John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war
The human race has been a warring species for millennia, our history is dotted with conflicts and wars tallying up the amount of dead. Is that this changing?
The Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker and several other advanced thinkers believe, despite what we see and hear, that the propensity to violence and war is in the decline. The world’s great powers are neither internally divided nor inclined to go to war with one another, and with the spread of democracy, the increase of wealth and the diffusion of enlightened values these states preside over an era of improvement the like of which has never been known.
In Pinker’s book; The Better Angels of Our Nature: a history of violence and humanity, more than a thousand pages long and containing a formidable array of graphs and statistics, the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy. It is now not uncommon to find it stated, as though it were a matter of fact, that human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic.
Pinker was not the first to promote this new orthodoxy. Co-authoring an article with Pinker in the New York Times (“War Really Is Going Out of Style”), the scholar of international relations Joshua L Goldstein presented a similar view in Winning the War on War: the Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (2011). Earlier, the political scientist John E Mueller (whose work Pinker and Goldstein reference) argued in Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (1989) that the institution of war was disappearing, with the civil wars of recent times being more like conflicts among criminal gangs. Pronounced in the summer of 1989 when liberal democracy seemed to be triumphant, Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history” – the disappearance of large-scale violent conflict between rival political systems – was a version of the same message.
The picture of declining violence presented by this new orthodoxy is not all it seems to be. As some critics, notably John Arquilla, have pointed out, it’s a mistake to focus too heavily on declining fatalities on the battlefield. If these deaths have been falling, one reason is the balance of terror: nuclear weapons have so far prevented industrial-style warfare between great powers. Pinker dismisses the role of nuclear weapons on the grounds that the use of other weapons of mass destruction such as poison gas has not prevented war in the past; but nuclear bombs are incomparably more destructive. No serious military historian doubts that fear of their use has been a major factor in preventing conflict between great powers. Moreover deaths of non-combatants have been steadily rising. Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than 50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.
If great powers have avoided direct armed conflict, they have fought one another in many proxy wars. Neocolonial warfare in south-east Asia, the Korean war and the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Vietnam war, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, covert intervention in the Balkans and the Caucasus, the invasion of Iraq, the use of airpower in Libya, military aid to insurgents in Syria, Russian cyber-attacks in the Baltic states and the proxy war between the US and Russia that is being waged in Ukraine – these are only some of the contexts in which great powers have been involved in continuous warfare against each other while avoiding direct military conflict.
The question then beckons, are humans truly becoming less violent and making less war, or has the face of violence and the “battlefield” changed? Pinker and similar thinking people may have statistically accurate data, but the human nature is all but pure statistics.
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