In “War No More: Why the World Has Become More Peaceful” (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2012), Yale history prof Timothy Snyder reviews Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He can’t get past the hump most people can’t get past: The extraordinary violence of the 20th century, principally among highly technically advanced civilizations.
Here are a few among many useful insights:
He provides horrifying descriptions of premodern killings, but not of their modern counterparts, which generates a certain narrative bias. The evidence of strikingly brutal premodern warfare and sacrifice is less conclusive than he suggests, since archaeologists are more likely to find the remains of people who die in unusual ways, beyond the reach of communal cremation or at the center of a communal ritual. The book features neat charts showing the relative decline of violence over time. But the sources Pinker cites for the numbers of dead are themselves just aggregates of other estimates, the vast majority of which, if one follows the thread of sources to the end, turn out to be more or less informed guesses.
There is also a more fundamental way in which the book is unscientific. Pinker presents the entirety of human history in the form of a natural experiment. But he contaminates the experiment by arranging the evidence to fit his personal view about the proper destiny of the invdividual: first, to be tamed by the state, then, to civilize himself in opposition to the state. The state appears in Pinker’s history only when it confines itself to the limited role that he believes is proper, and enlightenment figures as the rebellion of intelligent individuals against the state’s attempt to exceed its assigned role.
A similar intervention Pinker makes in his own experiment is to dismiss the two world wars and the episodes of mass killing that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. Pinker describes these horrors powerfully and eloquently but claims they are irrelevant to his argument. He is right that historians often impose too much coherence on that time period, wanting all the violence to somehow make sense. But Pinker errs toward the other extreme, portraying the two world wars as “horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution,” and the major episodes of mass murder as resulting from “a few contingent ideas and events.” In other words, it was bad luck to have two big conflicts so close to each other, and more bad luck that they were associated with especially bad ideas. No doubt: but what does the brute fact that the wars happened mean for Pinker’s argument, and for the immediate future?
It means his argument fails.
Material progress helps people become more of what they want to be; if they want to be like Gandhi, different outcomes follow than if they want to be like Stalin.
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