Sam Harris interviews Steve Pinker

Unless you’ve been living in Mongolia, you’ll know that Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, has just come out.  It’s an eloquent and statistics-laden argument for the fact that violence against other people has declined precipitously in the last ten thousand years.  It’s a big book: about 700 pages of prose and with copious endnotes, and I haven’t yet read it. (I believe it took Steve five years of intensive labor.)  But I just got a copy and will dig into it forthwith.

In the meantime, over at his website Sam Harris has an interview with Steve about the book: “Twilight of violence.

It’s a good interview, touching, among other things, on the question of how one can maintain that violence has decreased in an era when we had the genocides of Stalin and Hitler. (This was a criticism raised in a review of the book that just appeared in The New Yorker).  Steve’s book has met with other criticism—I’ve recounted how the Guardian broached the idea that he might be seen as a “scientific racist,” an assessment that is surely wrong. But there have been great reviews, too (e.g. here), and a little bird told me that more encomiums are in the offing.

I suggest you read the interview and then, if you like how it went, buy the book. It’s a good, meaty volume, and promises to edify even those who disagree with it.


  1. matt
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    that IS a great interview. i’m glad people like this exist.

  2. agentwhim
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Isn’t it amazing that something that took 5 years to write can be purchased for just £18 and be available on my Kindle in less than a minute?

  3. TK
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    The especially asinine element of any accusations of racism is that the commentator apparently doesn’t realize that the violent hunter-gatherer/horticulturalist existence is ancestral for human beings of all races- to my thinking, they are revealing their own bias by apparently believing that peaceful civilizations have been cut from a different biological cloth into the deep past.

  4. Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I will hold off on buying the book until it’s been reviewed to death. Maybe analytical flaws or poor assumptions will be revealed that will save me from having to shell out on it, but of course the poor assumptions may be my own.

    Modern industrial scale warfare isn’t just some guy sitting in a swivel chair in Fort Bragg, NC thinking about supper while dutifully drone-killing some Pakistani on-screen blobs 1,000s of miles away… It is my impression that some types of modern industrial warfare can’t be beaten for the lack of discrimination & the extraordinary levels of aloof cruelty involved.

    I do not believe that we are heading towards an era of surgical strike warfare with minimal collateral damage. I will have to look at the figures Pinker uses for modern man-made death, but I do wonder is it possible to calculate the deaths that are an indirect result of war ? For example the totals for the global death toll due to the 1918-1919 flu pandemic are very, very inexact. According to a 1927 report the main 1918-1919 wave was responsible for 21M deaths. A 1991 estimate arrived at 24.7-39.3M. While another estimate in 2002 came up with 100M !! If WWI had not happened would there have been fewer flu deaths ? Or more ?

    A modern war can mean that the entire infrastructure of the target nation is ripped asunder. I am sure it is possible to estimate the post-conflict deaths due to poor sanitation, housing, diet & medical care, but I wonder if Pinker’s figures account for this ?

    Could this turn into a Pinker Privilege thread ? :)

    • HP
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      A modern war can mean that the entire infrastructure of the target nation is ripped asunder.

      How is that any different than ancient war? “Carthago delenda est,” and boy howdy, was it ever.

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        That was the siege of a city & I read somewhere that the 45k starving survivors were sold into slavery. Much easier to estimate the consequences of that military action compared with say the recent Iraqi wars where conflicting surveys abound.

        What counts as a death due to war in a modern war on infrastructure?

        My point was… does Pinker’s figures for wars take into account the fact that most ‘modern’ people don’t produce their own food (for example) & are utterly dependent on supermarkets to survive. In other words I suspect that in some modern wars most of the avoidable deaths occur post-conflict & hit the civilians very hard.

  5. Heber
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I like the questions posed by Harris, very inquisitive. The second question, a conspicuously leading one about the “Atheistic regimes”, put a slight smirk on my face.

    I also like the “Haven’t we just been lucky?” question, and the clarity and panache with which Pinker replies. Dawkins and Harris are both paragons of eloquence and clarity, but quite frankly I think Pinker stands on the top step. I can’t wait to buy his book and add it to my already precariously tilting pile. :)

  6. jay
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I have enjoyed Pinker’s work since ‘The Blank Slate’, and this looks to be similarly enlightening.

    To drift slightly off and comment on the Guardian’s ‘scientific racism’ reference: The word racism has achieved almost magical powers to shut down a conversation. Of course much has to do with the history of the word, people were enslaved or killed because of their race, people discriminated against, not given a fair chance, given reduced legal rights, because of their race.

    But the meaning has broadened, and has swept more under its stigma. Why should we assume that all ethnic groups (though likely on a much smaller scale than ‘race’) are exactly identical. Is it racist to recognize that some races are taller (as a whole) than others? Is it possible that in some areas different behavior traits were preferentially selected (after all our behaviors are rooted in our evolution just like all other animals)? If breeds of dogs acquire subtly different behaviors over a selection period of a few hundred years, would humans be any different?

    Can’t one acknowledge these possibilities and still not be racist? I believe we can. While still maintaining that every human is exactly equal under the law, that no person is coerced into a pigeonhole due to his or her perceived ethnic background? And of course, realizing that despite our differences, we are far more alike than we are different.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted October 8, 2011 at 1:12 am | Permalink

      I’ve enjoyed Pinker since ‘The Language Instinct’, in which he used most of his best jokes. It’s been pretty serious stuff since then, which has all been good; but already when I finished the first book I made room for it on the same eye-level shelf as Dawkins, Dennett and Darwin, and all except CD have kept producing.
      There’s still room at the end of the shelf padded with a few other authors, but none that deserve the place.

  7. Alex
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    If this were Pharyngula, we would already have a dozen disgruntled Mongol regulars in the comments who only delurk to emphasize that they have already preordered the book on ;)

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      this clique thing is becoming most unseemly.

      and tedious.

      • Alex
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        I wasn’t so much referring to the obvious cliques but rather to the absurd diversity and breadth of readers on said blog.

        • Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

          Yes. I, too, am impressed by the diversity with which they *all* manage to suggest vaguely novel methods by which one may insert a porcupine into one’s fundament (should one show even an inkling of independent thought that disagrees with their dogma).
          Insertion usually by their preferred method of an reflex knee-jerk reaction.
          With the emphasis on “jerk”.
          And on “fundament”, as in “funda-mental”.
          PZ’s acolytes have rendered themselves beyond parody.

  8. frank sellout
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    A very good interview, it’s interesting to see two such intelligent people interact in that way. There is only one disagreement I have. In the interview, Mr. Pinker talks about W.W.II not happening if Hitler had died in the previous war or in a car accident. I completely disagree. It was the situation in Germany that allowed Hitler to succeed, he didn’t make it that way. Either way, there was going to be war in Europe, without Hitler German fascism might not have had its anti-semetic element but I believe that given the conditions that existed, it was all but enevitable that Germany was going to become a fascist country. The same goes for Stalin: with or without Satlin, Russia was becoming a communist dictatorship.

    If you look at it from the other direction, if Hitler were living today, do you think the Germans would be embracing Nazism? Hitler would either be in jail or dead.

  9. Dan L.
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    To be fair, there are other reasons to accuse Pinker of scientific racism. He seems to have doubled down on the notion that race (rather than cultural or other environmental factors) is really a dominant factor in IQ score disparities between the developed and undeveloped worlds, and between different races in the developed world. He had a bit of a back-and-forth with Gladwell about it, Gladwell essentially making the case that he was citing on the same dubious research that is used by scientific racists to make their “case.”

    That said, I don’t really think Pinker is a racist — a quick glance at the IQ data does suggest a racial disparity in IQs so I would assume that he’s, at worst, trying to follow the data however disagreeable the conclusion may be.

    DISCLAIMER: I personally believe that IQ measures not intelligence but abstract reasoning skills and that these are often conflated by westerners because of how important abstract reasoning is in holding together a society as complex as ours. Thus, westerners are forced by their environment to have higher IQs than non-westerners, whose intelligence seems more grounded in the concrete (read Jared Diamond’s introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel to get a sense of the sort of intelligence I’m talking about). Similarly, more well-to-do, better-educated folks spend more time with abstractions than poorer folks with less education, which would explain the disparity between races within the developed world.

    Bearing this out, IQ seems to increase steadily the whole time Americans (for example) are in school being forced to engage in abstract reasoning and then tends to fall a bit then level out after graduation. IQ is like a brain muscle but almost certainly not the only one. The most important factor is whether you’ve been doing exercises that target that particular muscle.

    So I think there’s a reasonable, intuitive, non-racist explanation for racial disparities in IQ tests.

    • gillt
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      I’m confused. You’re saying Pinker believes IQ, like race, is significantly hereditary (as opposed to environmental), as in the abstract reasoning gene(s)?

      I thought James Watson was the only popular crank who believes this.

      • Marella
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

        You’re really suggesting there is no hereditary component to intelligence? You’re kidding right?

        • gillt
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

          No, look:

          He seems to have doubled down on the notion that race (rather than cultural or other environmental factors) is really a dominant factor in IQ score disparities between the developed and undeveloped worlds

          The context is IQ being linked to race, which is obviously hereditary.

        • Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:16 am | Permalink

          “Intelligence”, by itself, is a meaningless term.
          If I am to survive in the Australian outback, my command of Greek Literature, or computer science does me no good, whereas the Australian Aborigine’s truly educated command of botany, astronomy, weather prediction, geolocation, hunting skills, vastly superior tracking skills (admittedly partly genetic as a result of a superior fovea), etc etc, does that not render “IQ” as a completely nonsensical one-dimensional over-generalisation that exclusively suits the Western classically educated?

          • jay
            Posted October 6, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

            What this means is that certain behavioral attributes are advantageous in some environments and not in others… .just like physical attributes.

            Characteristics that are not heritable cannot be part of evolution. The very fact that we have instinctive behaviors and we have innate intelligence REQUIRES that they be heritable.

            • Dan L.
              Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

              Why do you think we have “innate intelligence”? What does that even mean?

            • Posted October 6, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

              Characteristics that are not heritable cannot be part of evolution.

              I beg to differ.
              It has been posited that the advancement of culture is connected to genetic brain evolution in an iteratively co-operative manner:- the one enabling the other in a slowly ratcheting increase in both over time, as a result of selective pressures.
              I.e.: culture can affect heritable units over time.
              (Unless we differ on the meaning of “innate intelligence”.)

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        No, I’m saying that Pinker seems to accept the IQ research that shows quite clearly there are IQ differences between races, and furthermore seems to think that this is because IQ is (presumably genetically) linked to race.

        The “abstract reasoning” stuff was all my own take on IQ, I cannot speak for Pinker in terms of what he thinks IQ tests measure; only that I probably disagree with him.

    • Alex
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      Dan, you define intelligence such that IQ tests do not measure it. Others define Intelligence as that which is measured by IQ tests. Arguing definitions without being aware of it is annoying – I would agree with you more if you said “The quantity that is measured by IQ tests is not a definition of Intelligence I accept because yadda yadda”.

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        No one learns a primary language by studiously reading the dictionary. The meaning of the word “intelligence” is not determined by its definition but by its usage. I believe that, based on how the usage, IQ tests to not measure what people commonly refer to as “intelligence”. If you have a problem with that, then it is your problem and there is no need to share it.

    • jay
      Posted October 6, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      This is where the panic sets in. Not wanting to be ‘racist’ (a good goal) seems to force some to somehow come to the conclusion that all (mental) differences between groups MUST be due to environmental or cultural influences because the alternative is socially unacceptable.

      But why? Natural selection works on humans as it does on other animals and there is no a priori reason to expect that all human stocks have exactly the same mental potential any more than it is reasonable to assume they all have the same physical characteristics.

      The racism problem actually occurs, not by acknowledging that we are the product of natural selection under differing histories, but when we start treating people as different (legally or otherwise) based on their genetics.

      What is selected for is not so much ‘intelligence’ as behavioral and cognitive characteristics that are advantageous in different environments. This of course suggests that it’s far more localized than ‘race’, probably mostlly on the local ethnic level.

      In the modern world (and I don’t use the misleading term ‘western’ because there are modern societies elsewhere as well) certain types of skills are helpful: abstract reasoning, visual mapping to meaning (reading and mathematics), a sense of delayed gratification (required for agriculture originally, and now required for most components of modern employment and life). While these were not always important, they are a survival advantage now, and are exerting a natural selection (just as lactose tolerance did in Europe centuries ago).

      Being opposed to racial/ethnic discrimination does not require the evolutionarily unrealistic belief that all groups are exactly the same, except for cultural effects.

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        I don’t think I ever said “exactly the same.” For example, black people clearly have darker skin than white people on average.

        I think what I said was that IQ is primarily determined by the cultural complexity of your personal little dance through life (people who do logic problems and sudoku in their spare time have higher IQ than people who go hiking or restore hot rods in their spare time), secondarily determined by the complexity of your cultural milieu (someone with an apartment near Harvard Square in Cambridge will probably have a higher IQ than someone living in Ware, MA), and that while there may be biological effects, I personally believe they are swamped by the first two factors.

        I could very well be wrong about all of this, but it’s at least consistent with the data. Anyway, I’m not really cool with you putting words in my mouth like this “exactly the same” garbage. I don’t see how you got that from my post in the first place.

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Also, I use “western” to specifically describe those cultures that have inherited an appreciable amount of jurisprudence, science, engineering, history, and philosophy from the Roman Empire. “Western” isn’t meant geographically, it’s intended to denote those societies that inherit much of their intellectual capital from Greek and Roman sources. I’m not necessarily referring to Japan (for example) because I’ve never been and so I’m not directly familiar with the culture. Japan may be similar enough to western culture that my argument would apply, but I’m not explicitly claiming this is true for Japan.

  10. Marella
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Steven LeBlanc, a Harvard archeologist wrote an excellent book on the same subject which was published in 2003, called “Constant Battles”. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned it because Pinker’s book must draw on the same research as LeBlanc’s. It was a much more slender tome and maybe more has been learned since it was published but I do hope Pinker’s book is not just repeating LeBlanc. I have just received it from Amazon but I haven’t had time to read it yet.

  11. Diane G.
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink


  12. litchik
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I pre-ordered Pinker’s book for my then eighth grade son after he heard Pinker talk and then had a conversation with him. I am giving it to him with the Guardian and New Yorker reviews because I think the book and the criticisms are worthwhile, and I trust my son to be able to take it all in and use them in the process of forming his own ideas. Then, I’m a liberal arts type.

  13. Posted October 7, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    JAC quote:

    …and a little bird told me that more encomiums are in the offing

    October 6, 2011 NYT online book review Is violence history? By PETER SINGER is a rewarding 3-page read & here’s part of Singer’s closing remarks:

    Our improved understanding of violence, of which Pinker’s book is an example, can be a valuable tool to maintain peace and reduce crime, but other factors are in play. Pinker is an optimist, but he knows that there is no guarantee that the trends he has documented will continue. Faced with suggestions that the present relatively peaceful period is going to be blown apart by a “clash of civilizations” with Islam, by nuclear terrorism, by war with Iran or wars resulting from climate change, he gives reasons for thinking that we have a good chance of avoiding such conflicts, but no more than a good chance

    I have a high regard for Singer [& for JAC too] so I guess I’ll get the book ~ since my birthday & Christmas are both around the corner I need only leave a list at home lying around in plain view…

  14. Tom Dobrzeniecki
    Posted October 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    When discussing his book [, Dr. Pinker has said, “In that vaguely Chomskyian theory of politics, if you say that there’s anything good about western civilization, that’s considered reactionary”.

    Dr. Pinker displays his ignorance. He ought to try actually reading relevant material by Dr. Chomsky:

    “I do not respond to the charge that I describe the U.S. as an “evil empire” because the charge is an infantile fabrication by desperate apologists for state power. In fact, I repeatedly stress that the U.S. is very much like other systems of power. True, that stance that is intolerable to nationalists, who insist on U.S. “exceptionalism” – as do the political leadership and the intellectual classes in other powerful states, past and present, quite commonly.”

    Or the following by Dr. Chomsky:

    “Similar charges were familiar in the old Soviet Union: dissidents were condemned for hating Russia. And there are other examples in military dictatorships and totalitarian states. Such criticisms reflect deeply held totalitarian values.

    For a dedicated totalitarian, ruling powers are to be identified with the people, the culture, and the society. Israel is King Ahab Russia is the Kremlin. For totalitarians, criticism of state policy is criticism of the country and its people. For those who have any concern for democracy and freedom, such charges are merely farcical.

    If an Italian critic of Berlusconi were condemned as “anti-Italian,” or as a “self-hating Italian,” it would elicit ridicule in Rome or Milan, though it was possible in the days of Mussolini’s Fascism.”

    Some may think I am being too sensitive in taking Dr. Pinker to task for his “vaguely Chomskyian” remark, as Dr. Pinker guards himself by including the word “vaguely”. But, as Dr. Coyne has noted, Pinker himself has been accused of being racist. Would Dr. Pinker like someone speaking of a group of racists and saying that their philosophy is “vaguely Pinkerian”?

    Propagating unjust stereotypes is very unseemly for someone of Dr. Pinker’s stature. I am disappointed in Dr. Pinker’s poor judgment in speaking about things of which he is ignorant.

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