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Is this the same Steven Pinker?

August 5th, 2009

A couple of days ago, Jack Strocchi and I were discussing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a book which I thought, when I reviewed it in 2002, was much below the standard of his earlier work, though no worse than the average book about the ‘nature-nurture’ controversy. In particular, I thought his discussion of war and violence was hopelessly confused, putting forward a Hobbesian view of violence as the product of rational self interest as if it was consistent with the genetic determinism that was the central theme of the rest of the book.

Now, via John Horgan at Slate, I’ve happened across this broadcast by Pinker at TED (which, by the way I’ve just discovered and is excellent). The broadcast has a transcript which is great for those of us who prefer reading to listening.

In this piece, Pinker appears to me to change sides almsot completely, from pessimist to optimist and from genetic determinist to social improver. Not only does he present evidence that war and violence are declining in relative importance, his explanation for this seems to be entirely consistent with the Standard Social Science Model he caricatured and debunked in The Blank Slate. He’s still got a sort of rational self-interest model in there, but now Hobbes is invoked, not for his ‘nasty, brutish and short’ state of nature, but for his argument that the Leviathan of social order will suppress violence to the benefit of all.

But even more striking is this:

[Co-operation] may also be powered by cosmopolitanism: by histories and journalism and memoirs and realistic fiction and travel and literacy, which allows you to project yourself into the lives of other people that formerly you may have treated as sub-human, and also to realize the accidental contingency of your own station in life; the sense that “there but for fortune go I.”

I agree entirely, but we seem to have come a long way from the African savannah here.

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  1. Freelander
    August 5th, 2009 at 17:10 | #1

    Although evolution is without doubt one of the most empirically supported scientific hypothesis, there is a tendency with some to get carried away with genetic explanations of almost everything and except them as ‘proved’ well before the emprical support has arrived. If Pinker is moving to a more balanced position that is good to hear. It is clear that the human genome has provided most individuals with a wide range of behaviours, both good and bad. And environment also matters, which anyone can observe if they experiment by hitting someone over the head with an iron bar. Or, indeed from the example of Phineas Gage. The important questions are which genes matter and in what type of environments do they matter most.

  2. Marginal Notes
    August 6th, 2009 at 09:30 | #2

    I found Pinker’s discussion of the incentives for violence in hunter-gatherer societies even more compelling when applied to the shifting cultivation societies of Borneo which I have been researching. In this case staking out extensive territories and defending them through the credible threat of violence, while clearly related to material subsistence, has been enshrined in elaborate cultures of pioneering, migration and head-hunting (and I don’t mean for a new CEO). No-one to my knowledge has estimated the incidence of violent deaths in such societies in the past but there is little doubt that both cultural evolution within shifting cultivation societies themselves, and the imposition of modern forms of state governance, have vastly reduced the motivation for and occurrence of violence and warfare.

  3. Mark Hadfield
    August 6th, 2009 at 14:19 | #3

    I have read a couple of books by Steven Pinker: one of them was The Blank Slate and I forget the title of the other. Whatever, the statements you are quoting come as no surprise at all to me. I can recall him discussing the value of a strong justice system in reducing the incentives to the cycles of revenge characteristic of “honour” societies and the widening of the circle of people (and/or animals) whom we think worthy of considerate treatment. If he ever was a genetic determinist, he hasn’t been for some time.

  4. Marginal Notes
    August 6th, 2009 at 16:14 | #4

    Further on the shifting cultivation societies of Borneo, cultural evolution led them to minimise the risk of large-scale fatalities due to the payback imperative by instituting restricted forms of warfare such as fighting with clubs, then the diving ordeal in which a champion from each side would be submerged in the river, the first one to surface (if his second didn’t hold him down!) being the loser. When a legal system was imposed from without, leaders readily embraced this system as a further advance that vastly reduced the risk of violent outcomes. Cool-headed culture prevailed over hot-headed genes! The apparent resurgence of Dayak violence in Indonesian Borneo, directed against other ethnic groups, was clearly the result of carefully planned manipulation by political and military leaders with ulterior motives. This seems to have been an important ingredient in other outbreaks of “tribal” violence in the past century.

  5. Ikonoclast
    August 6th, 2009 at 16:52 | #5

    Very interesting notes, Marginal Notes. We do of course still “stake out extensive territories and defend them through the credible threat of violence”. These are now called “nations”. Of course, you may not disagree with this statement. In that case, we may perhaps look at nations as “super-tribes” (can’t think of a better term) which push violence out to the peripheries of national territory in a sense and also up in terms of intensity and casualties.

    I’m not sure how authentic this list is and I can’t site a source.

    In terms of deaths only on both sides, here’s the top 12 operations/battles in history:

    2,000,000 – Brusilov Offensive (4 June-20 September 1916)
    1,800,000 – Battle of Stalingrad (1942–1943)
    1,500,000 – Siege of Leningrad (1941–1944)
    700,000 – Battle of Moscow (1941–1942)
    552,000 – Battle of Gallipoli (1916)
    500,000 – Battle of Smolensk (1941)
    400,000 – Battle of Kiev (1941)
    370,000 – Battle of Voronezh (1942)
    370,000 – Battle of Belarus (1941)
    330,000 – First Battle of the Marne (1914)
    300,000 – Battle of the Somme (1916)
    300,000[1] – Siege of Tenochtitlan (1519–1521)

    And I suspect a few internal Chinese battles / wars might be missing from this list.

    Also look at;

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_lethal_battles_in_world_history

    I wonder how these numbers compare to primitive tribal war on a per capita basis re the nations involved? If we add in civilian casualties we note some very surprising results. For example it is believed that Belarus lost 25% killed of its population which I recall was about 8 million (I think) at that time.

  6. Ikonoclast
    August 6th, 2009 at 17:05 | #6

    This also of interest,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_and_disasters_by_death_toll

    Stone age peoples might begin to look benign by comparison. Maybe?

  7. Marginal Notes
    August 6th, 2009 at 18:15 | #7

    Ikonoklast, I agree that territorialisation on a national scale raises the stakes considerably, as you convincingly demonstrate. Pinker’s argument is that the incidence of violent deaths has declined in the past century compared with the 100,000 years of hunter-gather dominance. My feeling is that, even if that is true, surely the absolute numbers involved and the concentration in time and space of “modern warfare” more than outweigh the significance of a decline in traditional “routine conflict”. Nevertheless, his argument about increasing capacity for empathy still holds, if only in the breach – demonisation and the strategic numbing of empathy are still vital techniques in the promotion of warfare – witness the Bush-Howard-Blair pre-war propaganda re Iraq.

  8. Alice
    August 6th, 2009 at 18:38 | #8

    Is Pinker actually measuring the collateral damage? (civilians?)

  9. Marginal Notes
    August 6th, 2009 at 20:56 | #9

    Alice, not sure, but he maintains that if the same rate of violent deaths applied in the 20th C as in hunter-gatherer societies there would have been 2 billion deaths rather than 100 million. I still feel that the focus on comparative rates rater than absolute numbers and scale of devstation is not sufficiently reassuring that there is an increasing propensity for peace. Singer’s expanding circle may be valid, but it is readily collapsed again when people feel sufficiently threatened and when demagogues manipulate tribal sentiments.

  10. August 6th, 2009 at 23:51 | #10

    Pinker never was saying “either or” nature or nurture, he was and is saying nature in the main plus nurture, or in simple non MODEL wording, take every case on its merits, sometimes its nature sometime nurture.

  11. Alice
    August 7th, 2009 at 14:31 | #11

    Im not sure this Pinker relative approach works for me either MN.

  12. Freelander
    August 7th, 2009 at 18:39 | #12

    The capacity to cause violent death has changed. If the Khans, for example, had modern weapons their body count would have been far greater. Humanity’s reluctance to engage in conflict when both sides are equal seems to have increased, but the difference between the unarmed and the best armed means that the best armed can kill with impunity and frequently do.

  13. August 8th, 2009 at 23:46 | #13

    I bet in a few years Evolutionary Biologists will be better economists than most of the economists are, and there will not a equation in sight, then it will be a real and not a pretend scinece.

  14. August 11th, 2009 at 00:28 | #14

    Pr Q says:

    A couple of days ago, Jack Strocchi and I were discussing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a book which I thought, when I reviewed it in 2002, was much below the standard of his earlier work, though no worse than the average book about the ‘nature-nurture’ controversy. In particular, I thought his discussion of war and violence was hopelessly confused, putting forward a Hobbesian view of violence as the product of rational self interest as if it was consistent with the genetic determinism that was the central theme of the rest of the book.

    Pinker is a socio-biologist, or would be called thus if the term had not been drummed out of polite society by Left-wing thought police. Soico-bios now have to make do with Evolutionary Psychology, an unhappy term which seems to exclude social analysis from the explanation of human behaviour.

    I have suggested “anthropology” to cover this study. But anthroplogy is only now beginning to recover from its hoplelessly muddled Boasian-Meadian “culturalist” phase.

    Socio-biologists are happy to have peaceful co-existence and even fruitful exchange between sociology and biology. It is hard-core social constructivists that wish to deny the existence of hereditary biological factors in regulating human behaviour.

    Pr Q says:

    his explanation for this seems to be entirely consistent with the Standard Social Science Model he caricatured and debunked in The Blank Slate. He’s still got a sort of rational self-interest model in there, but now Hobbes is invoked, not for his ‘nasty, brutish and short’ state of nature, but for his argument that the Leviathan of social order will suppress violence to the benefit of all…

    I agree entirely, but we seem to have come a long way from the African savannah here.

    Pinker, at worst, has been caught in an uncomfortable straddle, postulating biologically conserved militarist instincts at odds with the societally constructed pacifist intellect. Also Pinker’s view, according to Horgan, is somewhat more sophisticated than Pr Q credits. He argues that pacifist hopes for unilateral and universal disarmament are naive, because they assume a change in human nature:

    I got an email from Steven Pinker, who’s a psychologist at MIT. In his recent book The Blank Slate, Pinker argues for what he calls a “tragic” view of human nature, which accepts that we are limited by our biological heritage. Pinker uses the term “utopian” to describe the belief that we can transcend human nature and create a perfect world. By utopian, Pinker means hopelessly naive.

    Pinker told me that my vision of a disarmed world is utopian. He insisted that we will always need some military force to protect us from our own aggressive instincts. Total disarmament is a pipe dream, a dangerous one, because if carried out it could allow sociopaths such as Saddam Hussein or Hitler to seize power unimpeded.

    Pinker’s view, expressed thus, seems perfectly sensible and it is hard to see how it contradicts the theory that human nature has a fairly large innate tendency to violence.

    If Pr Q wants to be taken seriously as an anthropologist he should go to the trouble of constructing a more plausible view of his genetic adversary, without straw-men (sometimes, admittedly, provided gratis by the other side).

    Socio-biologists are primarily interested in the way genetic evolution has programmed social aggression into the behaviour of human beings, particularly the Alpha-males who more or less preside over the status-system. There seems to be abundant evidence that primitive men will quickly take up arms to defend their turf or women. We have contemporary testosterone-fueled rugby league players as an existence proof of this proposition.

    It is pretty obvious that this kind of biological aggression (or dominance drive) is a necessary condition for war and violence in various forms. Its hard to find any kind of sustained or severe conflict in history that has not had a gang of revved-up (at least would-be) Alpha-males playing some kind of fundamental role.

    Primitive man in his, more or less unvarnished genetic, state of nature is every bit as nasty and brutish as both Hobbes and Pinker maintain. We know this from research done by Lawrence Keeley, whose work I have spruiked wherever possible. In fact primitive men are more violent, on aveage, than totalitarians, excepting Pol Pot perhaps. Wikipedia summarises:

    Keeley says peaceful societies are an exception. About 90-95% of known societies engage in war…Despite the undeniable carnage and effectiveness of modern warfare, the evidence shows that tribal warfare is on average 20 times more deadly than 20th century warfare, whether calculated as a percentage of total deaths due to war or as average deaths per year from war as a percentage of the total population.

    The strawman hard-core “genetic determinism”, which implies that hard-wired aggression is a sufficient condition for violent conflict, is wrong. The evolution of the state, an agency of lawful domination, is a social phenomenon and is a great help in keeping our “nasty, brutish” impulses in check, as any conservative worthy of the name would tell you.

    On the national level, the single most important political factor in controlling male crime has been the ramping up of penal authoritarianism. Gun control, mass incarceration, pervasive CCTV, three strikes and your out, the Intervention etc have all done their bit.

    On the international level we saw the terrible violence unleashed when the UN, the legitimate global authority, was defied in the case of Iraq. At least some of that violence can be attributed to natural factors, Iraq’s extraordinary degree of consanguinary marriage dilutes loyalty to a Leviathan central government.

    A couple of years back I suggested to the Larva Prodders that this feminization of the household “demographic transition” was the most important personal scale explanation for Algeria’s transition to civility. Luttwak explains how feminism attenuates militarism:

    What explains the change is, I fear, a simple loss of vitality in its most elemental sense: advanced, postindustrial populations with their equal-citizen females do not produce the exuberant abundance of children (four, six, or eight per mother) that can at times fuel warlike sentiments, and which does certainly induce families and societies to accept the casualties of war with adequate equanimity.

    When a Palestinian mother (of 12) whose son has just been killed says that she is willing to give the lives of more sons to the cause, she means it; her emotional capital is diversified, not invested in one son (US) or 0.8 of a son (Germany, Italy).

    But the personal must be complemented by the political. On and off I have been drawing attention to the work of Andrew Mack. It is worth quoting his words on the subject of the decline in war:

    What accounts for the extraordinary and counterintuitive improvement in global security over the past dozen years? The end of the Cold War, which had driven at least a third of all conflicts since World War II, appears to have been the single most critical factor.

    And for the hastened, peaceful and succesful resolution of this conflict we can partly thank Ronald Reagan, the bogeyman of liberal pacifists. Oh sweet Machiavellian irony!

  15. August 11th, 2009 at 01:29 | #15

    Much of the debate between “naturalists” and “nurturists” rests on a confusion about the causal status of natural powers. These powers are real enough, as any casual observer of diverse races and genders can testify.

    This is obvious to the proverbial mother comparing similarly nurtured, differently natured brood of children. Or to the scientists comparing similarly natured, differently nurtured identical twins.

    But natural differences are apparent in relative differences within a given environment. Not for absolute differences between different environments (separated by time or space).

    Thus the difference bw human behaviour expressed in pre-modern and post-modern cultural environments is obviously vast. This might be the case even for genetically similar populations (eg Germans in 09 AD versus Germans in 2009 AD). The change in behaviour between Artemius and Angela Merkel is obviously due to the growth of knowledge, not in itself inscribed in any genetic endowment.

    But if were to take two distinct populations with different genetypic endowments occupying the same sociotypic environment then one would likely find systematic variations in the distribution of phenotypic embodiments, whether in behaviour or being.

    Everyone can fill in their own ethnic blanks here, I am sick of copping flak for pointing out the bleeding obvious.

  16. Haniberi
    August 15th, 2009 at 06:39 | #16

    Pinker didn’t just think his way through to this. I know – through people that met with – that he had some very clear stats on violence put to him. The kind of stats that proved his previous position untenable. Despite what makes it into our newspapers, violence has been declining since the end of the Cold War. While it is good that he is playing by the rules of social science here, is a little irksome that he does not seem to have credited those sources. Though, I guess that makes him just like many a grand theorist. Oh, the ego.

  17. nanks
    August 15th, 2009 at 07:49 | #17

    @Jack Strocchi
    this is correct. When behavioural geneticists model in twin studies (for example) they are looking at variance in some attribute (ie variability around some average value). Part of that variance will be attributed to genetic and part to environmental factors. So when it is discovered that genetics plays a huge part in the age at which someone first has sex what that means is genetics impacts on whether you are early or late in starting sexual activity relative to your community. Not in some absolute term. This interpretation often seems to go missing in popular discussion

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