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The Complexity of History

Russia and Steven Pinker’s Thesis

Nancy Shields Kollmann

Abstract

This article finds Steven Pinker’s argument for a decline of violence too Eurocentric and generalizing to fit all cases. Study of the early modern Russian criminal law, and society in general, shows that different states can develop radically different approaches to violence when influenced by some of the same factors (in this case Enlightenment values). The centralized Muscovite autocracy in many ways relied less on official violence and exerted better control over social violence than did early modern Europe, while at the same time it supported violence in institutions such as serfdom, exile, and aspects of imperial governance. Violence in the form of capital punishment declined but many aspects of social and official violence endured. Such a differentiated approach is explained by the state’s need to mobilize scarce human and material resources to survive and expand.

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Randolph Roth

Abstract

Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature defends Norbert Elias’s “civilization thesis”: the idea that violence has declined gradually in human societies over the millennia. As history, however, Pinker’s defense is flawed. First, the data gathered by historians do not show long-term declines in individual or collective violence. Second, the historical forces that Pinker believes have suppressed violence can also increase violence, depending on historical conditions. And third, neurology, endocrinology, and primatology may contribute more in the long run than evolutionary psychology to the understanding of the history of human aggression.

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Editorial

A Message from Senior Editor Linda E. Mitchell

Edited by Linda E. Mitchell

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Getting Medieval on Steven Pinker

Violence and Medieval England

Sara M. Butler

Abstract

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.

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Daniel Lord Smail

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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.

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Introduction

History, Violence, and Steven Pinker

Mark S. Micale and Philip Dwyer

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The “Moral Effect” of Legalized Lawlessness

Violence in Britain’s Twentieth-Century Empire

Caroline Elkins

Abstract

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.

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The Past as a Foreign Country

Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Pinker’s “Prehistoric Anarchy”

Linda Fibiger

Abstract

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.

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Joanna Bourke

Abstract

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.

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Matthew Trundle

Abstract

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.