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Steven Pinker's Stinker on the Origins of War

Did Steven Pinker knowingly mislead his audience at TED?

They say that truth is the first casualty of war. But all too often, the truth goes missing even in discussion of war.

Imagine a high-profile expert stands before a distinguished audience and argues that Asians are warlike people. In support of his argument, he presents statistics from seven countries: Argentina, Poland, Ireland, Nigeria, Canada, Italy, and Russia. "Wait a minute," you might say, "those aren't even Asian countries—except, possibly, Russia." The expert would be laughed off the stage—as he should be.

In 2007, world-famous Harvard professor and best-selling author Steven Pinker gave a presentation built upon similarly flawed logic at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in Long Beach, California. Pinker's presentation provides both a concise statement of the neo-Hobbesian view of the origins of war and an illuminating look at the dubious rhetorical tactics often used to promote this bloodstained vision of our prehistory. The twenty-minute talk is available at the TED website. We encourage you to watch at least the first five minutes (dealing with prehistory) before reading the following discussion.

Though Pinker spends less than 10 percent of his time discussing hunter-gatherers (a social configuration, you'll recall, that represents well over 95 percent of our time on the planet), he manages to make a real mess of things. (Pinker's talk is based on material from his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.)

Three and a half minutes into his talk, Pinker presents a chart based on Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. The chart shows "the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in a number of foraging or hunting and gathering societies." He explains that the chart shows that hunter-gatherer males were far more likely to die in war than are men living today.*

But hold on. Take a closer look at that chart. It lists seven "hunter-gatherer" cultures as representative of prehistoric war-related male death. The seven cultures listed are the Jivaro, two branches of Yanomami, the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Murngin, Huli, and Gebusi. The Jivaro and both Yanomami groups are from the Amazon region, the Murngin are from northern coastal Australia, and the other four are all from the conflict-ridden, densely populated highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Are these groups representative of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

Not even close.

Only one of the seven societies cited by Pinker (the Murngin) even approaches being an immediate-return foraging society (the way Russia is sort of Asian, if you ignore most of its population and history). The Murngin had been living with missionaries, guns, and aluminum powerboats for decades by the time the data Pinker cites were collected in 1975—not exactly prehistoric conditions.*

None of the other societies cited by Pinker are immediate-return hunter-gatherers, like our ancestors were.** They cultivate yams, bananas, or sugarcane in village gardens, while raising domesticated pigs, llamas, or chickens. Even beyond the fact that these societies are not remotely representative of our nomadic, immediate-return hunter-gatherer ancestors, there are still further problems with the data Pinker cites. Among the Yanomami, true levels of warfare are subject to passionate debate among anthropologists, as we'll discuss shortly. The Murngin are not typical even of Australian native cultures, representing a bloody exception to the typical Australian Aborigine pattern of little to no intergroup conflict. Nor does Pinker get the Gebusi right. Bruce Knauft, the anthropologist whose research Pinker cites on his chart, says the Gebusi's elevated death rates had nothing to do with warfare. In fact, Knauft reports that warfare is "rare" among the Gebusi, writing, "Disputes over territory or resources are extremely infrequent and tend to be easily resolved."

Despite all this, Pinker stood before his distinguished audience and argued, with a straight face, that his chart depicted a fair estimate of typical hunter-gatherer mortality rates in prehistoric war. This is quite literally unbelievable.***

But Pinker is not alone in employing such sleight-of-hand to advance Hobbes's dark view of human prehistory. In fact, this selective presentation of dubious data is disturbingly common in the literature on human blood-lust.

In their book Demonic Males, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson admit that war is unusual in nature, "a startling exception to the normal rule for animals." But because intergroup violence has been documented in both humans and chimps, they argue, a propensity for war must be an ancient human quality, going back to our last common ancestor. We are, they warn, "the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression." Ouch.

But where are the bonobos? In a book of over 250 pages, the word bonobo appears on only eleven of them, and the species is dismissed as offering a less relevant sense of our last common ancestor than the common chimpanzee does-although many primatologists argue the opposite. But at least they mentioned the bonobo.

In 2007, David Livingstone Smith, author of The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, published an essay exploring the evolutionary argument that war is rooted in our pri- mate past. In his grisly accounts of chimps pummeling one another to a bloody pulp and eating each other alive, Smith repeatedly refers to them as "our closest non-human relative." You'd never know from reading his essay that we have an equally close nonhuman relative. The bonobo was left strangely—if typically—unmentioned.

Amid the macho posturing about the brutal implications of chimpanzee violence, doesn't the equally relevant, nonwarring bonobo rate a mention, at least? Why all the yelling about yang with nary a whisper of yin? All darkness and no light may get audiences excited, but it can't illuminate them. This oops-forgot-to-mention-the-bonobo technique is distressingly common in the literature on the ancient origins of war.

But the bonobo's conspicuous absence is notable not just in discussions of war. Look for the missing bonobo wherever someone claims an ancient pedigree for human male violence of any sort. See if you can find the bonobo in this account of the origins of rape, from The Dark Side of Man: "Men did not invent rape. Instead, they very likely inherited rape behavior from our ape ancestral lineage. Rape is a standard male reproductive strategy and likely has been one for millions of years. Male humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans routinely rape females. Wild gorillas violently abduct females to mate with them. Captive gorillas also rape females." (Emphasis is in the original.)

Leaving aside the complications of defining rape in nonhuman species unable to communicate their experiences and motivations, rape—along with infanticide, war, and murder-has never been witnessed among bonobos in several decades of observation. Not in the wild. Not in the zoo. Never.

Doesn't that warrant a footnote, even?


Wonky Footnotes

* Note that Pinker's chart represents part of a chart in Keeley's book (1996), and that Keeley refers to these societies as "primitive," "prestate," and "prehistoric" (pp. 89-90). Indeed, Keeley distinguishes what he calls "sedentary hunter-gatherers" from true "nomadic hunter-gatherers," writing, "Low-density, nomadic hunter- gatherers, with their few (and portable) possessions, large territories, and few fixed resources or constructed facilities, had the option of fleeing conflict and raiding parties. At best, the only thing they would lose by such flight was their composure" (p. 31).

Nomadic (immediate-return) hunter-gatherers are most representative of human prehistory-a period that is, by definition, before the advent of settled communities, cultivated food, domesticated animals, and so on. Keeley's confusion (and thus, Pinker's) is largely due to his referring to horticulturalists, with their gardens, domesticated animals, and settled villages, as "sedentary hunter-gatherers." Yes, they do occasionally hunt and they sometimes gather, but because these activities are not their sole source of food, their lives are dissimilar to those of immediate-return hunter-gatherers. Their gardens, settled villages, and so on make territorial defense necessary and fleeing conflict much more problematic than it was for our ancestors. They-unlike true immediate-return foragers-have a lot to lose by simply fleeing aggression.

Keeley acknowledges this crucial difference, writing, "Farmers and sedentary hunter-gatherers had little alternative but to meet force with force or, after injury, to discourage further depredations by taking revenge" (p. 31).

The point bears repeating. If you live a settled life in a stable village, have a labor-expensive shelter, cultivated fields, domesticated animals, and too many possessions to carry easily, you're not a hunter-gatherer. Prehistoric human beings did not have any of these things, which is, after all, precisely what made them "prehistoric." Pinker either fails to appreciate this essential point or ignores it.

** Societies in Pinker's chart:

The Jivaro cultivate yams, peanuts, sweet manioc, maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tuber beans, pumpkins, plantains, tobacco, cotton, banana, sugarcane, taro, and yam. They also traditionally domesticate llamas and guinea pigs and later the introduced dog, chicken, and pig.

The Yanomami are foraging, "slash-and-burn" horticulturists. They cultivate plantains, cassava, and bananas.

The Mae Enga grow sweet potatoes, taro, bananas, sugarcane, Pandanus nuts, beans, and various leaf greens, as well as potatoes, maize, and peanuts. They raise pigs, used not only for meat but for important ritualistic celebrations.

About 90 percent of the Dani diet is sweet potatoes. They also cultivate banana and cassava. Domestic pigs are important both for currency used in barter and for the celebration of important events. Pig theft is a major cause of conflict.

The Murngin economy was based primarily on fishing, collecting shellfish, hunting, and gathering until the establishment of missions and the gradual introduction of market goods in the 1930s and 1940s. While hunting and gathering remain important for some groups, motor vehicles, aluminum boats with outboard engines, guns, and other introduced tools have replaced indigenous techniques.

The Huli's staple food is the sweet potato. Like other groups in Papua New Guinea, the Huli prize domestic pigs for meat and status.

*** To make matters even worse, Pinker juxtaposes these bogus "hunter-gatherer" mortality rates with a tiny bar showing the relatively few war-related deaths of males in twentieth-century United States and Europe. This is misleading in many respects. Perhaps most important, the twentieth century gave birth to "total war" between nations, in which civilians (not just male combatants) were targeted for psycho- logical advantage (Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki . . .), so counting only male mortalities is meaningless.

Furthermore, why did Pinker not include the tens of millions who died in some of the most vicious and deadly examples of twentieth- century warfare? In his discussion of "our most peaceful age," he makes no mention of the Rape of Nanking, the entire Pacific theater of World War II (including the detonation of two nuclear bombs over Japan), the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's killing fields in Cambodia, several consecutive decades-long wars in Vietnam (against the Japanese, French, and Americans), the Chinese revolution and civil war, the India/Pakistan separation and subsequent wars, or the Korean war. None of these many millions are included in his assessment of twentieth-century (male) war fatalities.

Nor does Pinker include Africa, with its never-ending conflicts, child soldiers, and casual genocides. No mention of Rwanda. Not a Tutsi or Hutu to be found. He leaves out every one of South America's various twentieth-century wars and dictatorships infamous for tor- turing and disappearing tens of thousands of civilians. El Salvador? Nicaragua? More than 100,000 dead villagers in Guatemala? Nada.

Absolutamente nada.


This has been adapted from Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, pp 183-187.