Top critical review
12 people found this helpful
Dubious reasoning at times in an ambitious project
on 11 January 2015
Steven Pinker has written some interesting and provocative books. Here he ventures into the world of history and somehow his scientific sense leaves him. That or his editors have not done their job properly.
It is a book of two halves: history and then science. First, then, the history with a handful of important graphs and a lot of examples and conclusions that strike me as shaky.
At one point he speaks of declining levels of homicide in most of Europe in the 20th century with the exceptions of the mountainous regions of the Balkans, Montenegro, Sicily and Sardinia. He draws the conclusion that these areas had less effective means of control because they were less accessible (at least I think that is the point)to control by the developed state, as it would be in most of Europe in the 20th century. He then writes "It's no coincidence that the two blood-soaked classics with which I began the book - the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric poems - came from people that lived in rugged hills and valleys".
With respect, as they say, this strikes me as pretty weak reasoning. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric poems came from people who left some record of their values and totems; others have not and others may have been as violent. Is there any evidence that in Homeric times or during the periods of the Hebrew Bible that people who lived in flat plains were less violent?
He also relies on and quotes extensively from Elias "The Civilizing Process" which, so Pinker writes, includes a mediaeval manners guide advising against sipping coffee from a saucer. Now, I know it's only one small bit of evidence I've latched onto here but I am dubious about mediaeval coffee and even more so about saucers. In Elias's book it is clear that examples cover periods into the 19th century but Pinker may conflate them. I could find no reference to drinking coffee from a saucer in the main examples in Elias; maybe the example slipped in as a joke! That said, it is of course bad manners to sip from a saucer, unless you are a cat!
Two factors are offered as explanation for the development of civilized manners, such as not spitting out food, in Europe,these are greater government/state control and development of trade. The link to table manners seems coincidental and not necessary. While in the Wild West of America it is the arrival of women (undoubtedly our better angels) that is the reason for the reduction in violence - also described as civilising (not eating from a knife and not murdering are lumped together in the civilising process Pinker describes). Seems a pretty broad an indiscriminate approach - any port in a storm maybe - to explaining reductions in the levels of violence. In the Southern states of USA people are more violent because they were immigrants from herding traditions where honour and self-help solutions were the accepted way to deal with conflict. African Americans are more violent because they are deprived and lack status and the institutions of the state (the police) do not support them - now that does seem to be correct! Violence was not so great in Canada because the Mounties got there before it was necessary to develop a local code of honour. A lot of the analysis seems to be simply a form of detailed description that seems like slightly desperate scrabbling around for a theory (or lots of theories) to describe many disparate events that do converge in less violence.
It's a long book and Pinker does not economise on words. I remain a little unconvinced that he has provide explanations - why did people become more civilized is answered by (in Elias two) exogenous explanations that themselves seem to require explanation. We stopped cruel punishments and tortures when we became humanitarian. Or is it that we became humanitarian when we stopped cruel punishments.. my point being that the connection between the two is not clear. The book has a lot of data and the argument that we have become less violent is very probably true, but the reasoning is weak and there might have been more treatment of ideas and economics. Economics and trade must have played a part in the development of the rule of law and general conflict resolution. And how do ideas arise that change us? That they do is true but still why and how ideas arose is still to be explained.
The second half of the book - Inner Demons - takes us back to science, well psychology if that is properly science. Pinker seems to me to be on more comfortable territory here. He deals with our self-serving bias as well as the mechanics of the brain that control aggression. Interesting and convincing.
I find Pinker wordy and preachy in the first half of the book. He takes a long time to make an obvious point and gives the impression he wants to sound wise. I'm sure that is not true, but he is laborious but maybe that's just me being irascible. When he being a scientist I feel he is both more convincing and less wordy ( well a bit less).
That we are less violent than before is, I feel pretty sure, true, but why this is so is owing to many reasons and constructing them into a convincing, integrated approach is beyond even the talented Professor Pinker. Nevertheless a gripping read and an intellectual achievement that is worthy of respect. Skip read the first half and move to the Inner Demons.