Steven Pinker: bad hairdo, worse ideas
Whenever a prominent sociobiologist (I prefer this term to the more nebulous “evolutionary psychology”) like E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker comes out with a new book, you can expect it to arrive with a big splash—getting a front-page review in the Sunday Times Book Review, interviews with Charlie Rose, and all the rest. The reception will be overwhelmingly favorable because the message of such thinkers is deeply conservative, namely that biology is destiny. What is the point of struggling for a classless society if greed and aggression are hard-wired in our genes?
Get set for a barrage of fawning reviews of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that is basically an expansion of the chapter in his “The Blank Slate” that deals with violence. Pinker adheres to a Hobbesian view of society, one in which the state is necessary to curb the kind of wanton violence that apparently was much worse in primitive societies than it is under capitalism.
You don’t have to waste your money on this book in order to get a handle on Pinker’s views. John Brockman (described once by Wired Magazine as a onetime hippie, Warhol groupie, and feminine-hygiene marketing guru) is a literary agent whose clients include some of the most prominent sociobiologists, including Daniel Goleman, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. He also publishes Edge Magazine, in the latest edition of which you can find a lecture by Steven Pinker that is a short-form version of the new book.
This doctrine, “the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”),” he writes. “But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”
Pinker’s lecture begins with a glance at how bad things used to be:
In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world.
But after the fashion of Voltaire’s Pangloss, Pinker discovers that we are living in—or rapidly approaching—a time of the best of all possible worlds:
Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.
He also takes exception to notions of a “noble savage”:
The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.
As opposed to such foolish notions, Pinker asserts that Hobbes got it right:
The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.
I was first exposed to Pinker’s dubious ideas in The Nation Magazine, of all places. In a November 18, 2002 review of “The Blank Slate”, Steven Johnson takes heart in Pinker’s curious mixture of Hobbes and Pangloss:
Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite–understanding the particular channels that we’re prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive.
At the time I questioned the wisdom of such a review:
For all of Pinker’s animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.
It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a materialist context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker’s “Blank Slate,” with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are “nearly as distinct as their bodies”) seems little more than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.
The next time Pinker showed up on my radar screen was in the course of a commentary on the Yanomami science wars. Like Jared Diamond, who hailed colonialism “pacification” of the Papua New Guineans, and Napoleon Chagnon, the sociobiologist who viewed the Yanomami as “fierce” based on cherry-picked evidence, Pinker was committed to the view that hunting-and-gathering peoples were even more violent than they were depicted in Tarzan movies. About such characters, I had this to say:
Jared Diamond makes an identical argument to Pinker’s in his book “The Third Chimpanzee”, even going as so far as to accuse the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall as prototypical Nazis. In the infamous New Yorker article, he states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.” So violent were the PNG tribesmen that when the British colonizers arrived, they supposedly were grateful for being delivered finally from bloody Hatfield-McCoy feuding that never came to end. At least that’s Diamond’s argument.
When people like Pinker or Diamond write about the brutal hunting-and-gathering societies, they do so very selectively. Our ancestors came into existence two million years ago. Since the evidence for how early ancestors lived is quite scanty, there is a tendency for sociobiologists to project their own schemas backwards into a period with little regard for archaeological evidence. Trying to explain warfare in terms of Darwinian adaptation (what people like Pinker call environment of evolutionary adaptation or EEA) is very problematic as Gould pointed out in a NY Review article:
But how can we possibly know in detail what small bands of hunter-gatherers did in Africa two million years ago? These ancestors left some tools and bones, and paleoanthropologists can make some ingenious inferences from such evidence. But how can we possibly obtain the key information that would be required to show the validity of adaptive tales about an EEA: relations of kinship, social structures and sizes of groups, different activities of males and females, the roles of religion, symbolizing, storytelling, and a hundred other central aspects of human life that cannot be traced in fossils? We do not even know the original environment of our ancestors—did ancestral humans stay in one region or move about? How did environments vary through years and centuries?
For my money, there is no better antidote to Pinker’s Hobbesian/Panglossian worldview than the articles of Rutgers sociology professor Brian Ferguson, who is one of the leading critics of Napoleon Chagnon. Particularly useful is “The Birth of War” (Ferguson’s articles are archived at http://dga.rutgers.edu/~socant/ferguson.html#articles), an article that is clearly informed by a historical materialist viewpoint. He writes:
Over the millennia, tribal warfare became more the rule than the exception. As the preconditions for warfare (permanent settlements, population growth, greater social hierarchy, increased trade, and climatic crises) became more common, more tribal peoples in more areas adopted the practice. That development in itself spread warmaking to other groups. Once ancient states arose, they employed “barbarians” on their peripheries to expand their empires and secure their extensive trade networks. Finally, the European expansion after 1492 set native against native to capture territory and slaves and to fight imperial rivalries. Refugee groups were forced into others’ lands, manufactured goods were introduced and fought over (as with the Yanomami), and the spread of European weapons made fighting ever more lethal.
When I began studying war in the mid-1970s, I was trained in an approach called cultural ecology, which argued along the lines that Steven LeBlanc does today. Population pressure on food resources-land, game, herd animals-was seen as the usual cause of indigenous warfare. In some cases the theory did work. Among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast prior to the depopulation of the nineteenth century, groups fought to gain access to prime resource locations, such as estuaries with good salmon streams. But in far more cases around the world, such as that of the Yanomami, warfare could not be linked to food competition.
Today, under the rubric “environmental security,” many nonanthropologists who work on issues of international security embrace that ecological view. Recent outbreaks of violence, they argue, may be rooted in scarcities of subsistence goods, fueled by growing populations and degraded resources (such as too little and eroded cropland). But when you examine the cases for which that interpretation seems superficially plausible-the conflicts of the past several years in Chiapas, Mexico, for instance, or in Rwanda-they fail to confirm the “ecological” theory.
We anthropologists are just beginning to bring our experience to bear in the environmental security debate. What we find is that if a peasant population is suffering for lack of basic resources, the main cause of that scarcity is an unequal distribution of resources within the society, a matter of politics and economics, rather than the twin bugbears of too many people and not enough to go around.
Anthropology can offer an alternative view on such terrible disasters as the Rwandan genocide or the civil wars in the Balkans. case studies of modern-day conflicts show that a broad range of factors may be interacting, including subsistence needs and local ecological relations, but also political struggles over the government, trends in globalization, and culturally specific beliefs and symbols. Moreover, when hard times come, they are experienced differently by different kinds of people. Who you are usually determines how you’re doing and where your interests lie: identity and interest are fused. Once a conflict gets boiling and the killing starts, all middle grounds get swept away, and a person’s fate can depend on such simple labels as ethnic, religious, or tribal identity. The slaughter of Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is only one of the latest examples of that horrific effect. But such differences are not the cause of the conflict.
My view is that in most cases-not every single one-the decision to wage war involves the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision. The struggle can be joined over basic subsistence resources, but it can just as easily erupt over goods available only to elites. The decision involves weighing the costs of war against other potential hazards to life and well-being. And most definitely, it depends on one’s position in the internal political hierarchy: from New Guinean “big men” to kings and presidents, leaders often favor war because war favors leaders.
The question of subsistence resources is key. When primitive people fought each other, it is not because they are aggressive by nature but because of a need to gain access to the means of reproduction like water, food and land. The irony is that while capitalism made such struggles outmoded through its technological breakthroughs, but only raised them to a higher level since a fraction of society—the bourgeoisie—became bellicose in its need to monopolize the very means of production that allowed a peaceful and abundant society to prevail. Instead of fighting over water, food and land (ironically, the environmental crisis placed this on the front burned once again), the fight became one over natural resources need for manufacturing (especially oil) and markets for manufactured products.
Pinker’s belief that peace is becoming universal also does not take into account that violence is only partially a function of what happens on the battlefield. The fact that we have not endured anything like WWI or WWII in the past 65 years or so has to be weighed against the continuing violence of daily life in the Third World, which is not that visited so much by a bayonet but by hunger.
Two years ago U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told those gathered at a three-day summit on world food security: “Today, more than 1 billion people are hungry. Six million children die of hunger every year — 17,000 every day, he said.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/17/italy.food.summit/) Just add up the number of dead children since the end of WWII and you arrive at 390 million casualties of the war on the poor. You might not have trench warfare, but the quiet death of a child in Peru is just as brutal. The guns that prevent Peru from descending into Hobbesian anarchy might be regarded as a necessary evil by Pinker, but to the mothers and fathers of those children that is of little consolation. When the Shining Path, by no means a perfect liberation force, decided to take up arms and challenge a system that condemned so many of its citizens to an early death, the voices of “peace” and “civilization” urged its destruction. Fujimori brought peace but it was the peace of the graveyard.
Like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker is a public intellectual serving the interests of big capital. His targeted readers are suburbanites and the urban middle class that has somehow avoided the biggest blows of the Great Recession, the PBS contributors whose worldview is shaped by the News Hour and who will probably stick with Obama in 2012.
They like the idea that World History is moving toward a better place despite those evening reports about bad things happening in Zaire or Somalia. They are reassured by knowing that no matter how bad these things are, they were much worse 500 years ago than they are today—at least based on what Pinker reports. Of course, it matters little that others like Basil Davidson found an entirely different continent before colonialism, one that was a lot more livable despite the obvious small-scale battles over land, water and hunting grounds. And if the restive natives ever decide that they can do better by themselves than the enlightened colonist or neo-colonist, there is always the UN Blue Hats to sort things out in Hobbesian fashion.