If Books Could Kill

"The Better Angels of Our Nature" Part 1: You're Not Wrong, Pinker. You're Just An *sshole

February 22, 2024
"The Better Angels of Our Nature" Part 1: You're Not Wrong, Pinker. You're Just An *sshole
If Books Could Kill
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If Books Could Kill
"The Better Angels of Our Nature" Part 1: You're Not Wrong, Pinker. You're Just An *sshole
Feb 22, 2024

This week we're tackling Steven Pinker's 900 page dissection of the reasons why violence, torture and war have declined over the last 10,000 years. Was it an indeterminate mixture of politics, economics, technology and serendipity?  Or did some European guys write some books that said murder was bad?

Special thanks to Philip Dwyer, Eleanor Janega, David M. Perry and Doug Thompson for help researching and fact-checking this episode!

Where to find us: 


 Thanks to Mindseye for our theme song!

Show Notes Transcript

This week we're tackling Steven Pinker's 900 page dissection of the reasons why violence, torture and war have declined over the last 10,000 years. Was it an indeterminate mixture of politics, economics, technology and serendipity?  Or did some European guys write some books that said murder was bad?

Special thanks to Philip Dwyer, Eleanor Janega, David M. Perry and Doug Thompson for help researching and fact-checking this episode!

Where to find us: 


 Thanks to Mindseye for our theme song!

Michael: Peter.

Peter: Michael.

Michael: What do you know about The Better Angels of Our Nature

Peter: I don't know what's worse, living in a society where you might die by the spear, or living in a society where there are 900-page nonfiction books.

[If Books Could Killed theme]

Michael: So, today we are talking about The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This is one of those books that didn't sell like Oprah. Well, the number that I've seen bandied about is 1 million copies, which is still a shitload, but nowhere near things like The Secret

Peter: Right. 

Michael: But it is one of the most influential books of the last 20 years. Bill Gates called it the best book he's ever read. It's been promoted very heavily by the Davos set, and it has turned Steven Pinker into Aspen Royalty. He's one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the United States. And a lot of it is by spreading this message that it might seem bad, but in fact, things have gotten a lot better over the last 500 years. 

Peter: You thought it would have ruled to be a caveman, but it's actually not true. 

Michael: This episode is a little bit different than previous ones, or maybe it's the same who knows? But as we mentioned on our last bonus episode, I got some sort of weird bug over Christmas. 

Peter: And, Michael, I'm sorry, but the plague was worse [Michael laughs]. And so, I don't want to hear about this. 

Michael: But I basically have not left the house or been very functional since Christmas. But I usually have a couple of hours a day where I can concentrate and read stuff. And so, I have basically been chipping away at Steven Pinker's 900-page book for seven weeks now. This is going to be a two-part episode and the first episode is really about the parts of his argument that are correct. I think there's a real, a genuine story behind this Better Angel’s narrative. That is honestly really interesting and I don't think is as well-known as you'd think. And then episode two is going to be where we get into some of the dicier stuff. So, this is going to be like the nice episode. 

I have 250 pages of notes for this part one.

Peter: Michael.

Michael: Because I basically have had nothing to do. 

Peter: The section of the book you're covering sounds like it isn't even that long. 

Michael: Yeah.


Michael: This is roughly the first third of the book. So, it's 300 pages of Pinker and 250 pages of Mike. 

Peter: Folks, do you understand what I'm dealing with, [Michael laughs] listeners at home? 

Michael: So, apologies in advance for taking you on this journey with me and making you feel as tired as I feel all the time. [Peter laughs] So, the title of this book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. And I am going to send you the opening paragraph.

Peter: This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not, and I know that most people do not, violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children. 

Michael: So, at the most basic level, this is accurate. We're going to go through all kinds of categories, and there's a lot of debate about various specifics. But if you really, really, really zoom out, it does appear to be the case that you are less likely to die in a violent way now than at any time in human history.

Peter: I've seen this talking point used to shut down debate and discussion so many times in the last decade that I'm predisposed to being annoyed by it, even though, sure, it's objectively correct. People are like, “Well, isn't it cool that now we live in a time with indoor plumbing and less violence?” And it's like, “Yes,” but it feels like it's an argument that is used in favor of complacency in the face of various different struggles and injustices. It's also not something that your politics or policy preferences should revolve around in any meaningful way. Right? 

Michael: Right, right, right.

Peter: This was also basically true in the 1700s. Right? 

Michael: Yeah, yeah. 

Peter: But if an intellectual movement developed around how good things were at that time, it could inhibit progress. And then perhaps we don't get the progress of the next couple of centuries. 

Michael: Exactly. I'm imagining him lecturing Alexander Hamilton, like, “Did you know as a hunter-gatherer, you didn't have taxation or representation?” 

Peter: Right, right 

Michael: You want to be in the room where it happens. Well, guess what? 50,000 years ago, they didn't even have rooms. 

Peter: I'm also not entirely sure that that's true, well, first of all, I feel like I would not have been a hunter, which is dangerous. I would have been the most athletic gatherer. 

Michael: [laughs] I would have been the best at this.

Peter: Frankly, I feel like I would have thrived. 

Michael: So, I just want to talk very quickly the introduction of the book, he talks about how he's going to structure this, which is the way that we're going to structure our episodes about this. So, the first third of the book is about the 10,000-year history of declining violence over time. And then the second third of the book, which is what we're going to talk about next episode, is like the post war world. How things have gotten better for race, things have gotten better for gender, for gays. And then the third section of the book, which we're barely going to talk about, he lays out these inner demons and better angels, like, psychological factors that explain the decline of violence. 

He says the final third of the book features six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces. 

Peter: Okay.

Michael: This book is like the Donkey Kong 64 of nonfiction books. [Peter laughs] There's 31 purple bananas and eight golden coins.

Peter: I'm interested in the psychological explanation because at least that's his field. 

Michael: Well, Peter, first of all, I only included that description so I could make my Donkey Kong joke. [Peter laughs] Secondly, it's mostly pop psychology stuff. It's basically going back and forth between all of these impulses that humans have. It's like, okay, some of us defer to authority, we do what we're told, but sometimes we rebel against authority. 

Peter: When he's right, he’s right.

Michael: [laughs] Most of it is just platitudes about, like, yeah, we all contain within us impulses to violence and, like, impulses to empathy. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: Also, my Donkey Kong joke was good. 

Peter: [laughs] It's going to hit with our entire audience, Mike. 

Michael: So, the book is split into a couple different categories of violence that have declined over time. The first one that we're going to talk about is the decline in homicides. 

Peter: Yeah. Okay. 

Michael: Human beings used to murder each other much more than they do now. 

Peter: I believe that.

Michael: The project of the parts of the book that we're going to talk about this episode is really, he's trying to draw a straight line from humans now, where violence is relatively low, essentially all the way back to our primate ancestors.

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: Modern humans have emerged somewhere between 200,000 years ago and 75,000 years ago, depending on how you define it. And so, he walks through the genuinely very interesting evidence that there was a lot of violence in hunter-gatherer society. So, there's this famous body that's found in the alps, where he appears to have an arrowhead, stuck in his back. It looks like maybe he was running away from somebody and they shot him in the back. And there's mass graves from tens of thousands of years ago where 40% of the skeletons have some sign of violence.

People will have defensive wounds on their arms, which looks like they were being attacked with, like, an axe or a machete. People have caved in skulls which look like they were hit with some blunt object. And so, the brutality that we see now actually has a very long lineage in humanity. 

Peter: I'm interested in how he addresses the Holocaust, World War I, etc., because I think, to me, it seems intuitively correct that the ambient violence of hunter-gatherer societies was way higher than it is now. But we are now capable of violence on a scale that they were not. And so, you get these peaks of violence in the modern era that are well beyond anything that could have been produced in the past. 

Michael: Right. This is the nuance that he does not engage in in the book. And all of the experts who debunk this book. Experts fucking hate this book, by the way. It's not as simple of a narrative as he describes. And also, my impression with this entire section of the book was just like, he doesn't really need this. It's true that there's lots of evidence that hunter-gatherers engaged in violence. They killed each other. That is very well established. But what he's doing is he's using these skeletons and fossilized remains to say that they killed each other at a rate much higher than we do now. And we're talking about, again, 60,000 years plus of human history. We're talking about every region of the world, climactic conditions. The number of skeletons that are preserved from that time is minuscule. 

We have very little information. And something like a skeleton having its skull bashed in, well, that could have been a tree falling on them. That could have been animal that did that. And also, societies back then burying their dead appears to be relatively rare. It could be that they only buried people that were killed in some violent way. These were the soldiers that died in a big war, and this is like a glorification of them or maybe not. I mean, we just know so little about this time. And so, when you read the expert debunkings of him, they're all just like, “You don't need to do this.” We know that there was violence, but saying that 40% of the skeletons found at some site had signs of violence. Well, the signs of violence are super. 

It's really a judgment call, like what scratches on somebody's femur mean, it might be the case that was a particularly violent hunter-gatherer society, but in different regions of the world, different time periods, they might not have been. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: He at some point puts like, specific numbers on this. He's like the homicide rate among hunter-gatherers. And you're like, “Dude, no, we just don't know.”

Peter: We don’t know that. 

Michael: Its fine.

Peter: We don’t know that tat 

Michael: He also cites accounts from current, “uncontacted tribes.” So, there's still communities that live in the Amazon rainforest. These societies are not representative of how societies would have been 50,000 years ago. Partly because by definition, there's no such thing as anthropological accounts of uncontacted tribes.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: It is true that those societies appear to have higher rates of violence than like, we do. But a lot of that is like competition over scarce resources due to the fact that their habitat is being destroyed.

Peter: And a lot of the uncontacted tribes that exist today have actually been in contact with the rest of society. And some of them saw Steven Pinker's book on the shelves and just decided to withdraw back [Michael laughs] into hunter-gatherer societies.

Michael: The book kind of gets rolling or the book gets interesting once he gets to settled societies essentially when we have written records. So, the thing to know is that right now current homicide rates are in western Europe around one homicide per 100,000 population. That's the benchmark. In America, it's six. 

Peter: Yeah, but have you met Americans? You don’t want [crosstalk] books. 


Michael: Maybe we're just six times more deserving of death. [Peter laughs] In Canada, it's two per 100,000. So, these are all very low rates. If you go back to roughly 1200 in the middle of the middle-ages, you find rates of around 100 per 100,000. These are societies that have up to 100 times more homicides than we do now.

Peter: I like to imagine the first guy who was just like watching a good chunk of their friends get murdered and was like, “We should start writing this down.”

Michael: [laughs] And so if you look at the trend all across Western Europe, starting in around 1200, once we start getting written records, you see the same slow but very steady decline in homicide rates. There's lots of nuance to go over, but zooming all the way out, it's like you look at western Europe, super violent in the year 1200, very nonviolent. By the time we get to 1800s and 1900s. One of the genuinely really interesting things about this is that the patterns of homicides, to the extent that we know this is most of the homicides, way, way, way back in the Middle Ages were like men killing men. The drop in homicides is almost exclusively stranger-danger homicides, people killing each other like these duels and shit. Like, “Do you spit your thumb at me, sir?”

Peter: Right. That man over there is wearing his handkerchief directed towards me. 

Michael: Exactly, exactly.

Peter: Sir, one of us must die. 

Michael: We also see a faster and larger drop among the upper classes. So, like, the aristocracy stopped killing each other, and then eventually that trickles down to common folk. And so, this trend is roughly accurate. But of course, Pinker then has to explain why this happened. His main explanation for this is the emergence of the modern state. This is from Pinker's description of this. He says, “During Norman rule in England, some genius recognized the lucrative possibilities in nationalizing justice. For centuries, the legal system had treated homicide as a tort. In lieu of vengeance, the victim's family would demand a payment from the killer's family. King Henry I redefined homicide as an offense against the state. Murder cases were no longer John Doe v. Richard Roe, but the Crown v. John Doe or later in the United States, the People v. John Doe. Justice was administered by roving courts that would periodically visit a locale and hear the accumulated cases. To ensure that all homicides were presented to the courts, each death was investigated by a local agent of the crown, the coroner.” And so, what philosophers call, the state monopoly on violence explains why people wouldn't do this entrepreneurial violence anymore. I don't need to kill you and your family. I can just report it to the local constable, and then he will put you on trial and he will punish you appropriately. And so, this also explains why murders fell among the upper classes first is basically they had access to the court system. 

If a poor person says, “Oh, this person has violated my rights in some way,” they don't give a shit. The criminal justice system didn't give a shit back then. But upper classes could start to use the court system as a way to settle disputes between each other. And then again, over time, as state capacity increases, we start getting poor people being able to use these systems. The second explanation is what he calls the civilizing process. He's basing this on a philosopher called Norbert Elias, who writes a book called The Civilizing Process. And when we think of what is civilization, a huge component of it is resisting our impulses. All of us, a couple times a day, you're probably like, “I want to punch that fucking guy.” But you don't do it because you're like, “Ah, you know I'll go to jail” or like, it's not right I wouldn't want somebody to do it to me. 

This is really the core thesis of Pinker's book. Over time, we've all gotten better at resisting our impulses. We have these Better Angels. He says, “The habits of refinement, self-control, and consideration that are second nature to us had to be acquired. That's why we call them second nature. And they developed in Europe over the course of its modern history. Norbert Elias proposed that over a span of several centuries, beginning in the 1100s and maturing in the 1700s, Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses and anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions and took other people's thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor, the readiness to take revenge, gave way to a culture of dignity, the readiness to control one's emotion.”

Peter: Okay. I'm not saying that is wrong, but it feels like a pretty aggressive narrative to prescribe based on a relatively limited data set. 

Michael: This is actually the first part of the book where I was like, “I don't know.” The first couple of hundred pages of the book are actually very good. Most of the stuff about hunter-gatherers, it's quite nuanced. He's got a lot of data. He's a very good writer, like, really smart, really readable. And I found most of the stuff there fascinating. But then once he gets to the civilizing process, it's like, maybe it's an interesting explanation, but he presents it, well, this has now been proven. And you're like, well, I don't know that you can prove something like that. 

Peter: This is just one of those things where the number of variables bouncing around here is so high that any conclusion you come up with, even though it might be a partial explanation, it's almost necessarily not a full explanation. 

Michael: Right and cool. 

Peter: There's just too much happening. 

Michael: As I was reading this, I was like, “Man, this is, like, an interesting way to look at things.” Like, “Yeah, sure, why not?” But then the main thing that he cites as evidence for this is etiquette guides.

Peter: In 1844, it was the first time that an etiquette guide included ‘do not murder.’ 

Michael: More or less. So, I'm going to send you his description of this. 

Peter: People of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross. A number of the advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia. Don't relieve yourself in front of ladies or before doors or windows of court chambers. Don't touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands. Don't greet someone while they are urinating or defecating. [laughs]

Michael: Fair point. 

Peter: Don't blow your nose onto the tablecloth or into your fingers, sleeve or hat. Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to put your foot on it. Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. Don't stir sauce with your fingers. 

Michael: These people were gross. There's also one more thing I want you to read. 

Peter: I'm always greeting someone who's defecating and then stirring the sauce with my fingers. [Michael laughs] In the European Middle Ages, sexual activity too was less discreet. People were publicly naked more often, and couples took only perfunctory measures to keep their coitus private. Prostitutes offered their services openly. In many English towns, the red-light district was called Gropecunt Lane. 

Michael: The G word. We say the G word now. 

Peter: Men would discuss their sexual exploits with their children, and a man's illegitimate offspring would mix with his legitimate ones, disgusting.

Michael: Different children types. 

Peter: During the transition to modernity, this openness came to be frowned upon as uncouth and then as unacceptable.

Michael: We already see Pinker mixing this civilizational process stuff, some of it is like germ theory shit, like, “Don't spit all over the place.” But then it's also like, “Don't let your legitimate children mix with your illegitimate children,” which is just like a Victorian values thing. 

Peter: Were both grope and cunt words in the Middle Ages. 

Michael: Yeah, I know. You can find old records of Gropecunt Lane in London. 

Peter: Yeah, that's where Buckingham Palace is I believe.

Michael: [Laughs] So, my favorite books for this show are books that are so problematic that people write entire books debunking them [Peter laughs]. So, for this, I read a book called The Darker Angels of Our Nature: Refuting the Pinker Theory of History & Violence, which is less a book than a collection of essays that's edited by Philip Dwyer, who is a researcher on the History of Violence and I interviewed. I want to start by saying this whole thing of homicide rates declining, this is something where Pinker is correct. Some of the criticisms of Pinker kind of amount to maybe nitpicks or something. I think the nuances are super interesting, but on the broad scale, he is correct, and I think it's fair to point this out and try to think through what could explain this.

Peter: Right. He's drawing some specific conclusions that feel like they are unsupported about specific homicide rates in the past or whatever. 

Michael: Exactly. 

Peter: But the basic premise of homicide rates in the past were almost certainly way higher than they are now. That's relatively uncontroversial and I mean, maybe uncontroversial is putting it lightly. Like, “That is true.”

Michael: Yes, this is absolutely accurate. The first thing that experts get really frustrated about is Pinker citing this number of 100 homicides per 100,000 population. That's like way overdoing it. There are various meta-analyses and of course, the data from fucking 1100s England is very unreliable. So, the closest anyone can get to a real highest ever rate of homicides is around 24 per 100,000.

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: Basically, the problem is that nothing gets written down. It appears that in urban areas, they would log all the homicides for the entire rural region. So, Pinker is depending on an account from Oxford, they would write down all the homicides, even ones that didn't take place in Oxford. So, it looks like everyone in Oxford is fucking murdering each other constantly. But actually, it's just what gets written down. There's also a thing in the “criminal justice system” back then that oftentimes the same homicide would be logged three or four times as it moves through the system. And there wasn't a defined way of naming people back then. The concept of a last name had not really caught on. 

So, somebody would be like John by the Brook in one homicide case, and the same guy would be like John the blacksmith in the same case being logged another time. Again, we just don't really know what the rates were to the extent that we can say anything. It appears that rates of homicides actually went up between the 1200s and the 1500s and then dropped. I should also give Pinker credit. When I spoke to Philip Dwyer, he says that “This drop is roughly true, and the explanation that state capacity essentially took entrepreneurial violence and replaced it with state violence, like imprisoning people, executing people, etc., that's also roughly true. You find drops in various countries as the state matures. 

This happens at different times, but it tends to coincide with state structures, although it also depends on things like the rise of literacy. Religious institutions were really important. There's just much more nuance. I think experts are like, “Yeah, fine,” [laughs] but it's not just the one thing happening. There is all kinds of other things, and then things get way dicier when we talk about this civilizing process. Philip Dwyer told me about there's like a huge spike in homicide rates in England between the 1580s and the 1620s. And so, if we're all getting better at resisting our impulses, why do we see this huge spike in crime? Why do we see huge differences, region to region? Are people gaining this ability and then losing it? 

Peter: That's the thing about these simplified narratives. And again, this is just the basic problem of biting off too much. Like trying to ascribe simple narratives to hundreds of years of complicated history. You're just never going to be entirely correct. 

Michael: This is where Pinker starts painting himself into a corner about if crime is dependent on the civilizing process, like, how civilized we are, how well we can resist our impulses, that then has to become his explanation for all trends in crime going forward. The next section of Pinker's book is about explaining violence in the United States. So, as we've noted, America has six times higher homicide rates than western Europe to this day and beginning hundreds of years ago. This has always been the case. And the other thing to explain in America is differences in homicide rates. He notes he uses slightly older statistics, but if you look up murder rates in Maine, it's 2 per 100,000, so roughly on par with western Europe. In Mississippi, it's 24 per 100,000. 

Peter: Okay.

Michael: There are places in America where the homicide rate is roughly the same as Oxford in the Middle Ages. 

Peter: If you recall, J.D. Vance already explained this. This is the impact of the Scots-Irish. 

Michael: Dude, dude, dude. This is where we're getting [Peter laughs] God, that was going to be a twist, Peter. I was going to lead you with your hand to this. 

Peter: No, I can see racism coming a thousand miles away. All right. 


Michael: He then starts talking about the culture of honor in the south. 

Peter: Okay. Hell, yeah. 

Michael: So, here is his explanation of the specific culture in the American south that explains current crime rates. In this part, he's talking about the researchers that he is citing, who are then citing somebody else. 

Peter: Nisbett and Cohen were influenced by David Hackett Fischer's Albion’s Seed, a history of the British colonization of the United States. They zeroed in on the origins of the first colonists from different parts of Europe. The northern states were settled by Puritan, Quaker, Dutch, and German farmers, but the interior south was largely settled by Scots-Irish. Many of them sheep herders, who hailed from the mountainous periphery of the British Isles, beyond the reach of the central government. Herding may have been an exogenous cause of the culture of honor. Not only does a herder's wealth lie in stealable physical assets, but those assets have feet and can be led away in an eyeblink far more easily than land can be stolen out from under a farmer. Herders all over the world cultivate a hair trigger for violent retaliation. 

Michael: Herders. 

Peter: Though contemporary southerners are no longer shepherds, cultural morays can persist long after the ecological circumstances that gave rise to them are gone. And to this day, southerners behave as if they have to be tough enough to deter livestock rustlers. Yeah, that's what I've always said about southerners. I always tell them, “Calm down, you don't have a flock to protect.” Let's just speak like rational descendants of the Dutch.

Michael: I looked into this book, Albion’s Seed. It appears to be relatively well regarded as a description of cultural differences in the United States before the revolution. 

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: But the problem with Pinker using this is that he is then citing two other researchers who take this theory and apply it 300 years later, and they apply it to homicide rates. Albion’s Seed, this original project didn't talk about homicide rates. If you read debunkers of Albion’s Seed and Pinker's argument specifically, you read this stuff and you're like, “Oh, the herding culture in the American South.” But every region of Europe includes herding populations. There's mountainous regions of Switzerland, France, and Germany, and those people also emigrated. And if you look at the actual differences between Scots-Irish immigrants in various regions of the United States, they're not that different. We're not talking about 100% and 0%.

Peter: Herding culture, this is one of the weirdest explanations.

Michael: I know.

Peter: I will accept this explanation as to why border collies have a lot of energy. But beyond that, I'm very skeptical. There's some guy at a fucking gas station screaming at another dude over who gets to use the pump. And Steven Pinker's like, “Yeah, your ancestors were herders for sure.”

Michael: Great, great, great, great grandpa was a herder. 

Peter: I'm always very skeptical of explanations for violence that are not like, shall we say, poverty forward. 

Michael: Right, right.

Peter: Because culture is this very abstract thing, violence is this very discreet thing. You need to tie one to the other. And I think that requires more work than like, “Yeah, I'm getting violence vibes out of Mississippi.”

Michael: Totally. And the researchers that Pinker is citing here had this theory that people from moist, hilly regions would commit more homicides than people from dry plains. 

Peter: That I agree with. [Michael laughs] You wouldn't be laughing at that if you knew some moisture hillier people, [Michael laughs] trust me.

Michael: But then various people have gone back and rerun the numbers, and it turns out that once you adjust for poverty, the difference goes away. 

Peter: What? 

Michael: Oh, yeah, poor people commit more homicides than rich people. 

Peter: Imagine being [laughs] poor and also wet all the time, [Michael laughs] climbing up hills. You'd want to kill someone, Steven. 

Michael: Also, the universality means that this chapter should have been called Everybody Herds, Everybody Cries.

Peter: [laughs] Boo. 

Michael: This whole section was just leading up to that, Peter. It's like the Donkey Kong thing. 

Peter: Well, the Everybody Herds one makes sense, because I can just see you sick in bed, looking at the ceiling, listening to that song on repeat over and over again. 

Michael: True, true.

Peter: Taking a break only to play Donkey Kong 64. [laughs]

Michael: So, that is his explanation of regional disparities. He then has to explain disparities over time. So, this is the section of the book where Pinker explains the crime rise of the 1960s and the crime fall of the 1990s, which you and listeners may be familiar with because this comes up in every third episode that we do.

Peter: Right, right.

Michael: Basically, his whole civilizing process theory, the problem is that it can't really explain massive spikes in violence. Because we were good at resisting our impulses, and then we became bad at it, and then we became good again. He has to tack on some other explanation for why all of a sudden in the 1960s Americans started killing each other way more.

Peter: Once you start identifying more as an American and less as a Scotsman, [Michael laughs] then your violent tendencies fade away. 

Michael: The beginning of his explanation is basically the lack of social trust. So, he says, the civil rights movement exposed a moral blot on the American establishment. And as critics shone a light on other parts of society, more stains came into view, among them, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the pervasiveness of poverty, the mistreatment of Native Americans, the many illiberal military interventions, particularly the Vietnam War, and later the despoliation of the environment and the oppression of women and homosexuals. So, he uses some weird words, but basically people are looking around and seeing, like, this societal break. 

Peter: He's saying institutional trust is low.

Michael: Yes.

Peter: That's one way of putting it, it seems.

Michael: He says, as the civilizing process was entrenched in the 1960s, you then have this informalizing process where we stop looking to the upper classes for the mores, of resisting impulses. We become more interested in giving in to our impulses. So, here is the section where he lays that out. 

Peter: The civilizing process had been a flow of norms and manners from the upper classes downward. But as western countries became more democratic, the upper classes became increasingly discredited as moral paragons and hierarchies of taste and manners were leveled. The informalization affected the way people dressed as they abandoned hats, gloves, ties, and dresses for casual sportswear. It affected the language as people started to address their friends with first names instead of Mr. and Mrs. and Miss. And it could be seen in countless other ways in which speech and demeanor became less mannered and more spontaneous. 

Michael: We're not emulating rich people anymore. 

Peter: The leveling of hierarchies and the harsh scrutiny of the power structure were unstoppable and in many ways desirable. But one of the side effects was to undermine the prestige of aristocratic and bourgeois lifestyles that had, over the course of several centuries, become less violent than those of the working class and underclass. Instead of values trickling down from the court, they bubbled up from the street. This is a disconcerting explanation. The argument here is that, look, some of-- sure, questioning social hierarchies is good in some ways, but one downside is that the upper class rules. 

Michael: The thing is, I think that he's mistaking metaphor for reality. He has this whole thing about etiquette norms throughout the Middle Ages and the early state period, where people, they stop spitting all over the place, they stop bringing their knives to dinner, etc. And that's an interesting metaphor for the way people learn to resist their impulses. But then he basically looks at the 1960s, and he's like, “The etiquette was changing.” But the etiquette is not necessarily perfectly correlated to rates of violence. You can have very good etiquette and also kill people, and vice versa. 

Peter: Yeah, yeah.

Michael: This informalization process has continued, and crime rates fell again in the 1990s. 

Peter: I don't want to cast Pinker as a conservative necessarily, but I will say that this is something that if you read a lot of conservatives on, especially conservatives from several decades ago, they seem to believe very deeply that the aesthetics of formality are like part of the social glue that binds us. Of course, what it actually is, is a claim to the top of the social hierarchy. Because you are someone who was raised with a certain type of etiquette, and you are making the claim that that type of etiquette is not simply a set of norms in your community. It is the correct way to do things. And if you do not do things like this, there are downstream effects. 

Michael: So, what we just read was the good part of this chapter, Peter here is where he gets into more evidence that people were giving into their impulses. 

Peter: A prime target was the inner governor of civilized behavior, self-control, spontaneity, self-expression, and the defiance of inhibitions became cardinal virtues. If it feels good, do it, commanded a popular lapel button. Do It was the title of a book by the political agitator Jerry Rubin. Do It ('Til You're Satisfied) whatever it is, was the refrain of a popular song by B.T. Express. The body was elevated over the mind: Keith Richards boasted, “Rock and roll is music from the neck downwards.” And adolescence was elevated over adulthood: “Don't trust anyone over thirty”, advised the agitator, Abbie Hoffman.

Michael: Agitator. 

Peter: Hope I die before I get old,” saying the who in My Generation. 

Michael: This is just like a bunch of grapes about pop music in the 1960s. 


Peter: Just do it, said Nike. So, much is going on here. But what's so fucking annoying is people just grabbing on to a couple elements of pop culture and just speaking as if they are indicative of this massive social upheaval. The 60s were a little stuffy and people lost trust in institutions, the 70s were a little weird and then the 80s were stuffy again. This is just fucking happening constantly. 

Michael: One of the patterns we will see next episode especially is you notice as he's further back in history, he does more citing of experts. He reads more widely. He's capable of describing things with a lot more nuance. But then as we get closer to his own lifetime, it's just a bunch of gripes. He has this bizarre thing where he's like, in 1964, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas saying, “Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the street.” Four years later, The Rolling Stones replied that “The time was right for fighting in the street.” [Peter laughs] What the fuck are you talking about, dude? 

Peter: I am hyped for the rap chapter. Let's go. 

Michael: No, but this is the most amazing thing. So, if he's going to use all these factors to explain the crime rise in the 1960s, he then also has to account for the massive drop in crime in the 1990s. 

He does something very similar to our show. He's like, it's not really demographics, it's not economics. This was a worldwide trend. And a lot of the domestic stuff like mass incarceration can't really explain why this was almost universal. And then after he discards all of these other much more complicated factors, he then says, “Look, the only thing left is that the culture got more civilized.”

Peter: Mm, nice. 

Michael: He says, “Ultimately, we must look to a change in norms to understand the 1990s crime bust just as it was a change in norms that helped explain the boom three decades earlier.” 

Peter: Sorry, but it's not that a change in norms is not the explanation, it's that the change in norms is the change.

Michael: Right, right. 

Peter: You're saying, “Well, why did this norm change?” And he's like, “Well, that's because of the change in norms.” It's not an explanation. It's not anything. It's just a restatement of what we already know. 

Michael: I think the good version of this argument, which he's not quite making, is that some underlying vibe shift affected both crime rates and pop songs in the 1960s, which fine. But then, first of all, you have to explain what caused the underlying vibe shift, and then you also have to explain why a similar opposite vibe shift in the 1990s affected crime rates but not pop music. So, here is where he finally addresses gangster rap. 

Peter: Let's go. 

Michael: Other cultural forces. 

Peter: One way in which the 1990s did not overturn the de-civilization of the 1960s is in popular culture. Many of the popular musicians in recent genres, such as punk, metal, goth, grunge, gangsta, and hip hop, make The Rolling Stones look like the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Hollywood movies are bloodier than ever, unlimited pornography is a mouse click away, and an entirely new form of violent entertainment, video games, has become a major pastime. Yet as these signs of decadence proliferated in the culture, violence went down in real life, the re-civilizing process somehow managed to reverse the tide of social dysfunction without turning the cultural clock back to Ozzie and Harriet. 

Michael: Somehow Palpatine returned. 

Peter: I love that he lists off all of these examples of the lack of a causal link between pop culture and actual violence, and instead he posits it as a mystery.

Michael: Right. And also, he discards explanations like changing demographics, changing living standards, because they don't explain the entire shift. But I think most of those explain. parts of it.

Peter: You don't need something. All right, this is making me annoyed. 

Michael: We're back to Freakonomics. We'll just type in that section of the episode. 

Peter: You don't need a simple narrative explanation of something that is incredibly complex. He has this concept about the civilizing process, which is already way too vague and unquantifiable to be particularly meaningful. And then he's trying to apply it in the micro. If you want to say there is an enormous array of different norms and institutional shifts and technology, etc., that all come together and caused violence to decline drastically over the course of thousands to hundreds of years. And I call that all the civilizing process, I think that that is fine. But when you start to try to zoom in and you're like, “Okay, people aren't wearing hats and The Rolling Stones are singing about this and that.”

You can't explain decade by decade crime rates based on an extremely abstract notion that you've pieced together based on layperson's archaeology and briefly reading the Magna Carta or whatever the fuck. 

Michael: Personally, I'm actually fine with just saying that the reasons why homicides declined in the 1500s are probably different from the reason they rose and fell in the 1990s. I don't need there to be one reason for crime. Like one of the reasons America has so many more murders than the UK is just we're awash in guns. I don't know that we're one-sixth as good at resisting our impulses. 

Peter: This is why he's like anchoring to one idea and it's leading him astray. He's basically telling the story. It's not just that the reason that violence has declined historically is due to the civilizing process. He's saying that the reason violence declines period, is due to the civilizing process. 

Michael: Exactly. 

Peter: And therefore, every time he sees a decrease or increase in crime, he must ascribe it to a decrease or increase in civilizing. And that doesn't actually mean anything. Or at least it doesn't mean anything discreet enough that it's a real explanation of what's happening. So, you end up getting this very lazy, very abstract explanation for something that actually has very discrete material causes. Not that we have our arms around those causes in full, of course, but certainly we know that there are material inputs into crime that can be impacted by public policy. And to characterize all of that as the civilizing process, it's oversimplified in a way that I think is counterproductive to actually solving these problems. 

Michael: I will say that, keep in mind, this book gets worse as it goes along. 

Peter: That's a common theme in our books that they just get worse. Because I think a lot of these guys have figured out that a lot of reviewers aren't making it past the third chapter or so. [Michael laughs] Like, every Gladwell review is always like, “The book opens up with anecdote about this,” and then it just like trails off and it's like, “Well, when are you going to get to the racist plane crashes chapter?”

Michael: It's like the Duke Nukem shareware, where the free level one is really good and you're like, “Oh, I'll pay money to get like the next nine levels.” And they're all just fucking garbage. [Peter laughs] Because the whole thing was just like tricking you into it. 

Peter: Another video game reference dated to 1996 for our listeners. 

Michael: I have been on the couch for seven weeks. I have to have some sort of hobby. Reading Steven Pinker and playing fucking video games is all I have. 

Peter: [laughs] The Duke Nukem shareware is [Michael laughs] such a deep cut that I can't even believe it. 

Michael: So, this brings us to the second major portion of Steven Pinker's book. He began the book talking about the decline in homicide over time. In the next section, he talks about the decline in state sponsored violence. This is another thing when you think about it, at the most basic level, it's like, true, right that we used to burn witches of the stake. We used to execute much larger numbers of people. Throughout western Europe, we have thousands of people being executed. We had public executions. He has long, really gross descriptions of the actual tortures that they did to people, they would draw and quarter people. They'd, like, pull out their fucking entrails. Slavery, as people like Ben Shapiro love pointing out, was very widely practiced. 

Peter: Not just white folks. 

Michael: This is their all slavers matter [Peter laughs] that they bring out every time you talk about how slavery was bad. I mean, we had large scale pogroms against Jews especially in Western Europe. We had the murder of heretics and nonbelievers of mass murder of people because they had the wrong religion. These are things where it is written into the law that you will be killed if you don't believe in Jesus or you will be enslaved and that is totally okay as far as the law is concerned. This is another category of violence that humans have practiced on each other and has very significantly declined over time. 

Peter: It's like institutionalized violence, the topic. 

Michael: Yes, exactly. That's a better way of putting it, as usual. So, he notes that the institution of prisons started to be established in the 1500s, burning of witches started fading in the 1700s, things like the crusades, these large-scale religious mass killings started to fade out in the 1600s, the idea of proportionality, of criminal punishment starts to emerge. 

Peter: I'm sorry, I don't mean to get cocky, but put me in 800 AD I would have thought of proportionality [Michael laughs]. I would have been the first guy to do it. 

Michael: The funny thing is you're basically doing what Pinker is doing throughout the book. He's like, “I'm smarter than these fucking middle-aged weirdos.” These people are gross. I don't spit on the ground. 

Peter: And when Pinker is doing it, he's being disgusting and cocky. And when I do it, I'm being snarky and fun. 

Michael: Again, with this book, this is a trend that I think everybody would acknowledge existed. You're less likely to be tortured by an agent of the state now than you were in the 1500s. That's just true. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: His explanation is basically mass literacy. I did not know this going into this book, but by the 1700s, you had literacy rates that were like 50%. We started getting mass literacy relatively quickly after the invention of the printing press. Pinker says, “The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an exogenous change that helped set off the humanitarian revolution. The pokey little world of village and clan, accessible through the five senses and informed by a single content provider at the church, gave way to a phantasmagoria of people, places, cultures, and ideas. And for several reasons, the expansions of people's minds could have added a dose of humanitarianism to their emotions and their beliefs.” 

Peter: Okay.

Michael: This is the time when you start to get novels as mass entertainment, which by definition are just telling stories about people who are a little bit different than you. But then we also get really the beginning of what anyone would call a marketplace of ideas. Once you have mass literacy, you can have philosophy, you start having science. This is the first time you can really debate things and have much wider societal understandings.

Peter: Right. You're a guy who just learned how to read, and then you read a book that says, “Tearing people apart limb from limb is bad,” and you're like “Huh,-

Michael: Hang on.

Peter: -what's going on here?” 

Michael: All of this resulted in expanding sense of empathy among the population. Actually, let me send this to you. 

Peter: Some of this progress and if it isn't progress, I don't know what is, was propelled by ideas, by explicit arguments that institutionalized violence ought to be minimized or abolished. And some of it was propelled by a change in sensibilities. People began to sympathize with more of their fellow humans and were no longer indifferent to their suffering. A new ideology coalesced from these forces, one that placed life and happiness at the center of values and that used reason and evidence to motivate the design of institutions. 

Michael: These are the first green shoots of ideas that get us modern democracies. You have to go from a society where you're just totally indifferent to other people's suffering. You hear this phrase, “Life was cheap.” People were just dying all over the place. Infant mortality was like, half of the fucking babies died. You have to go to a society where it's like, “Well, wait a minute, maybe babies dying is bad. Maybe torturing other people is bad.” You have to sort of see these ideas in the population, and then those, over time become these much larger structures that we have now. That's his argument.

Peter: I don't feel like I'm smart enough to argue the details of how the enlightenment changed our societies. I do feel like whenever I hear Pinker and some of his contemporaries talk about it, it feels weirdly oversimplified, like something is not getting explained. And I can't quite put my finger on it. 

Michael: Yeah. I think what you're going through right now is what I went through during the reading of this book. So, I read almost all of the book, and then I started reading the critiques and the reviews of the book. And when I first read this, I was like, “We're not really going to debunk this on the show” because, of course, you start reading about other people, and then your mind expands to like, “Oh, hey, maybe poor people aren't poor because they're like a lesser species of human. Maybe it's circumstances.” You expand your circle of empathy. And then as I started reading the responses to this, I realized that I think an underrated form of bias is that all of the books that you read are written by writers. And I think, as a writer, I think I'm biased to think that it was writing that brought us to this sophisticated understanding. I have a bias to think that my work matters. And I think that ultimately, that's what Pinker is expressing too, that it's like, “Well, people didn't know that torture was wrong,” and they read something that was like, “Torture is wrong.” And they're like, “Oh, my God.”

Peter: Yeah, you'll see a tweet that's like, “Oh, that's my emotional support laundry pile.” [Michael laughs] And you're like, “Oh, other people also have a massive pile of laundry they never quite put away.”

Michael: Pinker calls this the humanitarian revolution, but I would call this the TFW revolution [Peter laughs]. So, again, I found this very convincing. And then I started reading people who know more about the enlightenment than I do and seemingly than Pinker does. So, the biggest problem with this, and interestingly, the researcher that came up with this idea that it was basically novels and mass literacy that created this humanitarian revolution, her name's Lynn Hart. She admits very openly in her work that there's a real correlation causation problem here. Because maybe people started reading and that gave them more empathy, but maybe people had more empathy, so they started reading.

Peter: Right, right.

Michael: The other problem is just like a timeline issue. So, this is an excerpt from an article called the decline of violence in the west from cultural to post cultural history by Gregory Hanlon. They really got to work on these titles, but I'm going to send you this. 

Peter: In common with many North American intellectuals under the sway of 19th century idealism, Pinker attributes major social changes to the appearance of great books penned by courageous and Prussian authors. He frequently cites the famous work by Cesare Beccaria condemning torture and mutilation. But since he has no apparent knowledge of criminal justice history, he is unaware that magistrates had largely phased torture out of their repertoire a hundred years earlier. The bloodthirsty God hypothesis gave way to real progress after Locke advocated religious toleration, he writes, but he ignores the fact that neighbors had collaborated on a daily basis with heretics ever since the advent of the reformation, and that minorities usually evaporated through intermarriage rather than by extermination long before the English philosopher put pen to paper. 

Michael: So, timeline wise, a lot of the shifts that Pinker is crediting to the enlightenment actually happened before the enlightenment. And oftentimes, the enlightenment was giving people reasons to explain what they were seeing. 

Peter: And maybe this is what I couldn't put my finger on before when I said, “This feels like an inadequate explanation.” But the idea that someone like Locke was the guy that thought of this and then wrote it down and everyone was like, “Oh, shit.” It's almost certainly untrue what's actually happening is that there are all of these institutions and norms colliding up against each other, and then people start articulating what they're seeing and experiencing, which might have its own impact, but is not the spark that sets these things off. 

Michael: Right. I think this is where it becomes much more obvious that Pinker is speaking from his bias as a writer and maybe some of his other biases [Peter laughs]. Because, he talks explicitly about ideas as an exogenous force. You have the static society, and then all of a sudden, you inject a bunch of new ideas into them, and then you get these massive shifts. But one of the other historians that I spoke to for this, Eleanor Janega, points out that arguments against slavery had been around for hundreds of years at this point, and Christians had gone out of their way to prohibit slavery of Christians. People absolutely knew that this was a barbaric institution. And over and over again, other historians have pointed out that a lot of these shifts that he's talking about as moral or ideological were much more logistical.

The other thing that really struck me in Philip Dwyer's response to Pinker's book is that it is true that European cities started banning public executions in the 1700s and 1800s. But it doesn't appear that this was for moral reasons. It was basically because the cities were becoming more densely populated and the crowds were too large and rowdy. It was like a football game. They banned public executions from London to move them to the suburbs. 

Peter: This is something I'm wondering if we're going to get into at all, but I've heard it said several times that a lot of the antiquated forms of torture that we read about and are disgusted by are actually mythical. They're urban legend almost and don't really exist. Or there's maybe the sparsest piece of documentation that maybe this once existed, and then someone extrapolated an enormous amount from that. 

Michael: It's like those sex things they used to talk about in high school, like give her the Dirty Sanchez 

Peter: Right, right, right.

Michael: Or the Rusty dragon or whatever. And it's like no one's ever actually done that. 

Peter: [laughs] It's exactly like that. 

Michael: It's also, I mean, one of the other researchers points out that instead of referring to actual historians in this section, one of his main sources is a coffee table book of torture implements.

Peter: Right, right,

Michael: Like, this is what they used to do to pull out your entrails. And that stuff is funny, and it's good color to talk about in the book, but it doesn't tell you anything about the prevalence of these things or whether these implements were actually being used. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: I think one of the reasons why historians get so worked up about this book, I mean, part of it is like ego that Pinker is not citing their work, but part of it is just like the weird sloppiness that he has of these long descriptions of how ugly and gross tortures were. But then he doesn't pick up the phone for five minutes to be like, “Hey, dude, was this happening a lot?” 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: I also think that another way that actual academics are at a disadvantage is that this massive shift from barbarism to civilization or whatever, there just isn't a clean explanation of it.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: One of the other historians that I talked to, Doug Thompson, he points out that Pinker is almost exclusively talking about Western Europe here. But the rise of state structures and the reduction of homicide and torture, etc., was a universal shift in other places too. This also happened in China and the Middle East and India and all over the place, oftentimes like a thousand years before it happened in Western Europe. And so, Pinker is doing this weird thing where he's trying to tell this universal human story, right, of how went from apes to civilized people but he's only using one case study of Western Europe, which is a weird outlier compared to other regions of the world that did this. And then a lot of the data in his own case study doesn't even really match his explanation.

I forget where I read this now, but at the same time, these like you know John Locke, all these treatises on individual rights were coming out. England increased the number of crimes for which you could get the death penalty. At the same time, they were actually reducing the number of people executed. But still, it's like, that doesn't actually indicate a shift among powerful leaders, it's just kind of a mystery. And that doesn't make for a good airport book. 

Peter: Having a simple, easy-to-follow narrative will always be very pleasing to people, even if it's essentially incorrect or at best, oversimplified, which is why so many experts and historians, etc., will never publish a good book, because it's a completely different skill set. 

Michael: So, those are the logistical problems with Pinker's explanation for the decline of barbarism being due to the enlightenment. There's also a philosophical problem. He is talking about the enlightenment told the population that all humans are deserving of dignity, and it's wrong torture. And, of course, this was happening at the same time as colonialism, and a lot of this was happening at the same time these thinkers were propping up the continued existence of slavery.

Peter: What? This is the first hearing about this.

Michael: [laughs] Yeah, it's a little bit weird to say, “Oh, well, these guys were right about everything,” and we all learned to respect the rights of humanity and whatever, but there were huge myopia as part of this. And so, this is an excerpt from a very good review in the New Yorker. 

Peter: Pinker is virtually silent about Europe's bloody colonial adventures. There's not even an entry for colonialism in the book's enormous index. This is a pretty serious omission, both because of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between savage and civilized. What does it reveal about the impulse control of the Spanish that even as they were learning how to dispose of their bodily fluids more discreetly, they were systematically butchering the natives on two continents? Or about the humanitarianism of the British that as they were turning away from such practices as drawing and quartering, they were shipping slaves across the Atlantic? 

Michael: He also doesn't really cover the way that enlightenment thinking was used to defend eugenics. A lot of these people had really gross ideas about races, like Carl Linnaeus, who came up with this classification system for species of the family and the order and the genus and all that stuff. Also classified races as according basically to their superiority and inferiority. And what happened during this time was there were religious justifications for racism, why there had to be this preexisting hierarchy of superiority. And then as we get the scientific revolution, they use scientific justifications for the same outcome. So, it's like, “Oh, it's not because they're heretics. It's because, oh, they're closer to apes” in evolution. 

Peter: I don't want to create too much of a straw man, but I feel like there's this undercurrent of western chauvinism running through a lot of these conversations where they want the narrative to be that like things were very rough before some very smart white boys had some very good ideas, and things turned on a dime and yes, change was slow and is slow, but it's predicated on these ideas from British and French aristocrats 200 and something years ago. It's a denial of the context in which these men lived. That things were changing around them as they were writing, and that perhaps they did have new ideas, but also many of those ideas were articulations of things that they were seeing. There's something that feels like a little bit hero worshippy about the way that some of these nerds talk about the enlightenment, I guess that doesn't sit right with me. 

Michael: What I found in reading a lot of the historical scholars about Pinker's work was that what he's trying to do throughout is set up this dichotomy between us now and pre-enlightenment, pre-civilization people. So, he says people in the Middle Ages were gross. They spit on the floor. And this whole idea of life was cheap, people lost their babies and they didn't give a shit. You're at dinner and somebody gets stabbed at the next table, and you don't care. He's trying to set up this false dichotomy, but what actual scholars of the time say is that people were totally capable of empathy. People cried when they lost their babies. It was really traumatic for them. It was not “normal” to be surrounded by death all the time. 

They felt the same kinds of trauma and depression as we did. And there is this really gross line of barbarism during these times. But there's also a long tradition of charity. A lot of people used the church to say, “Oh, we must give alms to the poor.” That was existing at the same time. And what Pinker is really trying to do is he's trying to set up this ideology where we're just constantly congratulating ourselves. Well, thank God we're not like that. I don't spit on the floor, but people who are more familiar with the time say, people back then were capable of empathy, but they were selective about who they extended it to. And that's what we do now. 

Peter: Right, right.

Michael: I don't want to make a morally relativistic argument, but prison conditions in the United States are extremely bad. We have very endemic rape in prisons, and that's something that they joke about in PG-13 movies. And it's not that we're incapable of empathy. It's that we don't extend our empathy to men being raped in prison because we think it's funny that they're being feminized and we think they probably deserve it because they're in prison for one reason or another. And the fact that things, gross punishments are less severe, less likely now than they used to be fair enough. 

But I think it's actually more important to draw the similarities between us and previous human beings, not to congratulate ourselves, but to think about all of the ways that we're making the same mistakes that humans have been making for 10,000 years. 

Peter: I don't want to step outside of the bounds of my knowledge here, but the human brain hasn't evolved a massive amount in the last 500 years or whatever. We're dealing with people who are essentially us.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: It feels like what Pinker is trying to do is draw a really fine line where there really isn't one. It's sort of reminiscent of the old racist thinkers who are, like, there are savages and then there are civilized people. And he might not use that terminology, but that's what he's evoking to me here is like, we used to be like this, and now we are like this in the process hand waving away all of the mass violence that exists right now and avoiding the question of why that happens if we are now basking in the glow of enlightenment ideas. 

Michael: Yeah. And I don't want to be too hard on Pinker. I think we all have limitations intellectually. I think for somebody like Pinker, who comes from Scots-Irish heritage, [Peter laughs] I think the oblong cranium prone to vengeance. So, the next thing that Pinker talks about is war. 

Peter: Okay. Hell, yeah. 

Michael: We've talked about how humans do violence to each other. We've talked about how states do violence to their own people. But what about states doing violence to other states? 

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: He has a section called the Long Peace, which is about the startling decline of interstate war since World War II. 

Peter: [laughs] Since when? Controlling for World War II. 

Michael: Yeah, since the big war. He says, “Now we're ready for the most interesting statistic since 1945, Zero. Zero is the number that applies to an astonishing collection of categories of war during the two thirds of a century that has elapsed since the end of the deadliest war of all time. I'll begin with the most momentous. Zero is the number of times that nuclear weapons have been used in conflict. Zero is the number of interstate wars that have been fought between countries in Western Europe since the end of World War II. Keep in mind that up until that point, European states had started around two new armed conflicts per year since 1400. Zero is the number of interstate wars that have been fought since 1945 between major developed countries, the 44 with the highest per capita GDP.

Today, we take it for granted that war is something that happens in smaller, poorer, and more backward countries. Zero is the number of developed countries that have expanded their territory since the late 1940s by conquering another country. And zero is the number of internationally recognized states since World War II that have gone out of existence through conquest. 

Peter: Okay.

Michael:  Do you want to debunk this, Peter? Do you have some wars in mind? Do you have a couple of wars?

Peter: [laughs] There's something very weird about the eurocentrism of this is face up and so almost not worth pointing out. But part of the reason that war is not happening so much in western countries is because war is happening by western countries to non-western countries. 

Michael: In his defense, he does have an entire chapter about wars in poorer states. And he says that wars between countries, just globally are much rarer than they used to be. What we mostly see in poor countries is civil wars. One of the things that's really interesting when you look at the actual numbers is that civil wars have become far less deadly over time. So, he says, in 1950, the average armed conflict killed 33,000 people. In 2007, it killed less than a thousand. And I'm going to send this to you. He notes that we also have far fewer genocides. So, he has a chart which is based on a database of killings by state actors around the world since 1900. 

Peter: Okay, this is just a chart of deaths per year. 

Michael: Deaths per 100,000 per year, deaths per capita deaths.

Peter: Yeah. Some spikes aside, you had a massive spike in worldwide deaths during the World War II era. And then it climbs downward pretty continuously to the present day with small spikes for Cambodia, the genocide in Pakistan, genocide in Rwanda, but still nothing even remotely close to World War II. And so, we're in an era of unparalleled peace. 

Michael: So, the thing is, I think that people have just a basic allergy to talking about this and admitting to it because it feels like you're celebrating or you're implying that things like this will never happen again.

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: But this is accurate. If you look at the deaths in large scale genocides, they have reduced. He says the two decades since the end of the Cold War have been marked by genocides in Bosnia, 225,000 deaths, Rwanda, 700,000 deaths. And Darfur, 370,000 deaths. These are atrocious numbers, but as the graph shows, they are spikes in a trend that is unmistakably downward. The first decade of the new millennium is the most genocide free of the past 50 years. And so, you compare that to anything like the Holocaust. 6 million people, we're nowhere near that. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: And he's also right that for most of human history, Germany and France were at fucking war with each other. That's unthinkable now. And even in the conflicts that do take place, the fact that deaths are so reduced is a pretty big deal. He goes through the reasons for this as far as the reason why there's fewer conflict deaths, that is almost entirely just better medical care for essentially all of human history, including now. The majority of deaths in war are not direct battlefield deaths. It was mostly wounds getting infected and then you have disruptions to populations. You have the spread of typhus and tuberculosis and disruptions of food supplies. He notes that during the Korean war, 4.5% of the population died from disease and starvation per year. 

And even in the most horrific conflicts that we have now, like the civil war and Democratic Republic of Congo, it's nowhere near that. It's 1% of the population over the entire conflict. This is something where, if he's making the case that as a human being, you're much less likely to die of violence than you were as a hunter-gatherer, I think on the most basic level, that is absolutely fucking true. But that is, like 95% because of just better medical care. 

Peter: It also seems to be distinct from the almost moral case that he's been making. Right?

Michael: Yes.

Peter: That there has been a shift in our collective thinking that has led to less violence as opposed to like, “Yeah, we figured out bacteria a little bit.”

Michael: The thing is, I am front loading the explanation of medical care. This is something that he does mention in the book. I don't want to say that he's completely eliding this, but this is like 5th or 6th on his list of reasons. I would put this like, the number one most important reason why we see fewer conflict deaths now and fewer civilian deaths. The way that he describes it, why there's so much less conflict now, is his first explanation is the enlightenment.

Peter: Naturally.

Michael: In 1948, we got the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Peter: Wait, what.

Michael: This a boring--

Peter: He's chalking it up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Michael: The thing is as somebody who worked in human rights for 11 years, I do think it's like the most adorable thing in the book, that he thinks that’s what matters [laughs] Like, oh states now say we're not going to violate human rights. It's like they say that. 


Peter: Like a fucking, like Putin is just reading it like, “Damn, they got me on this.” 

Michael: Well, he has a bunch of other stuff. Most of these are actually fairly convincing and fairly interesting. One of the other reasons we haven't seen anything on the scale of World War II since is because World War II was so fucking bad. We're all pointing guns at each other like reservoir dogs, and we're all just like, “Ah, I'm going to take things chill.” We also list the international order. The fact that we don't have the borders on the map moving around constantly. This is another thing that is like a man-made institution, but we forget how new this is. The conquest was a huge part of just being a country for most of settled human history. And since World War II, we have an international order where a violation of sovereignty is like a huge fucking deal. 

Peter: Part of that is also the stakes. It's not that the international order created norms in a vacuum. It created a system through which the stakes for invasion are maybe the United States invades you back.

Michael: Exactly. 

Peter: If you fuck around, you will in this new international order, find out. And that has kept people at bay. 

Michael: Oh, totally. And I also think another thing is he calls it globalization of trade, but I think it's more like the shift to a knowledge economy. I think in previous eras, territory was just a much bigger deal. Whereas now, if you think of Germany invading Denmark, what the fuck is Germany going to get. There's not like gold underneath Denmark. It's like a population that would fucking hate you. And that's not where your GDP comes from anymore. So, this thing of pillaging territory and taking back land, that just doesn't matter as much. 

Peter: Right, right. 

Michael: He mentions briefly, I actually think this is super interesting and important is that the changing conception of states of what does your country do for you? It used to really be much more nation, ethnicity focused as bringing us back to the glory of our empire, promoting us as the superior beings on the world stage, whatever, all this jingoistic bullshit. The conception of states now is much more as just like provider of social services and provider of welfare. People in Germany are not like, “I need Germany to expand” they’re like glorify the German people. It's like, I want a pension when I retire. 

Peter: Not the country I would have used as an example, but I hear you. 

Michael: Yeah, that's probably bad.


Michael: But the way that we think of states now. You don't have a lot of domestic constituencies for America must take over Canada. 

Peter: Trust me, I've tried to rally the support. 

Michael: [laughs] Yeah.

Peter: It does not come. 

Michael: Then, we talked about this with the Fukuyama episode, but also just the rise of democracies around the world. Now most of the world lives under at least nominally liberal democracies.

Peter: Right? 

Michael: And then the final one, I've been so nice to him for most of this episode. We're going to get into his final reason why wars and genocides have declined. And this is the decline of ideology. 

Peter: God damn it. 

Michael: So, there's less ideology now. 

Peter: This one's designed to make me mad. I can feel it. 

Michael: He's going to use the M word. He's going to use the M word briefly. 

Peter: The appearance of Marxist ideology in particular was a historical tsunami that is breathtaking in its total human impact. It led to the mega murders by-- [laughs 

Michael: It was actually deka-megamurderers, but I changed it to make it easier to read. 

Peter: [laughs] It led to the mega murders by Marxist regimes in the Soviet Union and China. And more circuitously, it contributed to the one committed by the Nazi regime in Germany. Very circuitously, I would say.

Michael: Pretty circuitously. 

Peter: Hitler read Marx’s in 1913, and although he detested Marxist socialism, his national socialism substituted races for classes in its ideology of a dialectical struggle toward Utopia. Some historians consider the two ideologies fraternal twins.

Michael: We're not doing Marxism anymore. When you think of the Nazis, you're like, “Man, too much Marxism.”

Peter: When he says some historians, he means Jonah Goldberg, that's that citation. I don't know what it is about these liberal intellectuals, the need to tie Marxism and Nazism to one another. 

Michael: It is so weird. 

Peter: Hitler substituted races for classes. What are you fucking talking about? 

Michael: The whole point of Marxism is the class thing. You can't just say he replaced something else. 

Peter: He’s right. This doesn't make like, “Oh, football is sort of like, it's Marxism, but you replace classes with teams.” 

Michael: This is the thing. I was like, “Should I make Peter read this? Are we going to talk about this?” This was the first paragraph in the book where it's like, “What the actual fuck are you talking about?” He even mentions here Hitler detested Marxist socialism.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: Hitler would not shut the fuck up about how much he hated communism. That was one of his main driving fucking ideologies.

Peter: They're the fucking first ones that go in the poem [Michael laughs] And, look, I'm not a fucking anthropologist, so when I read the first, or, like, when you tell me about the first, whatever, 75% of this book or whatever it is, I'm like, “Yeah, it doesn't sound right, but okay.” And then he says one thing that I know a little bit about, and it's like, way off. That's just like a huge red flag in my brain. You know what I mean? 

Michael: So, the next thing that Steven Pinker talks about in his book is what you actually mentioned earlier. Can we just take out World War II from the statistics? For most people growing up now, it sounds weird to say, like, “Oh, the world is becoming more peaceful.” Obviously, people are going to be like, “What the fuck? What about World War II?” Right. So, the next section of the book, and he really goes into this in detail, is, if things are getting better, why was the 20th century the bloodiest century in human history?

Peter: Right, right, right.

Michael: So, here is this. 

Peter: The 20th century was the bloodiest in history is a cliche that has been used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender.

Michael: Male gender.

Peter: But is it true? The claim is rarely backed up by numbers from any century other than the 20th or by a mention of the hemoclysms of centuries past. 

Michael: Hemoclysm is like this weird made-up word that basically means, like, the bursting of a blood vessel and has come to mean, like, this period of mass death between basically World War I and the Mao dying. 

Peter: I think the natural, almost intuitive explanation of World War I and World War II is we had this confluence of this old political order and incredible violent technology and that culminates in a world war that is bloodier than anything we've ever seen, followed by another one. And then we all learn our lesson in some way. A new international order is established that reckons with the fact that we can all destroy each other. I've heard that before, but what I've never heard is the 20th century is the bloodiest in history. Well, are you counting? Let's all count.

Michael: How many people died in the fourth century, Peter. In the 13th, do you know? Do you even know? Peter? 

Peter: This is a weird argument to make mostly because in some ways I think, “Yeah, okay, it's true. If you're arguing with me, that's true.” I don't know how many people died in most other centuries.

Michael: You admit it. 

Peter: But what I do know is that the World War II death toll was like 70 million people or something. I don't feel like they were hitting those numbers back in 600 BC or whatever the fuck. 

Michael: But, Peter, the mistake that you're making. 

Peter: Don't talk to me about per capita [Michael laughs] There's no fucking way.

Michael: We are getting there. We are getting there. 

Peter: There's no fucking way. I'm sorry, [Michael laughs] but there's just no fucking way that the-- Hold on. I am trying to use some-- [crosstalk]

Michael: I love that you're like, what's the dumbest place he could go with this, per capita rates? 


Peter: The only way to do this is to be like back when there were eight people. One of them died. There is no fucking way that those percentages have been matched in history. I refuse to believe it. 

Michael: Oh, Peter. Oh, Peter.

Peter: I refuse to believe it. 

Michael: Peter, allow me to send you a chart that lists the population and the death toll as a percentage of the global population. 

Peter: God damn it. 

Michael: Peter says that to truly understand whether or not the 20th century is the bloodiest in history.

Peter: You can't just call him Peter.

Michael: We have to look at all of the other hemoclysms past. 

Peter: I will not be convinced by charts and numbers on this. [Michael laughs] Okay, so this is like a list of conflicts.

Michael: A list of atrocities.

Peter: With the death toll and then the mid-20th century equivalent death toll. 

Michael: Yeah. So, he's multiplied the death tolls of all previous atrocities, so they're expressed in 1950s numbers.

Peter: Right.

Michael: And then he has an adjusted rank. So, according to his adjusted rank, the second World War is merely the 9th worst atrocity in human history. 

Peter: The number one, worst atrocity, adjusted for inflation, is The a An Lushan Revolts of the 8th century, death toll was 36 million but the mid-20th century equivalent is 429 million ba-bang. 

Michael: Because the world population was less than 1/10th of what it is now. So, you have to multiply it by more than 10. 

Peter: A distant second is the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, 278 million, it was 40 million to begin with. 

Michael:  So, it's almost six times worse than World War II. People talk about World War II, but they don't talk about the Mongol conquests. 

Peter: Someone with Persian heritage, I do think about the-- [laughs] 

Michael: Maybe you. Okay. [Peter laughs] Maybe you talk about [unintelligible [01:17:05] people. 

Peter:  And someone who played Age of Empires too [Michael laughs] Number three is the Mid East slave trade. 

Michael: Not the transatlantic slave trade. 

Peter: No, no. 

Michael: Mid East slave trade,

Peter: Which had a death toll of 19 million, adjusted for inflation, and that's 132 million. Now, the interesting thing about this, and which should completely disqualify it from this list, is that it spans 1200 years. 


Michael: Damn it. You noticed I was going to lead up to this. 

Peter: He also has the Atlantic slave trade, which spans 400 years. Several of these span multiple centuries, which defeats the entire premise. 

Michael: I found a really good review that's like, “Okay, Pinker, you want to adjust by per capita?” Let's adjust by year, bitch. If we spread out the Mid E Slave Trade across 1200 fucking years and World War II across six years. World War II is then again, the fucking worst. So why are you controlling for one thing, but you're not controlling for this other fucking thing? I was going to lead up to that.

Peter: Right, that’s correct.

Michael: One of them is also just Joseph Stalin. 

Peter: Yeah. One just says Joseph Stalin 

Michael: Seems to encompass a wide range of activities. 

Peter: But the other thing that's odd here is that he's doing this by atrocity rather than by century, which is what he initially said. So, he has the Second World War, and then Mao Zedong, which again just a guy,-

Michael: Just a guy.

Peter: -Joseph Stalin, the First World War, the Russian Civil War, Chinese Civil War of the 20th century, all of these occurring in the 20th century, but they're split up. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: Even though the whole point that he was trying to make is that this was not the bloodiest century, but he's splitting them up. What happens when you add them all up? 

Michael: Also, I know nothing about this, but Philip Dwyer mentioned that he's also blending the Napoleonic wars with the French Revolution. It's kind of arbitrary what he's collapsing and expanding, because you could also just put colonialism on here and have that span, like, two centuries, and you'd have a massive death toll. Or he's talking about this, what he calls this hemoclysm of the 20th century. You could also group all of that together. World War I, World War II, Stalin, Mao, and then the 20th century would rock it up to the top again. 

Peter: I'm going to speculate wildly here. 

Michael: Do it. Cook son, cook. 

Peter: This is a test of my instincts. The only thing I know about the An Lushan Revolt is that it took place in China.

Michael: In the 8th century. You now know that it was the 8th century,

Peter: Right. That's right. My gut instinct is that a rebellion in China in the 8th century did not kill 36 million people. 

Michael: Two-thirds of the Chinese population at the time Pinker informs us. 

Peter: I imagine that that is indirect deaths rather than direct or what? Is that just like the collapse of China leads to the deaths of two-thirds of the population. 

Michael: Those are actually fake deaths due to statistical abnormalities. [laughs]

Peter: So is my instinct, right? 

Michael: Oh, yeah, absolutely. 

Peter: Folks, I want you to know, haters have said, who are these [Michael laughs] guys to criticize the works of various talented authors? My instincts, spot on. 

Michael: The trick, Peter, is to stop reading altogether. You're like, “Look, I can just look at this number and know that it's fucking wrong. Why would I have to read anything about it specifically? I don't want to learn shit.” 

Peter: The chart has a ton of internal inconsistency, but that 36 million number just jumped out to me immediately where I was like, what? 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: How? 

Michael: Well, okay, so to get into the specific events and numbers that Pinker is using here, first of all, all of the numbers on this chart do not come from actual historians and academics. And he does not appear to have double checked them with any experts or academics. They come from a book called The Great Big Book of Horrible Things.

Peter:  Ripley's Believe It or Not! horrible things. 

Michael: I don't want to be mean to this guy, but it's by basically just a random guy. He's a librarian. His name is Matthew White. And in his spare time, he's curious, like, “Well, what's the worst thing that humans have ever done to each other?” And he starts putting together these numbers, and eventually he publishes a book. According to historians, basically all of these numbers are egregiously wrong. So, when it comes to the An Lushan Revolt, the problem is it didn't kill two-thirds of the Chinese population. What happened was a shitload of people died. So, the actual number that academics tend to use, apparently, is around 13 million, which is still a shitload. But what happened is, when a huge number of people die, the people who administer the census also die. 

So, what happened was it looks like two-thirds of Chinese people died. What happened is they were just massively undercounted in the second count because the census administration was completely destroyed. So, 36 million people disappeared, but they just disappeared from the count. They didn't actually die. It's actually the same with the Mongolian conquests. Basically, 40 million people did not die in the Mongol Conquests. In fact, Genghis Khan typically went out of his way to kill as small a number as possible because he wanted people around to administer his empire. It doesn't make sense to do this mass killing. It appears that what happened was the actual Mongol conquesters would typically inflate the numbers afterwards. Basically, to brag like, “Oh, I killed 50 million people.” 

And then the victims of these, the people left behind, would also exaggerate to say, they're so terrible, they killed 50 million people. So, both the “good guys and the bad guys have a reason to inflate the body counts.” And these get written down. 

Peter: We just don't have reliable numbers here. 

Michael: To the extent that we can say anything. It's like, roughly 11 million, not 40 million. But also, one of the things I noticed in a lot of the academic dissections of this chart. This chart is the subject of more academic, just like bishitfication than any other part of this book. People fucking hate this chart. What a lot of experts say is that for large scale atrocities, even, arguably, for, like, World War II, getting a specific number is not all that interesting of a project. 

Peter: Yeah. 

Michael: Philip Dwyer has a section where he talks about the Napoleonic wars. He says the actual range is between 750,005 million people. So, a five-fold range. And what we're actually talking about, he's talking about these census records in Calabria, where 21,000 people disappear from the census in Calabria. But we don't know if they were killed or they just left Calabria because there was a fucking war going on. We've talked before about this bizarre project of who's killed more people, Christianity or atheism? And it's like, what's at the end of that debate. If you can prove one way or the other, what does it really say? 

Peter: Right.

Michael: This just isn't a thing that people who are interested in these actual events spend a lot of time doing. It's weird. It's a dick-measuring contest for centuries. 

Peter: What's interesting about this, there is a more nuanced point to be made here that would be very interesting, which is, like, there have actually been comparable centuries by some metrics. I think that would be a fair point to make. But instead, he pulls from one shitty source, plops down one of the worst structured charts I've ever seen in my life, [Michael laughs] and he's like, here's my point that the 20th century is not the bloodiest. It feels so sloppy that it calls the whole point into question and his whole broader project into question. It's another one of those things, like his discussion of Marxism and Nazism, where you're like, it's hard to take someone who makes this mistake seriously.

Michael:  On some level, you can forgive him for fudging the numbers or whatever, didn't do his due diligence. But he explicitly rejects the argument that the 20th century represents some culmination of world historical trends. He basically says that it doesn't count. So, he has a whole section about the nature of randomness. [Peter laughs] He says that when the Germans were dropping bombs on London during the Blitz, the altitudes were so high they couldn't meaningfully aim. So, it's essentially random where the bombs fall. And by coincidence, a lot of the bombs fell on some neighborhoods, whereas other neighborhoods got no bombs at all. And of course, people read patterns into this. They're like, “Oh, the Germans are going after Camden or something, and they're sparing Bloomsbury, whatever. But this is just the nature of randomness. Things look like patterns, but they're actually just complete statistical flukes.

And then he explicitly says that this is what happened with the 20th century. By coincidence, we got Hitler, we got Mao, we got Stalin, we got World War I and II. All this stuff happened to take place in the same century, but it doesn't really mean anything.

Peter: It's so funny that you get to look at someone like Hitler, one of the most studied characters in history, and be like, this was so random. [laughs] This is so random. 

Michael: So, here is the section where he lays that out. 

Peter: This underscores the difficulty of reconciling our desire for a coherent historical narrative with the statistics of deadly quarrels. In making sense of the 20th century, our desire for a good story arc is amplified by two statistical illusions. One is the tendency to see meaningful clusters in randomly spaced events. Another is the bell curve mindset that makes extreme values seem astronomically unlikely. So, when we come across an extreme event, we reason there must have been extraordinary design behind it. That mindset makes it difficult to accept that the worst two events in recent history, though unlikely, were not astronomically unlikely. Even if the odds had been increased by the tensions of the times, the wars did not have to start. And once they did, they had a constant chance of escalating to greater deadliness, no matter how deadly they already were. 

The two world wars were, in a sense, horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution that stretches across a vast range of destruction. That's what I always said about World War II. 

Michael: [laughs] This is a bananas way to think about history. But like a double bananas way to think about World War I and II. 

Peter: This is the shit happens theory of history. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Michael: Over a long enough time, like a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters kind of explanation of history. Like, “What the fuck are you talking about, dude?” Stuff happens in context, and we want to understand that context. This is like intellectual laziness manifested as math. 

Michael: He's acting as if these are just like, wars happen over the course of time. And you look across 2000 years and there's going to be a few more wars in the third century and then in the 8th. 

Peter: But why isn't this level of randomness able to explain the decline of violence, for example? 

Michael: Well, exactly. And also, these wars specifically. I don't want to belabor this because it's so fucking obvious to point it out, but it's like World War I came out of the diplomatic institutions that had been set up over the course of the 1800s. All these weird diplomatic alliances that start falling like dominoes when this dumb assassination happens, and then World War II happens as a result of World War I. The international order that was set up. There's so much fucking resentment in Germany, this boils over and then becomes the Nazi regime. And I know that's a super fucking simplistic way to put it, but it's like these two things explicitly draw upon recent history, and they're also the first two wars that happen after the industrial revolution. 

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: The deadliness of the Holocaust could not have happened in any other fucking century even if Genghis Khan wanted to kill 6 million people in six years, he couldn't have done it because they didn't have trains, they didn't have bureaucratic institutions. We didn't have the ability as human beings to do anything on this scale. If you're talking about a long period where there's not a whole lot of technological advancement, maybe this argument holds up. But the 20th century atrocities specifically, he talks about the Holocaust and the atomic bomb could only have happened in the 20th century. 

Peter: This must be the least satisfying way to explain this away, where he has this major problem in his theory, which is, if we currently live in a drastically less violent time, why in relatively recent history did we see enormous spikes of unparalleled violence. Right?

Michael: Right.

Peter: Huge problem in his broad narrative. And his two explanations are, one, here's a chart with just manifestly inaccurate numbers that explains that this is actually not that weird. And two, statistically, there will be centuries where a couple hundred million people die. 

Michael: Right.

Peter: It's beyond lazy. It's, like, bizarre. 

Michael: Well, what it is, is ideological.

Peter: Similar to Marxism, when you think about it. 


Michael: This is where he starts revealing what his project is. As we get closer to the present day and as we get closer to the conclusions that he draws from all of this history, this is where the ideology comes into play. He also talks in the section about we think that the 20th century was the bloodiest because we're not adjusting by per capita. But he also says we have, like, this recency bias. Of course, we reach for things that happened more or less in living memory. Right? 

Peter: Yeah. 

Michael: But I don't think it's a form of recency bias to give those wars more prominence. Because those wars created the order that we live in today. They created the understanding of genocide that we had. They created the UN. They created the conditions we're living in. It's not bias to say that World War II looms very large over the political debates and the understandings of things like history in the state that we have now. The An Lushan Revolt plays less of a role in our current thinking. And so, of course, we're going to focus on World War II more than we focus on that. When people call the 20th century the bloodiest in human history, I don't even know that you need to fucking adjust it for per capita. The fact that many people were killed in that short of a period of time, that's the bloodiest. 

Peter: What's disconcerting about this is these events happened recently enough that there are very direct lessons to be learned, about the international order, about ideologies that still exist, are still popular. All that stuff matters. To chalk it up to randomness is to mentally avoid the idea that something like this could be prevented. There's something weird about talking about this as a statistical anomaly in the sense that you are disconnecting it from human action in a way. You're saying that this exists outside of our ability to control history. 

Michael: And he's also misunderstanding what people mean when they talk about the 20th century as the most bloody in history. He's trying to reduce all of this down to numbers. “Do you mean the most people died as a percentage?” That's not really what people mean. This period is unique in human history for the moral shift that it represents. And so, there's a very eloquent kind of debate between Pinker and this guy, Robert J. Lifton, who's an author who writes into the New York Times to try to correct Pinker's entire ideological assumption underneath all of this. And I think this is just a really good way to put it. 

Peter: My work has taken me to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and I have come to see these two dreadful events as largely defining our era. The deaths over the last two centuries reflect a revolution in the technology of killing. During the 20th century, we saw the emergence of extreme forms of numbed technological violence. Those who did the killing could be completely separated geographically and psychologically from their victims. There is a terrible paradox here. Dr. Pinker and others may be quite right in claiming that for most people alive today, life is less violent than it has been in previous centuries. But never have human beings been in as much danger of destroying ourselves collectively, of endangering the future of our species. 

Yeah. I think that's a very sharp way to put it. I think to witness the rise of nuclear arms and not think that that has something to say about the relative violence of our times or the relative peril of our times. It's just intellectually vacuous.

Michael: One of the phrases I came across in one of the articles, and I forget where I got it, so apologies for stealing it, is Pinker is described as toxic optimism. He just keeps saying things are great, but it's a pretty big deal for your theory that violence is declining, that the most recent century is the most violent. 

Peter: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Michael: And I think when people talk about this moral shift, they're not mistaken about how many deaths per capita happened. They're talking about the fact that with the rise of the state, we outsourced the monopoly on violence to these state actors. What that's given rise to is state violations of human beings and large-scale state violations and ways that we can harm each other on a scale that mean we can go long stretches with no violence and then all of a sudden have profound violence. Before World War I, Europe was coming out of a 70-year period of peace, and there was tons of prediction about, we're in this new order of global diplomacy, the need for war is over. We're in this industrialized era. This was extremely common at the time. 

And in every other period of human history, there have been people predicting, “Yes, this peace is lasting.” And so, I don't want to fall into a toxic pessimism. I think that it's easy to debunk this stuff and maybe swing a little too far and be, “No, everything is terrible. It's getting worse. We're all going to fucking die.” That's not really the argument here. It's more just like, “I'm perfectly happy admitting that we live in a pretty cool time of unprecedented peace and where there are conflicts, fewer and fewer people die.” But that doesn't mean that it's going to last forever. That doesn't mean that our minds have completely changed. 

Peter: The idea that World Wars I and II were sort of like almost predictable in the scheme of things, just based on statistical variance, feels like it cuts against his argument. The reason that he makes it is so that he can maintain the part of his argument that is essentially a narrative arc where we are getting better. 

Michael: Right, right.

Peter: His confidence after what is at this point, 60 years of peace is just completely unearthed. 

Michael: We glossed over it earlier, but he also has this thing of the decades since the Cold War have been the most genocide free in history. It's like we've only had two decades since the Cold War. He wrote his book in 2008.

Peter: Right. Its fucking. Dude, it's been 17 years. 

Michael: So, I want to end with a quote from the intro to Philip Dwyer's book, going to send you this.

Peter: “Faith in the decline of violence thesis is widespread in the general public. The popularity of Better Angels arose because it told people something they already wanted to believe. In western societies, belief in the decline of violence is rooted in Hobbesian understandings about the brutishness of primitive societies. It is a prominent theme in some of the earliest history textbooks, first published more than a century ago.” 

Michael: Humans have a bias toward believing that we live in the most enlightened time. It's telling, that Pinker's book has been taken up by people like Bill Gates. A lot of people in the Davo set fucking love this book. Because it allows them to push back on progressives, “Why are they so pessimistic all the time? They're always complaining,” and it allows them to congratulate themselves for the world that they have built. That doesn't mean that Pinker is wrong on the merits. We've talked about lots of ways in which his core thesis is correct. But when you find yourself repeating something that appeared in textbooks in the 1800s, you should be cautious. You should think, “Is this true or is this something I want to believe?”

Peter: I feel like after digesting part 1 I have two broad critiques. One is that he's claiming to be representing a counternarrative. He claims that the dominant narrative is that things are bad and things are getting worse. I don't think that that's correct. Two, his argument seems to imply if not outright state, that peace has the force of history behind it, that you can take your hands off the wheel and things will get better. I think that's a very dangerous idea. Peace is forged, right? These improvements in social structures and institutions are forged by people who want change for one reason or another. I think to present the idea that history moves itself allows good people to step back and bad actors to be the only ones who are actually driving history. 

Michael: Right. It's this Davos view of the world where people in power are trying to abstract everything out to this like thousand-year timeline. So, they can avoid joining the fight to address the problems that we have now. 

Peter: They have no idea what it's like to deal with the Scots-Irish on a daily basis.



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