October 21, 2011

"The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker

In the November issue of The American Conservative, I have a lengthy review of Steven Pinker's new book. Subscribers can read my review online, or you can buy a paper copy of the magazine at a newsstand for money (a remarkable concept, I realize).

Here is a small excerpt:
Disorder is a dauntingly vast topic. So, we are lucky that Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist whose 2002 work The Blank Slate may have been the outstanding book of the last decade, has turned his abundant energy and intelligence to understanding violence. No reductionist, Pinker attributes what he sees as the slow retreat from violence to "six trends" interacting with "five inner demons," "four better angels," and "five historical forces."  
These 20 factors -- ranging from the rise of Leviathan to the expansion of empathy and rationality -- aren't really enough to explain trends in violence, but they're certainly a start. And I can't think of anybody who could have done a better job. Pinker's range is extraordinary. For instance, The Better Angels of Our Nature includes the best introduction to brain anatomy that I've read. (And Pinker isn't even all that terribly impressed by fashionable fMRI scans.) Yet, his touch is light. He sums up the research on why marriage makes men behave better with Johnny Cash's definitive explanatory couplet: "Because you're mine, I walk the line."  
(And, in case you are wondering, yes, Pinker eventually does quote Edwin Starr's 1970 Motown hit single: "War! Huh, yeah, what is it good for?" Being Pinker, he presents a long list of the pragmatic uses of war, while remaining in emotional harmony with Starr's sentiment: "Absolutely nothing!")

For the parts of my review where I critique Better Angels, well, you can read the review. 

A few points: the topic of violence is gigantic and Pinker's book is remarkably thorough. So, don't assume that Pinker hasn't considered, at length, the various counter-arguments. My galley copy is festooned with my notes to myself in the margin like: "A-ha! P. is ignoring X. That undermines his whole argument." But then, 400 pages later, Pinker writes something like, "You have probably noticed that so far I haven't mentioned X, which might seem to undermine my whole argument. But, I have seven responses to X." 

Second, even though my American Conservative review is about 3,000 words long, I wound up having to leave out lots of good stuff. Some of it then went into my new Taki's Magazine column comparing Pinker's book on violence to Pat Buchanan's Suicide of a Superpower in light of the violent homicide of Col. Kathafi.

Third, Graham H. Seibert has a good review of Pinker's book at Amazon.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

I know a lot of people here don't like the commenter Whiskey, but he's got a better handle on what's going wrong with the Republic and the West in general than all these talking heads, Buchanan included.

Reading Roissy and Whiskey really opened my eyes.

The problem is that there's an unfair distribution of sex right now. This can only end in tears. Civilization's worst enemy is a beta with nothing to lose.

The plight and self-delusions of the male virgin can be seen below:

http://i55.tinypic.com/288491.jpg

http://i52.tinypic.com/2ildbpg.jpg


When the beta males wake out of this slumber, there'll be hell to pay.

Anonymous said...

"In the November issue of The American Conservative, I have a lengthy review of Steven Pinker's new book. Subscribers can read my review online, or you can buy a paper copy of the magazine at a newsstand for money (a remarkable concept, I realize)."

Borders near my house used to carry the AC. But then, it stopped. And then Borders itself disappeared.

Anonymous said...

"The problem is that there's an unfair distribution of sex right now. This can only end in tears. Civilization's worst enemy is a beta with nothing to lose."

Oh boo hoo hoo. Shut up ,you wuss.

Q said...

It seems to be human nature to look at short-term and local trends and imagine that what we're seeing is something epochal. Perhaps because "short-term" in the context of humanity is long-term from the standpoint of any individual human.

We're not that far removed from the bloodiest century in history, but based on that fact that things have been pretty peaceful in the Western countries for the last few decades, Pinker comes up with some Grand Unified Theory Of The Age of Aquarius.

Sorry, but he does not strike me as being all that brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I know a lot of people here don't like the commenter Whiskey, but he's got a better handle on what's going wrong with the Republic and the West in general than all these talking heads, Buchanan included.



Hello, Whiskey.

Anonymous said...

"When the beta males wake out of this slumber, there'll be hell to pay."

Nope. Once a beta male starts to come out of his slumber, he'll start to get laid and that will be that.

Mark Caplan said...

"Graham Siebert has a good review of Pinker's book at Amazon."

He spells it Seibert.

jaded said...

Not forkin' over the dough, especially since the ToC isn't available to peruse on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

I'd pay you directly to read it, but I won't give any money to The American Conservative [sic].

Anonymous said...

Is the Libyan War like Avatar where modern technology was used for the good savage side?

I must say Obama/liberal Zionists are savvier than BushII/Neocons. Bush went into Iraq like a cowboy in a rodeo figuring he could ride the bull.
Obama is more like condor, gliding above and letting stuff hapen on ground, and then swooping down when it looks 'done'.

Anonymous said...

Is Fast and Furious Obama's Iran-Contra?

Anonymous said...

Is Fast and Furious Obama's Iran-Contra?

It would be if the media was actually reporting on it.

Whiskey said...

That is not me. And really Steve, Roissy deserve most of the credit for my ideas anyway. Or Roger Devlin.

But basically you have lots of males with little investment in society, you have problems. Look at the Ghetto, it was once much less violent both externally and internally, before rampant hypergamy. Yes always worse, but incentives MATTER. You don't get most men invested in society and willing to pay or fight for it unless you have the right incentives. And Xboxen don't count.

How much violence are beta males capable of? Japanese guys are pretty beta right now, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were the scourge of Asia, as in Nanking and Manila. Not so beta there (and generally btw against explicit orders of the generals in charge, who wanted fighting the enemy not pointless and distracting civilian massacres).

Japan is a huge counter-argument to Pinker: a society that after convulsive violence of the end of the lords and the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate started a long slumber of minimal violence, then modernized, only to errupt like a volcano into horrific violence with often no point whatsoever, and indeed only personal cruelty and sadism. [I get why a thug can kill to get loot, it's loot! Slicing up a baby with a bayonet, that's just satisfying sadism.]

nooffensebut said...

Pinker should feel embarrassed about his sloppy treatment of the “warrior gene,” which I exposed on my blog. He clearly does not understand the issue, and he did not check his sources adequately. It also shows me that he places more value in being politically correct than in being accurate on the subject of race.

Dahlia said...

Whiskey,
That was the worst sock puppet trolling attempt I've ever seen in my life.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the killin's too easy these days and not worth the trouble.

Wes said...

Is American Conservative available at Barnes and Noble?

DYork said...

Not surprising that the Jewish Liberal Canadian Pinker would prefer a multiethnic superstate over an ethno-nationalist state (Israel excluded).

That's a very old cliche of Jewish strategy.

The answer to the question - "Is it good for the Jews?" is never ethnic nationalism.

Except of course..........you know.

DYork said...

Wes said...

Is American Conservative available at Barnes and Noble?


Try Borders.

Grumpy Old Man said...

Mr. Schuyler, who is this Col. Kerfuffle you keep writing about?

Anonymous said...

DYork, what do you expect the Jews to do? They've had many tastes of what Western 'ethnic nationalism' entails, why would they want more?

TGGP said...

In case Whiskey and his anonymous fan are referring to bare branches theory, Jason Malloy already debunked that.

Jim Bowery said...

Goodbye sex, hello eusociality!

Anonymous said...

Anon 1, Have you checked out the site Co-alpha brotherhood.

Anonymous said...

The question....

Why did vast China become one people/cuture but same didn't happen among Europeans?
Or, why didn't China break off into different nationsg given its huge size? (To be sure, China wasn't always the China we know today; but over time, it did come together as not just an empire--like Austro-Hungarian empire--but as a united/common civilization.)

Was it geography? Perhaps more natural barriers in Europe which isolated populations?
Or was it cuz white folks were more indepedent-minded/individualistic(on a local level)than Asians who are more submissive to central authority(even if far away)?
Was it cuz most Chinese are of Han ethnic stock while Europeans were culturally divided into Slavs, Germanics, Latins, Hellenics, Celts(and Turkics and Persians if we include them folks as 'white')?
Or was it cuz Chinese central authority was far more ruthless than whatever central authority that developed in Europe(Rome for instance).

It could be there's more feeling of cultural unity between Northern Chinese and Southern Chinese than between Welshman and Scotsman in tiny UK.
I suppose there is the EU enterprise to finally create a Mega-Europe, but will it work?
On the other hand, most white Americans did come together as this creature called 'American'(but then most had to cast off their Old World identity and take on Anglo-Americanism while Anglo-Americans had to give up their particularism and become more accepting. Both sides had to 'give' something.)

Through the centuries, which could be said to be more peaceful: Christian Europe or Confucian Asia?

Anonymous said...

There seems to be two kinds of peace:

1. peace by suppression.

2. peace by cooperation.

Traditionally, #1 was the prevailing political philosophy. It's there in LEVIATHON. People are, by nature, brutish. A powerful state is necessary to maintain order among manimals.
Yugoslavia was peaceful from 1950 to early 1990s under peace-by-suppression.If anyone got out of line, Tito kicked his ass.
But once freedom was allowed, all hell broke loose.
Peace-by-suppression is a grim and pessimistic philosophy, but one that held sway for 1000s of yrs. It just seemed so obvious: people need to fear authority to obey and not get out of line.
China still follows it. They fear freedom as unleashing chaos.
And Cuba fears it too.
And new South Africa proves its partial validity.

But modernity argued freedom can produce even more peace by voluntary cooperation among free individuals. This is counter-intutive. If people are naturally brutish, wouldn't freedom unleash their animal drives?
Not necessarily IF

1. Most people are civilized and share basic values
2. There is rule of law and effective enforcement of laws
3. There is a system--social advancement through merit and free enterprise--that rewards people more for hardwork and playing-fair than by robbery and violence.

And it seems to have worked in certain places with the necessary conditions for peace-through-cooperation.

Anonymous said...

Making the transition from peace-by-suppression to peace-by-cooperation wasn't easy, but it's true enough that peace-by-cooperation had to follow peace-by-suppression. Before there could be peace among free civilized men, there had to be peace by brutal force among not-yet-civilized men.

Maya said...

"The problem is that there's an unfair distribution of sex right now. This can only end in tears. Civilization's worst enemy is a beta with nothing to lose."

Hehe. You guys are just regular Marxists when it comes to sex, aren't you? Is your war cry going to be, "Eternal virgins of the world, unite!" ? You know, come the revolution, your dictatorial leader is most likely to pair you with one of those obese girls with bland personalities that you keep ignoring. Then, he'll grab 4 or 5 beauties for himself and reward his best scientists, generals, actors and sportsmen with the other attractive women. I see why you'd like this system. Those without will and ability to succeed, usually, benefit from having all aspects of their lives handled for them by a hand with an iron grip.

David Davenport said...

Borders near my house used to carry the AC. But then, it stopped. And then Borders itself disappeared.

Yep, it ain't the 20th Century no more.

A hint to Mr. Steve.

Look Steve, you on your own can be bigger than those forgettable little political magazines.

Anonymous said...

Through the centuries, which could be said to be more peaceful: Christian Europe or Confucian Asia?


I don't think there is as big a difference between the two in terms of peace as you are suggesting. There was more war both within China and between China and those countries it tried to absorb into its empire than most Westerners realize.

In any case up until about 1900 wars were fought between a fairly small number of warriors. The combined forces on the field at the battle of Agincourt totaled somewhere between 20,000 - 45,000. Even allowing for the smaller populations at the time, the percentage of men who fought in wars was very small by 20th century standards.

The most striking change in peoples lives over the last thousand years has not been in the decline in deaths from violence, but the decline in deaths from disease.

The total number of combat deaths on both sides in the 100 Years War between Britian and France was approximately 200,000. Over the same period Britian alone lost about four million people to the bubonic plague.