There are (AFAIK) no foraging societies on Earth who haven’t been substantially impacted by interactions with imperialism and colonialism, even if those interactions are indirect.

  12. Because from where I’m standing, the State (and by extension, corporations) are inherently violent.

    Bit of a quibble/clarification here: to the extent that “the State” is “inherently violent,” that’s because the state is created in response to violence, and to curcumstances that incite violence; and the state uses violence to establish an order that had not existed before. Generally (and I do mean generally), when previously independent tribes find themselves having to work together (i.e., to share land or resources or to fend off a common enemy), they’re forced to create and accept a new, trans-tribal form of government, and that government has to use force to impose a new order and stop the inter-tribal warfare that almost inevitably results from such forced closeness. The state uses violence to do its primary job because it does not (at least initially) have legitimacy in the eyes of people who still haven’t quite given up their original tribal loyalties.

  13. Seems to me that the last few posts have made the overwhelmingly obvious point that the question Pinker seems to pose (and remember we have not read the book–and I may very well never read it, now) is stupid. What is the metric being applied here and why? It seems to me that the point he is making is probably more political than anything else.

  14. So have you read it? Was his data mostly derived from these particular groups, or was it more diverse? Any archaeological data? Thanks,


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