On Tuesday, Stephen Corry offered an interesting critique of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), the book in which the evolutionary biologist claims that violence has declined over the past several millennia. Pinker essentially argued that the increasing power of the state and its increasing role in everyday life reduced the occurrence of violence in the lives of individuals, displacing that violence to state-sanctioned wars. I’m oversimplifying, of course, and Pinker also adds feminism, capitalism, and liberalism to the list of forces—coincidentally the forces that represent the liberal wing of the modern West—that yield peaceful, happy societies. Humanity, Corry cites Pinker as arguing, took a definitive turn toward peace—again coincidentally—just about the same year Pinker himself was born, about six decades ago.
Corry criticizes Pinker for what he sees as the misuse of anthropological and historical data in Pinker’s work. However, Corry is not entirely a neutral observer. He is the director of Survival International, an organization that works to aid tribal groups. Therefore, Corry has taken umbrage at Pinker’s contention that tribal groups are inherently anarchic and violent. I will look at those claims sometime in the future, when I get to that part of the book.
Corry first notes that Pinker has jumped to conclusions in attributing the death of the Iceman found in the Alps between Austria and Italy to intertribal conflict. Pinker describes a “reconstruction”—un-cited—that has the Iceman raiding another tribe and being murdered in return. While his death was violent, there is no evidence to suggest who killed him or why, as Corry notes. Pinker does not acknowledge the incomplete nature of the evidence.
“What is it about the ancients that they couldn’t leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play?” Pinker asks. Citing Druid human sacrifices in bogs, he suggests that part of the reason might be that only murder victims were preserved, but he immediately discounts this. “But with most of the bodies, we have no reason to think that they were preserved only because they had been murdered.” Really? The bogs were not, as Pinker suggests, dumping grounds for murder victims but rather repositories for human sacrifices. By definition, human sacrifices are abnormal deaths. Another reason so many surviving corpses (oxymoron though it may be) died violent deaths is that our sample is largely that of the warrior elite, those who could afford high quality tombs, careful preservation, and other efforts. The poor rotted away in out of the way locations—often beneath their former homes—not in fancy necropolises. Many were cremated or had their bones ritually destroyed. There is obviously a selection bias in our evidence, unless you think that all of the ancient world can be deduced from the few hundred wealthiest people in any society.
Let’s take a closer look at Pinker’s brief section on Homeric Greece, an example of why an expert in one discipline is not automatically an expert in another.
Pinker begins by acknowledging that Iliad and Odyssey of Homer are set in 1200 BCE—the Mycenaean era—but notes that they were written down after 800 BCE. He claims that the poems “reflect life among the tribes and chiefdoms” of that era, presumably 800 BCE. This is a debatable claim. They encode some information about the manners and mores of the culture of the poet, but at the same time they also include material of indisputably Mycenaean origin, as well as a fanciful imagining of what the poet of 800 though the “ideal” world of war centuries earlier should have been like. For example, Homer uses the term anax (= Mycenaean wanax), an obsolete term for king, and describes Mycenaean social organization of great kings and subsidiary lords absent from Archaic Greece. Disentangling these various threads is more difficult that Pinker’s superficial assumption makes it sound. It would be a bit like trying to deduce the differences between medieval and Victorian warfare from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.
Here Pinker relies on Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy (2008), in which the literature professor attempts to prove that Homer’s epics represent and account of how evolution primed Greek men to go to outlandish lengths of total war to assuage a shortage of available women.: “…all forms of Homeric conflict result from direct attempts, as in fights over women, or indirect attempts, as in fights for social status and wealth, to enhance Darwinian fitness in a physically and socially exacting ecological niche.” This might well be said of any conflict, reducing it to Darwinian explanations. I am not aware of a shortage of women in Archaic Greece, which Gottschall deduces from the idea that the Greeks abducted and enslaved the women of conquered cities after killing the men. I’m not sure I see how adding more women to Greece yielded fewer women per man, except that he sees all of the women as being hoarded by the elite. Yet if all the men of the conquered cities were killed (see below), even this wouldn’t significantly reduce the overall number of women. Alas, though, I have not read Gottschall’s book, so I do not know what evidence he offers; his introduction cites only the Homeric epics as evidence that the eastern Mediterranean of 800 BCE was uniquely rife with intergroup conflict over women.
As critics have noted, Gottschall overshoots the mark by discounting the even more ancient Indo-European mythic survivals that govern the behavior and actions of the Iliad’s characters—a point that can easily be seen in comparing the Iliad with parallel passages from the Mahabharata. But at its core a problem remains, despite Gottschall’s claims otherwise: The “World of Homer” is not the real world but a literary one, so Pinker overshoots the mark by taking a self-consciously literary world and making it not only stand for the real world but mistaking it for an evolutionary insight into the development of pacifism. Even Gottschall recognizes that the scale of warfare in the Iliad is an impossible exaggeration. Thus, when Pinker cites Odysseus’ murder of Penelope’s suitors as an example of how men fought for control of women, I wondered if he also considered the carnage at the end of Hamlet (also based on “historical” material) as typical of royal family life in the Middle Ages.
Pinker cites the Homeric framework of the divine—the role of the gods in the Iliad—as proof that humans of 800 BCE did not see war as something humans could control, but rather as the work of capricious gods; therefore, massacre, rape, and bloodshed were simply a “fact of life.” As opposed, of course, to us wonderful modern people who never, ever claim that God has ordained a war or proclaim that wars of choice are the “inevitable” result of forces beyond our control. Thus, he expresses dismay that, quoting Gottschall, among the Homeric Greeks “the men are usually killed, livestock and other portable wealth are plundered, and women are carried off to live among the victors and perform sexual and menial labors.”
But this isn’t the miserable barbarism Pinker imagines, no matter how awful it reads to us today. The reason for that is something Pinker doesn’t say: In Dark Age and Archaic Greece, there were no professional standing armies. In those societies, during campaign season, all able bodied men were soldiers. Thus, when a city was attacked, it was like us attacking a military base. The Greeks killed foreign men because there was virtually no other choice. If they did not kill them, the men would regroup and kill the Greeks, or enter Greek society and thus serve as enemy agents fomenting rebellion in Greek cities, or become an economic burden on city states that lived perpetually on the edge of starvation on lands prone to shortages.
I know Pinker meant the early sections of chapter one as a sort of series of snapshots of the past, meant to illustrate how wretched our ancestors were, but his superficial hit-and-run approach creates the false impression that Greek violence—at least in its poetic form—happened illogically, inevitably from a combination of bloodthirstiness, ignorance, and submission to the will of imaginary gods of blood and gore. After all, if ancient Greece were that violent, there would not have been enough surviving Greeks to yield the glory of Athens, or to write down the works of Homer.
As I have time, I’ll read a few more sections of his snapshots of the past and see if they are equally superficial readings of history.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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