Is human "progress" real in the sense that there is a secular trend towards reduced violence?
This is the core premise of Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. A recent issue of the journal Science contains a collection of articles on human conflict including a critique of Pinker by Andrew Lawler from the point of view of ethnographers of primative societies. Lawler notes that "biological anthropologists and archaeologists . . . find the data too weak to support such sweeping claims and add that the statistical averaging done by Pinker and Gat erases the enormous variation in small-scale societies."
Upper Paleolithic era physical and evoluationary anthropologist John Hawks takes on this debate concluding that:
My oversimplified view of matters is that Pinker abstracts a single latent variable from the data on violence and aggression: violence appears to decrease as social complexity and hierarchy increase. The anthropologists here are arguing for a more complex, and possibly cyclical, relationship in which other factors besides social complexity are important. George Milner's example:
He cites the example of the Hopewell culture of the 1st through 5th centuries C.E. in eastern North America, which appears to have been “socially permeable,” allowing traders to safely transport obsidian from sources in what is today Wyoming as far east as Ohio. Such ease of movement would have been unthinkable before and after that era, when violence between groups was more common. The interesting question, Milner says, is what changed. “To see this from a solely Hobbesian viewpoint misses the real story,” he adds. “We want to know why people switch from peace to war and back again.”Rousseau was wrong. The Pleistocene was never a peaceful state of nature.
Hobbes is too simplistic. Violence in human societies is multidimensional and we perceive it differently depending on its cultural motivation. This is why every discussion of Pinker's thesis (including Lawler's) begins by acknowledging the industrial-scale warfare and mass killing of the 20th century. Such events mean something different than big-city crime. Pinker's generalization is correct, but why it is correct depends on how the social uses of violence have changed over time. Hunter-gatherer groups often used violence, in ways that varied among groups and across time to maintain sometimes-elaborate systems of social control. Pinker's generalization is incomplete, and its incompleteness may be explained by the multidimensionality of violence in human societies.Like Hawks, I'm not sold in Lawler's critique of Pinker. Pinker may not have the whole story, but he has at least an important part of it right.
There may be enormous variation in the levels of violence in small scale societies. But, given the relatively short time periods of any ethnographic data in small populations that inherently leaves room for considerable sampling error, averaging to mitigate against mere random variation is a necessary evil.
Also, the Hopewell example cited itself can quite plausibly be explained by the social complexity thesis ad the heart of what Hawks gleans from Pinker.
An emerging narrative of modern era Mississippian culture depicts the Hopewell situation as likely involving the rise and fall of a pre-Columbian New World empire and not simply a decentralized archaeological culture. Hence, the existence of trade networks when it thrived is comparable to the Pax Romana experienced at the same time in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Indeed, given the increasing indications that longer term climate trends are a major driver of the rise and fall of empires and civilization, it is likely that the Roman and Hopewell parallels in the same error are not mere coincidences but represent a period of favorable climate in which independent Old World and New World empires thrive as a result and because of their success are able to maintain peace over large geographic areas sufficient for trade in ways not possible before they arose or after they fell. The largest city in the Hopewell culture, near modern day Saint Louis, Missouri, was on the same order of magnitude as ancient Rome in population at its peak.
If some of the most notable exceptions to the rule, like the Hopewell case, turn out to be cases that aren't actually exceptions but are instead insufficiently understood episodes of history, then the case for Pinker's thesis grows quite a bit stronger vis-a-vis his critics.