Planet Earth

Relative angels and absolute demons

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOct 10, 2011 12:04 AM


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My post below defending Steve Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature elicited some responses on twitter. Robert Lee Hotz finds it odd that I defend a book I haven't read. My logic here is simple: the outline of the argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature has been presented in shorter form. John Gray's piece doesn't even address this digest, so I am skeptical that it could address the data which is no doubt strewn across hundreds of pages. It is obviously theoretically possible that The Better Angels of Our Nature is thinner in results than the shorter essays and presentations I've seen over the years on the same topic from Pinker, but highly unlikely. If Gray does a disservice to the short form argument, I doubt he is being any fairer to a longer exposition. Second, I already admitted that in many ways I'm more pessimistic than Steven Pinker when it comes to this issue. And from what I've seen I'm moderately skeptical of many of the rationales he presents for why violence has declined over time (though obviously I won't be doing him justice if I come to any conclusion without reading the book with all its extended argumentation). But my issue with John Gray ultimately is not with his final assessment of Pinker's argument on the net, but how he came by it. Steven Pinker is a serious thinker, who makes a good faith effort to arrive at the truth as he understands it. I don't think he always succeeds, and I don't always agree with his conclusions. But even if you disagree with him engaging someone like Steven Pinker can sharpen your own perspective, and refine your own models. Steven Pinker is not a fashionable intellectual whose aim in life is to receive adulation by the right people at the right time. He may be wrong, whether due to lack of background or faulty reasoning, but he's a sincere person. I have friends and acquaintances who take great objection to his evolutionary psychology and representation of cognitive science, but even his false steps can serve as an opening to raise public awareness of your opposite perspective. Pinker's stature, and the questions he shines the light upon, are opportunities to have a public discussion on the Big Ideas. If you're going to criticize him, face his ideas full on, don't just prance around preening so those with whom you already agree can see what a good and right person you are. That's what John Gray did, and it disgusted me. Next, several people have pointed to more substantive reviews of The Better Angels of Our Nature. In The New Yorker Elizabeth Kolbert has a relatively balanced opinion, taking Pinker seriously, though not as adulatory as Peter Singer. In my estimation there's some good and some bad in it. First, when it comes to the bad, Kolbert suggests:

...Pinker is virtually silent about Europe's bloody colonial adventures. (There's not even an entry for "colonialism" in the book's enormous index.) This is a pretty serious omission, both because of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between the savage and the civilized. What does it reveal about the impulse control of the Spanish that, even as they were learning how to dispose of the body fluids more discreetly, they were systematically re butchering the natives on two continents? Or about the humanitarianism of the British that, as they were turning away from such practices as drawing and quartering, they were shipping slaves across the Atlantic?...

There are two separate points to note here; a specific and a general. I suspect Steven Pinker knows more history than Elizabeth Kolbert. I've talked to Pinker once at length, and just as in his books he comes across as very widely knowledgeable. I'll be frank and say that I don't feel many people I talk to are widely knowledgeable, and when it comes to something like history I'm in a position to judge. Ironically Kolbert is repeating the Anglo-Protestant Black Legend about the Spaniards, rooted in the rivalries and sectarianism of the 16th and 18th centuries, but persisting down amongst English speaking secular intellectuals. The reality is that the Spaniards did not want to kill the indigenous peoples, they died of disease and the societal destabilization that disease entailed. Europeans who arrived from Iberia in the New World ideally wished to collect rents from peasants. The death of those peasants due to disease was a major inconvenience, which entailed the importation of black Africans who were resistant to the Old World diseases like malaria which were spreading across the American tropics. The violence done to native peoples was predominantly pathogenic, not physical.

This is not to deny that the Spaniards were brutal. They quite certainly were. But they need to be compared to their non-Spanish contemporaries. The Aztec Triple Alliance which Cortez overthrew famously went to war to obtain captives for human sacrifice, who were also later cannibalized. Cortez won his war with disease and native allies who were chafing under the brutal Aztec hegemony. Additionally, the Spanish authorities were ambivalent about the brutality and exploitation which was being meted out by the European settlers. Much of the material in the Black Legend derives from the polemics of the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas. He made the case for the humanity of the native people who were now due the protection of the Spanish crown. This sort of dialogue and argument amongst the Spanish is itself an advancement across the arc of history. Consider the genocide which is celebrated in much of the Hebrew Bible as a contrast.* Was there an an Aztec Bartolomé de las Casas? Judging by what we know from antique Old World societies I doubt it. The same point can be made about British slavery. It is correct that the enterprise of European civilization in the early modern period focused to a great extent on the trade in humans. But this is not exceptional. Kolbert alludes to Pinker's mention of the Arab slave trade, but Europeans themselves long traded in humans from the north and east of the continent from antiquity down to the medieval period. This only dissipated when the supply of pagans outside of the Christian fringe was removed by the conversion of the last enclaves of the old religions (note, for example, that Slavs were common as slaves on both shores of the Mediterranean around the year 1000; cities like Venice rose to some extent on the slave trade). What was new was that in the early modern period there were those who made the case against slavery on humanitarian grounds. Though not all pre-modern civilizations had slavery, slavery as an institution was generally accepted as legitimate, if not always optimal (in contrast to cannibalism and human sacrifice, which were marginalized or banned by the world religions rather early on). Finally, the last bone I have to pick with Elizabeth Kolbert is a general paradigmatic one. The reason that I suspect Steven Pinker does not talk much about European colonialism is that it was not exceptionally brutal, nor was it a very long period in much of the world. To make these assessments you need a thick understanding of world history which most people don't have. The greatest mass death that occurred during the age of white European supremacy was that of the Taiping Rebellion. Though China was already coming under European pressure, and the Taipings claimed a Christian inspiration, the reality is that if you know Chinese history they were entirely explicable as the sort of disturbance which occurs near the end of a dynasty. In India the British decapitated much of the local elite, but primarily focused on extracting rents (the systematic brutality in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny was exceptional). I doubt that the British Raj was a time of greater violence than the political chaos of the 18th century, as the Mughal ascendancy collapsed and other powers arose to fill the vacuum and triggered a series of conflicts. And the European colonial adventures in Africa and the Middle East were fleeting at best, rarely lasting more than a century, and often far less. I suspect that Kolbert's emphasis on the European colonial experience of much of the world is influenced by the ubiquity of the postcolonial paradigm. Those who take postcolonial thinking as normative sometimes forget that not everyone shares their framework. I do not, and I would be willing to bet that Steven Pinker would also dissent from the presuppositions of postcolonialism. That means that the facts, the truths, that many take for granted are actually not taken for granted by all, and are disputed. One of the issues with postcolonial models is that they seem to view Europeans and European culture, and their colonial enterprises, as sui generis. This makes generalization from the West, as Pinker does, problematic. But for those of us who don't see the West as qualitatively different there is far less of an issue. A postcolonial model is ironically extremely Eurocentric, with a total blindness to what came before Europeans. To my knowledge they do not touch upon the genocide suffered by the Dzungar Mongols at the hands of the Manchus in the 18th century. The Manchu Empire, which in China proper were the Ching, was clearly a classic colonial enterprise. Ironically it served as the template for the nationalism of Republican and Communist China. Similarly, postcolonial theorists may discuss the British influence India, but they do not give the same space to the impact of West Asian Muslim elites via native Indian converts to Islam, as well as how they shaped Hindu society more broadly (e.g., West Asian Muslim elite norms of female modesty spread to Hindu elites, and to some extent remain in place in much of the subcontinent). But anyone who knows the structure of the Mughal Empire in the 17th century at its peak will observe that India was viewed to a great extent as a fat cow to be bled dry by Persians and Turks who arrived in large numbers during that period to staff the civilian and military apparatus of the Timurids, and were given preference to native born Muslims and Hindus, who were tacitly understood to be racially inferior. In other words the differences between European colonialism and non-European colonialism were of degree, not kind. People who are aware of how the Gunpower Empires expanded will see similarities to the Spaniards. But very few people know this history, so the later European colonial missions seem entirely novel. It is easy to forget that the European colonialism of the Levant in the early 20th century followed centuries of Ottoman Turk domination of the Arabs, which Arab proto-nationalists around 1900 were beginning to chafe at.** My own suspicion is that in a 700 page book like The Better Angels of Our Nature there are going to be many detailed quibbles which Pinker could rebut, but that would take a great deal of time and energy. I doubt I could convince Elizabeth Kolbert of my arguments above, she'd have to read 1491, Henry Kamen's works on Spain, as well as books on Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese history. How many people are going to do this, and so give due justice to Pinker's weighting of the facts? Rather, they'll lean on "free information" derived from their a priori model of the world, which I think happens to often be wrong, and highly misleading in specifics. So I want to finish with the good. It's a big general point, noted by a reader:

“As a proportion of global population, the casualties of the Second World War, he maintains, are easily outdone by other, less well remembered bloodbaths, including the battles leading up to and following the fall of Rome, the Mongol conquests and the campaigns of Timur Lenk, otherwise known as Tamerlane. Pinker’s math here is, at best, fishy. According to his own calculations, the Second World War was, proportionally speaking, the ninth-deadliest conflict of all time — in absolute terms, it was far and away the deadliest — yet the war lasted just six years. The Arab slave trade, which ranks as No. 3 on Pinker’s hit list, was an atrocity that too more than a millennium to unfold. The Mongol conquests, coming in at No. 2, spanned nearly a century. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we accept that the Second World War was only the ninth-bloodiest conflict in the history of our species, and the First World War the sixteenth. Isn’t this still a problem? The heart of Pinker’s argument is that the trends and historical forces associated with modernity have steadily diminished violence. Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out-fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count.”

To be frank I trust Steven Pinker's statistics more than Elizabeth Kolbert's precise interpretation of them. She didn't blow me away with detailed historical critique above, so I'm not going to take her assessments about the per capita killing of the Mongols vs. World War II at face value. Rather,

it's legitimate to wonder about the power of relative vs. absolute number of deaths.

I lean toward Pinker's position that we should look to relative death risk. One can construct a "thought experiment" where it would be obvious that you'd not want to have a small chance of dying in a world where many more die in absolute terms than a large chance of dying in a world where many fewer die in absolute terms. But there isn't an "objective" answer here. There is no real simple utility calculation, norms always creep into it. This isn't really any refutation of Steven Pinker, it's an invitation for us to start discussing what "human flourishing" really entails. I think Pinker's description of the decline in violence is precise and accurate. As to whether that is sustainable, and his theories for how the description came about, I'm more skeptical. But I'll get to that when I read the book! * I am aware that Bartolomé de las Casas supported black slavery. He was certainly not a modern human rights campaigner! ** The Ottomans exhibited some solidarity with Arabs as fellow Muslims. But in practice Arabs suffered some limitations in terms of their advancement to various positions, and exceptions were noted with curiosity (e.g., Arab generals who operated in the Balkans were rare, Turkish and Albanian generals in the Arab world were common).

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