Against Pinker's Violence

Steven Pinker
The Better Angels of our Nature
London: Allen Lane, 2011

In his book, Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker attends to the topic of violence. He predicts that his thesis might cause shock, anger, disbelief and incredulity from his readers, arguing that statistically and scientifically, levels of violence in the modern world are at far lower-levels than they were decades, centuries and millennia ago -- he observes that the trends can be seen at all three levels.

He claims his ideas should not be understood as the trumpet call for progress (and an eventual end point of violence) but rather as the culmination of quantifiable research that proves certain psychological functions have prevailed in certain kinds of environments which have, in turn, led to a noticeable decline in violence. A quotation from Pinker's final chapter 'On Angel's Wings' is set-out below, it effectively summarises his stance:

The forces of modernity -- reason, science, humanism, individual rights -- have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence. [1]

How can we think about the topic of violence clearly? How are we to interpret violence in the present and how can we relate this to a conception of history? Pinker understands modern life as a 'period that by the standards of history is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.' He reveals something about his understanding of history by asking 'how are we to understand the natural state of life when our species first emerged and the processes of history began?'[2] It follows that his account of violence will begin with the birth of our species -- but what is included and what is omitted throughout Pinker's history? This is a question that will pervade this reading of Pinker. Another is the definition of violence, which is pivotal to his narrative. A final question is the understanding of truth(s), or rather the production of a certain kind of knowledge that enables and facilitates his discourse.


What is striking about a book dedicated to explaining the developments of violence across time is that is does not begin with any kind of formal definition -- there is a clear absence in fact. It is implicitly assumed that we the reader know exactly what constitutes a violent act. Pinker references a number of historical trends, events and literary sources that suggest the past was a remarkably vicious and brutal time to have lived -- the Greeks, Romans, the Hebrew bible and early Christendom all feature to support this. But at no point does he extrapolate what kind of violence he is attempting to locate.

A Blade that Cuts Both Ways

'But profound as psychology is, it's a knife that cuts both ways' [3]

Pinker subscribes to a certain voice of 'Truth', namely one which flights the steady decline of violence over time. Yet, if we take a 'perspectivist' stance in relation to matters of truth would it not be possible to argue the direct inverse of Pinker's historical narrative of violence? Have we in fact become even more violent over time? Each interpretation could invest a certain stake in 'truth' as something fixed and valid -- and yet, each view could be considered misguided.

What would this alternative history look like? It could be equally as systematic; it could be equally scientific, full of 'reasoned' argument and as enchanted with modernity, as Pinker's thesis. It could start by stating that in fact the devils of our nature have outmanoeuvred the angels. As evidenced by the multiple atrocities of the 20th century -- the only century where the world's great powers declared war on each other, twice. It is estimated that over 70 million combatants were armed and sent to fight in the First World War, and new advancements in technology allowed massive losses of life on an unprecedented scale. Some twenty years later, World War II signalled the biggest conflict (in terms of death toll) to be historically recorded -- and what separates it from other great historical wars is the sheer concentration of deaths (estimates of 60 million are common) in the space of only 6 years. Mines, bombs, nuclear warfare, increasingly accurate projectiles, gas and chemicals, jets and apaches effectively created an expanded spectrum of ways to inflict death from a greater distance.

Pinker argues that a shift towards democratic rule and increased wealth in the west has directly correlated with the decrease in violence, but John Gray counters that:

The formation of democratic nation-states was one of the principal drivers of violence of the last century, involving ethnic cleansing in inter-war Europe, post-colonial states and the post-communist Balkans. Steadily-growing prosperity may act as a kind of tranquilliser, but there is no reason to think the increase of wealth can go on indefinitely -- and when it falters violence will surely return. In quite different ways, attacks on minorities and immigrants by neo-fascists in Europe, the popular demonstrations against austerity in Greece and the English riots of the past summer show the disruptive and dangerous impact of sudden economic slowdown on social peace. [4]

Pinker also references the growth and effect of globalised media outlets on our sensibilities: 'Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword "If it bleeds, it leads." [5] And the media has effectively 'stoked fear' with its 'round-the-clock vigils [and] documentaries in constant rotation.' [6] Yet an alternative history might point out the omissions and selectivity of modern media coverage, in a quite different respect. We should not forget Zizek's words that 'properly humanitarian considerations as a rule play a less important role than cultural, ideologico-political, and economic considerations.' [7] Zizek references a 2006 Time Magazine article entitled "The Deadliest War in the World" where over 4 million people died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from political violence over the last decade. Yet, documented though it was it garnered no sustained coverage or public sympathy -- this kind of struggle is therefore too low on the humanitarian hierarchy of struggles. These omissions show that the idea of 'globalised media' by no means confers to accurate representation and coverage of violent events.

Rather than engaging in a dialogue between Pinker's history and an alternative history of numbers, we benefit from rejecting both.

The Definition

What do we achieve by placing our morality and values onto the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Victorians, Byzantines, Mayans etc? Is it attempting to compare the incomparable? But, is this not, how a misguided history beings? It assumes that 'words have kept their meaning, that desires still pointed in a single direction, and that ideas retained their logic, [and it ignores the fact that] the world of speech and desires has known invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises, ploys.' [8] Indeed, to comprehend and interpret the ideas of a period we have to stare into the face of the singularity of individual events -- without sating that tempting urge for finality, for grand themes across the evidence.

To return to violence, which Pinker does not openly define, we can intuit (roughly) from his chapters that he means physical force (murders, torture, hand-to-hand conflicts and assaults, rapes, conquests and wars) doled-out to others. Crucially, Pinker's undefined definition and approach to violence enables his quantification of it -- so that across centuries and millennia certain forms and intrusions of violence can be correlated, evaluated and (re)interpreted. It is this scientific quantification project and statistical reduction that forms the basis of his thesis. He will use graphs, charts and tables to reiterate a numbers game -- all echoing decrease.

But what would it mean to be a violent Roman compared to a violent Victorian? And how can we begin to compare this to a violent modern man? To each historical period there must be a corresponding understanding and comprehension of exactly what it meant to be violent. If we look back at history through a modern lens we are destined to find horrific images at every turn: we see the alien, the depraved. For each historical age (and the hazy less-discussed boundaries in-between) we would have to resist the urge to look at violence so directly. By trying to look for answers in a straight line, we forget to turn. We reveal the all too 'rational' and 'reasoned' methods of our times. Pinker's science -- and science as a whole -- is not a value free practise; the way he applies and defends his position is through the application of a science laden with his ideo-political position on the spectrum (statistics, logical argumentation, quantification and reasoning). To understand a specific period we would do better to locate those sources that surrounded, influenced and were affected by violence: perhaps we would assemble discordant fragments and a complex patchwork of effects and sociological trends. We would find that the nature of violence has not evolved on a stable or constant line. To validate such transformations our definition(s) of violence must also react and evolve in an equally intricate way.

We might be hard-pressed to find instruments of physical torture in the modern world (speaking in terms of the 'developed' west) and certain kinds of hand-to-hand punishment are rarer in our time. Yet it is a giant leap, though not an uncommon one, to draw overarching conclusions from such an observation. For while certain types of aggression may have decreased have we not created new forms and pathways for violence in lieu? These forms may often go beyond the realm of physicality; we need to be subtle and sensitive to these transitions, for we can be violent without causing direct physical pain.

Pinker Responds

Pinker published a list of responses to criticism targeted at his work; two interesting and relevant questions/answers are set-out below:

Is economic inequality a form of violence?

No; the fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralization with understanding. Ditto for underpaying workers, undermining cultural traditions, polluting the ecosystem, and other practices that moralists want to stigmatize by metaphorically extending the term violence to them. It's not that these aren't bad things, but you can't write a coherent book on the topic of "bad things." [9]

What about metaphorical violence, like verbal aggression?

No, physical violence is a big enough topic for one book (as the length of Better Angels makes clear). Just as a book on cancer needn't have a chapter on metaphorical cancer, a coherent book on violence can't lump together genocide with catty remarks as if they were a single phenomenon.

Pinker executes the same processes in his response as his does in his book, namely, reasserting a reductive vision of what it means to be violent -- an exercise in circularity. Incidentally, a book could not be written on non-physical forms of cancer because cancer directly affects the body -- the riposte is that violence does not have to, and it indeed operates quite indirectly in this respect. But there is a pitfall in engaging with Pinker's dialogue, as our (and any other) response will ultimately fall-short, because he has set the guidelines and has created the validating conditions. We need to reject his framework entirely.


We should create a position against Pinker's narrative -- for his thesis is, on these terms, violent. He effectively barricades wider forms of interrogation while also dismissing these voices as 'moralisation' or anti-science. It is a rejection that operates under the strict tenure of his relation in the power structure -- one that places a paramount on certain scientific/technical truths. But 'truth is undoubtedly the sort of error that cannot be refuted because it was hardened into an unalterable form in the long baking process of history.' [10] A nuanced understanding of violence should question those so-called direct and logical historical accounts that lead us wearily to the modern day. Ultimately, Pinker will conclude that:

Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savour, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.[11]

Such a violent set of closing thoughts is set-out clearly, but we should observe that this framing of the problem by Pinker is predominant and pervasive today. It serves as a justification and it systematically excludes. It should not be a surprise that this simplified conception of violence results in a linear thesis. We should see violence as an intense force that operates in a myriad of sophisticated ways, mediated over certain times and spaces.

A virulent and destructive form of abuse is neglect, for the perpetrator carries a burden of care for the victim, who is heavily dependant, but fails to act it out. Neglect can injure a person for life (emotionally and physically), impairing development with devastating results, often self-harm and sometimes death. A person suffering from neglect may often forgo the chance to build personal relationships and live with independence or choice. By definition, there is no physicality involved in neglect, but who could deny the violent force of its effects? Pinker's thesis is an exact sample of neglect, the practise excludes and omits, it carries a burden of care, but by staring too directly it fails to see the vastness and enormity of the problem.


[1] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature (London: Allen Lane, 2011), 14.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Fedor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov tans. Richard Pevar (London: Penguin, 2002), 522.

[4] John Gray, Delusions of Peace,

[5] Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, 15.

[6] Ibid, 610. [Brackets my own].

[7] Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six sideways reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 2.

[8] Michel Foucault, 'Nietzsche, Genealogy, History', in Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 76. [Brackets my own].

[9] Steven Pinker, Frequently Asked Questions about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

[10] Foucault, 'Nietzsche, Genealogy, History', 79.

[11] Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, 946.

Ben Laws writes on topics related to violence, psychology, trauma and Continental Philosophy -- and how these subjects inform, relate to and affect understanding of knowledge, truth and modernity.