A critical evaluation of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, a study by Steven Pinker (2): Pinker’s observations


Pinker failed to identify four accelerating war cycles the System produced during the period 1495-1945. These accelerating war cycles accompanied a finite-time singularity dynamic. War cycles must be used as the unit of analysis to be able to understand the (war) dynamics and development of the System. 

In this paper, I focus on Pinker’s analysis of the war dynamics of the System and his interpretation of the data he uses. Pinker’s analysis and interpretation are discussed in chapter 5 of his book, with the title: “The Long Peace”.

Pinker explains, I quote: “The goal of this chapter is to identify the components of the long-term trends in wars between states. I will try to persuade you that they are as follows”: 

Pinker’s four components of the long-term trends in wars between states are:

  • No cycles.
  • A big dose of randomness.
  • An escalation, recently reversed, in the destructiveness of war.
  • Declines in every other dimension of war, and thus in interstate war as a whole.

Pinker is not able to persuade me that his conclusions are correct, to the contrary. Based on a detailed analysis of his study (see appendix), I come to the following conclusions concerning his four components of long-term trends, Pinker argues he identified:

(1) Cycles do exist. The System[1] – Europe[2] – produced four accelerating and remarkably consistent war cycles during the period 1495-1945, that accompanied a finite-time singularity dynamic that was instrumental in regulating the energy-state of the System. The System collapsed in 1939. By means of the fourth systemic war (the Second World War, 1939-1945) that followed the collapse, simultaneously two non-anarchistic structures were implemented in Europe (that merged into one, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), and a first international order at the global scale of the (now) global System. The global System is now producing a first global war cycle, that could well be the first war cycle of a second – now global – finite-time singularity dynamic, that will also be instrumental in the process of social integration and expansion of the global System.

(2) It is not randomness. The war dynamics and development of the System are determined and shaped by underlying deterministic laws and mechanisms. The randomness Pinker observes, is mostly the manifestation of chaotic war dynamics that are deterministic – but also intrinsically unpredictable – in nature. Randomness and probability are restricted to (contingent) dynamics and events, in the contingent domain of the System: But there only is latitude for contingency as long as deterministic laws are obeyed (2). Deterministic laws – for example – determine the start-time, duration and severity (battle casualties) of systemic wars, while ‘only’ the justification to fight these wars and how we fight, are left to our ‘human’ discretion. Our free will is much more limited than we think it is, and as far as free will exists, we do not use it wisely; we let ourselves be guided by selfish (interacting) self-fulfilling prophecies, that ensure we obey the laws that apply to the dynamics of the System.

(3) The destructiveness of war is not reversed, to the contrary. See also above. If we do not take control of the self-organised – potentially self-destructive – war dynamics of the System, which have their autonomous momentum, war will become increasingly destructive, and expand to a global scale of the System.

(4) There is No decline in any dimension of war. See above.

There is no ‘retreat from violence’ as Pinker argues (1). To the contrary: We obey the destructive regime the System imposes on us, in its System’s efforts to regulate the energy state of the System, and optimise ‘collective’ survival.

Humanity’s nature has not fundamentally changed; that would be remarkable given the time scale evolutionary process work on; modernity can still not compensate for humanity’s limitations. The current developments in the System are powerful reminders of these limitations.

Pinker argues that six trends can be observed (1). The Long Peace Pinker refers to (the fourth trend), he argues took place after “….the end of World War II. The two-thirds of a century since then have been witness to a historically unprecedented development: the great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another. Historians have called this blessed state of affairs the Long Peace”. As I explain in this paper, this is an incorrect observation, based on misinterpretation of war data, and unawareness of the presence of four accelerating war cycles, and a fifth (now global) war cycle that is unfolding.

I regret to say that Pinker’s “New Peace” does not exist: A new series of (accelerating) war cycles – but now at a global scale of the System – is in the making.

To be continued.


[1] The System I refer to, consists of interacting communities (that eventually evolved into states), and of international orders these communities ‘interactively’ implement(ed) and on which they collectively depend for their survival. The ‘parts’ – basic elements – of communities are individual human beings and ‘groups’ they form.

[2] If in this paper, I refer to ‘the System’, I refer to communities (later states) in Europe that until 1939 made up the (core of the) System and dominated its war dynamics.