I call an 800-page book massive. And I’m not going to read all those pages because wherever I turned in it to browse, I found debilitating mistakes.
The book The Better Angels of Our Nature; the decline of violence in history and its causes appeared in 2011 but I stumbled upon it now.
On Amazon, 1,039 customer reviews gave it 4.4 out of 5 stars. And that’s not all. Bill Gates called it (2017) “The most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” (Computers killed book reading so maybe it’s the only book he ever read and he secretly hates books?) The New York Times called it “supremely important.” And the Wall Street Journal called it “masterly” while Slate branded it “a monumental achievement.” The Washington Post opined: “well argued” (sic) and Time said: “highly persuasive.” However, Science recommends it diplomatically for “Everyone with an interest in language.”
I don’t know if there is a definite explanation for this but often, when people are brilliant at languages (including reporters), they’re absolutely lousy at math. And those brilliant at math, are many times absolutely lousy at languages. (I’m not particularly good or bad at whichever so I can spot someone doing a lousy job at either.) And here we have a language guy who’s going to prove a historic trend based on statistics? Even statisticians easily mess up with statistics. How could he do this? Well, he couldn’t.
Let me give you several examples.
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Early on in the book, he discusses the Hebrew Bible. At least, that’s what the subheading says. Of course, I looked there — surprised. Well, no worry, he didn’t study the Torah. He looked at an English-Christian translation and commentary without admitting that. Almost a sin in his trade, no?
He goes through the Biblical pages and soon gets at the murder of Abel by Cain. At a human population of 4, that a percentage of murderers of 25. So, from there, mankind was only going to improve.
Why didn’t he start at the Big Bang, then? Then the whole Universe was violent. See how we have shaped up since? Most of space is boringly empty and calm. But he wanted to show how people have shaped up so he had to start later.
He discusses the Flood. Escaped him that all of humanity died there except for 8-9 people. I guess that he doesn’t hold G^d or Noah accountable. But just after that, he does hold G^d responsible for destroying Sodom. Did he miss that the Flood killed 99.999999% of humanity and Cain 25%?
Terrible what people in Sodom almost did to the guests. We’ve come a long way. But, no word on the horror that Lot offers his two daughters.
Abraham almost slaughtered his son. (This is so central to the author that a gravure of it is on my cover, portraying Isaac as a nude disempowered boy of about 13 years old, while the Rabbis teach he was 37.) He is not sharing a Jewish view on how that is not gruesome. Like that Abraham already told his son (he was a Prophet) that G^d would provide the animal (and He did). And that Abram forced G^d to intervene and provide.
I hope you understand that was enough for me.
* * *
His bias is clear for everyone with an open mind. He cherry-picks (the cardinal sin of statistics) the early bad stuff, ignores the revolutionary good stuff and no doubt later says: look, we have improved.
I could easily argue the exact opposite.
Life in paradise was more than nice. Look how we’ve fallen.
Yes, Cain killed his brother but it wasn’t murder. He didn’t even know that there was such a thing as death. It was involuntary manslaughter, not murder. But better still, he repented. When in history did all of people who caused the death of others repent?
And in ten generations thereafter, not one murder or war. In what epoch did we do better than that? Ten generations of humanity were also all pure vegetarians. When did we ever again reach that level?
Yes, the Flood was terrible. But G^d promises to never do that again (by water). That doesn’t count? (But we’d better stop climate change because that can wipe us all out. Worse than a nuclear war.)
Yes, Sodom was an unhappy place. But Abraham argued with G^d, defended the evilest people around. He showed that one is to challenge G^d on bad degrees, not ‘accept’ them. When was the last time you saw the leader of a nation turn activist?
In fact, ‘proving’ the Old Testament violent doesn’t go against popular opinion at all. It’s been the position of Christians ever since they started competing with the Jews that they have the religion of love and the Torah is dominated by a violent G^d — Heaven forbid.
Next, I found something about tall men. I’m 6″5′ / 197 cm so that speaks to me. He says there that the distribution of height in men (about 150-200 cm) is ‘less than five-fold.’ In fact, it is not less than 500% but about 14%: 175+/-25 cm. I can do this math by heart. (25 divided by 175=1/7=14%.) Now, 14% is less than 500%, that’s right, but still, not even remotely close.
Genocide. He juggles the figures and it’s on the decline. But hidden by the statistics is timing. The Turks slaughtered Armenians by the sword, just as the Rwandan genocide was done in 3 weeks. The Nazis machine-gunned a million Jews and gassed millions more. Took them years. Pol Pot murdered millions of his own people — is in the book but the Great Chinese Famine, perpetrated by the Chinese government, killed 36-45 million but is missing.
Every second a person dies of hunger. Right now, more than 1 billion people suffer from malnutrition. This means that 1 in every 6 people on Earth doesn’t get enough food to live a healthy life. This year, 36 million of them will die of starvation! This scandal exists for at least half a century, but the world is fine with it. That is violence. Absent from the book.
No mention of ISIS with its beheadings, sadistic murders, and sex slaves.
Refugees? From 2000–2005, an estimated 440,000 people per year fled Africa, most of them to Europe. Not mentioned. (Syrians would only start after the book was published.) He’s ignoring violence outside of the US,
But also in the USA. Tens of millions without any healthcare! Overlooked.
And so, here is the opposite cherry-picking (the cardinal sin of statistics). He ignores late bad stuff, highlights the revolutionary good stuff and then says: look, we have improved.
David Hackett Fischer, in his book Historians’ Fallacies; Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970), put this very mistake under Part II Explanation, Chapter IV, Fallacies of Generalization, The fallacy of statistical special pleading (p. 110-113). I just was reading that, thinking that people would surely not make such a mistake and then, one hour later, I read Pinker.
The supposed heroism of his book is that it goes against how we feel about ourselves. Violence now, seems worse than ever. So, he proudly goes against popular belief. That is nice.
But Judaism also goes against popular belief. It teaches that every generation is at a lesser moral level than the previous one. That’s also hard to accept. But there is a lot to say for that.
Yes, we finally have rights (he celebrates that broadly) for the oppressed. But there was a time that obligations on the powerful to spare the weak worked enough. Obligating everyone creates responsible giving people; giving everyone rights stimulates self-centeredness. The fact that societies needed to introduce rights was a downfall.
And now we’re at it. Claiming people are getting so much better is very bad for humility. And arrogance is so high among intellectuals that this book is not only faulty — it is harmful.
My conclusion from life is that there are two trends. Harvey Jackins called them brilliantly: the Upward Trend and the Downward Trend. And they operate all the time. Sometimes, one is more in view. At other times, the other more catches the eye.
To say, we’ve so shaped up feels nice. But the truth is much more mixed.
Yes, democracy is stronger than ever. Internet.
But, China and Russia are giant dictatorships, hungry for power. Very scary.
In fact, end 2019, the Chinese government, after first messing up causing a pandemic, very nicely ended the local epidemic. Stay in the house or we shoot you, for many is a very valid argument to stay home. Democracies, where everyone does as they please, are a killing field now. Countries where most people are religious to some degree and so understand duty (India, Israel) do a much better job than the ‘enlightened’ (Europe).
So, no, I’m not going to read the book. And I’m not going to believe half of it. How all these smart people applauded it (see above)? Wishful thinking.