Pinker, Animals, and Hitler

Steven Pinker has a new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that is getting a lot of (mostly) positive attention. The book is massive: 802 pages with hundreds of graphs meant to prove his thesis, the one mentioned in the subtitle. Peter Singer, “the father” of the animal rights movement, gave the book a stunning endorsement in a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review last Sunday. Part of Pinker’s case is built upon his understanding of the gradual success of our attitudes to animals, so you would think I, of all people, would appreciate the book. But I do not. Let me illustrate why I am not joining in the chorus of praise by citing a key passage in the book (p. 474) where Pinker explains why the world will never be vegetarian. It is mainly, he maintains, because of “meat hunger.” He continues: “But the impediments run deeper than meat hunger. Many interactions between humans and animals will always be zero-sum [he means we win, they lose]. Animals eat our houses, our crops, and occasionally our children…. They kill each other, including endangered species that we would like to keep around. Without their participation in experiments, medicine would be frozen in its current state and billions of living and unborn people would suffer and die for the sake of mice.” He continues by saying “something in me objects to the image of a hunter shooting a moose, but why am I not upset by the image of a grizzly bear that renders it just as dead?”

Some of these comments are just plain weird. “Animals eat our houses.” Really? What kind of animal? What kind of house? Does he mean termites? I have yet to meet somebody who was so upset by the killing of termites that she went vegan. They eat our children? Is he referring to tigers in India? It does happen, but what has that to do with eating meat? And what is he referring to when he talks about animals killing each other? Lions and gazelles, perhaps? Wolves and moose? Yes, that is part of their diet. Always has been. “Each other” is an odd way to phrase it. Humans certainly kill each other, but not because “others” are part of our diet. We are the ones almost entirely responsible for creating endangered species in the first place, not other animal predators. The cliché that medicine would be frozen in its current state without animal experimentation is very much an outdated view, when more and more scientists recognize the value of replacing animals in research with computer graphics or Petri dishes. Mice are hardly any longer the heroes of experimental medicine. Had he said “for the sake of chimpanzees, dogs, and cats” he could not rely on any reader’s sympathy. As for his final question, the reason he and most compassionate people object to a hunter shooting a moose is that most hunters shoot moose for fun, not for food (if a subsistence hunter kills an animal, most people would in fact not object to the image). No grizzly bear has ever, or ever could, choose to be a vegetarian (by the way, bears do not “hunt” moose – they may feed on a carcass, but they do not seek them out). In fact, we are the only species that can make such a choice. But choose we can. Bears cannot. So all in all, considering that this passage is key to his thesis, it does not withstand scrutiny of even the most superficial kind. Read it to a friend, and see the astonished looks.

Pinker gave a TED talk just before his book was published, and this is what he says in the very first paragraph:

“In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, ‘the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.’ Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.”

This is obtuse. Because it is simply not true that such sadism is unthinkable in most of the world. All you have to do is keep abreast of the news. Never mind humans (I take that for a given), but since Pinker has chosen to talk about cats, i.e., animals, just think of what happened YESTERDAY in Australia: the Government has banned live-export of cattle because an animal rights group bravely found their way into the slaughterhouses of Indonesia, and filmed what goes on there. I read accounts, and declined to watch the actual video footage, but let me tell you, it makes Pinker’s description of cat-burning sound like kindergarten play. The last animal in line was “quivering with terror” at what she had seen happen to her companions. This is not some barbarous practice in one bad slaughterhouse. It is routine. I have seen videos of pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep and all suffer the same exquisite horrifying torture. Dogs? Think Michael Vick. Cats? Go to the website of the Korean and Vietnamese animal rights groups to see or read about the horrors inflicted on them NOW, not in sixteenth-century Paris.

I wanted to point out how badly argued these passages are, because it should alert us to the rest of the book’s implausibility. I have not read it all yet, but as I read, I am struck over and over by how skewed the data is. In a book which argues that violence is decreasing all over the world, there is no mention of Srebrenica, the Rwanda genocide, Pinochet in Chile, the Junta in Argentina (or Brazil or Greece), no entry under colonialism, no former Yugoslavia, no Haiti, no Dominican Republic, no Mugabe and only one mention of Mussolini, two of apartheid, and three of Pol Pot. This is a book about violence!

Pinker even manages to make it sound as if the whole of the Second World War was the fault of one man, and that a delusional Hitler reluctantly dragged the German population into war and genocide:

“Even in Nazi Germany, where anti-Semitism had been entrenched for centuries, there is no indication that anyone but Hitler and a few fanatical henchmen thought it was a good idea for the Jews to be exterminated. When a genocide is carried out, only a fraction of the population, usually a police force, military unit, or militia actually commits the murders.”

I am not the first to notice this bizarre passage (a fine article in The New Yorker mentions it as well). It goes contrary to everything I know about The Third Reich. Unless of course you insist on parsing the words very literally: Yes, it could be argued that people who were indifferent to the fate of the Jews did not think it was necessarily a good idea for them to be exterminated, merely eliminated. But as Goldhagen has successfully argued, it took a lot of people to carry out the extermination of 6 million Jews. Many thousands or even hundreds of thousands who were directly involved, and hundreds of thousands more who were indirectly involved, and then the vast majority of the population who simply did not care. Ian Kershaw ends his magisterial two-volume biography of Hitler with these words: “The vast majority of Germans had no more than minimal interest in the fate of the Jews.” If this “bystander” effect is not a part of the indictment of our species, I don’t know what is.

Why, then, is he garnering so much positive attention? Well, that is a deep question, having to do with the human propensity for denial, and it is something I intend to deal with in a book, not a blog.

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My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608196159/ or the eBook http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608199914/
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9 Responses to Pinker, Animals, and Hitler

  1. Raquel Medina R says:

    Excuse me, in witch planet lives Mr. Pinker? He wrote a book without any idea of what is happening in this Planet, or he needs to visit, urgently, a Neurologist because some of his mental faculties are not working. The big problem in these cases is, that many people don’t analyze what they hear or read, with consequences for our little brothers. Believe me, I have experienced this.
    Surely you will write a book telling the truth.

    • You mean Pinker, don’t you, about violence not being a spectacle. Sure, I think he is right about this. But I was trying to make the point that it is somewhat superficial. People don’t want to see what goes on in a slaughterhouse either, but they still eat the animals who are killed there. That is, they know that what happens in a slaughterhouse is horrible, and that the animals in them suffer and die, all so they can enjoy the taste of meat. But it does not stop them from their enjoyment. So yes, they no longer enjoy a spectacle, but the violence inflicted on animals is still as great as it ever was, in fact, arguably, greater, since meat production continues to rise, especially in India and China. I think it is a mistake to see overall progress. In certain areas, probably, yes, but in many others, definitely not.

  2. Sara N says:

    While it’s probably not fair to totally critique a book that you haven’t fully read, the passages you mention surely are sublimely ignorant. I think you dissected the absurdity of the statements very clearly. I really don’t think it’s fair to place the same moral standards on animals who are not capable of being self aware enough to be able to empathize with their prey. I certainly don’t think that, even if they COULD, it justifies eating them (and I like to note that people make this argument despite the fact they mostly eat ‘prey’ animals). I think if you are aware your actions cause a sentient animal to suffer and die, the ethical thing to do is to be vegetarian. I also agree that the Hitler statement is blatantly false and kind of surprised he got away with that.

    Though one thing I would argue is that, although cats suffer a great deal in many places, the key point I think Singer made was that the violence is not a spectacle anymore. And that is a good argument. Mass hangings (like Sadaam Hussein) exist of course, but are generally frowned upon as barbaric. Violence MAY have essentially declined, but I don’t think justifying violence toward animals is bolstering his argument at all.

  3. Yes…the human propensity for denial, even on comments here. Violence is still a spectacle, e.g. people creating it to film on their iPhones, jostling for position when mayhem is taking place and let’s not forget Saudi Arabia where beheadings and amputations take place publicly and there is a big turn-out to see them.

    I loved your book “Against Therapy”: it altered my way of seeing things when I was in training, so one by you on denial would be most welcome. But hurry up…..I’m getting older!

  4. Conor says:

    I think you may be doing Pinker a disservice by your list of events he doesn’t describe. By my reading of the book, his point isn’t that bad things don’t happen any more, but that norms have changed to the point where such things are acknowledged by the majority of observers to be abhorrent. The conflicts which included Srebrenica and the Rwanda genocide eventually had international complaint and even some (reluctant, ineffectual) attempts to stop the violence. Pinochet was arrested on international human rights violations. Pinker’s point isn’t that everything is peachy now, but that international norms are “bending towards justice” in an identifiable trend. And I think that despite the horrors of the 20th century, the empirical case for that is hard to get away from.

    I also think that despite Pinker’s dismissal of the animal rights case as being a parallel case, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a similar (albeit slow) trend happening in that domain as well. Not to dismiss what happens today, but it’s absolutely the case that due to the impact of animal rights campaigners and arguably the general shift in norms that Pinker describes there has been a gradual shift in the West towards restricting abuse of animals. I think that’s a reason for hope, if not a reason to relax the fight.

  5. Love says:

    This greatly impacted me as a vegetarian (i bookmarked it). Thank you so much for writing this article. when i go to find community for non-meateatters, its not as… how do i put it… logical? as i would like, and you certainty have that :)

  6. This is late, but I hope you still find it. It relates to what you say here about animal experimentation and the Nazis. Yesterday I again heard something we all hear all too frequently: the supposedly devastating charge that the only country ever to actually ban animal experimentation was Nazi Germany. The meaninglessness of this objection is obvious but not easy to explain to the kind of person who makes it. An eloquent refutation of it would be useful. Maybe you’ve written one elsewhere, or know of one written by someone else.

  7. veganelder says:

    I recently wrote a bit about Joshua Greene’s book “Moral Tribes” wherein I objected to his apparent ignorance about veganism and his cavalier attitude toward the harming of other species. (http://veganelder.blogspot.com/2014/02/several-weeks-ago.html) In it I mentioned Pinker’s book and an astute reader pointed me to this critique. Thank you for this and thank you for pointing out this instance of obviously educated and intelligent human animals exhibiting their ignorance and blindness. When I was an inexperienced psychotherapist your challenge to the Freudian establishment in an article published in the Atlantic in 1984 was strongly influential on my subsequent understanding of human behavior. You were a helpful and reliable guide then and so you remain. The culturally driven translation of genuine horror into fantasy and/or triviality distorted Freud’s thinking (as well as others) and continues unabated.

  8. David says:

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. Animals are part of humans diets, it always has been. You can search up any article you like on prehistoric hunting or excavations that have unearthed shellfish middens. Humans are not responsible for the majority of the endangered species on Earth. Think about that claim you made for a second: 99% of the species that have ever lived on Earth have already become extinct; humans were not responsible for even a fraction of that percentage. Scientists are committed to the three R’s: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement. But ask any biomedical researcher if animal testing is still invaluable and they’ll give you an affirmative ‘yes’. Like it or not, even computer simulations need to be measured against real world models, and that requires the testing of living animals. And considering how advanced biological systems are, do you really want to have biomedical research done using the same technology that predicts our 10-day weather forecasts? The way you phrase how hunters pursue their sport makes it sound as though having fun is bad. Hunting brings humans closer to nature as well as their past. Hunters regularly eat their kills which include poultry and large game like elk, for those who don’t; they would donate it to programs like Hunters Sharing the Harvest, where the meat is distributed to the poor or soup kitchens.

    The fact is that humans are outraged by animal abuse today than they were during Descartes’ time when they were regarded as nothing more than mechanical objects. Simply because production has moved underground in some places does not change the fact that the perception of animals as unfeeling things have improved.

    Very disappointed in your unsubstantiated claims.

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