Looking at the Pinker thesis of a historical trend of reduced violent deaths and the reasons and sustainability of those trends

In the 2012 Singularity Summit I covered a presentation by Steve Pinker where he talked about what he felt was a decrease in violent deaths. I will review Pinkers claims of declining violent deaths and some of the criticism of it.

Six major declines of violence and their immediate causes

1. The Pacification process

Until 6000 years ago people lived in anarchy. Life in a state of Nature.
Forensic archeology (CSI Palentology) show remains where 15% had violent trauma.

This part seems to make sense

2. The Civilizing Process

Homicide statistics from 1200-2000
1/35th as likely for someone in England to be murdered than someone in the middle ages.

Here is the 60 page Manuel Eisner paper on Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime

The UK has one of the lowest homicide rates for a country in the world (1.2 per 100,000). The World murder rate is 6.9 per 100,000.

The homicide rate in El Salvador, Jamaica, Honduras and many other countries are all higher than fifteenth century Europe. The past was a more violent place but as violent as some countries in the present. Brazil and Mexico at about 23 per 100,000 are not that far off the murder rate of middle ages Europe 40 per 100,000.

3. Humanitarian Revolution

Abolition of Judicial torture
Abolition of slavery
Causes – printing and literacy

Literacy matters because it enabled the Enlightenment
Cosmopolitanism – mixing of people and ideas

4. The Long Peace

Trends in great power war (1500-2000) by Jack Levy
Proportion of years that great powers fought each other
Deadliness of Wars involving great powers went up until the end of world war 2.

NBF – Pinker has weak and biased analysis here. See below the criticism of his treatment of deaths in Vietnam and Iraq

US soldier deaths in the second Iraq war were greatly reduced because of improved body armor and battlefield medicine that reduced the number of deaths by about six times relative to World War 2 and Vietnam.

5. The New Peace: the post Cold-War period, which (despite popular perceptions) has seen drops in inter-state war, civil war, genocide, and terrorism;

Since 1946, historically unprecedented decline in interstate war.

0 wars between US and USSR
0 nuclear weapons
0 wars in western europe (2 wars per year started for 600 years before)
0 wars between the 44 most developed countries

Immediate causes. Democracy, trade, international community

NBF – Pinker analysis is weak here. Nuclear weapons deterring war for this period between nuclear armed countries. How sustainable will this ultimately prove to be ? When humanity spreads in the solar system and technologies change ?.

6. The Rights Revolutions: the civil rights era in many Western cultures over the past 50-60 years, which has seen drops in both forgiving attitudes and violence connected to racial and religious intolerance, homophobia, and violence against women, children and animals.

NBF – the Pinker conclusions here are a big stretch

John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School criticized the book in a 3 December 2012 article in Foreign Policy for using statistics that he said did not accurately represent the threats of civilians dying in war:

“The problem with the conclusions reached in these studies is their reliance on “battle death” statistics. The pattern of the past century—one recurring in history—is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically. In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since”

International Socialist Review –
Steven Pinker on the alleged decline of violence Review by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson

A professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker argues that the “artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction,” with the result not only that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time,” but also that “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.”

This optimistic theme coincides with the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s ongoing wars on at least four continents (Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America) and the US military’s spread to more than eight hundred bases worldwide; the US-led NATO bloc’s rapid post-Soviet growth and proclamation of “out-of-area” responsibilities; and the United States’ declaration of a right to kill its “enemies” anywhere on the planet. The New York Times greeted the book with a flattering front-page article in the Sunday Book Review by the philosopher Peter Singer, who called Better Angels a “supremely important” and “masterly achievement.” Pinker, he added, “convincingly demonstrates that there has been a decline in violence, and he is persuasive about its causes. . . .” It is easy to understand why Pinker’s invocation of an “escalator of reason” that has lifted the more enlightened Western powers toward an atmosphere of sweetness and light appeals to the many intellectuals who identify with these powers, as does his naming of the deficiencies that he alleges have held other peoples back from rising with them. But such a propaganda windfall for the imperial bloc could only be purchased with a denial of reality. Indeed, it is in the ideological and error-ridden narrative with which Pinker sustains this denial for more than eight hundred pages that the book’s real appeal lies.

How does Pinker get around the seemingly large numbers of wars and militarization process that bother so many ordinary people and specialist observers such as Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, and Winslow Wheeler? One Pinker method is to confine his focus to post-1945 wars among the great democracies, which have not fought one another in this sixty-seven-year interim, and to ignore or downplay the numerous wars that the great democracies have fought in the Third World. He calls this the “Long Peace,” while the other wars have no name. Pinker contends not only that the “democracies avoid disputes with each other,” but that they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” an idea he refers to as the “Democratic Peace.” This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of US assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings, and invasions since 1945. For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the “Democratic Peace,” no matter how many people die.

It also rests on a patriotic rewriting of history and use of sources that will support this rewriting. A dramatic example is his treatment of the US-backed war in Vietnam. Pinker makes that war a case in which enemy fanaticism and the “life-is-cheap” mentality of the Vietnamese were responsible for the heavy casualties. He tells us that “the three deadliest postwar conflicts were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents.” It was thus the Vietnamese resistance and willingness to absorb the large casualties inflicted on them by the US invaders that fueled the war.

Nowhere does Pinker mention the massive US use of chemical warfare in Vietnam (1961–70), and the estimated “three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, . . . suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals” used during this ugly and very un-angelic form of warfare. What makes this suppression especially interesting is that Pinker cites the outlawing and non-use of chemical and biological weapons as evidence of the new evolving higher morality and decline of violence, so his dodging of the facts on the massive use of such weapons in Operation Ranch Hand and other US programs in Vietnam is remarkably dishonest.

Pinker’s analysis and use of sources on war-based deaths in Iraq is also compromised. The study of Iraqi casualties by the Johns Hopkins researchers published in the British medical journal the Lancet reported that 655,000 Iraqis had died during the roughly forty-month period from the March 20, 2003, invasion through July 2006, with some 601,000 of these deaths due to violence. This is unacceptable to Pinker, who prefers the much lower estimate of Iraq Body Count, which relies largely on news media reports of deaths, while the Johns Hopkins team used a standard retrospective survey method. Pinker objects to the “Main Street bias” of the Johns Hopkins sample, but he raises no questions about Rummel’s bizarre conclusions or the systematic low-ball estimates of “battle deaths” by an array of government- and foundation-supported organizations devoted to showing that modern wars have become more and more civilian-friendly since 1945. Elsewhere in Better Angels, Pinker reverses course and reports that there were “373,000 deaths from 2003 to 2008” in the Darfur states of the western Sudan, accepting a body count produced via the same retrospective survey method used by the Johns Hopkins teams for Iraq. This is the preferential method of research in action.

Richardson’s data,” is based on Lewis Fry Richardson’s mid-twentieth-century book, Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. It depicts 315 armed conflicts between 1800 and 1950. But as Pinker derives this figure from an outside source, it does not inflate earlier death tolls the way Pinker does when comparing the An Lushan Revolt with World War II. The consequence is that in Figure 5-6, two armed conflicts stand out for their deadliness: the First and Second World Wars. But as this confutes the declining-violence half of Pinker’s narrative, he urges readers to “Cover up the two outliers with your thumb” in order to produce the impression he wants to sustain:

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