Saturday, January 14, 2012

How Many Angels...

There is a new book out by a distinguished Harvard University Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, entitled, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. This book has received an enormous amount of attention and will no doubt continue to do so for some time to come. I have not read this book. I haven’t even seen a copy of it. Obviously I cannot pretend to review it. In fact, I almost certainly will never read it or review it. I have read several reviews of it and I understand the central thesis, which is the claim that violence among humans has been decreasing over thousands of years and that in spite of claims to the contrary we are now living in the most violent free period in human history. I don’t want to say I don’t believe it. What I would suggest is that such a claim is basically impossible to prove, and is rather like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Pinker argues, as I understand it, that humans have in their psyches both Demons and Angels and that over the millennia the Angels have won out so that we, and our lives, are no longer as violent as they once were. To demonstrate this he has reportedly done an enormous amount of research in many different areas, archaeology, history, sociology, political science and so forth, and thus claims evidence for his thesis. It is said to be a truly astounding amount of research and most everyone is impressed. Most of the reviews I have seen are positive with others being skeptical. Count me among the latter, especially when it comes to Angels and Demons.

First, although I don’t know much about everything or anything, I do know that claiming from archaeological evidence that some 15% of human bones show evidence of possible homicide is not a statistic I would be willing to accept as definitive of anything. Similarly, his claim that violence among tribal groups indicates they were 9 times as violent as we are today, is more than merely questionable. He also claims on the basis of the historical record that whereas an estimated 40 million were killed during the reigns of the Khans, when the total population was much less than during the 20th century, this indicates a level of violence much higher than the estimated 55 million killed during the second world war. I find claims of this kind impossible to accept as meaningful enough to be uncritically accepted.

Pinker argues that the levels of homicide in general have decreased over time, that genocide, torture, child abuse, slavery, war, and violence in general have decreased. He attributes this to various developments in the history of culture, the rise of state societies that better control violence, the lessening of religious dogmas, and also the influence of reason on human affairs, calling into question the morality of violence and so forth. There is much more to his interpretation than this, of course, but as I have not read it all carefully I cannot legitimately describe or criticize it.

Even so, there are things I believe I can fairly say about this work. As he seems to think the decrease in violence is due to various cultural influences, the rise of state societies, and such, it is impossible to generalize to humans in general as people in different cultures would necessarily differ in their levels of violence, and in fact we know this to be true. Although he does cite evidence from other cultures, such as the Bushmen and a few others, it is obvious that he is really speaking about Western Europeans rather than humans in general. He cites evidence from Bushman studies that seem to indicate that although they are believed to be non-violent their homicide rate is roughly equal to the homicide rate in Detroit. I am aware of this work on the Bushman and other hunter-gatherers and while it may be true the evidence and interpretations are certainly questionable. There are known to be many small scale groups of people where violence was extremely rare. Similarly, from my own ethnographic work and the anthropological literature on the subject, I’m reasonably certain the level of violence in tribal societies has been exaggerated. I know this to be true in the case of the New Guinea Highlands and also for American Indians. And there were almost always controls over the level of violence long before states emerged, even in tribal societies. This was certainly true of American Indian societies and also Melanesian groups as well.

As this book does not really deal with societies world-wide, but mostly with Western-European ones, the only real claim he could make would be that in only those societies violence has been reduced. I am quite certain there were many societies in which child abuse as we know it did not exist and, in fact, was virtually unthinkable. What about violence in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East? If we are truly living in a time of the least violence ever these other countries must also have something to do with it. I have seen reports that claim that slavery now is greater than it has ever been, especially sexual slavery, completely unknown in most cultures. I may be wrong, possibly unfair, but my fear is this is just another Eurocentric study that keeps us on top of the evolutionary scale from savagery to civilization, more reasonable and more highly developed than anyone else.

I am also left to wonder if violence is truly just one thing wherever found, whether it can be adequately measured at all, how you can compare face-to-face slaughters with mass bombings and gas chambers, collateral damage to terrorism, physical to mental violence, self-defense to humanicide, and so on. It is no doubt true that we no longer have as much head-hunting, cannibalism, and torture as we once did, but we can hardly be said to have eschewed violence even now in the 21st century. Are humans genetically programmed for violence or is it mainly cultural? How does it vary from place to place, group to group? Please read this book so you can tell me about it, as I doubt I will ever read it unless provoked.

The only thing that's been a worse flop than the organization of non-violence has been the organization of violence.

Joan Baez

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