Fact Checking Pinker On World's Bloodiest Atrocity

In his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Stephen Pinker argues that humanity is getting less bloodthirsty and more civilized. But Humphrey Clarke, of the Medieval history blog Quodlibeta, takes issue with some of the numbers that Pinker uses to argue that the 20th Century was, proportionately speaking, less bloody than previous eras:

Pinker then presents a table showing the Second World War as merely the 9th most destructive atrocity of all time – lagging behind the Atlantic Slave Tradethe annihilation of the American IndiansTamerlane’s conqueststhe fall of Romethe fall of the Ming dynastythe Mid-east slave trade,the Mongol conquests and – most terrible of all – the An Lushan Revolt (something the majority of westerners have never even heard of).

Now at this point one’s proverbial ‘Bullshit-o-meter’ should be sounding – anyone who claims that they have a reasonably accurate ‘death toll estimate’ for something like the Mongol Conquests is being ludicrously over-confident. Pinker’s table looks suspiciously like something that has been cut and pasted from Wikipedia. In fact the figures appear to have been lifted from a site called ‘Necromterics’ authored by Matthew White – a librarian and author whose somewhat macabre hobby appears to be calculating historic death tolls. His scholarly works include such essays as ‘Which Has Killed More People? Christianity? or Gun Control’ so it’s a bit strange that Pinker would consider him the go-to man on the demography of Medieval China.

The An Lushan Revolt, according to Pinker and White, wiped out something like 36,000,000 Chinese over the course of 8 years – a toll equivalent to two thirds (66%) of the Tang Empire’s population. If you scale for the mid 20th century’s population you would end up with an equivalent toll of 429,000,000 people. That would indeed be an astonishing high death rate – by comparison the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia killed around 13% of Russia’s population – over half the population in the regions and countries of Europe where there is data of useful quality died in the Black Death (perhaps the worst demographic disaster in the history of the world). To justify this Pinker and White refer to the fact that at the peak of the medieval Tang dynasty, the census taken in the year 753 recorded a population of 52,880,488. After eleven years of civil war, the census of 764 gave a figure of 16,900,000. None of the figures cited on White’s site appear to come from Sinologists as far as I can see and no context is given for the low census figures.

Accordingly I have worked through a number of works such as the ‘Cambridge History of China Vol 3’, Mark Edward Lewis’s ‘The Chinese Cosmopolitan Empire – the Tang Dynasty’ and David Andrew Graff’s ‘Medieval Chinese Warfare’ to see if they can shed greater light on what is now claimed to be the greatest holocaust in human history.

Read Clarke’s resulting critical analysis of Pinker’s numbers.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Tamerlane may (I haven’t done even Matthew White’s level of homework, but have read a bit of military history) claim the all-time single massacre record.

    Back in the late 1300s, his hordes had swept practically unopposed down through what we now call Afghanistan onto the Indus plains, capturing so many slaves that just about every one of his troopers had a personal retinue. Then they came to the fortified city of Delhi, which had been gathering soldiers and stores, and Big Tam realized they were in for a long siege.

    The Delhians having scoured the countryside, there was little food available for the invaders. So T made one of those famous top-level executive decisions, and the word went out: get rid of the slaves.

    At least 100,000 helpless captives died that afternoon (in one hour, according Michael Prawdin’s The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy) – not even Auschwitz matched that record. Most were strangled, so the amount of literal bloodshed was quite low. I’ve never found how they dealt with the disposal problem, but suspect they outsourced it by catapulting bodies over the wall for the locals to handle.

  • josh

    I haven’t read Pinker’s book but his numbers for almost any historical massacre would need to have huge error bars. Of course that applies to some degree even to more modern wars, especially when trying to include indirect deaths, c.f. estimates of Iraqi casualties. But then, trying to rank individual catastrophes probably isn’t very useful for estimating an overall rate of violence. WWII is clearly the biggest ‘single’ war, but that is due in part to the population size and the scale of alliances and logistics that modern technology allows. I’m not sure how you accurately compare it to the sum of all regional wars involving smaller countries at some earlier period, or even how its death toll compares to ,say, the aggregate death from violent crime in the world.

  • Daniel Schealler

    I find the phrase “In fact the figures appear to have been lifted from a site called ‘Necromterics’ authored by Matthew White” interesting:


    1) Did Pinker cite the source of his figures, and was that source Necromterics – making the use of ‘appear to’ a rhetorical slip of the tongue of little consequence?


    2) Did Pinker cite the source of his figures, and Quodilbeta didn’t check up on these sources as part of crafting his critique?

    If so, this would seriously undermine Quodibeta’s critique.

    Still, it would ultimately come down to who has the better source.

    If both have a strong source and they disagree, then perhaps the figures need to be discarded as contentious.


    3) Did Pinker not cite the source of his figures at all? I find this a little hard to believe, but it could be true. If it is true, then Quodilbeta is a tad redundant given that ‘uncited factual claim’ is enough of a take-down. But redundancy doesn’t make his critique inaccurate.


    I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t tell which of the above (if any) are correct.

    Anyone else with a handle on this care to shed some light on the situation?

    • David Evans

      Pinker refers several times to Matthew White’s website, giving an obsolete URL of http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/ which is now redirected to necrometrics.com (not necromterics)

      About An Lushan he says in an endnote:

      White notes that the figure is controversial. Some historians attribute it to migration or the breakdown of the census; others treat it as credible, because subsistence farmers would have been highly vulnerable to a disruption of irrigation infrastructure.

    • http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/ Humphrey Clarke

      Pinker does indeed cite White as his source so saying ‘lifted’ is just rhetorical. Really what I mean here is that he has taken the figures for his thesis without analyzing them or subjecting them to further scrutiny – i.e what proportion of the losses in the Thirty Years War were actually from disease ?

      Someone mentioned the Taiping rebellion. I think – having looked at this further – that Pinker’s figures for 19th century China might be a significant under-count and that the 19th might be the proportionally the most violent century followed closely by the Twentieth (this is also what Niall Ferguson argued in ‘War of the World). Of course that doesn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement to the idea that we are getting less violent.

    • http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/ Humphrey Clarke

      On this point

      ‘others treat it as credible, because subsistence farmers would have been highly vulnerable to a disruption of irrigation infrastructure.’

      I can’t find a single Sinologist who thinks that a death toll of 36,000,000 is credible. They all say the drop is due to the breakdown in the Tang dynasty’s tax system.

    • quantheory

      Just to be clear, Pinker does acknowledge that wars and genocides were, on average, getting bigger and more deadly going into the 20th. He simply claims that violent conflicts were getting less frequent to such an extent that the total number of people dying from them still decreased (e.g. you are on average safer in a large nation that’s frequently at war than in a region where local warlords constantly raid each other’s territories).

      From a scholarly perspective, I think the book would have been improved by leaving out the section on White’s data; however, I suspect that the section was meant more as a rebuttal to the popular conception of 20th century totalitarianism, which imagines that Hitler and Stalin and Mao and so on had invented brand new forms of evil.

  • http://somersplace.wordpress.com Somerville

    Not having read Mr Pinker’s book, I don’t know if he mentioned the Taiping Rebellion that occurred in 19th C China. Far better documentation for it shows at least 20 million dead. First learned about it in a uni history course on European Colonial Powers and their interaction with the Chinese Empire.

    The Taiping Rebellion was a widespread civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864, led by heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, who, having received visions, maintained that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, against the ruling Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. About 20 million people died, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history.

  • Angle

    I just read that paper on gun control vs Christianity, and I have to say that it seems very well written. I don’t know whether or not that guy got the numbers you’re concerned about right, but I can say that that paper is not grounds to discredit him.

  • quantheory

    I didn’t find this section of Pinker’s book terribly convincing (nor terribly important; White’s data is only discussed for about 5 pages and isn’t central to Pinker’s main arguments).

    However, it’s worth pointing out that there are two other incidents that make the same point just as well. The fall of the Ming Dynasty (17th century) and the Taiping Rebellion (19th century) are both at least comparable in scaled death toll to the atrocities of the 20th century. All Pinker needs is to demonstrate that there were other events that were about as bad for their time as World War II before the 20th century, in order to make his point that the 20th century Europe was not a uniquely barbaric setting. (Though I think this is better accomplished through other data rather than through trying to set death tolls for specific events.)

    Finally, some of White’s data is sourced as “in press”. I don’t know whether that really helps Pinker’s case, but it does partially explain why the citations are less than clear. (Though I do wonder: Was that data ever published? Is it any good?)

    • quantheory


      It appears that White is just publishing his book:


    • quantheory

      Added Addendum:

      I just realized that that book is mentioned in the original Quodlibeta article. The number for the An Lushan death toll seems to have been changed there, but apparently not in time for Pinker to change his figures?