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Pinker on violence is barely treading water in the shallow end October 20, 2011

Posted by larry (Hobbes) in Psychology.
Tags: , , , ,

This is a response to a post by Steve Clarke in Practical Ethics. It is my critical response to Pinker’s violence thesis, which I consider deeply flawed and largely wrong, indeed even misleading.

Gray is right that Pinker’s thesis is rubbish even if his own argument needs a bit more support (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/09/john-gray-steven-pinker-violence-review/). The graph that Theo (a commenter to Clarke’s blog who is familiar with the Yanomamo) points to is, of course, complete rubbish (the graph he is referring to is this one: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-dawn/201103/steven-pinkers-stinker-the-origins-war). These tribes are special cases and hence not a representative selection. The Yanomamo are an example of this. In fact, there is an American anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, who married one of their women, a kind of princess, who finds them and their society to possess advantages the West does not. They take their children back to her tribe every year. She finds Western society incredibly superficial and shallow. I don’t think we can say she is wrong.

And the graph that Pinker has which “corrects” for deaths over the centuries by adjusting for the total world population is deeply flawed. Another instance of this kind of crap from scientists with no real understanding of the social science literature is an example provided by E O Wilson in his Sociobiology. There he discusses an instance where Moses, in conquering another competing group, orders the killing of all pregnant women and young boys &c. Wilson then claims that this is analogous to gibbon behavior, which confers a selective genetic advantage on the predatory group. These are not at all comparable. Moses is not having these people killed for any genetic advantage, unconsciously or otherwise. He is having them killed in order to prevent an internecine civil war in the near future when the conquered group might organize resistance to the rule of his group. His slaughter is an attempt to preempt this.

There is a lot of violence that does not take place on a battlefield. Domestic violence, for example. This has been underreported for years, and unnoticed before that. And what about the psychopaths in our midst, not all of whom are violent? The ordered intelligent psychopath doesn’t need to engage in physical violence. He (the majority are men) are able to achieve their ends without the need for physical violence, but the emotional wreckage they leave behind is extensive. This is itself a kind of violence, though not the kind Pinker is concerned with.

And then there is the distinct possibility that physical violence by groups of the sort Pinker concentrates on is in the slow process of being replaced by more insidious kinds as a consequence of technological innovation, even if it is, as yet, rarely used.

The conclusion it seems to me has to be that Pinker has entered an arena where he needs to better inform himself.


1. Larry - October 23, 2011

I trust I have not been irrational in contending that Pinker has overstated his case. He may well be right that certain kinds of violence have decreased. And it would be an important research program to ferret out the possible reasons for this, a number of which suggest themselves. But it doesn’t follow from this that violence itself has materially decreased. Only its expression. It may have found other outlets. And there may have been socio-cultural-technical reasons why warfare was entered into by so many social groups.

I don’t hate Pinker. I like some of his earlier work. It is this one that I object to.

2. DMO - October 23, 2011

Hum – when so many people hate Pinker, there’s a side of me that thinks he may well b on to something. It is no good setting up ‘other kinds of violence’ as a straw wotsit to scythe down – that’s no argument at all. I heard a clip on the radio the other day in which Pinker was being challenged by an increasingly irate other scientist who wouldn’t give Pinker a chance to get a word in edgeways. Every time Pinker started to respond to a challenge he got interrupted by some kind of equivalent of ‘so why don’t you answer that, then..’ It was pathetic. The Pinker-challenger was totally irrational – so we had no way of judging if he was right or not. That kind of angry irrationality from otherwise intelligent and learned people only comes when a deeply held worldview or paradigm is potentially undermined by a new hypothesis. I get very suspicious when I see it…

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