Steven Pinker uses half the evidence to make an absolute mess of things

Steven Pinker is a psychologist at Harvard University. Most recently he has created a bit of a stir by telling bioethicists to "get out of the way" of those who would use CRISPR-cas9 to modify the human germline. As Pinker sees it:
"But bioethics has become a professional guild that all too often impedes sound ethical concerns rather than advancing them"
OK, I'd say that there is good reason not to outsource ethics to a guild. I'd accept that this has happened, to some extent. But bioethics should not be dismissed in arbitrary and absolutist ways. Please, let us not hand the job over to the likes of Pinker.

I think it is fair to say that Pinker is a public intellectual of sorts. He gave a TED Talk about how violence has diminished through history which is interesting. First, I'd agree with the evidence that he presents. Yes, if the Bible is in any sense historical then humanity might be less genocidal now than it was then. Well, sort of agree. It all depends upon what metric you use. If they'd killed 6 million Jews back then there may not have been any Jews left for Hitler to kill. Nowadays 800,000 Tutsi can be slaughtered and it's just an incidental event compared to the 80 million that human population increases by each year.

Pinker presents evidence that European "civilization" has become progressively less violent since the onset of the Age of Reason in the 17th century. He then posits that it is a myth that people living as huntergatherers were less violent. Indeed there is evidence that some huntergatherer societies were and are violent. My favourite example would be the Waorani although they also add slash-and-burn farming to their huntergatherer ways.

Pinker goes to construct a theory, of sorts, to explain why violence declined. Pinker starts, approvingly, with Thomas Hobbs. In 1651 Thomas Hobbs published "Leviathon". This book posits that

" ... life in a state of nature was solitary brutish and short.
The reason for this brutish state, according to Hobbs, follows from the logic of anarchy. As Pinker states it, "Invade your neighbour before he invades you.

Hobbs published "Leviathon" when Isaac Newton was a twelve year old. It would be more than 200 years before Charles Darwin would publish his theory of natural selection. When it came to people living in a "state of nature", Hobbs had little more to inform him than his own imaginings and cultural assumptions.

Any absolute statement, of the sort that Hobbs and Pinker make, can be demolished by a single piece of evidence to the contrary.

New Zealand was, I think, the last significant land mass to be colonized by humans which makes it a good case study. About 800 years ago a few Polynesians sailed to the shores of Ao Tea Roa. The land was rich with large flightless birds. The biggest was called a moa, a 12 foot high, 500 lb chicken burger. At first they were huntergatherers and the archeological record has no sign of weapons or fortifications.

By the time that James Cook arrived in New Zealand, in 1769, the Maori had extinguished most of the species that they once thrived upon. They lived the hard life the kumera farmer and cannibal raider. Cook was impressed by their fortifications and that the Maori had a word for every aspect of warfare known to the Europeans of that time. Indeed, Maori gave Europeans lessons in trench warfare that would be put to devasting use in WW1.

About 500 years ago, a group of Maori migrated to the Chatham Islands. The Chatham Islands are a relatively small land mass and so they supported a small number of people (about 2000) who adapted, in a cooperative way, to the local climate and the availability of resources. These people were called the Moriori and their culture placed an emphasis on pacifism. In 1835, a party of Maori hired a vessel from the "civilized" Europeans, steamed to the Chatham Islands, and ate the Moriori.

Now, I hope you can see that there is no such thing as "life in a state of nature". People can live in many ways. There is nothing intrinsically brutish about anarchy. Rather, the way that people behave seems to have more to do with their living space, how much room they have and how that room is resourced.

The history of New Zealand continues in this way. Colonization by Europeans was, at first, a somewhat nasty affair as the Maori were displaced to make space for the newcomers. But the newcomers brought science and technology and those opened up new and abundant ways of life. By the mid-twentieth century New Zealand had become almost peaceful and egalitarian. (Admitedly, in recent decades the egalitarian ideal is showing signs of becoming a victim of the pressures of continued population growth, driven largely by immigration from less satisfying parts of the world.)

If it is true that Europeans have become less violent over the last few centuries then I would suggest that that it is because science and technology have better provisioned the larder. Science and technology have greatly expanded the human living space. The great ecologist Paul Colinvaux explained these things way back in 1980.

Thomas Hobbs can be forgiven for not knowing anything much about ecology and evolution. Pinker, on the other hand, lives the privileged life of a Harvard "intellectual" at a time when much has been learned.

Note: Hobbs thought of his theories of government as being like the axiomatic development of mathematics. For this reason, Hobbs was disputed in his own time by the mathematician John Wallis. When Newton said:

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants"
he almost certainly had Wallis in mind.

Pinker would do well to pay more mind to real scientists and real mathematicians and toss Hobbs back into the dustbin of history.