A critical evaluation of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, a study by Steven Pinker (1): Introduction

Pinker, cover

Cover of Steven Pinker’s study. Pinker’s analysis of the war dynamics of the System is based on a wrong interpretation of the data.

This is the first article in a series of articles in which I discuss a critical evaluation of Steven Pinker‘s study with the title: The Better Angels of Our Nature. A History of Violence and Humanity”.

ABSTRACT

In this paper, I evaluate Steven Pinker’s study with the title “The Better Angles of Our Nature. A history of violence and humanity”. In this study, Pinker optimistically argues that ‘violence of kinds’ is decreasing, and that we are now experiencing a ‘Long Peace’. I show that as far as war and the war dynamics of the System are concerned, this is not the case; to the contrary, the System is currently producing a fifth – a first global – war cycle. I show that Pinker’s optimistic interpretation is based on a wrong interpretation of war data, and the absence of a scientific theory: Pinker – and other historians – failed to identify that the System regulates its energy-state through an emergent self-reinforcing dynamic, consisting of accelerating war cycles with remarkable consistent properties.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT

Our understanding of the war dynamics and development of the System still are very rudimentary; until now we failed to recognize that the System is highly deterministic. Our limited understanding of the System’s (war) dynamics and development contributes to the dire condition of the System, and our impotence to take control over the System. Humanities experience with war – our inability to take control – has caused a condition of collective learned helplessness. A paradigm shift is urgently needed to improve the quality of historical research and policy advise.

I. INTRODUCTION

In his book with the Title “The Better Angels of Our Nature. A history of violence and humanity” Steven Pinker optimistically argues that “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence” and argues that “despite the constant stream of news about war, crime and terrorism, violence of all kinds has been decreasing”. “No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence”, according to Pinker and that we now witness a ‘Long Peace’, a condition that can be attributed to “the better angels of our nature”.

The study was published in 2011. Although ‘the world’ and its (war) dynamics have changed dramatically in the meantime – as my research predicts –  Pinker’s study is meant to stand the test of time, as he argues himself.

In his analysis, Pinker focuses on “violence at many scales, in the family, in the neighbourhood, between tribes and other armed factions, and among major nations and states”. Pinker observes that since the Second World War (1945) “the global trends in almost all of them, viewed from the vantage point of the present, point downward”.

Pinker argues that since the Second World War a sharp decline can be observed in the frequency and destructiveness of wars.

I argue that Pinker’s conclusions – at least his conclusions regarding the war dynamics of the System – are wrong and based on a misreading of the statistics he used for his research.

Pinker – as well as other scientists and historians – have failed to identify: (1) cyclic patterns in the war dynamics of the System, (2) the ‘underlying’ laws and mechanisms that determine and shape these dynamics, and the development of the System, and (3) the purpose of war dynamics, to regulate the tension levels in the System.

Pinker and other historians and social scientists, miss the crucial point, that deterministic laws provide a ‘playing field’ – a domain – for social development and events (that to a degree are probabilistic/contingent). These ‘underlying’ laws and mechanisms determine and shape the (war) dynamics and development of the System. Social developments – including historical processes – can only be understood and be correctly interpreted, when this ‘underlying’ deterministic domain – and its interaction with probabilistic events – is taken into consideration.

Pinker’s conclusion and optimism are – regretfully – not justified. His study “The Better Angels of Our Nature. A history of violence and humanity(1), like Francis Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man(4), and the ‘claims’ both scholars make, are the result of the same shortcoming: the absence of a scientific framework. The result is not a thorough scientific analysis, but – I regret to say – wishful thinking.

In this paper, I present an analysis of Pinker’s research and present my arguments.

The introduction of this paper is followed by a short overview of Pinker’s observations and conclusions related to the war dynamics of the System. In the chapter that follows, I discuss my research, and explain the discrepancies between Pinker’s and my own findings. In this chapter I refer to the appendix of this paper, where I discuss Pinker’s analysis in more detail.

In the final chapter – with the title: ‘Paradigm Shift’ – I discuss, the reasons why historians and social scientists have failed – and still fail – to identify patterns in the war dynamics of the System, and in the relationship between war (and war dynamics) and the development of the System.

In my research, I show that physical laws also apply to social systems and their dynamics, and that a paradigm shift is urgently needed to give historical research a scientific footing. A ‘narrative approach’ to the analysis of historical processes and developments cannot serve as a substitute for the scientific method. The (generally) poor quality of foreign policy advice is also related to this fundamental shortcoming. I argue that my research provides ample proof that the application of the scientific method – in combination with new insights in complex systems and networks, and the application of concepts related to theoretical physics – enables us to start understanding the functioning of the (international) System, and the role we – humanity – play in the dynamics of this System.

To be continued.