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.

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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.