Thursday, February 18, 2016
Steven Pinker "Better Angels of Our Nature" ignores most important root causes of violence
Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of Our Nature" reviews how violence has declined over the centuries and claims that we may be in the least violent times ever. He is almost certainly at least partly correct about some of this and he backs it up by an enormous number of charts and other data; however he fails to acknowledge some of the most important research available about the most important contributing causes.
By doing a better job acknowledging and informing the public about many of these contributing causes to crime reductions could increase even more and stay down. Some good researchers have done this but they don't get adequate attention from the media. And some countries have much lower violent crime rates, presumably because they're already doing this.
Also even though he provides an enormous number of charts from a variety of sources he doesn't do a very good job tying most of them together which would take much more time, even though this is already a long book, as he points out.
In many cases when it comes to the most important contributing causes, which he often ignores, there is almost certainly a significant amount of political resistance to addressing them, since they often contradict fiscal or political ideologies of the well connected, which Steven Pinker may be catering to. This seems cynical but as I indicated in a previous post, Is the academic world defending democracy? or corrupting it? a close look at some of the most controversial research indicates that the best research often takes a back seat to the research with the most political support, although those that don't look at the details of any given subject might have a hard time recognizing it. Ironically sometimes he cites at least one source who does a much better job at addressing one of the most important issues he downplays or ignores, Murray Straus, but doesn't cover the vast majority of his work. This is almost certainly not the only one of his sources that he misrepresents or selectivity cites.
Last year I did my own series of relatively rough reviews of the root causes of crime and how to prevent them that started with Ignored evidence linking corporal punishment, poverty and crime grows, which I've been reporting on in numerous blogs and added numerous other reviews of additional contributing causes before ending with Politicians increase crime; Grass roots efforts reduce crime; Politicians steal the credit. This wasn't peer reviewed and didn't go into nearly as much detail as Pinker's book, although it is relatively long for Blog posts; however it is relatively easy to understand and confirm and each of the separate reviews also includes additional studies that were peer reviewed, and they include an enormous amount of easy to find information that could have helped his work although he didn't use it.
The most important root cause of violence which is almost certainly a leading cause for the reduction of violence is child abuse and corporal punishment which often escalates to bullying and hazing among other forms of violence. The changes in child rearing tactics escalated significantly when Benjamin Spock among other child rearing experts started advising parents how to avoid abusive methods of disciplining their children. This took place after World War Two and a rough look at the decline in murder rates clearly indicates that a lot of it took place since then, although, not surprisingly it often took years if not decades to show up in reduced violent crime rates. However Steven Pinker doesn't put much if any emphasis on this.
He doesn't mention it until the second half of his book when he cites both Benjamin Spock and Murray Straus, but then he says, "The cause-and-effect theory, in which spanking teaches children that violence is a way to solve problems, is debatable. Equally likely explanations for the correlation between spanking and violence are that innately violent parents have innately violent children, and that cultures and neighborhoods that tolerate spanking also tolerate other kinds of violence." “Better Angels” additional excerpt
While preparing to write this post I wrote to Murray Straus to ask if he had any comments about it; the following is my E-Mail and his reply which included a copy of one of his books although I still haven't had time to read it, and am relying on one of his past books along with several other sources for information that I believe raises doubts about some of Mr. Pinker's work.
Murray Straus relies heavily on statistical studies which many people have a hard time understanding; however they involve hard facts which should be difficult to dispute, unless, as many people do they're misrepresented. He has also cross checked his work with some of the same sources I have previously cited, in other posts, including Alice Miller author of "For Your Own Good" and Philip Greven author of "Spare the Child" and perhaps James Garbarino author of "Lost Boys" and coauthor of "Words Can Hurt Forever" with Ellen deLara. They provide an enormous amount of evidence indicating that early child abuse and corporal punishment often lead to escalating violence including bullying, domestic violence and hazing, including hazing in both the military and police academies.
Steven Pinker has tweeted an article How criminologists who study biology are shunned by their field implying that he believes that most criminologists focus mainly on nurture aspects of the root causes and refuse to acknowledge other views. Murray Straus clearly indicated he doesn't agree with that; however there are almost certainly many on both sides that do refuse to acknowledge the work of the others. Furthermore regardless of what the academic world does the media presented to a much broader segment of the public is far more likely to focus on a perceived "Natural born killer" belief often accompanied by appeals to emotion and vengeance generally referred to as justice, most outrageously demonstrated by pundits like Nancy Grace who is presented as an expert and all criticism of her is limited to alternative media outlets that get much less attention.
They fail to consider that many of these violent people have also stated or implied that they believe they're acting out of a sense of justice as well; although it seems to be a perverted sense of justice. However this perverted sense of justice is very similar to ones taught by many abusive parents and demagogues like Nancy Grace.
Regrettably the media seems far more concerned with the entertainment value of violence than informing the public about how to prevent it.
Researchers who do much better work like Straus, Greven, Miller, Coloroso or Garbarino rarely ever get any attention from the media. Also, for what it is worth, the article he cited, used a mask that looks like the one worn by Mike Myers in Halloween which is a blatant appeal to emotion and unreliable for research purposes. Murray Straus provides much better fact checking as indicated in the following excerpt:
Murray Straus also added additional research in the following excerpt of his "Legitimate Violence Spillover (LVS) theory," in the following excerpt:
As far as the death penalty is concerned there is a correlation between higher murder rates and support for the death penalty but, personally, I suspect that it is unlikely that the death penalty is likely to incite more murder. I suspect that it is more likely that earlier violence like corporal punishment and child abuse leads to escalating violence and greater support for the death penalty despite evidence that it doesn't work as a deterrent.
Murray Straus came to these conclusions by crosschecking dozens if not hundreds of studies, most of which he acknowledges have limitations or flaws, but he addresses them by checking different sources to minimize the flaws. This led him to recommend much more educations about how early child abuse and corporal punishment leads to escalating violence and laws protecting children and everyone else for that matter. Laws without education would inevitably fail; education without laws would have much more impact; both would be best like what the Swiss did and they managed to keep the need for enforcement to a minimum.
James Garbarino has recommended that when possible non-punitive methods should be used to reduce abuse. One of his recommendations is a home visitor program available to at risk mothers in some states; and he also recommends similar methods when teachers notice problems with children at school. These tactics have been tried and proven effective yet the media, political establishment and Steven Pinker rarely if ever mention them. Instead the media is constantly trying to recommend accountability for people without resources or education and Steven Pinker and some other academics like Robert Hare provide work that seems to justify this, at least to some.
Steven Pinker also cites Jane Goodall "who first observed chimpanzees in the wild for extended periods of time, eventually made a shocking discovery. ... a group of male chimpanzees ... And if they encounter a solitary male, or isolate one from a small group, they will go after him with murderous savagery. Two attackers will hold down the victim, and the others will beat him, bite off his toes and genitals, tear flesh from his body, twist his limbs, drink his blood, or rip out his trachea," (“Better Angels” additional excerpt) as part of his argument that that the root causes of violence is mostly if not entirely biological. However he almost certainly selectively chooses Jane Goodall's work as well. Some of her later work which discovered more violence in chimpanzees also indicated that it was often passed down from one generation to the next with abusive mother chimps. She doesn't go on to try to determine whether it is the cause of nature or nurture, that I know of; however she does provide enough additional background to indicate many similarities with people as described by researchers like Murray Straus, Alice Miller, and James Garbarino, strongly indicating that there is a major influence from abusive chimps teaching their young to be violent as well.
Steven Pinker also ignores and even tries to refute problems caused by abandoned inner cities where the crime rates are much higher. He writes, "Now let's consider the implications of the centuries-long decline in homicide in Europe. Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer. And that brings us back to the ideas of Norbert Elias, the only theory left standing." (Steven Pinker "The Better Angels of Our Nature" 2011 p.64)
First of all Norbert Elias's theory, which he goes on to explain, isn't the only theory standing, as Murray Straus and some of the other contributing causes I have cited in my previous posts indicate. Norbert Elias's theory seems to be based on older historical accounts of violence which isn't as good as some of the more recent research. Furthermore the assumption that "city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence" clearly appears to be true according to the List of United States cities by crime rate (2014) most large cities have higher than average murder rates and this is especially true among the biggest ones above a million in population. Only two, San Diego and New York are below average and most of the rest are much higher. New York is surprisingly low and only recently came down below average but Sand Diego has been low for quite a while, and it is lower. What has San Diego been doing right? What can New York do to keep rates down and how can other cities follow suit?
In Politicians increase crime; Grass roots efforts reduce crime; Politicians steal the credit I made the argument that the best solutions are often at the grassroots local level. Many of the cities with strongest grassroots efforts often do their part to find and address roots causes of violence whether it is corporal punishment leading to escalating violence or gang violence. Academics in far away colleges or politicians catering to campaign contributors often don't know what is going on and refuse to listen to locals. the "Leviathan" which Steven Pinker cites as a possible contributing cause to reducing violence often doesn't listen.
Benjamin, a student cited by Jonathan Kozol, gets right to this point when he says, "Put them over there in a big housing project. Pack them tight. Don’t think about them. Keep your hands clean. Maybe they'll kill each other off." (Jonathan Kozol “Amazing Grace” 1995 p.40-1) Some people with first hand experience don't need enormous amounts of research or advanced education to recognize some of the problems. Jonathan Kozol has done much more in depth research into the problems in inner cities than Steven Pinker; however the contributing causes that he cites contradict the fiscal ideology dominating the political spectrum, which Steven Pinker seems to support as well. Many of his books including "Savage Inequalities" and "Shame of the Nation" demonstrate how these schools aren't being financed and while jobs are being exported lotteries school privatization and many other counterproductive policies that benefit corporate campaign contributors at the expense of citizens are being forced through over objections of local people.
Finding money for education is virtually out of the question while finding money for prisons sometimes even for profit prisons that have an incentive to keep crime rates up is often not a problem, yet this is one of the contributing causes that Steven Pinker doesn't even consider. He does acknowledge that too many people are being held in prison but he fails to adequately discuss addressing the social problems that precedes this.
When it comes to white children most people agree that education is cheaper than prison and this is considered unacceptable as Kozol points out.
Steven Pinker writes "Why has the South had such a long history of violence? The most sweeping answer is that the civilizing mission of government never penetrated the American South as deeply as it had the Northeast, to say nothing of Europe." (“Better Angels” additional excerpts) This ignore extensive evidence that the South is much more religious and relies much heavier on Corporal Punishment to discipline and educate their children, often as part of their religious beliefs. It also ignores that people in the South are actually taught to be more obedient to authority than in the north using these child rearing methods but they don't accept government authority when it disagrees with local authorities that are often more disciplinarian. This includes more reliance on military force and military training that often uses abusive hazing which is an escalation of corporal punishment used to teach discipline.
To put it bluntly many of them are taught to believe what they're told and if they don't go along with the crowd they're often treated with intimidation and even violence. This is somewhat ironic since Steven Pinker is sometimes associated with the so-called new atheist movement, and this research does a lot to explain why many of the most religious people are often more violent. As I explained in Does lack of education increase violent crime? Religion? three of the most religious states, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi have the highest murder rates while the ones with the lowest murder rates are much less religious, perhaps with one exception, Utah.
Utah ranks fourteenth when it comes to people claiming to be most religious but fifth when it comes to church attendance yet unlike other religious states it is in the lowest ten when it comes to murder rates. Utah is the only state that is more than half Mormon and Mormons are the only religion where the leader has come out strongly against corporal punishment to raise children. Former First President of the Church Gordon Hinckley, “called physical abuse of children unnecessary, unjustified and indefensible.” He said: “I have never accepted the principle of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ I am persuaded that violent fathers produce violent sons. Children don’t need beating. They need love and encouragement.” This hasn't always been the belief of the Mormon Church as some of them claim but it may be a major part of the reason why they have lower rates of violence than other highly religious states. Also unlike some other religious states they really do strongly oppose gambling and drinking which are other possible risk factors.
Another exception might be some of the research and recommendations from James Garbarino, who believes that support from religious groups could help reduce violence and that they should be tolerant of each other. I'm not aware of a statistical method to confirm this, however it clearly indicates that not all religious people agree with James Dobson's recommendations, and there appears to be adequate research raising doubts about his work as I have indicated in Dobson’s Indoctrination Machine.
Recent political events and the reaction to the Trump and Cruz campaigns also demonstrate inappropriate support for violence and a possible connection to religious upbringing that was partially explored by Philip J. Greven in "Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse" (1991). One of the things he explores is problems that religious preachers or perceived experts on child rearing have with their own children or that they went through when they were children including Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and his brother Vaden, Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber and several more preachers. James Dobson isn't one of these preachers, although he was cited for other reasons; however it appears as he may have been going through some of the same problems with his own son, who went through a rebellious stage, while this book was going to press in 1991.
Ted Cruz is also the son of and Evangelical preacher and recently on the campaign trail he said that, “You know I’ll tell you, in my house, if my daughter Catherine, the five-year-old, says something she knows to be false, she gets a spanking.” Washington Post "Cruz: I spank my daughter when she lies — voters can ‘administer…a spanking’ to Hillary Clinton" 01/08/2016 Ted Cruz also seems to support what Rachel Maddow refers to as the "kill the gays" preacher Kevin Swanson As researched by academics like Philip Greven and Murray Straus this is almost certainly a major contributing cause to escalating violence, especially when you consider that this treatment is often taught to young children starting at a very impressionable age. James Dobson recommends that parents start spanking children as early as eighteen months before they develop any critical thinking skills or understand why they're being spanked, and at this age it is a terrifying thing although most adults don't seem to recognize this, and supporters of corporal punishment often refer to these researchers as something like the "hypersensitive left."
Rachel Maddow also shows footage of this charismatic preacher and numerous others yelling loudly and emotionally about his bizarre and extreme beliefs. Imagine how this would impress a small child that doesn't understand why she's being punished, perhaps all she understands is that she's being yelled at by an emotional person threatening to spank her but if she does what she's told and believes what she's told to she can get positive feedback from her father. By punishing her for saying "something she knows to be false" or something he thinks she should believe to be false, is he using this method to dictate the truth as he sees it to her? Would this teach her to believe what she's told from authoritarian father figures regardless of whether it makes sense? Is this teaching children that bigger people who have disagreements with smaller people, especially children, should use violence to settle them. Clearly Philip Greven, Alice Miller and Murray Straus take this seriously and provide an enormous amount of research to indicate it is a major problem.
In "The Truth Will Set You Free" Alice Miller discusses a letter to Pope John Paul II from Olivier Maurel who asks the Catholic Church to address the issue of child abuse. Neither Alice Miller or Olivier Maurel were able to get a satisfactory response from the Church. Alice Miller writs "If the Catholic Church were to open its eyes, train its gaze on the cruelty being done to children, and speak out against it, would that have a detrimental effect on the power of the church? Probably, for at present time that power rests squarely on the subjection of the faithful to its authoritarian decrees. If self-possessed believers were to begin questioning the power structures of the church, those structures would come tumbling down. Willful ignorance of the laws of psychology will, however, hardly suffice to preserve those structures."
When these abusive methods are used to raise children they're taught to believe what they're told and they're also much more likely to act out in anger.
It is hard to imagine why this doesn't get much more attention in the new atheist movement since it could go a long way to correcting misguided and extreme religious beliefs.
Regardless of why this doesn't get more attention Donald Trump and Ted Cruz often say things like they're "Going to carpet bomb them into oblivion," and they get enormously positive responses from their audiences. These audiences fail to even consider that their political leaders might be lying to them even after they have been exposed at doing just that dozens of times, including the Iraq War based on alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction which was a lie exposed to people who paid attention before the war and recognized that the media was promoting an enormous amount of unjustified war propaganda.When they do recognize that they're being lied to like many of Trump's supporters they often fall for another demagogue like Trump who is as bad if not much worse.
Trump's rhetoric and scams aren't even very good to anyone with minimal amounts of critical thinking skills.
Peace activists were ridiculed and marginalized but, as they often are, they were proven to be right.
In many cases the people retaliating against the Western World have come right out and said it was retaliation for constant bombing of civilians often referred to as "collateral damage," which is considered acceptable when our side does it but outrageous when the other side makes such a claim. In one of the more extreme examples a few years ago described in, Was the London killing of a British soldier 'terrorism'? the person who committed the gruesome murder stuck around to make a point, allowing himself to be arrested, and said "the only reason we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily" and "we apologize that women had to see this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same."
Most people agree that this is totally unjustified; however a surprising number of people who don't consider it justified think it is acceptable when our government kills their women and children or doesn't pay attention. How can this double standard be more obvious?
People raised in a violent manner are much more likely to remain in denial and support "carpet bombing them into oblivion," even though it will only incite more retaliation and an enormous amount of the victims will be innocent children.
This research indicates that early abusive authoritarian upbringing not only leads to escalating violence but should be considered a threat to the democratic process when people support this kind of extremism that is leading to a permanent set of war until either past reductions reverse themselves or we learn to recognize the most important root causes of violence and prevent them, whether it is corporal punishment leading to escalating violence or political leaders starting wars based on lies.
Steven Pinker doesn't seem recognize that relying on escalating accountability without addressing root causes of violence or other social problems when he writes, "In some cities, like Boston, the police were accompanied by parole officers who knew the worst troublemakers individually and had the power to have them rearrested for the slightest infraction." (“Better Angels” additional excerpts) He also fails to mention that this wasn't the original version of "Community Policing" that was presented to the public in the Boston area in the 1990s.
In the articles about Community policing that I remember they wrote about how the police were often accompanied by social workers instead of probation officers. The clear implication was that when they had domestic violence calls they would try to understand, and address the root causes of the problems and advise them how to avoid them before arresting them, which presumably would only be done as a last resort if they were unable to resolve things otherwise. In “The Rise of the Warrior Cop” Radley Balko discusses how some of the original promises about community policing including social workers trying to solve problems didn't get implemented in practice in most cases; instead an increasingly militarized police force was often put into place without addressing many of the root causes. Balko also describes how some programs addressing root causes began in the sixties as a result of recommendations of Kennedy advisers. President Johnson also tried to implement many of these policies, at the domestic level, although he changed positions on foreign policy. But starting with the Nixon White House there was an increasing emphasis on getting tough on crime by punishing the offenders without accepting excuses or worrying about many of the problems in abandoned inner cities. Robert Caro author of "The Passage of Power" also confirms some of this.
In several posts including A Brief History of Cops Convicted of Murder I explored how many police have been convicted of murder and that they have higher rates of domestic violence within their own families. Part of the reason for this is almost certainly their training which is an extension of the authoritarian upbringing often started at an early age with corporal punishment then escalates to hazing in the police academy. There are similar problems with veterans who are taught to obey orders in boot camp using intimidating tactics that I believe were almost certainly developed with help from research projects including Philip Zimbardo, Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority which were both financed by the military, which has an incentive to learn how to teach their recruits to obey without question. This also teaches them to deal with problems with more violence and it can't always be controlled as much as they would want. Even Sarah Palin recently came out and said so about her own son although there are more reliable sources that provide better research to indicate this.
Steven Pinker tries to argue that part of the reason for declines in violence might have been antidepressant medications when he says, "The early 1990s was the era of Prozac Nation and Running on Ritalin. The massive expansion in the prescription of medication for depression and attention deficit disorder may have lifted many parents out of depression and helped many children control their impulses." (“Better Angels” additional excerpts) However there are numerous examples that indicate that these medications may have had the opposite effect. Furthermore if these medications are prescribed without addressing the social problems caused by early violence or abandoned inner cities they will be ignoring one of the major contributing causes and perhaps only treating the symptoms.
In The Dark Side of a Pill they explore numerous cases where people who weren't previously violent became more violent and committed major crimes after going on anti-depression medications. They have whistle blowers including a former salesman that discloses how they promoted their drugs regardless of how effective them might be. One research project in the Netherlands to someone that was on trial for murder indicted that he was more easily provoked when he was on medications. They cite an example in Canada where a judge rules that without the medications there wouldn't have been a crime. They have several physicians who think they're worthwhile in some cases but have concerns about how they're being used excessively.
They even disclose how German authorities refused to allow one medication because of health risks but instead of disclosing this the United States authorities as required by law they covered it up to get their medications approved. This eventually lead to a major court case when it was disclosed. The clear implication is that advertisers, lobbyists and businessmen were often making decisions that should have been made by researchers and profits were routinely put ahead of the well being of the patients.
I don't have the background to guarantee that all of these prescriptions are inappropriate but some of the researcher that do have raised major questions and are often silenced by political people. Furthermore, when reviewing some of the recommendations by psychologists like James Garbarino, even though he neither confirms or refutes problems with anti-depression medication it might indicate a more effective alternative. His recommendations often focus primarily on spending more time with children in non-punitive discipline, like home visitor programs. these home visitors often try to teach at risk parents how to deal with their problems better. In many cases the reason why they have problems in the first place is because they may have come from families who also had problems and never taught them properly to begin with.
By treating these social problems they often avoid the need to consider medications. While many people, including those described in The Dark Side of a Pill might skip over this and simply prescribe pills which they often have financial incentives to do. There might be many cases where it is appropriate to do both but it is unlikely that there are many, if any, where ignoring the social problems when it is easier to prescribe pills is the right way to go. Assuming that this is a major contributing cause to the decline in violence without a closer look at some of the details the establishment is covering up is highly unreliable.
Intentionally or not, by prescribing these drugs without addressing social problems they may be setting the stage for an unintended research project using children as research subjects without adequate ethical review.
In further support to his focus primarily if not entirely on biological causes to violence Steven Pinker writes, "As we saw, the regions of the brain that handle social emotions, especially the amygdala and orbital cortex, are relatively shrunken or unresponsive in psychopaths, though they may show no other signs of pathology." (“Better Angels” additional excerpts) Robert Hare who I reviewed in a previous post, Children Psychopaths? And Mitt Romney’s Bullying History, also relies on similar research without focusing much if at all on potential social problems that lead to escalating violence. Robert Hare even goes so far as to deny that early child abuse leads to escalating violence, although on some occasions he makes statements that partially contradict this. Robert Hare, like Steven Pinker, also fails to review some of the best research that I know of indicating that child abuse leads to escalating violence. In Robert Hare's case, in his book "Without Conscience" he doesn't even mention any of them by name, instead he makes vague references to academics who claim that psychopaths are a result of early abuse and says they're naive. This is ironic since in his book he describes how when he was younger starting to research psychopaths in a prison setting he tries to make friends with them and explains that they betrayed or fool him. Robert Hare is much less credible than Steven Pinker and I went into his problems more in the previous post about him.
I don't refute that people who're considered psychopaths have differences in their brain scans as both Hare and Pinker claim; however to the best of my knowledge neither of them have explained if they could find out if these differences were there when they were children. This is to be expected since they wouldn't be likely to know they would grow up to be arrested for violence when they were children and give them brain scans. However until this kind of research could be done it might be worth considering the possibility that early abuse might have led to the differences in the brain scans not genes.
Dorothy Otnow Lewis, author of "Guilty by Reason of Insanity" hasn't done that specific research into their brain claims, that I know of, but she did research the background of many murderers who might be considered psychopaths. And she always found evidence of early abuse to those she investigated, often with police or hospital records indicating that the murderers were abuse as children long before they became violent. Unlike some researchers that argue that this could be considered mitigating circumstances and that murderers abused as children should get shorter sentences, Dorothy Otnow Lewis claims they may be difficult if not impossible to rehabilitate, like Robert Hare, and should be kept in jail to prevent them from killing again. However she does acknowledge that early abuse is a major contributing factor to their violence unlike Hare or perhaps Pinker.
It would be difficult to determine if these brain scans are a cause of the early abuse but if some of these murderers considered psychopaths with damaged brain scans have children that weren't raised in abusive environments and perhaps others that might have been they can check their brain scans assuming appropriate ethical guidelines are considered. This could help determine if abuse causes long term brain damage and figure out whether it is more from nature or nurture; however the work from both Pinker and Hare as well as other researchers that I have seen doesn't consider this, so for now it remains inconclusive.
When it comes to foreign policy, Steven Pinker also writes, "One of the tragic ironies of the second half of the 20th century is that when colonies in the developing world freed themselves from European rule, they often slid back into warfare, this time intensified by modern weaponry, organized militias, and the freedom of young men to defy tribal elders." (“Better Angels” additional excerpts) However he fails to mention a lot of the history behind this and that prior to colonization by the Western World these developing countries had their own governing system, however primitive. These governing systems were often tribal and local so the people making decisions were nearby and understood, at least to some degree, the consequences of their action.
When they were invaded by Western countries these governments were destroyed so they no longer had a system to teach them how to govern themselves. After the Western Governments left they often left things in control of rulers, often tyrants, that were sympathetic to corporate interests. This essentially means that they weren't really completely freed from European rule at all as Pinker claims. These new rulers often used weapons sold to them by the same Western powers to oppress their people and provide good business environments for multinational corporations.
One of the well known researchers who explores these details in more depth is Noam Chomsky who often co-authors some of his articles or books, including "Manufacturing Consent," with Edward S. Herman who wrote an extensive review of Steven Pinker's book, Reality Denial : Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence Review of Steven Pinker's Book by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, (06/29/2014) exposing many of it's flaws; however in at least one case they may have exaggerated things in the other direction. Most of what Herman and Peterson write is probably accurate but they imply that there hasn't been much of a reduction in violence, at least when it comes to international wars. In many cases their claims are accurate but the overall trend, at least after World War II or perhaps the Vietnam War is probably towards less war, or at least less direct involvement by Western powers.
One of the most obvious examples of this exaggeration in the other direction might be comparing carpet bombing and drone strikes. In the past ten years there has been a alarming in the number of drone strikes killing large number of people; this is of course a serious concern and could be much worse if it isn't reversed since it makes killing by remote control more acceptable, where the people making the decisions don't see the results. However the numbers aren't nearly as big as those killed through carpet bombing in Vietnam. This large scale killing is almost certainly not nearly as extensive.
However they still have many legitimate concerns including a political system that uses the threat of war to control their own populations and manipulate the democratic system through fear. By refusing to acknowledge the root causes of crime and keep the decision makers out of danger while the rest take the blame they create a global culture that results in what some people including Peter W. Singer call "Peace in the West war for the rest," although with a few recent terrorist attacks doubts might be raised about whether or not we can count on peace being preserved in the West.
The current global political and economic system is controlled by a small percentage of the public that control large global institutions which Steven Pinker defends and credits with at least partial credit for reductions in violence. These institutions are what many people refer to as oligarchies but Steven Pinker seems to refer to as the "Leviathan." This is accompanied by the illusions of democracy; however six oligarchies control over ninety percent of the media and enable their candidates to get enormous amounts of coverage while refusing to cover grassroots candidates at the local level. This effectively rigs the election process and enables a small percentage of the public to control most if not all powerful institutions masquerading as a democracy.
Unfortunately the "Leviathan" that Steven Pinker credits with reduction in violence isn't concerned with preserving functioning social and economic systems around the world, whether it is the abandoned inner cities that have rising crime rates in the United States or third world countries that are having their environment destroyed and their natural resources plundered by multinational corporations. This creates an unstable environment that could reverse the reductions in violence if the political establishment doesn't do a better job recognizing the best research acknowledging the leading root causes of violence and preventing them.
Steven Pinker does an enormous amount of research into this but fails to acknowledge many of the most important contributing causes; instead he wastes a large amount of time on relatively trivial things like table manners, whether abortion eliminates unwanted children that become more violent and an enormous number of charts that aren't tied into each other very well.
A close look may indicate that his politics might have a major impact on his research. He credits the upper class with reductions in violence first and indicates that they might set a better example for the middle and lower class; however they control most of the resources and use their control to deprive lower classes of the necessities to keep reductions in violence from reversing. The assumption that the wealthy are becoming less violent also avoids giving them credit for the wars that incite. If they were blamed for the enormous amounts of deaths resulting from wars based on lies they would be considered the biggest mass murderers on the planet not people setting a better example for lower classes. They often avoid doing this by relying on propaganda that enables them to redirect the blame. Steven Pinker's work may be part of that propaganda.
When he talks about how he had a hard time resisting peer pressure on at least two trivial occasions that he makes a big deal out of he may be indicating a pattern of behavior that might involve going along with fiscal ideologies that ignore root causes of violence. At one point he spends a lot of time explaining how tough it was to abandon a faux pas about not using a knife to push his peas onto his fork and on another he explains how he rebelled by not wearing a watch and explained how his grandmother lovingly expressed shock and gave him a watch which he has to this day. As trivial as this seems, it might indicate a propensity to go along with peer pressure. However more important would be the evidence that can be confirmed about many contributing causes that he ignores or misrepresents.
As I said in the beginning of this post I have done a series of posts about the contributing causes to crime and how to prevent them covering a variety of subjects and tried to do a review that sorted them out. In most if not all cases I found peer reviewed studies that confirmed them, yet they often contradict Steven Pinker's views and the political establishment is almost always promoting policies that ignores or even encourage them. Steven Pinker and other academics provide research that seems to justify this but it wouldn't stand up to scrutiny if the best research received equal time.
The most important contributing cause of escalating violence is almost certainly child abuse leading to escalating violence which I have written about in many posts and the following are some of the most relevant posts about other contributing causes:
Ignored evidence linking corporal punishment, poverty and crime grows
Does lack of education increase violent crime? Religion?
How much does Income Inequality Affects Crime Rates?
States with high murder rates have larger veteran populations
Teach a soldier to kill and he just might
The tragedy of gambling politics in United States
How does gambling and gun control impact violent crime?
Politics, not technology, caused botched executions
Troy, Cameron, Gary all innocent? And executed?
Democrats do a bad job on crime; Republicans and the Media are worse!!
Politicians increase crime; Grass roots efforts reduce crime; Politicians steal the credit
Life Insurance and media companies are encouraging lots of murders
Union Busting adds to corrupt bureaucracy and incites crime
Steven Pinker repeatedly indicates his political bias in many of his tweets citing articles that often also ignore many of the most important contributing causes of crime as well including, Why parenting may not matter and why most social science research is probably wrong. If he was just trying to indicate that genetics also plays a role as well as parenting he might have a point as Murray Straus indicates, but this claim goes one step further and says parenting doesn't matter, which is absurd, which the article opens up by acknowledging as part of it's effort to dismiss it.
He also expresses his opposition to gun control or police accountability in several tweets including Would Cracking Down on Guns in the US Reduce Violence much? This is a sacred belief, but the answer it not so clear. and How Many Mass Shootings Are There, Really?, via @nytimes. the statistics he cites about changing in the way they classify Mass Shootings is partially correct but he fails to mention the transition when some of the gun control advocates revised the way some of them compiled information. unfortunately a major effort hasn't been made to reconcile this retroactively, but this wasn't changed in secret as he seems to imply. And claims that gun control wouldn't reduce violence needs a little perspective. The post I previously covered this subject clearly indicates that there is a correlation between more effective gun control laws preventing mentally ill or violent people from getting weapons without infringing on second amendment right with lower murder rates and especially suicide rates which are much worse in states with weak gun control laws especially Wyoming and Alaska.
However, in all fairness at least when it comes to murder rates it doesn't seem to be that big of a difference, and research about child abuse and corporal punishment leading to escalating violence, and poverty and abandoned inner cities as well indicates they're almost certainly bigger contributing causes. this means if the political establishment addresses the gun control issue without paying any attention to other issues they can't expect much if any improvement since they'll still be ignoring the most important root causes.
However even though Steven Pinker might be close to the truth about gun control only having limited impact on violence reduction he also ignores many of the most important contributing causes of violence.
Steven Pinker does acknowledge that poverty is a contributing cause to violence; and he also seems to spend a lot of effort worrying about good manners, judging by his other books and some of his posts.
I wonder if he would consider it good manners to discuss how poverty leads to high crime and one of the contributing causes of poverty are insurance scams targeting the poor to take what little they have at a dinner party with Alex Trebek. Probably not, since Alex Trebek is a spokesperson for Colonial Penn, a blatant scam. He might not consider it polite to discuss war crimes while Henry Kissinger is at a dinner party either.
Don't get me wrong I'm not recommending bad manners but good priorities are more important and looking the other way while war crimes or massive scams are being committed against the majority of the public while the wealthy make out like bandits and use poor people as scapegoats and entertainment is not what I would consider the lesser of two evils.
I actually think mass murder and massive scams are worse manners than mentioning them in polite company.
Some of the best financed research about crime isn't designed to find the most effective solutions to it; it seems to be designed to avoid blaming the most powerful people and Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of Our Nature" is among this research that does that.
As I indicated in previous posts the best research and prevention often comes from alternative media outlets or academic sources that don't have the most political clout. When this is followed up by sincere efforts at the grassroots level to educate the public and stand up to the political class that is when the lowest crime rates happen.
Changing this would require major media reform and political reform educating the public before they choose their candidates without limiting to ones approved by the media.
For more extensive context about some of the quotes that I based this review on see, Steven Pinker "The Better Angels of Our Nature" excerpts
In addition to exploring reductions in crime this book also partially disclosed many research projects that are being done on animals or humans including psychological manipulation tactics that are rarely mentioned in high profile locations. I followed this up with another posts exploring them, Steven Pinker "Better Angels" Provides Limited Disclosure of Human Psychological & Animal Experiments, which reviews how inadequate ethics are for both animal and human research and how it is used primarily for the benefit of those that control the research despite claims that it is to benefit all.