I wanted to bring attention to two posts from Razib Khan's Discover magazine gene expression blog (some of you may have been readers of the still active original gnxp) on the polemic surrounding Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?
This groundbreaking book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.
There are two separate points to note here; a specific and a general. I suspect Steven Pinker knows more history than Elizabeth Kolbert. I’ve talked to Pinker once at length, and just as in his books he comes across as very widely knowledgeable. I’ll be frank and say that I don’t feel many people I talk to are widely knowledgeable, and when it comes to something like history I’m in a position to judge. Ironically Kolbert is repeating the Anglo-Protestant Black Legend about the Spaniards, rooted in the rivalries and sectarianism of the 16th and 18th centuries, but persisting down amongst English speaking secular intellectuals. The reality is that the Spaniards did not want to kill the indigenous peoples, they died of disease and the societal destabilization that disease entailed. Europeans who arrived from Iberia in the New World ideally wished to collect rents from peasants. The death of those peasants due to disease was a major inconvenience, which entailed the importation of black Africans who were resistant to the Old World diseases like malaria which were spreading across the American tropics. The violence done to native peoples was predominantly pathogenic, not physical.
I suspect that Kolbert’s emphasis on the European colonial experience of much of the world is influenced by the ubiquity of the postcolonial paradigm. Those who take postcolonial thinking as normative sometimes forget that not everyone shares their framework. I do not, and I would be willing to bet that Steven Pinker would also dissent from the presuppositions of postcolonialism. That means that the facts, the truths, that many take for granted are actually not taken for granted by all, and are disputed. One of the issues with postcolonial models is that they seem to view Europeans and European culture, and their colonial enterprises, as sui generis. This makes generalization from the West, as Pinker does, problematic. But for those of us who don’t see the West as qualitatively different there is far less of an issue.
I generally agree with some of his arguments, but found this quote especially as summing up some of my own sentiments:
A postcolonial model is ironically extremely Eurocentric, with a total blindness to what came before Europeans.