A Message from Senior Editor Linda E. Mitchell
Edited by Linda E. Mitchell
Getting Medieval on Steven Pinker
Violence and Medieval England
Sara M. Butler
Steven Pinker’s view of the Middle Ages as an era of hyperviolence, in which governments engaged in democide and civilians lived in terror, is not supported by the evidence. By analyzing Pinker’s sources for the medieval period and providing a clearer understanding of the difficulties involved in extracting statistical data from medieval England’s criminal justice system, this article hopes to demonstrate that Pinker’s thesis about the civilizing process is not tenable. While the medieval world was violent, we cannot definitively say just how violent it actually was, and whether it was any more or less violent than we are today.
Daniel Lord Smail
The Better Angels of Our Nature makes a bold contribution to the deep history of human violence. By laying out a framework for understanding this history, Steven Pinker has provided an important point of departure for all future scholarship in this area. Pinker’s depiction of violence in medieval Europe, however, includes serious misrepresentations of the historical reality of this period; his handling of the scholarship on medieval Europe raises doubts about his treatment of other periods. This article also offers a brief review of recent psychological literature that suggests that subjective well-being is historically invariant. In light of this review, I argue that Better Angels is best understood not as a work of history but as a study in moral and historical theology, and recommend that the history of violence should feature the cognitive experiences of victims rather than aggressors.
History, Violence, and Steven Pinker
Mark S. Micale and Philip Dwyer
The “Moral Effect” of Legalized Lawlessness
Violence in Britain’s Twentieth-Century Empire
From 1930s Palestine to Kenya in the years following World War II, systematized violence shaped and defined much of Britain’s twentieth-century empire. Liberal authoritarianism, and with it the “moral effect” that coercion had upon colonial subjects, gave rise to the systematic use of violence against colonial subjects. The ideological roots of these tactics can be located in the twinned birth of liberalism and imperialism, together with metropolitan responses to imperial events in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite copious amounts of empirical evidence documenting the evolution of liberal authoritarianism, and the creation and deployment of legalized lawlessness throughout the British Empire, Steven Pinker either ignores this evidence, or implicitly denies its validity. In reframing Britain’s civilizing mission, and challenging liberalism’s obfuscating abilities, this article critiques not only the British government’s repeated denials of systematized violence in its empire, but also Pinker’s reinforcement of the myths of British imperial benevolence.
The Past as a Foreign Country
Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Pinker’s “Prehistoric Anarchy”
Steven Pinker’s thesis on the decline of violence since prehistory has resulted in many popular and scholarly debates on the topic that have ranged—at times even raged— across the disciplinary spectrum of evolution, psychology, philosophy, biology, history, and beyond. Those disciplines that made the most substantial contribution to the empirical data underpinning Pinker’s notion of a more violent prehistoric past, namely, archaeology and bioarchaeology/physical anthropology, have not featured as prominently in these discussions as may be expected. This article will focus on some of the issues resulting from Pinker’s oversimplified cross-disciplinary use of bioarchaeological data sets in support of his linear model of the past, a model that, incidentally, has yet to be incorporated into current accounts of violent practices in prehistory.
This article explores Pinker’s analysis of sexual violence in modern history. It argues that his analysis is flawed because of a selective choice of data, a minimization of certain harms, the application of an evolutionary psychology approach, the failure to interrogate new forms of aggression, and a refusal to acknowledge the political underpinnings of his research. By failing to acknowledge and then control for his own ideological bias, Pinker has missed an opportunity to convincingly explain the changing nature of violence in our societies.
Were There Better Angels of a Classical Greek Nature?
Violence in Classical Athens
This article explores Steven Pinker’s thesis with regard to fifth-century BCE Athens. Pinker’s view that the political state became the arbiter of violence is important, but for ancient Greeks that meant that wars became more devastating. States coordinated military action more e?ectively than earlier tribal chiefs. With regard to violence within communities, the absence of civic values, human rights, or robust legal systems meant that violence mediated many relationships between men and women, masters and slaves, and even aristocrats and lower-status citizens. Violence was a prominent aspect of all ancient people’s lives. In short, Pinker’s thesis provides an excellent heuristic device to analyze Greek antiquity if only to discuss how it may or may not apply in real terms.
Mark S. Micale
The Better Angels of Our Nature is severely compromised by an overly narrow conception of human violence, a cramped statistical source base, and ideologically predetermined interpretations. Despite its aspirations to comprehensive coverage, the work singularly fails to incorporate violence of a colonial, or indigenous, or environmental, or biological, or technological nature. Ultimately, Pinker’s lengthy, attention-grabbing tome is most noteworthy for what it leaves out.
Pinker’s (Mis)Representation of the Enlightenment and Violence
In Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is a before and an after. Before the Enlightenment, the world was superstitious, cruel, and violent; after the Enlightenment, the world was rational and more peaceful. Pinker thus reduces violence to a fairly simplistic concept: all violence can be equated with irrationality, unreason, and ignorance. History is never as straightforward as Pinker would have his readers believe, and violence is a much more complex notion that is often driven not by superstition or unreason, but perfectly “rational” motives. This article argues that there is little causal connection between Enlightenment values and the decline in violence and that changes came about as a result of a complex series of reasons, some of them less than edifying. It raises the interesting question of whether ideas drive history, or whether they are simply the “ideological” bedrock on which change is grounded.