Review – The better angels of our nature by Steve Pinker

From Hugo Domic

This is a extremely interesting book to get to know some of the history of violence. But not so much for understanding the roots of violence and consequently the dynamics of violence. I think the book can be divided in two (although the narrative don’t make the separation).

First the book is a great introduction to the history of violence (war, domestic, criminal etc) the author gives lots of references for this field, and the author does a terrific work in exposing this history, it’s always interesting and vivid. He overviews violence since we have records of it, he uses personal or cultural examples to improve the narrative which I think was very well done. Is a terrific initial book to study the history of violence.

Second the author tries to identify the reasons behind the decline in violence, and this part is disappointing.

Some notes on that:

Unfortunately is sad to see that the myth of barter is used by the the author, thus some of the conclusions are logically inconsistent.

The ideas that Pinker uses from Norbert Elias are bad derivatives of Psychoanalysis, the use of some concepts of this field are used in erroneous ways (in many parts of the book) and lead to a politically correct use of Psychoanalysis, this is not good at all! Norbert Elias was better than this, the interpretation of Pinker is misleading. The use of Freud in some parts is inexplicable since the author only uses some words that originated with Freud and not giving them anymore though, so although the author pretends to follow Elias thesis is seems oblivious to Psychoanalysis theory.

The author presents lots of statistics. Unfortunately some used are in general ridiculous, comparing data sets of an entire nation to a small sample of a century ago is not evidence! How can we compare data from a century ago which is constituted by a small sample of the population with data from modern times where virtually all the population is taken into account? We can’t and with the fallacious numbers the author tries to make wrong conclusions. Even worst I think is trying to use data from previous centuries, where we didn’t even had population statistics but somehow crime statistics are to be trusted or be representative? The author even uses “evidence” from Gregory Clark book, this data set is not reliable and we know that (Solow gave some examples in his review of Clark).

The use of the concept of anarchy for some areas is highly misleading, the authors never defines anarchy or how it operates, thus it leaves the concept to be interpret by popular ideas and not by good explanations.

The rather surprising naive view of modern wars amazes me, the author could at least list the wars, conflicts and civil wars, actively promoted and designed by the United States, some publicly some with black op operations, almost every conflict in Latin America this century, some in Africa and Asia were orchestrated by the USA this should be mention and quantified in a book that tries to explain (among other things) war conflicts in this century. So when in “statistics” Pinker (and many others) count wars among and within non-developed countries as a result of non-democratic countries and other things well it should count as USA wars thus democratic or not stops being a reason for war but USA intervention. On the positive side the author remarks that some dictators were puppets of the USA (Saddam Hussein for example) so he is not that naive and we see that he self-censor himself in some parts.

The ignorance of Bourdieu (not to mention Levi-Strauss) work is astonishing. Bourdieu wrote an entire book on distinction, which the author tries to explain with lousy explanations, if only he had read Bourdieu he would have better explanations.

The use of statistics from Psychology experiments is just unacceptable, the experiences are so bad and without meaning in most cases. They should be used for illustrative purposes, bu the author uses them as explanations. No need to say the explanations are terrible.

I think that the idea of Steve Pinker has merit, and is not wrong, but I think he can do much better to explain why and how. If only he had taken more time to dig deep on the Philosophy of violence, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology and presented a more “theoretical” explanation I would be more satisfied. The use of skecthy “evidence”, “statistics” and “experiments” undermine the quality of the author. His vision is good, his goal is good but his means are terrible.

Overall great historical narrative, but a disappointing explanations.

It’s a big book it’s worth reading it for the history it tells. But don’t take the explanations too serious.

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