D.B. Hart on S. Pinker

From First Things, in a review of Steven Pinker’s new book that thinks Enlightenment principles are leading to a decline in violence… well, Hart gets after Pinker and this is how he finishes it off.

In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: So what? What on earth can he truly imagine that tells us about “progress” or “Enlightenment”—or about the past, the present, or the future? By all means, praise the modern world for what is good about it, but spare us the mythology.

And yet, oddly enough, I like Pinker’s book. On one level, perhaps, it is all terrific nonsense: historically superficial, philosophically platitudinous, occasionally threatening to degenerate into the dulcet bleating of a contented bourgeois. But there is also something exhilarating about this fideist who thinks he is a rationalist. Over the past few decades, so much of secularist discourse has been drearily clouded by irony, realist disenchantment, spiritual fatigue, self-lacerating sophistication: a postmodern sense of failure, an appetite for caustic cultural genealogies, a meek surrender of all “metanarrative” ambitions.

Pinker’s is an older, more buoyant, more hopeful commitment to the “Enlightenment”—and I would not wake him from his dogmatic slumber for all the tea in China. In his book, one encounters the ecstatic innocence of a faith unsullied by prudent doubt. For me, it reaffirms the human spirit’s lunatic and heroic capacity to believe a beautiful falsehood, not only in excess of the facts, but in resolute defiance of them.

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  • DT

    I think Enlightenment principles, as expressed in modernist secular liberalism, are likely MORE effective than Christianity in moving the world in a better direction. At the very least, the difference is such that Christianity is very much not proven as the better alternative.
    So what IF the decline in violence is a matter of percentage and not of actual counts?
    Look, I am a Christian (at least for now). The voices in my head are all the pastors of my past telling me the standard Evangelical/justification/pretrib-rapture line that this world isn’t our concern. And yet when I sit and listen to the emergent/missional/home churches and theologians like NT Wright and Douglas Campbell and Michael Gorman I sit back and think, “that’s a great theory and would solve the problem,” except that there is just no shred of evidence to suggest that Christianity is capable of helping out its fellow man any better than secular charitable/community organizations.
    Criticizing secularism on the basis of two world wars, Stalinism, etc. is like criticizing Christianity on the basis of the Inquisition and every other atrocity performed in the name of Christ.

  • It’s rather surprising to hear an argument that what counts is the absolute number of violent deaths (or by extension, incidents of violence) rather than their frequency in a population. It may be true that “a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens,” since different kinds of violence are being compared. But what significance is there to the absolute number as opposed to proportion? Is the US 1000 times more violent than a tiny country like Swaziland because there are so many more murders in the US?

    Hart says, “So Pinker’s assertion that a person would be thirty-five times more likely to be murdered in the Middle Ages than now is empirically meaningless.” This is a 97% reduction in murder, and Hart says it’s meaningless. His only objective criticism of the statistics is that modern societies have more children and elderly people who are unlikely to commit murders. And this invalidates a 97% reduction? Whether or not Pinker has gotten the historical facts right (I have no idea), and whether he attributes the changes to the right causes, I can’t take seriously a review that doesn’t seem to engage the empiric evidence a bit more closely.

  • David

    Here at the Guardian online is Andrew Brown’s review of the book from November.


    Steven Pinker’s book is a comfort blanket for the smug.

    I may as well admit that I haven’t read all of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, but quite enough of it to see that the mixture is the same as in his previous bestsellers – a great piece of theatre in which half-truths do battle with straw men while the reader watches in safety, defended by barricades of apparent fact against any danger of actual thought.

    The whole trick depends on sustaining the illusion that only what’s under the lighting exists. The index here, for example, contains three entries for Columbine high school, and none whatsoever for Christianity.

    Whether or not you suppose Christian myth to be true, it is simply impossible to consider the development of ethical thought and practice in the west without understanding that almost all of it has been Christian, and that what comes after Christianity is itself incomprehensible without it.

    It would not be true to say that religion is never mentioned, but it is in the context of an idiotically whiggish view of history. We learn from his opening piece in this series that “the philosophers of the Enlightenment extolled the way novels engaged a reader’s identification with and sympathetic concern for others … The clergy, of course, denounced these novels and placed several on the Index of Forbidden Books” – which accounts very nicely for the atheism of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and also explains why Jane Austen was burned at the stake.

    But maybe that’s just an opinion. Let’s take some of his unequivocally factual sentences, such as this one (illustrated by a graph, so it must be science) – discussing the progress of wars since 1945, he writes:

    “Wars in which a great power tried to hang on to a colony could be extremely destructive, such as France’s attempts to retain Vietnam between 1946 and 1954 (375,000 battle deaths) and Algeria between 1954 and 1962 (182,500 battle deaths). After what has been called ‘the greatest transfer of power in world history’ this kind of war no longer exists.”

    This news must come as a relief to the inhabitants of Iraq.

    Soon they will wake up and be reunited with their loved ones in the discovery that the last 10 years have all been a bad dream of a kind of war that no longer exists.

    What about the second Vietnam war, you know, the one that Rambo fought in? That cost, he says, 1.6m battle deaths. But it is briskly redefined as “a war between states”. It’s not colonialism when Americans do it, you see.

    All right, perhaps Pinker can recognise a colonial war when it is fought by non-Americans. But no, Russia’s war in Afghanistan, (435,000 battle deaths) is redefined as “a Russian-bolstered civil war”. In fact, quite obviously, all prolonged colonial wars are also civil wars, and almost all of them have foreign involvement on the insurgent side as well. Certainly the American war of independence had both. But his whole grand scheme is held together by labelling games of this sort.

    I didn’t comb through the book to find mistakes. I just opened it at random a few times and looked for references to subjects I know something about. It wasn’t hard. His range is wide. But the factual errors, although they destroy his thesis as a serious piece of history, point up its attractive weakness as a comfort blanket for the smug.

    In his earlier works, Pinker was a great populariser of the just-so stories of evolutionary psychology; in this, he has moved on from prehistory to give an account of history, which is still stitched together from just-so stories, but this time illustrated with graphs, and lots of numbers. This kind of thing tends to impress arts graduates. But it’s still just a bedtime story and the only serious conclusion to draw from Pinker’s work is that a culture that regards him as a great intellectual is one already in serious crisis.


  • Larry Barber

    Pinker has a tendency to accept historical figures, shall we say, uncritically. For instance, in ancient and medieval conflict, both sides had an incentive to exaggerate the fatality count, but Pinker just accepts the numbers. Another large factor he ignores is the improvement in medical care, by some estimates 3 out of 4 medieval murder victims would survive if they suffered the same injures today.

  • Nate

    There is a critic covering several blog posts at Quodlibeta


  • Nate

    Sorry that should read “There is a critical review covering….”

  • Surprised by this review — not that Pinker should be immune from valid criticism (and there is plenty of that to be had), but this review reads like a vindictive ax slaughter, dripping with meanness and littered with twisted gazes at the historical record. Yes Pinker’s treatment of religion is a cartoonish caricature but DBH review leaps from that realm into an even more outlandish farcical jab in the arena of science and history where his charges are even more silly. And does not successfully counter the empirical evidence Pinker aggregates, other than wistful aspersions based on nothing more than lack of 100% certainty that DBH extrapolates as asserting that nothing can be ascertained. And juxtaposing absolute for proportionate numbers does not make the author’s case.

    As for the referenced Quodlibeta posts offer a vivid illustration of someone not versed in science or logic — just a medley of overly broad assertions and illogical statements.

  • DT – I would recommend checking out David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions to get a better idea of where he is coming from here… http://www.amazon.com/Atheist-Delusions-Christian-Revolution-Fashionable/dp/0300164297/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1325378480&sr=8-1. I would say that Campbell, Goreman, and Wright would be incredibly critical of the enlightenment as well.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    The Quodlibeta analyses are based in historical scholarship and a logical analysis of purported death rates. The supposed death toll of the An Lushan revolt is only the most egregious example. Pinker evidently got his numbers from an amateur hobbyist’s book! But then Pinker is neither an historian nor a statistician.

    One historian of crime statistics that Pinker cites http://videojuegosycultura.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/long-term-historical-trends-of-violent-crime.pdf has numerous graphs showing a decline in violence over the centuries. But, lo, they show the decline beginning before the Enlightenment. They also show an uptick beginning in 1950, so one could as easily argue the increasing catechisis of Europe from the Middle Ages onward, followed by post-1950 secularization.

    In reality, however, massaging swags does not produce information. Not in science, anyhow.