Whether you agree or not with the premise made in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, it cannot but help to provoke a great deal of interest in anyone who thinks and cares deeply about the human condition. The significant amount of media attention given to the book suggests that we humans, as a species, have a strong need to understand (or wish to believe) that we, as a species, are making progress as moral beings.
Pinker thinks so. I would like to think so, too. But I am not so sure. He begins with this assertion in the Preface,
This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not — and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.
With already too many people following me around (read: books) like a phantom of the library, I am far from being in the position of reading, cover to cover, Pinker’s 700 plus page book. Nevertheless, I could not resist.
Since its arrival, I periodical find myself, when I have the spare time, to not read it from cover to cover but to dip into and out of it as the moment takes me. Of course, I would like to read it from the beginning to the end. That is not likely for the time being. Further, it is a book that I think I should study as there is a lot of material in it of interest and relevance to my own research and writing. I must, therefore, make the time for it.
All this preamble is my way to lead you into the dilemma I now found myself with the book.
I have read something in it that I know is not true. Pinker states otherwise. In fact, it is such a blunder that I can not believe he has made it. Further, it is a significant, pivotal point in his argument about our moral evolution. He writes in the chapter entitled ‘The Rights Revolutions’ in the subsection called ‘Animal Rights and the Decline of Cruelty to Animals’ the following:
But any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism. Hitler and many of his henchmen were vegetarians, not so much out of compassion for animals as from an obsession with purity, a pagan desire to reconnect to the soil, and a reaction to the anthropocentrism and meat rituals of Judaism. In an unsurpassed display of the human capacity for moral compartmentalization, the Nazis, despite their unspeakable experiments on living humans, instituted the strongest laws for the protection of animals in research that Europe had ever seen. Their laws also mandated humane treatment of animals in farms, movie sets, and restaurants, where fish had to be anesthetized and lobsters killed swiftly before they were cooked. Ever since that bizarre chapter in the history of animal rights, advocates of vegetarianism have had to retire one of their oldest arguments: that eating meat makes people aggressive, and abstaining from it makes them peaceful. (462)
Now, it is possible that buried elsewhere in the 700 pages Pinker refutes the claim that Hitler et al were vegetarians and the Third Reich were the forerunners of the contemporary animal rights movement. I just have not come across … yet.
Having got this benefit of the doubt out of the way, I am left with asking: How can someone as smart as Pinker get it so wrong?
Hitler was no more a vegetarian than the Third Reich gave birth to the contemporary animal rights movement. This nonsense is usually written by those who oppose animal rights and have a financial vested interest in the commercial exploitation of animals. But a world-renowned psychologist and author studying the behavioural and moral development of our own species?
Nevertheless, I will continue to read the book. But all the pleasure, excitement and the anticipation of discovering new things and ideas, well, they are long gone. Which is such a shame.
9 comments on “Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature”
When I read such clearly and obviously incorrect things in books, it makes me question the integrity and veracity of everything else the author says. Good for you for continuing to read the book to try to glean anything of use out of it. I would have had to put it down permanently. I guess the publisher’s fact checkers were asleep at the wheel.
If you write a book with such a broad sweep, you might not gather multiple differing references for what’s simply an illustrating anecdote. My understanding (not double checked) is that Hitler was a vegetarian – but only for faddish periods between binges of Germanic animal products – and that the Nazi’s did pass laws against animal experimentation – but never enforced them.
If you’re interested in more of what Steven Pinker says about human violence to other animals (which you might not be) you could hear the seasonal episode of our internet radio show, “Peace on Earth?”. Peter Singer and Gary Francione, in the context of Steven Pinker’s book, talk about whether we animals will ever achieve it. Diana, naturally, asked Steven Pinker himself about it at a talk & via email.
Thanks, Ian, for your comment. I’m not sure a ‘broad sweep’ is sufficient defence for writing a book which includes such a glaring inaccuracy as ‘Hitler was a vegetarian,’ given the readily available evidence to the contrary. This point is particularly important given how Steven Pinker pivots his main thesis around it. It’s a real shame that poor research and fact checking mars an otherwise laudable book.
reading the book right now (at page 250, not sure if i will ever reach the end because indeed there is so much to read) and i like it but i was a bit surprised to read the examples pinker gives (don’t remember where) of cruel medieval practises towards animals… he gives them as illustrations of how cruel people were to animals, but one by one they are things that still happen to day (pinker would then probably argue that they happen less often today and are illegal, but it doesn’t seem convincing to me). he talks about dogfighting, bear baiting etc.
Tobias: Many thanks for your comment about Pinker’s book. The book had so much promise but drowns under the weight of the evidence, which turns out to be questionable in the way that Pinker deploys it.
“Now, it is possible that buried elsewhere in the 700 pages Pinker refutes the claim that Hitler et al were vegetarians and the Third Reich were the forerunners of the contemporary animal rights movement. I just have not come across … yet.”
I don’t think he is making this claim; he is simply stating that vegeterians commonly have to deal with the good old “but Hitler was vegeterian, so being vegeterian does not necessarily make you a good/better person” claim. Not more and not less.
I’ve not studied the topic of Hitler and vegetarianism. Just looking at the Wikipedia page about it, I gather that there are differing opinions out there from independent writers and academic historians.
I’m a huge fan of this book.
I’ve been in a weekly book group for six years and after one year of my salesmanship and heartfelt convincing they agreed to read Pinker’s exploration of the decline of violence. I’ve debated the contents for the past three years in person and online with liberals and conservatives. They have knee-jerk criticisms that they tend to maintain no matter how much data one puts forward. Of course, Pinker writes about a lot more than the data in his book. He has many theories and analyses that one can challenge. Many academically oriented people in my group did. My point is try and make sure lots more people are exposed to the overall fact that violence has declined. Then, we can listen to Pinker and others who may help us understand or formulate our own theories as to why this happened and what might be done to continue and even improve the trend.
I’ve included a few dozen nice color charts related to the text here:
More can be found through an image search for “steven pinker better angels charts”.
Through my many discussions on “Better Angels”, I’ve developed and revised multiple times an overview statement for the book along with attaching or copying many charts that Pinker put together. Here is my latest version:
Much of the information below comes from Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. Terrible things like warfare, rape, murder, legal and illegal slavery, bullying, lynchings, racism, sexism and animal abuse are all in radical decline. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and afterward. By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior.
Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving. That’s just not the case when it comes to acts of violence. There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it’s far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585. Through a very large range of historical narratives, archaeology and statistics, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks. On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common. According to the FBI, from 2001-2010, the crime rates went down in categories of violent crime (20%), forcible rape (13.8%), robbery (19.7%), aggravated assault (20.8%) and motor vehicle theft (44.5%).
When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don’t top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th. Archaeological evidence from almost 40 pre-state societies of eras as far back as 14,000 years ago and up to those active today show an average of a 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%. The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%. That’s 500 times less than typical pre-state levels of brutality. Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of the American Wild West, where the percentages ranged up to 30% or higher in each town. England, for another example, now has a murder rate that is 35 times less than in the Middle Ages.
The Wikipedia page about this book summarizes the proposed causes for the decline in violence:
Pinker identifies five “historical forces” that have favored “our peaceable motives” and “have driven the multiple declines in violence.” They are:
The Leviathan – The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent…self-serving biases.”
Commerce – The rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”;
Feminization – Increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”
Cosmopolitanism – the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which“can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”;
The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’s, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”
From – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature
For an interesting video presentation/summary of the contents of this book, see this link:
A great web site that can be used as a reference to double-check this data is necrometrics.com, where typically a half dozen or more historians contribute their estimate on the death toll for each significant historical event. As far as I have been able to study, Pinker many (if not most) times chose one of the conservative numbers in the ranges.