Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong

By Stephen Corry, Truthout

I recently attacked Jared Diamond’s view that most tribal peoples live in a state of constant warfare. This old colonial idea was first popularly resurrected by Steven Pinker, not Diamond, so it’s time to peruse the former’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I battled my way through Better Angels. By the end, I was worn down by the faulty facts and attempts to lead the reader astray. Almost wherever one probes Pinker’s facts, they crumble.

Let’s start at the beginning for a perfect example of how Pinker leads us on. He takes only a single page of preamble before he tries to sell us his grisly thesis, which as far as I can understand it, is that everyone was once generally violent and horrible (tribal people still are, because apparently they are living relics of the past). Darwinian selection favored the most aggressive towards outsiders, and nicest to insiders. They had lots of children who went on to create states, which were generally nice, and imposed peace and “prosperity.”(1)

Better Angels opens with a rhetorical question, “What is it about the ancients that they couldn’t leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play?”

Exhibit number one is the 5,200 year-old “Iceman,” nicknamed “Ötzi.” As Pinker breathes with Hitchcockian crescendo, “[Ötzi] had not fallen in a crevasse and frozen to death, as scientists had originally surmised; he had been murdered.”  Here is Pinker’s very first “Murder Most Foul.”

Introducing Ötzi with a list of his kit, “ax and backpack, a quiver of fletched arrows, a wood-handled dagger… ,” Pinker’s deduction seems straightforward. But, although scientists have come up with dozens of guesses about how Ötzi met his end, Pinker offers us just one “reconstruction:” He thinks Ötzi “belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighboring tribe.”(2)

I will avoid bending the facts to fit a hypothesis, and cross-examine the evidence. The Iceman had three significant wounds: a cut hand; an arrowhead in his back, and a blow to his head. It was a violent death, but did it result from a clash between tribes?

Donning our Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat, let’s scrutinize Pinker’s list of Ötzi’s possessions, for it is largely from these that the accusation is construed. It suggests that if Ötzi really was looking for a fight, he was more Marx Brother than Navy SEAL. The flint blade of his dagger was tiny, about one-third the length of a table knife. It would have been great for skinning game, but feeble as a weapon. His bow was half-made, not even notched to take a string; twelve of the fourteen arrows, too, were neither fletched nor had arrowheads. Pinker is fond of statistics, so here’s one: 100% of Ötzi’s weapons were duds.

The raiding party reconstruction collapses, so let’s posit an alternative fantasy. Suppose Ötzi is resting after his ascent when he’s shot by an inexperienced hunter looking for game. He flails in agony, inadvertently smashing his head on a rock but succeeding in pulling out the arrowshaft. It may all have been a hunting accident – not foul play at all.(3)  If detectives were called to a contemporary scene, would they ejaculate “Murder!” with such alacrity? Surely not, if they were Poirot rather than Clouseau. Wouldn’t Pinker be the first to reach for the statistics?

He might, for example, compare the number of Italian hunters murdered (about one every couple of months) to those killed accidentally while hunting. In October 2012, the month after the season started, thirteen hunters had died in shooting accidents. In other words, it is 26 times more likely for a hunter to die in a hunting accident than to be murdered, at least at the start of the season.

Bearing in mind that Ötzi was not equipped for a raid, that today’s hunters have had millennia to improve their safety record, that modern hunters don’t disguise themselves in animal furs, like those Ötzi was wearing, is it not more likely that this was a case of accidental death?(3)

I stress that I am not putting it forward as a theory: My point is simply that the chances of Ötzi being in a raiding party are close to zero. Though my facts are true, my proposition is facetious. I have no idea how Ötzi died – but nor does Pinker.

As I’ve demonstrated, there is plenty in Pinker’s first few pages that is plain wrong. He selects, bends and omits facts; he claims his methods are scientific, but they aren’t. Pinker’s data is not irrefutable, and I am far from the first to question his conclusions.(4)

Pinker picks his victims with hindsight, but we can now pass a ruling on his supposed rhetorical submission, “What is it about the ancients that they couldn’t leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play?” The verdict is simple: They could and did.

There are many other examples of tendentiousness in Pinker’s endless depiction of the violent past. His facts shake and buckle under cross-examination. Look at how he approaches the An Lushan revolt in eighth century China, labeling it, “the worst atrocity of all time… that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of… a sixth of the world’s population.” He cites Matthew White, but White himself puts the figure at “just” 13 million. This doesn’t stop Pinker from gleefully and unequivocally declaring it the world’s worst atrocity (which it isn’t, according to White’s latest guess).

Consider, also, his glib assertion, “There is no indication that anyone but Hitler and a few fanatical henchmen thought it was a good idea for the Jews to be exterminated.” Recent research has found 42,500 institutions set up to perpetrate the Holocaust. According to Geoffrey Megargee, “Many more people knew about it and took part in it … it was central to the entire Nazi system … many other countries had their own camp systems.”(5) Pinker’s description is hardly uncontentious.

When Pinker’s opinion unabashedly shines through, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. In his third chapter, pure prejudice runs amok.

The section begins with a look at the statistics of “declining” homicide rates in Europe (which his graphs show as recently increasing) and then degenerates into a “Tales from the Crypt” or “Horrible Histories” version of “medieval,” whom Pinker condemns as “childish,” “gross,” “boorish,” “animalistic” and “immature,” lacking all “refinement, self-control, and consideration.”

As proof of Middle Age depravity, Pinker cites a c. 1480 manuscript, which he calls “a depiction of daily life.” He reproduces drawings of people behaving grossly, entitled Saturn and Mars, but omits to tell us that they are intended to show the effects engendered by those planets, not “daily life” at all. Plenty of other drawings in the book show people going about their lives perfectly politely (busily undermining his theory).

This, of course, is the time of the extraordinarily original European cathedrals, of Thomas Aquinas, whose work has been called the philosophical foundation from which science originates.(6) It was an age when Renaissance ideas started to be forged, when Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen promulgated revolutionary notions about humanity.

Pinker believes that industrialized people today are better than anyone else, and makes the astonishing claim, “It was not just mundane physical comforts that our recent ancestors did without. It was also the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection.” This will be surprising news to most tourists in Florence or Athens.

But it is still a digression from my main point: What’s the evidence concerning the violence of both our ancestors and tribal peoples today? To substantiate his claim, Pinker primarily relies on a graph comparing the percentage of “deaths in warfare” in a miniscule selection of four human “categories.” The ordering of the data follows no pattern; the categorizations are also spurious. The idea that this is a scientific representation of anything is nonsense.

The percentages of war deaths for modern states are, in Pinker’s view, practically invisible. As I have looked at the smoke and mirrors used to reduce what are in fact huge numbers to Pinker’s tiny ones in my criticism of Jared Diamond’s book,(7) I won’t go into that again. A very detailed rebuttal of this aspect of his data, especially that relating to American foreign policy, can be found in Edward S Herman and David Peterson’s, “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence.”(8)

Leaving aside (for reasons of space!) those he categorizes as “hunter-gathers,” the thousands of remaining tribal peoples in the world are represented by just ten; half of those are from New Guinea.(9) That’s just half of one percent of all the island’s “tribes.” These are not selected randomly, but are those few societies where researchers have collected information on causes of death. One of them is the Dani of West Papua, an area invaded and brutally suppressed by Indonesia since the 1960s. As spokesman Markus Haluk, retorted (over Jared Diamond’s book), “The total of Dani victims from the Indonesian atrocities … is far greater than those from tribal war.”(10) Why aren’t those deaths in Pinker’s graph?

It is simply not scientific to generalize about a thousand New Guinea tribes on information from just five.

As always nowadays, whenever the “Brutal Savage” myth is invoked, Napoleon Chagnon’s “sweaty, hideous”(11) Yanomami is guaranteed to career (I use the word advisedly) cinematically into sight, screaming blood-curdling growls and wails, and oozing green snot and red blood.(12) Although familiar to American college students, virtually every other scholar who has lived with the tribe considers Chagnon’s characterization to be fictional.(13)

Four of the five cited non-New Guinea societies are from the Amazon, and two of those are Yanomami.(13) Looked at another way, no less than twenty percent of the data Pinker uses to categorize the violence of the entire planet’s tribal peoples (excluding “hunter-gatherers”) is derived from a single anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon – whose data has been criticized for decades.(14) To put this yet another way, nearly half of all the thousands of the world’s tribal peoples outside New Guinea (again excluding those Pinker has decided are “hunter-gatherers”) are condemned as “Brutal Savages” on the strength of one man’s account of one tribe.

The only Amazonians on the graph who are not Yanomami are the Waorani (from Ecuador) and “Jivaro” (a pejorative name for peoples straddling the Peru-Ecuador border). It’s perfectly true that both had a bellicose reputation, unlike many of their neighboring tribes who simply didn’t.(15)  This is a very revealing point, of course: These authors cherry-pick special cases.

Before considering them, it’s worth noting that Jared Diamond, who also promulgates the “Brutal Savage” myth, responded to my criticism of his book by claiming that he had the scientific data, and that I, and Survival International, romantically portray tribal peoples as universally peaceful.

Neither observation is true: The data presented by these authors is at least contentious, where it’s not plain wrong, and Survival makes no secret of the fact that tribal people, like everyone, fight and kill to varying degrees. Why hide it? We have personal experience.

By way of example, when I was staying in a settlement of Aguaruna (“Jivaroans”) in the 1970s, there were deadly raids on a community a couple of miles away. Through missionary and petroleum company activity, most Aguaruna had been drawn into settlements along the riverbanks, and former enmities were exacerbated by their new enforced proximity. I don’t know if the high rate of deaths cited (these were raids, not “war” as such) is representative of what these peoples did before the state came along in one or other of its invasive guises, but once again – nor does Pinker.

By far the overall leader in Pinker’s category of warlike folk turns out to be the Waorani of Ecuador, with over sixty percent being killed. The Waorani were undoubtedly viewed as “brutal savages” by both their Indian and non-Indian neighbors.

They live near the Napo River, a thoroughfare for centuries. Waorani raided other Indian settlements for generations, both to steal things and as a warning to stay away. Their name for all non-Waorani is cowode, meaning “cannibal.” “We” might think they’re pretty brutal, but it’s reciprocated: They think exactly the same of “us.”

Pretending that any propensity to violence exists in isolation to their centuries-old struggle against invasion just won’t wash.

I have no theory about whether life with the Waorani, or any tribe, is really more threatening than in a Bogotá slum. I do know that it has never felt like that to me. Even Jared Diamond has suggested, though quietly, that the people he felt most endangered by in New Guinea were the Indonesian military, not the tribespeople.(16)

Pinker doesn’t sit in judgment over just the Waorani, of course, but over all humankind. He concludes we are brutal savages until tamed by a nation state bringing peaceful civilization. As far as contemporary tribal peoples are concerned, it couldn’t be further from the truth: the arrival of the state unleashes a savagery second to none in its brutality. Pinker also believes that civilization today is a function of upper class leadership and refinement trickling down to the lower orders. Many share this dogma, or a variation. For Communists, it is the Party that bestows munificence and foresight; otherwise the plot is pretty much the same. The elite – capitalist or communist – has a fierce vested interest in all of us swallowing similar hokum, even better if it’s supposedly confirmed by “science” and “data.”

The most curious aspect of Pinker’s book is his title. I’m not convinced that, at heart, he really does think that human nature includes any “angel” at all. In his view, we are little more than animals shaped by pure biology, until the lucky (murderous) few invent the state and commerce, and are rescued by the resulting “culture.” What others might call beauty, truth, goodness, or justice – those things that make the human mind different from other animals – have, in his view, only very recently come to the fore, and are still undeveloped for all who are not like “us.”

He goes further; he thinks that until about 60 years ago (around the time he was born!) human beings were both “morally retarded” and less intelligent than they are now. By that, he doesn’t mean everyone; for Pinker, only those who live in “liberal democracies,” such as the United States or western Europe, have moved beyond their “retarded” state!

He claims scientific support for what is mere opinion by falsely charging contemporary tribal peoples, the “stateless,” and all our ancestors, with more or less unremitting villainy. It’s delusional nonsense – a breathtakingly arrogant, self-serving, and tired idea which diminishes human beings to something less than we really are – and were. Were such an idea to gain credence, it risks facilitating further cruelty: for example, it would falsely assert the benefits of state intervention in tribal peoples’ lives, condemning some to certain death.

However, they are far from being the only ones who should watch out when Pinker’s on the prowl.
If you’re not one of his peers, then beware the hanging judge, whose supporters petition ad nauseam that his opinions must be taken as universal, scientific, infallible. He’s certainly dangerous, but it’s high time for a retrial, and perhaps there’s hope for a reprieve … for all of us.
1. “Natural selection works on averages, so a willingness to take a small chance of dying as part of an aggressive coalition that offers a large chance of a big fitness payoff – more land, more women, or more safety – can be favored over the course of evolution.” S Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, Viking Penguin, London, 2011, p. 499.
2.Pinker, p. 26.
3. My story leaves two “clues” unexplained: Ötzi’s cut hand; and the “fact” that blood from four different people was found on his equipment. Whether or not such blood existed is unproven: the Australian academic who made the claim took his unpublished findings to the grave. Ötzi’s bow was certainly drenched in blood. The scientist who discovered this proposed two likely explanations: that it was deliberately painted with blood, as a known waterproofing, or that it came from Ötzi’s cut hand. There are, of course, any number of explanations for the cut, not involving raiding.
4. See “Thirteen Italians die in bloody start to hunt season,” Reuters. 22 October 2012,  http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/22/italy-hunting-deaths-idUSL5E8LMHXF20121022.
5. E.g. Elizabeth Kolbert, David Peterson, Edward S Herman, John Gray, etc.
6. See “Has Holocaust history just been rewritten? Astonishing new research shows Nazi camp network targeting Jews was ‘twice as big as previously thought”’ in The Independent. 3 March 2013,  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/has-holocaust-history-just-been-rewritten-astonishing-new-research-shows-nazi-camp-network-targeting-jews-was-twice-as-big-as-previously-thought-8518407.html.
7. W Freeman, “Nonlinear brain dynamics and intention according to Aquinas.” Mind and Matter, vol. 6, number 2, 2008, pp. 207-234.
8. S Corry, “Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ is wrong” in Survival International. January 2013, viewed on 18 March 2013,
9. E S Herman and D Peterson, “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence” in ZNET. 25 July 2012, viewed on 18 March 2013,  http://www.zcommunications.org/reality-denial-steven-pinkers-apologetics-for-western-imperial-volence-by-edward-s-herman-and-david-peterson
10. In another of his graphs, “Rate of death in warfare in nonstate and state societies,” he picks 27 ‘nonstate’ tribal peoples. In this case, over 40 percent are from New Guinea. Pinker, p. 53.
12. N Chagnon, NobleSavages: My life among two dangerous tribes – the Yanomamö and the anthropologists, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013, p.19.
13. Chagnon, pp. 15, 19.
15. For example, Pinker quotes Rafael Karsten on ‘Jivaro’ ‘wars of extermination’. He omits to tell us that Karsten described the ‘Jivaro’ as, ‘the most warlike of all Indian tribes in South America’. (R Karsten, Blood, Revenge, War and Victory Feasts among the Jibara Indians of Eastern Ecuador, 1923, p. 1).
16. In a talk at the Royal Society of Arts, London, 5 Feb 2013.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Stephen Corry

Stephen Corry is the director of Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. The organization has a 46-year track record in stopping the theft of tribal lands. Survival’s work on conservation has wide endorsement from environmentalists.




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