Wednesday, January 1, 2014

1263. Book Review: Stephen Corry's Crtique of Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ and Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"

By Stephen Corry, The Daily Beast, January 30, 2013

Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, is completely wrong, writes Stephen Corry. Diamond argues that industrialized people  (‘modern’) can learn from tribal peoples (‘traditional’) because they show how everyone lived until a few thousand years ago. Corry agrees that ‘we’ can learn from tribes, but counters they represent no more of a throwback to our past than anyone else does. He shows that Diamond’s other—and dangerous—message is that most tribes engage in constant warfare. According to Diamond, they need, and welcome, state intervention to stop their violent behavior. Corry argues that this is merely a political opinion, backed by questionable and spurious data. He sees Diamond’s position as one of supporting colonial ideas about ‘pacifying savages’ and says it is factually and morally wrong.

I ought to like this book: after all, I have spent decades saying we can learn from tribal peoples, and that is, or so we are told, Jared Diamond’s principal message in his new “popular science” work, The World Until Yesterday. But is it really?
Diamond has been commuting for 50 years between the U.S. and New Guinea to study birds, and he must know the island and some of its peoples well. He has spent time in both halves, Papua New Guinea and Indonesian‐occupied West Papua. He is in no doubt that New Guineans are just as intelligent as anyone, and he has clearly thought a lot about the differences between them and societies like his, which he terms Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (“WEIRD”). He calls the latter “modern.”
Had he left it at that, he would have at least upset only some experts in New Guinea, who think his characterizations miss the point. But he goes further, overreaching considerably by adding a number of other, what he terms “traditional” societies, and then generalizing wildly. His information here is largely gleaned from social scientists, particularly (for those in South America) from the studies of American anthropologists, Napoleon Chagnon, and Kim Hill, who crop up several times. 
It is true that Diamond does briefly mention, in passing, that all such societies have “been partly modified by contact,” but he has still decided they are best thought about as if they lived more or less as all humankind did until the “earliest origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent,” as he puts it. That is his unequivocal message, and the meaning of “yesterday” in his title. This is a common mistake, and Diamond wastes little of his very long book trying to support it. The dust jacket, which he must agree with even if he did not actually write it, makes the astonishingly overweening claim that “tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years” (my emphasis).
This is nonsense. Many scientists debunk the idea that contemporary tribes reveal anything significantly more about our ancestors, of even a few thousand years ago, than we all do. Obviously, self-­sufficiency is and was an important component of the ways of life of both; equally obviously, neither approach or approached the heaving and burgeoning populations visible in today’s cities. In these senses, any numerically small and largely self-­sufficient society might provide something of a model of ancient life, at least in some respects. Nevertheless, tribal peoples are simply not replicas of our ancestors.
Britain’s foremost expert on prehistoric man, Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, for example, routinely cautions against seeing modern hunter-­gatherers as “living fossils,” and repeatedly emphasizes that, like everyone else, their “genes, cultures and behaviors” have continued to evolve to the present. They must have changed, of course, or they simply would not have survived.
It is important to note that, although Diamond’s thesis is that we were all once “hunter-­gatherers” and that this is the main key to them being seen as our window into the past, in fact most New Guineans do little hunting. They live principally from cultivations, as they probably have for millennia. Diamond barely slips in the fact that their main foodstuff, sweet potato, was probably imported from the Americas, perhaps a few hundred or a thousand years ago. No one agrees on how this came about, but it is just one demonstration that “globalization” and change have impacted on Diamond’s “traditional” peoples for just as long as on everyone else. Disturbingly, Diamond knows these things, but he does not allow them to spoil his conclusions.
But he has come up with a list of practices he thinks we should learn from “traditional” societies, and all this is well and good, though little of it appears particularly radical or novel. He believes we (Americans, at least) should make more effort to put criminals on a better track, and try to rehabilitate rather than merely punish. He feels we should carry our babies more, and ensure they’re facing forward when we cart them around (which is slightly odd because most strollers and many baby carriers face forward anyway). He pleads with us to value old people more … and proffers much similar advice. These “self-­help manual” sections of the book are pretty unobjectionable, even occasionally thought-­provoking, though it is difficult to see what impact they might really have on rich Westerners or governments.
Diamond is certainly in fine fettle when he finally turns to the physiology of our recent excessive salt and sugar intake, and the catastrophic impact it brings to health. His description of how large a proportion of the world is racking up obesity, blindness, limb amputations, kidney failure, and much more, is a vitally important message that cannot be overstressed. Pointing out that the average Yanomami Indian, at home in Amazonia, takes over a year to consume the same amount of salt as can be found in a single dish of a Los Angeles restaurant is a real shocker and should be a wake-up call.
The real problem with Diamond’s book, and it is a very big one, is that he thinks “traditional” societies do nasty things which cry out for the intervention of state governments to stop. His key point is that they kill a lot, be it in “war,” infanticide, or the abandonment, or murder, of the very old. This he repeats endlessly. He is convinced he can explain why they do this, and demonstrates the cold, but necessary, logic behind it. Although he admits to never actually having seen any of this in all his travels, he supports his point both with personal anecdotes from New Guinea and a great deal of “data” about a very few tribes—a good proportion of it originating with the anthropologists mentioned above. Many of his boldly stated “facts” are, at best, questionable.
How much of this actually is fact, and how much just personal opinion? It is of course true that many of the tribes he cites do express violence in various ways; people kill people everywhere, as nobody would deny. But how murderous are they exactly, and how to quantify it? Diamond claims that tribes are considerably more prone to killing than are societies ruled by state governments. He goes much further. Despite acknowledging, rather sotto voce, that there are no reports of any war at all in some societies, he does not let this cloud his principal emphasis: most tribal peoples live in a state of constant war.
He supports this entirely unverifiable and dangerous nonsense (as have others, such as Steven Pinker) by taking the numbers killed in wars and homicides in industrialized states and calculating the proportions of the total populations involved. He then compares the results with figures produced by anthropologists like Chagnon for tribes like the Yanomami. He thinks that the results prove that a much higher proportion of individuals are killed in tribal conflict than in state wars; ergo tribal peoples are more violent than “we” are.
There are of course lies, damned lies, and statistics. Let us first give Diamond the benefit of several highly debatable, not to say controversial, doubts. I will, for example, pass over the likelihood that at least some of these intertribal “wars” are likely to have been exacerbated, if not caused, by land encroachment or other hostilities from colonist societies. I will also leave aside the fact that Chagnon’s data, from his work with the Yanomami in the 1960s, has been discredited for decades: most anthropologists working with Yanomami simply do not recognize Chagnon’s violent caricature of those he calls the “fierce people.” I will also skate over Kim Hill’s role in denying the genocide of the Aché Indians at the hands of Paraguayan settlers and the Army in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Though there is an interesting pointer to this cited in Diamond’s book: as he says, over half Aché “violent deaths” were at the hands of nontribals.)
I will also throw only a passing glance at the fact that Diamond refers only to those societies where social scientists have collected data on homicides, and ignores the hundreds where this has not been examined, perhaps because—at least in some cases—there was no such data. After all, scientists seeking to study violence and war are unlikely to spend their precious fieldwork dropping in on tribes with little noticeable tradition of killing. In saying this, I stress once again, I am not denying that people kill people—everywhere. The question is, how much?
Awarding Diamond all the above ‘benefits of doubt’, and restricting my remarks to looking just at “our” side of the story: how many are killed in our wars, and how reasonable is it to cite those numbers as a proportion of the total population of the countries involved?
Is it meaningful, for example, to follow Diamond in calculating deaths in the fighting for Okinawa in 1945 as a percentage of the total populations of all combatant nations—he gives the result as 0.10 percent—and then comparing this with eleven tribal Dani deaths during a conflict in 1961. Diamond reckons the latter as 0.14 percent of the Dani population—more than at Okinawa.
Viewed like this, the Dani violence is worse that the bloodiest Pacific battle of WWII. But of course the largest nation involved in Okinawa was the U.S., which saw no fighting on its mainland at all. Would it not be more sensible to look at, say, the percentage of people killed who were actually in the areas where the war was taking place? No one knows, but estimates of the proportion of Okinawa citizens killed in the battle, for example, range from about 10 percent to 33 percent. Taking the upper figure gives a result of nearly 250 times more deaths than the proportion for the Dani violence, and does not even count any of the military killed in the battle.
Similarly, Diamond tells us that the proportion of people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 was a tiny 0.1 percent of the Japanese people. However, what about the much smaller “tribe” of what we might call “Hiroshimans,” whose death toll was nearly 50 percent from a single bomb? Which numbers are more meaningful; which could be seen as a contrivance to support the conceit that tribespeople are the bigger killers? By supposedly “proving” his thesis in this way, to what degree does Diamond’s characterization differ significantly from labeling tribal peoples as “primitive savages,” or at any rate as more savage than “we” are?
If you think I am exaggerating the problem—after all, Diamond does not say “primitive savage” himself—then consider how professional readers of his book see it: his reviewers from the prestigious Sunday Times (U.K.) and The Wall Street Journal (U.S.) both call tribes “primitive,” and Germany’s popular Stern magazine splashed “Wilde” (“savages”) in large letters across its pages when describing the book.
Seek and you shall find statistics to underscore any conceivable position on this. Diamond is no fool and doubtless knows all this—the problem is in what he chooses to present and emphasize, and what he leaves out or skates over.
I do not have the author’s 500 pages to expand, so I will leave aside the problem of infanticide (I have looked at it in other contexts), but I cannot omit a response to the fact that, as he repeatedly tells us, some tribes abandon, or abandoned, their old at the end of their lives, leaving them only with what food or water might be spared, and moving on in the sure knowledge that death would quickly follow, or even hastening it deliberately.
Again, Diamond explains the logic of it, and again he tells us that, because of munificent state governments’ ability to organize “efficient food distribution,” and because it is now illegal to kill people like this, “modern” societies have left such behavior behind.
Really? So let us forget the 40 million or so dead in the Great Chinese Famine of the early 1960s. But what about the widespread, though usually very quiet, medical practice of giving patients strong doses of opiates— really strong doses—when illness and age have reached a threshold? The drugs relieve pain, but they also suppress the respiratory reflex, leading directly to death. Or, what about deliberately withholding food and fluids from patients judged near the end? Specialist nonprofits reckon there are about a million elderly people in the U.K. alone who are malnourished or even starving, many inside hospitals. So how different is what we industrialized folk get up to from some tribal practices? Are we all “savages” too?
Contrasting tribal with industrialized societies has always been more about politics than science, and we should be extremely wary of those who use statistics to “prove” their views. It all depends on what your question is, whom you believe, and most of all, exactly where you are standing when you ask it.
If, for example, you are an Aguaruna Indian in Peru, with a history of occasional revenge raiding stretching back the small handful of generations which comprise living memory (no Aguaruna can really know the extent to which such raiding was going on even a few generations ago, leave alone millennia), and if you have recently been pushed out of the forest interior into riverine villages by encroachment from oil exploration or missionaries, then your chances of being killed by your compatriots might even exceed those caught in Mexican drugs wars, Brazilian favelas, or Chicago’s South Side.
In such circumstances there would undoubtedly be much more homicide in Aguaruna-land than that faced by well-heeled American college professors, but also much less than that confronted by inmates in Soviet gulags, Nazi concentration camps, or those who took up arms against colonial rule in British Kenya, or apartheid South Africa.
If you find yourself born a boy in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the center of the world’s richest nation, your average lifespan will be shorter than in any country in the world except for some African states and Afghanistan. If you escape being murdered, you may end up dead anyway, from diabetes, alcoholism, drug addiction, or similar. Such misery, not inevitable but likely, would not result from your own choices, but from those made by the state over the last couple of hundred years.
What does any of this really tell us about violence throughout human history? The fanciful assertion that nation states lessen it is unlikely to convince a Russian or Chinese dissident, or Tibetan. It will not be very persuasive either to West Papuan tribes, where the Indonesian invasion and occupation has been responsible for a guessed 100,000 killings at least (no one will ever know the actual number), and where state-­sponsored torture can now be viewed on YouTube. The state is responsible for killing more tribespeople in West Papua than anywhere else in the world.
Although his book is rooted in New Guinea, not only does Diamond fail to mention Indonesian atrocities, he actually writes of, “the continued low level of violence in Indonesian New Guinea under maintained rigorous government control there.” This is a breathtaking denial of brutal state-sponsored repression waged on little armed tribespeople for decades.

The political dimensions concerning how tribal peoples are portrayed by outsiders, and how they are actually treated by them, are intertwined and inescapable: industrialized societies treat tribes well or badly depending on what they think of them, as well as what they want from them. Are they “backward,” from “yesterday”; are they more “savage,” more violent, than we are?
Jared Diamond has powerful and wealthy backers. He is a prestigious academic and author, a Pulitzer Prize winner no less, who sits in a commanding position in two American, and immensely rich, corporate-governmental organizations (they are not really NGOs at all), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International (CI), whose record on tribal peoples is, to say the least, questionable. He is very much in favor of strong states and leaders, and he believes efforts to minimize inequality are “idealistic,” and have failed anyway. He thinks that governments which assert their “monopoly of force” are rendering a “huge service” because “most small-­scale societies [are] trapped in … warfare’ (my emphasis). “The biggest advantage of state government,” he waxes, is “the bringing of peace.”
Diamond comes out unequivocally in favor of the same “pacification of the natives,” which was the cornerstone of European colonialism and world domination. Furthermore, he echoes imperial propaganda by claiming tribes welcome it, according to him, “willingly abandon[ing] their jungle lifestyle.”
With this, he in effect attacks decades of work by tribal peoples and their supporters, who have opposed the theft of their land and resources, and asserted their right to live as they choose—often successfully. Diamond backs up his sweeping assault with just two “instances”: Kim Hill’s work with the Aché; and a friend who recounted that he, “traveled half way around the world to meet a recently discovered band of New Guinea forest hunter-­gatherers, only to discover that half of them had already chosen to move to an Indonesian village and put on T-­ shirts, because life there was safer and more comfortable.”
This would be comic were it not tragic. The Aché, for example, had suffered generations of genocidal attacks and slavery.  Was Diamond’s disappointed friend in New Guinea unaware of the high probability of carrying infectious diseases? If this really were a recently “discovered” band, which is highly unlikely, such a visit was, to say the least, irresponsible. Or, was it rather a contrived tourist visit, like almost all supposed “first contacts” in New Guinea where a playacting industry has grown up around such deception? In either event, West Papuans are “safer” in Indonesian villages only if they are prepared to accept subjugation to a mainstream society which does not want them around.
As I said, I ought to like this book. It asserts, as I do, that we have much to learn from tribal peoples, but it actually turns out to propose nothing that challenges the status quo.
Diamond adds his voice to a very influential sector of American academia which is, naively or not, striving to bring back out-­of-­date caricatures of tribal peoples. These erudite and polymath academics claim scientific proof for their damaging theories and political views (as did respected eugenicists once). In my own, humbler, opinion, and experience, this is both completely wrong—both factually and morally—and extremely dangerous. The principal cause of the destruction of tribal peoples is the imposition of nation states. This does not save them; it kills them.
Were those of Diamond’s (and Pinker’s) persuasion to be widely believed, they risk pushing the advancement of human rights for tribal peoples back decades. Yesterday’s world repeated tomorrow? I hope not.

*      *     *

By Stephen Corry, Truthout, June 11, 2013

I recently attacked Jared Diamond's view that most tribal peoples live in a state of constant warfare. This old colonial idea was first popularly resurrected by Steven Pinker, not Diamond, so it's time to peruse the former's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I battled my way through Better Angels. By the end, I was worn down by the faulty facts and attempts to lead the reader astray. Almost wherever one probes Pinker's facts, they crumble.
Let's start at the beginning for a perfect example of how Pinker leads us on. He takes only a single page of preamble before he tries to sell us his grisly thesis, which as far as I can understand it, is that everyone was once generally violent and horrible (tribal people still are, because apparently they are living relics of the past). Darwinian selection favored the most aggressive towards outsiders, and nicest to insiders. They had lots of children who went on to create states, which were generally nice, and imposed peace and "prosperity."(1)
Better Angels opens with a rhetorical question, "What is it about the ancients that they couldn't leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play?"

Exhibit number one is the 5,200 year-old "Iceman," nicknamed "Ötzi." As Pinker breathes with Hitchcockian crescendo, "[Ötzi] had not fallen in a crevasse and frozen to death, as scientists had originally surmised; he had been murdered."  Here is Pinker's very first "Murder Most Foul."

Introducing Ötzi with a list of his kit, "ax and backpack, a quiver of fletched arrows, a wood-handled dagger… ," Pinker's deduction seems straightforward. But, although scientists have come up with dozens of guesses about how Ötzi met his end, Pinker offers us just one "reconstruction:" He thinks Ötzi "belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighboring tribe."(2)

I will avoid bending the facts to fit a hypothesis, and cross-examine the evidence. The Iceman had three significant wounds: a cut hand; an arrowhead in his back, and a blow to his head. It was a violent death, but did it result from a clash between tribes?
Donning our Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat, let's scrutinize Pinker's list of Ötzi's possessions, for it is largely from these that the accusation is construed. It suggests that if Ötzi really was looking for a fight, he was more Marx Brother than Navy SEAL. The flint blade of his dagger was tiny, about one-third the length of a table knife. It would have been great for skinning game, but feeble as a weapon. His bow was half-made, not even notched to take a string; twelve of the fourteen arrows, too, were neither fletched nor had arrowheads. Pinker is fond of statistics, so here's one: 100% of Ötzi's weapons were duds.
The raiding party reconstruction collapses, so let's posit an alternative fantasy. Suppose Ötzi is resting after his ascent when he's shot by an inexperienced hunter looking for game. He flails in agony, inadvertently smashing his head on a rock but succeeding in pulling out the arrowshaft. It may all have been a hunting accident - not foul play at all.(3)  If detectives were called to a contemporary scene, would they ejaculate "Murder!" with such alacrity? Surely not, if they were Poirot rather than Clouseau. Wouldn't Pinker be the first to reach for the statistics?

He might, for example, compare the number of Italian hunters murdered (about one every couple of months) to those killed accidentally while hunting. In October 2012, the month after the season started, thirteen hunters had died in shooting accidents. In other words, it is 26 times more likely for a hunter to die in a hunting accident than to be murdered, at least at the start of the season.

Bearing in mind that Ötzi was not equipped for a raid, that today's hunters have had millennia to improve their safety record, that modern hunters don't disguise themselves in animal furs, like those Ötzi was wearing, is it not more likely that this was a case of accidental death?(3)

I stress that I am not putting it forward as a theory: My point is simply that the chances of Ötzi being in a raiding party are close to zero. Though my facts are true, my proposition is facetious. I have no idea how Ötzi died - but nor does Pinker.

As I've demonstrated, there is plenty in Pinker's first few pages that is plain wrong. He selects, bends and omits facts; he claims his methods are scientific, but they aren't. Pinker's data is not irrefutable, and I am far from the first to question his conclusions.(4)
Pinker picks his victims with hindsight, but we can now pass a ruling on his supposed rhetorical submission, "What is it about the ancients that they couldn't leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play?" The verdict is simple: They could and did.
There are many other examples of tendentiousness in Pinker's endless depiction of the violent past. His facts shake and buckle under cross-examination. Look at how he approaches the An Lushan revolt in eighth century China, labeling it, "the worst atrocity of all time… that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of… a sixth of the world's population." He cites Matthew White, but White himself puts the figure at "just" 13 million. This doesn't stop Pinker from gleefully and unequivocally declaring it the world's worst atrocity (which it isn't, according to White's latest guess).

Consider, also, his glib assertion, "There is no indication that anyone but Hitler and a few fanatical henchmen thought it was a good idea for the Jews to be exterminated." Recent research has found 42,500 institutions set up to perpetrate the Holocaust. According to Geoffrey Megargee, "Many more people knew about it and took part in it … it was central to the entire Nazi system … many other countries had their own camp systems."(5) Pinker's description is hardly uncontentious.

When Pinker's opinion unabashedly shines through, it's easy to see where he's coming from. In his third chapter, pure prejudice runs amok.

The section begins with a look at the statistics of "declining" homicide rates in Europe (which his graphs show as recently increasing) and then degenerates into a "Tales from the Crypt" or "Horrible Histories" version of "medieval," whom Pinker condemns as "childish," "gross," "boorish," "animalistic" and "immature," lacking all "refinement, self-control, and consideration."

As proof of Middle Age depravity, Pinker cites a c. 1480 manuscript, which he calls "a depiction of daily life." He reproduces drawings of people behaving grossly, entitled Saturn and Mars, but omits to tell us that they are intended to show the effects engendered by those planets, not "daily life" at all. Plenty of other drawings in the book show people going about their lives perfectly politely (busily undermining his theory).

This, of course, is the time of the extraordinarily original European cathedrals, of Thomas Aquinas, whose work has been called the philosophical foundation from which science originates.(6) It was an age when Renaissance ideas started to be forged, when Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen promulgated revolutionary notions about humanity.
Pinker believes that industrialized people today are better than anyone else, and makes the astonishing claim, "It was not just mundane physical comforts that our recent ancestors did without. It was also the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection." This will be surprising news to most tourists in Florence or Athens.
But it is still a digression from my main point: What's the evidence concerning the violence of both our ancestors and tribal peoples today? To substantiate his claim, Pinker primarily relies on a graph comparing the percentage of "deaths in warfare" in a miniscule selection of four human "categories." The ordering of the data follows no pattern; the categorizations are also spurious. The idea that this is a scientific representation of anything is nonsense.  
The percentages of war deaths for modern states are, in Pinker's view, practically invisible. As I have looked at the smoke and mirrors used to reduce what are in fact huge numbers to Pinker's tiny ones in my criticism of Jared Diamond's book,(7) I won't go into that again. A very detailed rebuttal of this aspect of his data, especially that relating to American foreign policy, can be found in Edward S Herman and David Peterson's, "Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence."(8)

Leaving aside (for reasons of space!) those he categorizes as "hunter-gathers," the thousands of remaining tribal peoples in the world are represented by just ten; half of those are from New Guinea.(9) That's just half of one percent of all the island's "tribes." These are not selected randomly, but are those few societies where researchers have collected information on causes of death. One of them is the Dani of West Papua, an area invaded and brutally suppressed by Indonesia since the 1960s. As spokesman Markus Haluk, retorted (over Jared Diamond's book), "The total of Dani victims from the Indonesian atrocities … is far greater than those from tribal war."(10) Why aren't those deaths in Pinker's graph?

It is simply not scientific to generalize about a thousand New Guinea tribes on information from just five.

As always nowadays, whenever the "Brutal Savage" myth is invoked, Napoleon Chagnon's "sweaty, hideous"(11) Yanomami is guaranteed to career (I use the word advisedly) cinematically into sight, screaming blood-curdling growls and wails, and oozing green snot and red blood.(12) Although familiar to American college students, virtually every other scholar who has lived with the tribe considers Chagnon's characterization to be fictional.(13)
Four of the five cited non-New Guinea societies are from the Amazon, and two of those are Yanomami.(13) Looked at another way, no less than twenty percent of the data Pinker uses to categorize the violence of the entire planet's tribal peoples (excluding "hunter-gatherers") is derived from a single anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon - whose data has been criticized for decades.(14) To put this yet another way, nearly half of all the thousands of the world's tribal peoples outside New Guinea (again excluding those Pinker has decided are "hunter-gatherers") are condemned as "Brutal Savages" on the strength of one man's account of one tribe.

The only Amazonians on the graph who are not Yanomami are the Waorani (from Ecuador) and "Jivaro" (a pejorative name for peoples straddling the Peru-Ecuador border). It's perfectly true that both had a bellicose reputation, unlike many of their neighboring tribes who simply didn't.(15)  This is a very revealing point, of course: These authors cherry-pick special cases.

Before considering them, it's worth noting that Jared Diamond, who also promulgates the "Brutal Savage" myth, responded to my criticism of his book by claiming that he had the scientific data, and that I, and Survival International, romantically portray tribal peoples as universally peaceful.

Neither observation is true: The data presented by these authors is at least contentious, where it's not plain wrong, and Survival makes no secret of the fact that tribal people, like everyone, fight and kill to varying degrees. Why hide it? We have personal experience.
By way of example, when I was staying in a settlement of Aguaruna ("Jivaroans") in the 1970s, there were deadly raids on a community a couple of miles away. Through missionary and petroleum company activity, most Aguaruna had been drawn into settlements along the riverbanks, and former enmities were exacerbated by their new enforced proximity. I don't know if the high rate of deaths cited (these were raids, not "war" as such) is representative of what these peoples did before the state came along in one or other of its invasive guises, but once again - nor does Pinker.

By far the overall leader in Pinker's category of warlike folk turns out to be the Waorani of Ecuador, with over sixty percent being killed. The Waorani were undoubtedly viewed as "brutal savages" by both their Indian and non-Indian neighbors.

They live near the Napo River, a thoroughfare for centuries. Waorani raided other Indian settlements for generations, both to steal things and as a warning to stay away. Their name for all non-Waorani is cowode, meaning "cannibal." "We" might think they're pretty brutal, but it's reciprocated: They think exactly the same of "us."

Pretending that any propensity to violence exists in isolation to their centuries-old struggle against invasion just won't wash.

I have no theory about whether life with the Waorani, or any tribe, is really more threatening than in a Bogotá slum. I do know that it has never felt like that to me. Even Jared Diamond has suggested, though quietly, that the people he felt most endangered by in New Guinea were the Indonesian military, not the tribespeople.(16)

Pinker doesn't sit in judgment over just the Waorani, of course, but over all humankind. He concludes we are brutal savages until tamed by a nation state bringing peaceful civilization. As far as contemporary tribal peoples are concerned, it couldn't be further from the truth: the arrival of the state unleashes a savagery second to none in its brutality. Pinker also believes that civilization today is a function of upper class leadership and refinement trickling down to the lower orders. Many share this dogma, or a variation. For Communists, it is the Party that bestows munificence and foresight; otherwise the plot is pretty much the same. The elite - capitalist or communist - has a fierce vested interest in all of us swallowing similar hokum, even better if it's supposedly confirmed by "science" and "data."
The most curious aspect of Pinker's book is his title. I'm not convinced that, at heart, he really does think that human nature includes any "angel" at all. In his view, we are little more than animals shaped by pure biology, until the lucky (murderous) few invent the state and commerce, and are rescued by the resulting "culture." What others might call beauty, truth, goodness, or justice - those things that make the human mind different from other animals - have, in his view, only very recently come to the fore, and are still undeveloped for all who are not like "us."

He goes further; he thinks that until about 60 years ago (around the time he was born!) human beings were both "morally retarded" and less intelligent than they are now. By that, he doesn't mean everyone; for Pinker, only those who live in "liberal democracies," such as the United States or western Europe, have moved beyond their "retarded" state!

He claims scientific support for what is mere opinion by falsely charging contemporary tribal peoples, the "stateless," and all our ancestors, with more or less unremitting villainy. It's delusional nonsense - a breathtakingly arrogant, self-serving, and tired idea which diminishes human beings to something less than we really are - and were. Were such an idea to gain credence, it risks facilitating further cruelty: for example, it would falsely assert the benefits of state intervention in tribal peoples' lives, condemning some to certain death.
However, they are far from being the only ones who should watch out when Pinker's on the prowl.

If you're not one of his peers, then beware the hanging judge, whose supporters petition ad nauseam that his opinions must be taken as universal, scientific, infallible. He's certainly dangerous, but it's high time for a retrial, and perhaps there's hope for a reprieve … for all of us. 

1. "Natural selection works on averages, so a willingness to take a small chance of dying as part of an aggressive coalition that offers a large chance of a big fitness payoff - more land, more women, or more safety - can be favored over the course of evolution." S Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, Viking Penguin, London, 2011, p. 499.

2.Pinker, p. 26.

3. My story leaves two "clues" unexplained: Ötzi's cut hand; and the "fact" that blood from four different people was found on his equipment. Whether or not such blood existed is unproven: the Australian academic who made the claim took his unpublished findings to the grave. Ötzi's bow was certainly drenched in blood. The scientist who discovered this proposed two likely explanations: that it was deliberately painted with blood, as a known waterproofing, or that it came from Ötzi's cut hand. There are, of course, any number of explanations for the cut, not involving raiding.
4. See "Thirteen Italians die in bloody start to hunt season," Reuters. 22 October 2012,

5. E.g. Elizabeth Kolbert, David Peterson, Edward S Herman, John Gray, etc.

6. See "Has Holocaust history just been rewritten? Astonishing new research shows Nazi camp network targeting Jews was 'twice as big as previously thought''' in The Independent. 3 March 2013,

7. W Freeman, "Nonlinear brain dynamics and intention according to Aquinas." Mind and Matter, vol. 6, number 2, 2008, pp. 207-234.

8. S Corry, "Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond's 'The World Until Yesterday' is wrong" in Survival International. January 2013, viewed on 18 March 2013,

9. E S Herman and D Peterson, "Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence" in ZNET. 25 July 2012, viewed on 18 March 2013,

10. In another of his graphs, "Rate of death in warfare in nonstate and state societies," he picks 27 'nonstate' tribal peoples. In this case, over 40 percent are from New Guinea. Pinker, p. 53.

12. N Chagnon, NobleSavages: My life among two dangerous tribes - the Yanomamö and the anthropologists, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013, p.19.

13. Chagnon, pp. 15, 19.

15. For example, Pinker quotes Rafael Karsten on ‘Jivaro’ ‘wars of extermination’. He omits to tell us that Karsten described the ‘Jivaro’ as, ‘the most warlike of all Indian tribes in South America’. (R Karsten, Blood, Revenge, War and Victory Feasts among the Jibara Indians of Eastern Ecuador, 1923, p. 1).

16. In a talk at the Royal Society of Arts, London, 5 Feb 2013.

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