Monday, December 24, 2012

Steven Pinker and Funny Numbers


Harvard professor Steven Pinker opens his 800-page door-stopper, The better angels of our nature: why violence has decreased, with mind-boggling historical revisionism.

As if it were actual history, Pinker cites the story of Adam and Eve where Cain killed his brother Abel. He writes, "With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today."

He continues in this mind-boggling vein through the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, up to the present applying curious interpretations to selective history. Pinker exposes his non-historical credentials in describing certain events as "forgotten violence," revealing his belief that, as he did not previously know it, it must have been forgotten.

Deeming it hard evidence, Pinker uses such examples as 1940s body-building Charles Atlas ads which advocate physical revenge on a bully. Whereas today, the emphasis is on muscle building for peaceful purposes. Has he not seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger film?

He mentions recent war memorials which no longer honour military leaders but the fallen in battle. These monuments were built by supposedly civilized nations which annually spend billions of dollars  in arms production.

Pinker takes the number of people killed in a war and compares it to the then population of the world. Remember Cain and Abel? With increased population throughout history, the percentage number lowers, even though millions more are killed.

The possible reason for his conclusions about violence is that his history of benevolence begins sometime in the 1980s. Even then, the atrocitologist (that's a real title) Matthew White "estimates that around 180 million deaths can be blamed on all of these human causes put together [war, genocide, purges etc.]. That still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths of the 20th century."  To Pinker, that's better than the one death that took 25 percent of the then world population.

Two examples.In the 1994 Rwanda civil war 75 per cent of the Tutsi population was massacred. The total count was one million killed in a population of 7 million. As that amounted to only 14 per cent, does Pinker deem that an improvement over the single death in Genesis? During the Cambodian atrocities by Pol Pot, 1.5 million Cambodians were slaughtered of a population of 7.5 million, about one-quarter of the population. Where does that leave Professor Pinker?

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"Our Twentieth Century has proved to be more cruel that preceding centuries, and the first fifty years have not erased all its horrors."  Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

"The worst century there has ever been." Isaiah Berlin.

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