Why should we listen to one over the other? Siding with Pinker we might answer: numbers, I mean scads of numbers, oodles of numbers. Combined with Pinker’s statistical savvy, gleaned from his decades of immersion in the study of Linguistics. Surely this gives us a foothold into the interpretation of the past that has eluded the efforts of the pure, that is, math-disinclined historian. Forget for a moment Pinker’s penchant for exaggerated titles — How the Mind Works hasn’t exactly snuffed out the field of neuroscience. If we turn the rigor and clarity of of the scientific method on the study of history we’ll at least have something we can sink our teeth in. Or as Pinker puts it:
I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today's human trafficking and the African slave trade. It's a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn't know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.
Forcefully argued. But if your nightstand is already groaning under the weight of many a tome you might be reluctant to throw another 800 pages on top. One must be choosey. So I have to confess that I haven’t given the work more than a hasty skim. Instead I have done what I so often do, trying to content myself with book reviews.
But here’s the strange thing, the very strange thing — critical response to Better Angels has been pretty patchy. If you throw Pinker a couple softballs and just let him talk for a while, like they did on NPR, you’re liable to hear all sorts fascinating things on the subject. So far this has not been my experience with co-pundits and journalists (admittedly I haven't hit all the reviews he lists). Peter Singer’s New York Times review was little more than a nod of approval in the form of a book report. Gary Gutting, also in the New York Times, passed on some remarks worthy of an undergrad’s personal reflection paper. And then there was the guy over at Anamnesis who practically went into anaphylactic shock over the book and was only able to choke out a few grunts of indignation. And it gets worse.
Behold the following data, yanked from page 195 of Better Angels, and pasted, clumsily and unceremoniously, into the body of a not so recent interview with Pinker in the Guardian. Presumably it’s there to support Pinker’s central thesis. But isolated from its proper environs, this table has at least one fatal flaw. Can you find it?
The answer -- it doesn’t account for the duration of these atrocities! I mean, a death toll of x spread across five years is more “violent” than x spread across fifty years, right? So let’s correct for that, adjusting annual deaths for global population, then and now, and watch the rankings shift:
Or rather scrap that last one — let us be fair and note the ideological affinity between Pinker and Peter Singer. Let us, for the sake of argument, adopt the latter’s distinction between between humans and persons, and (so far as I understand) that worthiness is bound to degree of consciousness rather than something so abstract and arbitrary as mere species membership. A grown pig, on this understanding, has a richer experience and thus is more alive than an unborn human. Let us, then, grant higher mammals some fraction of the worthiness accorded to non-incapacitated, fully grown humans. Let’s say that hogs, cows, and sheep are each worth 1/10 of the human standard. And let us note that some 1.3 billion hogs, 300 million cows, and 500 million sheep are slaughtered every year worldwide. Multiplying by 1/10 we get over 200 million highly sentient non-humans a year, a new number one. Again, so much for decline.
But let’s scrap that last one, too, and once again take up Pinker’s data set in its original form. What the heck is going on with the An Lushan Rebellion? Why is it so much bloodier than anything else in history? Can that figure of 54 million 20th century deaths be right? Consulting Wikipedia and friends we find that the death toll estimate might have been thrown off by shoddy census taking practices that failed to account for shifting borders. Plus, there might have been a lot of emigration between censuses. Maybe, maybe. But the mere fact that An Lushan outstrips all other instances of violence in recorded history by so far is an argument against including it. Discarding outliers is after all standard statistical procedure, right?
So Rwanda, abortion, livestock and An Lushan are out. Let’s take up the remaining data and let’s compare Pinker’s table, which ignores duration, with mine, which takes duration into account.
And then there’s the matter of clustering over the centuries. The period of the 6th through the 8th century - smack in the middle of the Dark Ages, if I may be so perverse - looks pretty peaceful, but starting with the decline of the High Middle Ages (perversity again), things get bloody more frequently. Below is a chart of death tolls summed by century. Where events lasted more than a century I popped the sum of the death tolls in the median century of the event. Methodologically a hack, but if I took the time to do it right I suspect the picture would be much the same.
What happens when we start asking more subtle questions? By what criteria, may I ask, are we packaging times together and labeling them as single events? Who decides that The Atrocity began in 1939, when the panzers rolled across the Polish border, and not in 1933, when the Austrian Corporal toppled the Weimar Republic? Or in 1919 when Weimar’s rickety structure was first erected? Or when World war I began, if we listen to those historians who view the two wars as one? Or when the powder-keg of European alliances was formed?
And who decides that it ended with the Japanese and not the German surrender? Or with the last Nuremberg Trial? Or Eichmann’s execution? Or…whatever? Even authors of college textbooks — and this is a low blow, I admit — have the sophistication to preface, say, the Renaissance chapter with the obligatory paragraph about the paucity of clear lines in history. The only way to really work this out would be to make a year-by-year timeline of world history, charting births and untimely deaths — big data, correlations, all that. Of course, then we would have to decide which correlations are relevant: so murder declined with the market share of Internet Explorer, now what? Don’t we have to already have some sense of relevance in order to assess this coincidence? And where do we get that, if not in the numbers themselves?
And let’s not forget this one: why make time your x-axis? Why not place? Can’t we just as easily draw from both Pinker’s table and mine that China has proven to be a pretty bad place to live, while Russia and Western Europe, up until the 20th century, have been pretty placid?
Let’s take another leap in subtlety in questioning our numbers. For starters, I question “death toll” as a simple indicator of the goodness of life, which I take Pinker to be implying. What counts as a violent death, and what about degrees of violence? Shouldn’t we also ask “how violent”? I mean, are we talking “broke a finger at the factory and lost his position immediately due to robber barons’ predatory hiring practices and then went home and starved to death” violent? Or “volunteered for glorious war but caught malaria in the swamps and died” violent? “Ate a bullet when the Soviets broke through into downtown Berlin” violent? “Was walking along Piccadilly Circus when a V-2 hit him, but because those were supersonic he never heard it coming” violent? “Was pursued like an animal for years, was finally caught and slowly tortured into a false confession, and then let go, only to die later of complications” violent? “Died of ennui in her well-appointed drawing room” — untimely, maybe violent?
The question of ennui leads to the matter a Romantic might raise: how alive were they really? Did they feel their life had meaning and purpose? Did their life actually have meaning and purpose? Did they feel it did, although this wasn’t the case, or vice-versa? Did they die young and fulfilled, if violently, or old and bitter, or blankly driving to work on a rainy morning? That is, doesn’t it make a lot more sense to ask, instead of whether an age was violent, whether a life was good?
Or, with Foucault & Co. we might ask how much we have lost and suffered in internalizing the thumbscrews and pillories once imposed for the sake of preserving whatever harmony was possible?
That is, doesn’t our search for the good and its absence in history require that we already have some notion of what the good is?
Behind the Numbers
Or am I just probematizing things overmuch? Suppose we disambiguate our terms, crunch the numbers with real nuance and rigor and find — if this is possible — that they do in fact corroborate Pinker’s basic observation: violence has decreased over the course of history. I expect one of his other theses, namely that homocide has been on the decline for centuries, to pan out quite well. We still have to ask why. Pinker himself cites a number of reasons:
- the slow emergence of states capable of playing the role of Hobbes's "Leviathan"
- the pacifying impact of commerce and trade on behavior
- the impact of the Enlightenment on the way people thought about others
- the evolution of notions of etiquette over the centuries
- the way print and literacy expanded the "circle of empathy" beyond people's immediate family
- the importance of women in civilizing men
- the "long peace" that followed the second world war
But why stop here? We might go on to add our own speculations:
- Over time we have spent our lives farther and farther from the source of our meat, once the hunting ground, later the slaughter house across town, now the supermarket. We simply aren’t inured to physical subjugation and the sight of blood as we once were. How many these days go vegetarian over the mere thought of slaughter!
- Similarly, in general, we are better sheltered from the destructive exigencies of nature. Recourse to violence between people has to be a more natural choice when we confront it every day in natural phenomena.
- A rise in civility may bespeak a decline in conviction (to be fair, the Anamnesis article mentioned this one, too): maybe we don’t get worked up about our family, honor, religion, etc., because we don’t much care about anything as we once did. Perhaps we’ve taken a massive cultural sedative and prefer lingering in the shampoo aisle of life.
Or maybe not. Say Pinker has it right. But now you’re stuck with this question: was the historical path we took to our current bloodless state the only possible one? What compels us to accept a single-path theory of civilization, a retro-naturalist fallacy? Was the way it was is the way it had to have been? Did technological advance, the rise of free trade and the rest require secularization? Or might we have found our way from pliers to novacaine along a very different and perhaps less barbarous route?
No data set is going to give you the answer to that one, just as no data set is going to settle what is relevant and what is good. My point is, and remains, that the hard facts of past events are quiet malleable in their interpretation and highly susceptible to projection. The statistical mind, like the anecdotal mind, is vulnerable to distortion. Yes, it would be folly to ignore the numbers, and thanks to Better Angels we no longer can do that in good conscience. But by themselves the numbers, facts and events are quite empty. Think Searle. Like the bits in your processor raw data of history must be supplemented with one evaluative mechanism or another (pick from: mind, Geist, νοῦς or intellectus) in order to have any meaning at all. Or to riff on another philosopher, and misquote him, for the study of history to attain its full value, the philosophers must become historians, or those now called historians must genuinely and adequately philosophize. Does Pinker do this? Again, I haven’t read the book so I don’t know. But I’m not holding my breath.