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 The cliché that medicine would be frozen in its current state without animal experimentation is very much an outdated view, when more and more scientists recognize the value of replacing animals in research with computer graphics or Petri dishes.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.