Friday, February 15, 2013

Steven Pinker on Deaths by Violence in Pre-state Societies

Steven Pinker seems to have come in for a lot of criticism over his view that in terms of per capita death rates by violence, stateless societies were (or are) actually much more violent than modern states, even in the 20th century.

R. Brian Ferguson has a scholarly refutation of Pinker’s views on prehistoric war in Ferguson (2013a) and (2013b), but these are in a book yet to be published, so who knows if his criticisms have force.

Other critical reaction to Pinker’s data can be found here:
Christopher Ryan, “Steven Pinker’s Stinker on the Origins of War,” March 29, 2011.

Christopher Ryan, “Pinker’s Dirty War on Prehistoric Peace,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2012.
A damaging criticism in these articles is that Pinker’s examples of hunter gatherer per capita death rates (from Keeley 2001) are mostly from societies that are not hunter gatherers: most are partly agriculturalists and not the strict “nomadic (immediate-return) hunter-gatherers” who were “most representative of human prehistory.”

But, if we actually turn to Pinker’s book (Pinker 2011: 49, Figure 2-2; and 53, Figure 2-3), we find that the data compiled there is different from the table Ryan cites, and Pinker does not seem to have made the errors that Ryan points out.

I wish to review what Pinker says in his book about violence in stateless and state societies. The purpose of this post is summarise what Pinker actually argues in his book (not in the popular summaries of it).

First, some background. Late Pleistocene humans were stateless hunter gatherers. Later these hunter gatherers started to domesticate plants and animals, and pastoral and horticultural/agricultural populations arose. Obviously, agriculturalists tend to the sedentary, but hunter gatherers could be nomadic or sedentary (or seasonally one and then the other).

So the sequence of human societies (in a long-term historical sense) runs as follows:
(1) stateless hunter gatherers (nomadic and/or sedentary);

(2) stateless agricultural/pastoral populations (the first generally sedentary), eventually leading to rural populations; at the same time hunter-horticulturalist societies also developed and persisted in some regions of the world;

(3) cities;

(4) state societies;

(5) more and more complex state societies (incorporating any or all of the above types of societies).
What is being claimed by Pinker is that as populations moved into (4) and (5) above, the per capita level of death rates by violence fell as a long-term trend.

Notice how (according to Pinker’s theory) it is not just hunter gatherers who supposedly had a high per capita level of death by violence, but also even stateless agricultural/pastoral populations (a point we should remember).

I list the important details of Pinker’s argument below:
(1) Pinker (2011: 4) notes that “total war” (meaning war where civilians are often attacked and killed in great numbers) is simply not an invention of the 20th century. Many wars in the past have involved massacres of the male population of a community and the enslavement of the women and children. We need look no further than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the Old Testament – some of the foundational cultural and religious books of Western civilisation – to see this: both texts know “total war,” and speak of it as a normal activity (Pinker 2011: 4–12). Indeed god even orders it more than once in the Old Testament (Pinker 2011: 7–8). I might add that even though the events the Bible imagines here – the conquest of Canaan and many other things down to the time of Solomon – are simply fiction (as noted by Pinker 2011: 10), it is the cultural significance of the passages that is important: they indicate that what we would call a type of “total war” was quite acceptable.

(2) Pinker (2011: 31–36) briefly sketches two historically important theories of primitive man: that of Thomas Hobbes (the “Leviathan state” theory) and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“noble savage” theory). Pinker comes down on the side of Hobbes, and notes how some modern anthropologists hold a view related to that of Rousseau (Pinker dubs them the “anthropologists of peace”): they think that
(1) prehistoric humans were not generally inclined to kill fellow humans;
(2) that war is a “recent invention”, and
(3) that fighting in indigenous pre-modern societies was largely ritualistic and often harmless (Pinker 2011: 31–36).
Pinker rejects this, and I agree. Pinker also draws attention to an unhealthy political correctness amongst the so-called “anthropologists of peace” who have attempted to unfairly oppose research that disputes their own ideas on the origin of war and violence (Pinker 2011: 43).

(3) First, human evolution and the evidence from primates does not support the ideas of the “anthropologists of peace.” Some have argued that the bonobo (Pan paniscus) was possibly like the common ancestor and that humans developed aggression and war-like tendencies subsequently. But Pinker notes the problems with this. First, bonobo non-aggression may be exaggerated, as violence has been observed in wild bonobos (Pinker 2011: 39). Secondly, even if we assume that bonobo aggression is minimal, bonobos are so anatomically different from normal chimps and other apes (through the evolutionary process of “neoteny”) that it is likely that they diverged from an animal more like the common chimps rather than the common ancestor (Pinker 2011: 39).

Now Chimpanzees are violent, and fight inter-communal wars (Pinker 2011: 37). In some chimp communities, it has been observed that more than 33% of males die by violence (Pinker 2011: 38). Violence is also observed in other primates. It is not unlikely that it was a trait in the common ancestor and was passed on to Australopithecines and early Homo species.

Prehistoric humans certainly had real motives for war: (1) struggle over and appropriation of resources or even theft; (2) what we would now call “credibility” or pre-emption: the need to demonstrate to potential enemies that there will be a price for any violence; and (3) revenge or honour (the use of violence to extract revenge for crimes or insults, real or perceived) (Pinker 2011: 46–47; 56).

(4) While Homo sapiens is anatomically 200,000 years old, behaviourally modern humans (with art, clothing, tools, and rituals) are probably about 75,000 years old.

Agriculture developed about 10,000 years ago independently in China, India, the Fertile Crescent, West Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Andes (Pinker 2011: 40).

Before this humans were all hunter gatherers, but of course the hunter gatherer lifestyle persisted for many thousands of years in some regions, and indeed up until the 20th century in some areas.

A crucial point that Pinker makes is that human societies were still stateless after the invention of agriculture, and it was some 5,000 years after the appearance of agriculture that effective states developed (Pinker 2011: 41). Therefore we should not be remotely surprised that stateless or loosely organised agricultural societies should also have high levels of violence. Even the violence of tribal sedentary societies with petty chiefdoms does not really refute Pinker’s thesis. For, quite simply, these societies are not subject to a higher “Leviathan state” that enforces laws and policies behaviour.

(5) Pinker draws on a body of work against the naïve modern anthropological successor of Rousseau’s ideas: LeBlanc (2003); van der Dennen (1996); Keeley (1996); Thayer (2004); and Wrangham and Peterson (1997).

The “anthropologists of peace” ignore the cumulative causalities of battles (not insignificant), the murderous raiding that some stateless human societies engage in, killing of non-combatants, and the other violent activities (Pinker 2011: 44).

(6) Pinker admits that the 20th century in terms of absolute numbers of violent deaths is the most bloody of any century (Pinker 2011: 47). But the linchpin of Pinker’s analysis is his contention that really it is per capita death rates by violence for a society that demonstrate how violent that society is. Certainly this is how modern social science decides such a question: we use per capita homicide rates (per 100,000) to compare one country with another.

The crucial question is: if I were a member of such-and-such a society, what would my chances be of dying a violent death in this society? For that, we need per capita death rates by violence (both war and murder).

(7) Pinker admits that war was not universal amongst foraging hunter gatherer groups, but nevertheless frequent for many, as data suggest that 65 to 70% of hunter gatherers are at war at least every 2 years (Pinker 2011: 52). Above all, we should look at the per capita death rates for hunter gatherers, hunter-horticulturalists, and other essentially stateless tribal groups, whether agricultural or pastoral populations.

Here is Pinker’s data for the proportion of deaths of the population in a number of sample societies:
Percentage of Deaths in Warfare

Prehistoric Archaeological sites

Crow Creek, South Dakota, 1325 CE: 60%
Nubia, site 117, 12,000–10,000 BCE: c. 46%
Sarai Nahar Rai, India, 2140–850 BCE: c.29%
Br-Columbia, 30 sites, 3500 BCE–1674 CE: c.23%
Volos’ke, Ukraine, –7500 BCE: c. 21%
Vasiliv’ka III, Ukraine, 9000 BCE: c. 20%
Illinois, 1300 CE: 16%
Northeast Plains, 1485 CE: c. 15%
Vedbaek, Dnk., 4100 BCE: c. 13%
Bogebakken, Dnk., 4300–3800 BCE: c. 12%
Ile Teviec, France, 4600 BCE: c. 11%
Brittany, 6000 BCE: c. 8%
Ctl. California, 1400 BCE–235 CE: c. 8%
Skateholm I, Sweden, 4100 BCE: c. 7%
S. California, 28 sites, 3500 BCE–1380 CE: c. 5%
Kentucky, 2750 BCE: c. 4%
Ctl. California, 1500 BCE–1500 CE: c. 3%
Calumnata, Algeria, 6300–5300 BCE” c. 3%
Ctl. California, 2 sites, 240–1770 CE: c. 3%
Nubia, nr. site 117, 12,000–10,000 BCE: c. 3%
Gobero, Niger, 14,000–6200 BCE: 0%
Avg. 21 prehistoric archaeological sites: 15%

Ache, Paraguay: 30%
Murngin, Australia: c. 28%
Hiwi, Venezuela-Colombia: c. 15%
Ayoreo, Bolivia-Paraguay: c. 13%
Modoc, N. California: c. 11%
Tiwi, Australia: c. 8%
Casiguran Agta, Philippines: c. 55
Anbara, Australia: c. 4%
Avg. 8 hunter-gatherer societies: 14%

Hunter-horticulturalists & other tribal groups
Waorani, Amazon: c. 58%
Jivaro, Amazon: c. 30%
Gebusi, New Guinea: c. 29%
Montenegro, Europe: c. 23%
Yanomamo-Shamatari, Amazon: c. 18%
Mae Enga, New Guinea: c. 15%
Dugum Dani, New Guinea: c. 12%
Yanomamo-Namowei, Amazon: c. 12%
Huli, New Guinea: c. 11%
Anggor, New Guinea: c. 10%
Avg. 10 hunter-hort. & tribal groups: 24.5%

Ancient Mexico, before 1500 CE: 5%
World, 20th C (wars & genocides): 3%
Europe, 1900–1960: 3%
Europe 17th century: 2%
Europe & U.S., 20th century: 1%
World, 20th century (battle deaths): 0.7%
World, 2005 (battle deaths): 0.0004% (Pinker 2011: 49, Figure 2–2).
Some data on Pinker’s sources: on prehistoric violence, Pinker cites Bowles (2009); Keeley (1996); McCall and Shields 2008; Walker 2001; and Thorpe 2003.

On hunter-gatherers, see Bowles (2009). On hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups, see Gat (2006); and Keeley (1996).

From Pinker’s data, we can see that death rates were quite high in hunter-gatherer societies, and were even higher amongst stateless hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups.

That might suggest that violence spiked once agriculture was invented, perhaps because sedentary agriculturalists have more to fight over.

But the clear trend is apparent once the modern state appeared: a downward trend.

(8) The 20th century saw about 40 million battle deaths (soldiers and civilians directly killed in combat). Pinker estimates that 6 billion people died in the 20th century (from all causes natural or otherwise), so that 0.7% died in battle deaths (Pinker 2011: 50).

What is more striking is that, if we include all state-based violence, such as genocides, purges, man-made famines, and other human-caused disasters, the percentage rises to 3% (Pinker 2011: 50). That is still lower than sample death rates in stateless tribal societies, whether hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists (or mixtures of the two).

(9) So what was the watershed? Pinker argues that it was the “Leviathan state.” The rise of states that incorporated many communities and that imposed law and order and peace upon the populations. But Pinker does not deny that many of these early states were socially and economically stratified, had authoritarian rulers and peace was kept with some very brutal law codes and punishments (Pinker 2011: 57). Pinker is not giving a moral endorsement to early states or all states, but is merely identifying a trend and process that they caused: reduction in violence per capita.

(10) Shifting to a calculation of deaths from war per 100,000 in 27 non-state societies, Pinker comes up with an average of 524 per 100,000 (Pinker 2011: 52).

But then we only need look at deaths from the worst and most violent states to see the difference:
Average for 27 non-state societies: 524 per 100,000
Germany (20th century): 144 per 100,000
Soviet Union/Russia (20th century): 135 per 100,000
Japan (20th century): 27 per 100,000
United States (20th century): 3.7 per 100,000
Entire world (20th century; state-based violence)*: 60 per 100,000

* that is, war, genocide, purges, man-made famines (Pinker 2011: 53, Figure 2-3).
A good scan of the whole table can be found over at Gene Callahan’s blog.

Finally, we can compare some data below on the worst regimes of the 20th century:
Average for 27 non-state societies: 524 per 100,000
Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979): 8,160 per 100,000
Nazi Germany (1939-1945, European victims): 1,008 per 100,000
Soviet Union (1917-1987): 450 per 100,000
Communist China (1949-1987): 120 per 100,000 (Cooney 1998: 58).
There is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge and Nazi Germany stand out as outliers, the most terrible regimes of the 20th century. But what is astonishing is that even murderous tyrannies like the former Soviet Union and Communist China (in its worst days) were less violent than some non-state societies.

(11) Pinker also notes that, even if we are to assume that prehistoric hunter gatherers really had low deaths per capita from violence, that does not contradict his thesis.

For Pinker is comparing people in a state of anarchy with state-based societies (where the government has a monopoly on force or at least a significant role in keeping the peace). Those groups living in stateless societies include hunter-gatherers, hunter-horticulturalists, pastoralists, and some agricultural communities.

Pinker is not simply comparing prehistoric hunter gatherers with every other society.

(12) One important outlier in the 20th century was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, possibly the most murderous regime of the 20th century. It is unclear whether this is included in Pinker’s data for 20th century wars and genocides (though I would assume so). Estimates of the total number of deaths range from 1.4 to 2.2 million in a population of around 7 million, and a death toll of perhaps 20-31.42%. But let us assume an even worse upper estimate of 33%. But even that shocking death toll was exceeded by some stateless societies: e.g., the Amazon Waorani (c. 58%). Some stateless societies came close: the Amazon Jivaro (at c. 30%) and New Guinea Gebusi (c. 29%).

As a final point and matter of interest, the Amazon Waorani, a semi-nomadic group, seem to have the highest homicide rate ever seen in any modern society (Beckerman et al. 2009): some sources report that 60% of deaths were due to violence over the past century. That is pretty shocking.
Further Links
I have realised that there is a lot of good discussion of this topic at Gene Callahan’s blog, where you can get a feel for the type of (mostly silly) libertarian rebuttals of Pinker:
Gene Callahan, “It Ain’t the State,” La Bocca della Verità, November 20, 2011.

Gene Callahan, “The Violence of Pre-State Warfare,” La Bocca della Verità, January 4, 2013.

Gene Callahan, “State Policies Never Work?!,” La Bocca della Verità, January 19, 2013.

Other Criticisms of Pinker:

Douglas P. Fry, “Peace in Our Time,”, December/January 2012.
I have, incidentally, no idea how the author of this review knows that prehistroic humans did not suffer from “chronic warfare, torture, slavery, and exploitation.”

Beckerman, S., Erickson, P. I., Yost, J., Regalado, J., Jaramillo, L., Sparks, C., Iromenga, M. and K. Long. 2009. “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Reproductive Success Among the Waorani of Ecuador,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106.20: 8134–8139.

Bowles, Samuel. 2009. “Did Warfare among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers affect the Evolution of Human Social Behavior?,” Science 324: 1293–1298.

Cooney, Mark. 1998. Warriors and Peacemakers: How Third Parties Shape Violence. New York University Press, New York and London.

Dennen, J. van der. 1996. The Origin of War: The Evolution of a Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy. Origin Press, Groningen.

Ferguson, R. Brian 2013a. “Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality,” in Douglas P. Fry (ed.), War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, Oxford University Press, New York. (forthcoming).

Ferguson, R. Brian 2013b. “The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East,” in Douglas P. Fry (ed.), War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, Oxford University Press, New York. (forthcoming).

Gat, Azar. 2006. War in Human Civilization. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

Harris, Marvin. 1980. Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology (3rd rev. edn.). Harper and Row.

Keeley, Lawrence H. 1996. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

Keeley, Lawrence H. 2001. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

Lacina, Bethany and Nils Petter Gleditsch. 2005. “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths,” European Journal of Population 21: 145–166.

LeBlanc, Steven A. 2003. Constant Battles: The Myth of the Noble Savage and a Peaceful Past. St. Martin’s Press, New York.

McCall, G. S. and Shields, N. 2008. “Examining the Evidence from Small-Scale Societies and Early Prehistory and Implications for Modern Theories of Aggression and Violence,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 13: 1–9.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking, New York, NY.

Steckel, R. H. and Wallis, J. 2007. “Stones, Bones, and States: A New Approach to the Neolithic Revolution,” 2007/daes07/steckel.pdf

Thayer, Bradley A. 2004. Darwin and International Relations: On the Evolutionary Origins of War and Ethnic Conflict. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Thorpe, I. J. N. 2003. “Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of War,” World Archaeology 35: 145–165.

Walker, Phillip L. 2001. “A Bioarchaeological Perspective on the History of Violence,” Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 573–596.

Wrangham, Richard and Dale Peterson. 1997. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Bloomsbury, London.


  1. "So what is that was the watershed? Pinker argues that it was the “Leviathan state.” The rise of states that incorporated many communities and that imposed law and order and peace upon the populations."

    Even if one accepts this (and the data that backs it up) I don't think that one should draw the conclusion that "states are good".

    It was not states per se that led to a reduction in violence but specific things like the introductions of well-defined property rights backed up by a legal system and law enforcement agencies that appear to be correlated with the appearance of these states.

    From a libertarian perceptive these things are not only not dependent upon the state (they represent various aspects of a framework needed for successful co-operation between individuals) but are examples of things that the state has appropriated for its own ends.

    So in opposition to the narrative here - a a benevolent state imposes order on an unruly population , and this is such a huge benefit that the occasional bout of mass-murder is a price worth paying - I would like to suggest an alternative story: As our knowledge increased we became aware of the value of co-operation and a legal framework to support this co-operation. The state intervened into this framework from an early stage and corrupted and weakened it. While even in its corrupted form it offers some protection to individuals it is pretty easy to show (especially by looking at the twentieth century) that the role of the state has been far from benign.

    1. Rob Rawlings,

      (1) Pinker does not draw the abstract or universal conclusion that "states are good", or the even more absurd idea that "all states are good".

      He has proposed a theory that explains what happened in history in terms of how per capita death rates by violence fell as state-based societies developed.

      He admits the brutality of early states and even some modern states,

      What he is saying is that long term trend in violence per capita has declined with the development of the modern state, though obviously he gives moral endorsement only to modern peaceful, democratic states with civil liberties, rule of law and accountable government.

      (2) "From a libertarian perceptive these things are not only not dependent upon the state (they represent various aspects of a framework needed for successful co-operation between individuals) "

      Yes, from the libertarian perceptive they need not be.

      But tell me why is there no good examples of anarcho-capitalism in human history?

      Why is the evidence from history showing us near universal human development of states?

      (3) "So in opposition to the narrative here - a a benevolent state imposes order on an unruly population"

      No, Rob Rawlings, it does not need to be a "benevolent state" at all: you're just making this up.

      Nor is anyone denying that many rulers of many states have been cruel, brutal, selfish or murderous.

      You are refusing to even make a good faith attempt to understand the theory that Pinker in making here.

    2. I think its unfair to say I am "refusing to even make a good faith attempt to understand the theory that Pinker in making here". When I get around to reading the book I will attempt understand its arguments with an open mind.

      My comment here was aimed at addressing a specific issue raised by your post - that the things that led to a reduction in violence were dependent upon the existence of a state. I think a good case can be made that these things could exists in a stronger form without a state.

      That no anarcho-capitalist society has ever existed is not a valid argument against this viewpoint.

  2. "Now Chimpanzees are violent, and fight inter-communal wars (Pinker 2011: 37)."

    Ferguson critique "Chimpanzees as Natural Born Killers":

    1. Anonymous@February 15, 2013 at 9:02 AM

      I do not buy the argument that there is no genetic basis to violence:

      "Another presentation given at the meeting provided a possible clue to the apparent absence of male aggression among these apes: Victoria Wobber of Harvard University and her colleagues studied testosterone levels in chimpanzees and bonobos from infancy to adulthood and found that whereas chimpanzee testosterone levels surged during adolescence (particularly among males), bonobo testosterone production remained consistent over the course of development."

      The finding that "chimpanzee testosterone levels surged during adolescence" must have a biological basis, and since higher testosterone levels lead to greater propensities for aggression and violence, it looks like something caused by natural selection.

    2. And ??? Another quotes from this article:

      "Chimpanzees are mostly peaceable creatures, spending much of their time foraging for food and grooming each other. But OCCASIONALLY they kill their own kind."

      "What did appear to be a factor WAS THE NUMBER OF MALES IN A GROUP: the higher the number of males in a group, the higher the number of kills"

      "As for the bonobos, this study bolsters the claim that they are less aggressive than chimpanzees: there were no clear-cut homicides in any of the bonobo communities."

    3. Anonymous@February 15, 2013 at 1:02 PM

      From what I have read, male violence - especially inter-communal male violence - in chimps is NOT occasional at all. It is frequent:

      And bonobos are the "odd-ape-out": they seem to have diverged via neoteny from the ancestor of common chimps. The common ancestor and hominids (our closer direct ancestors) were not like bonobos.

    4. ""

      Again. Quote from this article:

      "Dr. Mitani’s team has now put a full picture together by following chimps on their patrols, witnessing 18 FATAL ATTACKS OVER 10 YEARS"

      Wow :)

      "The common ancestor and hominids (our closer direct ancestors) were not like bonobos."

      Yes, and common chimpanzee, too.

    5. (1) >"The common ancestor and hominids (our
      >closer direct ancestors) were not like bonobos."

      Yes, and common chimpanzee, too.

      No, that does not follow. If anything, it should have been more like common chimps and other apes.

      (2) Is this what you call occasional?:

      But once every 10 to 14 days, they do something more adult and cooperative: they wage war.

      A band of males, up to 20 or so, will assemble in single file and move to the edge of their territory. They fall into unusual silence as they penetrate deep into the area controlled by the neighboring group. They tensely scan the treetops and startle at every noise. “It’s quite clear that they are looking for individuals of the other community,” Dr. Mitani says.

      When the enemy is encountered, the patrol’s reaction depends on its assessment of the opposing force. If they seem to be outnumbered, members of the patrol will break file and bolt back to home territory. But if a single chimp has wandered into their path, they will attack. Enemy males will be held down, then bitten and battered to death. Females are usually let go, but their babies will be eaten.


      “In perhaps the most famous of all ethological studies, the leading authority on chimpanzee behavior, Jane Goodall, extensively observed the chimpanzees of the Gombe National Park in Tanzania and showed that aggression and warfare are part of chimpanzee behavior.

      In the course of her studies, she watched not only violence associated with the struggle for dominance among males but also significant intercommunal violence, including attacks, murder, and a four-year war between rival communities.”
      (Thayer, Bradley A. 2004. Darwin and International Relations: On the Evolutionary Origins of War and Ethnic Conflict. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY. p. 165).

  3. I haven't read Pinker's book yet but was wondering does Pinker take into consideration the advances medicine that would contribute to a decline in death rates when comparing the different stages of human society?

    1. SM,

      Certainly over the past 100 years medical science no doubt has made a big difference in lowering death rates, and even from violence and war, but probably mostly in the last 50 years.

      Yet the trend Pinker sees is already clear in data before the 20th century:

      Average 10 hunter-hort. & tribal groups: 24.5%

      Ancient Mexico, before 1500 CE: 5%
      Europe 17th century: 2%

      And even Western medicine in the 19th century was pretty bad: people were still being "bleed" as a form of treatment.

      Modern medicine really is a recent development.

    2. And what of the advances in weaponry. Surely the ability to kill somebody has increased too, this would counter balance any medical advancements.

  4. Good stuff, LK. Having read Pinker's book, I think you have summarised his argument very well. I'm very glad I recommended it to you!

    One matter you haven't dealt with is the suggested causes of the homicide rate falling over time within states (i.e. private citizens killing each other). Here Pinker referred to the work of Norbert Elias, the German sociologist who wrote The Civilizing Process. Pinker also advances his own arguments towards the end of the book. Anarcho-capitalists can take some crumbs of comfort that Pinker thinks "gentle commerce" was part of the civilizing process.

    1. Haven't got to the end of the book yet.. not even half way through! At 696 pages of text, it is slow going.

  5. @LK, I see what you are saying about the trend Pinker sees. I was just curious at what type of change in the data of would be deaths that would occur in the absence of medical tech.

    I also find the range between 3% to 60% in the Prehistoric Archaeological sites interesting. Thanks for the post, I’ll be getting this book soon.

  6. Yep. I knew anarcho-capitalism was too good to be true. I've had many problems with it, and you have just illustrated why. I think too many (radical) libertarians tend to resent everything that they have grown up with that was provided by some type of government or state program and automatically come to the conclusion that they are all immoral or that taxes are immoral when they do have useful purposes. They almost arbitrarily hate the state for the sake of hating the state and with no real clear purpose as to how their version of an anarcho-capitalist would work and how many people they would be putting at risk with the kinds of ideas I've heard. I have even heard of an anti-statist theoretically propose a transitional dictatorship so his ideas would be carried out and that advocates in engaging in law can be potential targets to be killed. Luckily, there was a libertarian who is neither an Austrian or a monetarist who pointed out the flawed dogma in the anarchist.

    I've seen people make a huge stink about Obamacare when it's actually very similar to the proposal that Newt Gingrich had and a similar bill that the Republicans tried to pass back in the early 1990s.

  7. Dear Lord Keynes,

    This is the first time that I make a comment to your blog. I have followed your Social Democracy for the 21st Century for at least half a year.

    I wish to make you a huge compliment.

    I am a libertarian, and while naturally disagreeing with many things that you argue in your blog, I think that a large number of your entries are excellent, even a must-read, not least for libertarians.

    It provides our way of thinking with the tough challenges that we do not seem to be willing to generate of our own accord.

    Libertarian theory can only grow if its adherents have the willingness to call everything into question, i.e. to treat liberty as a subject-matter of science like any other.

    Thank you for your valuable input, Lord Keynes.

    As a little "thank you", I hope I'll be able to do you a little favour by pointing out a book discussed in another interesting article on the subject-matter of the present entry.

    By the way, I support your stance in the matter, Lord Keynes, and offer you this hypothesis as to why there may be a comparatively lesser frequency of war events in genuine hunters-and-gatherers - which by itself, incidentally, does not mean that there could not have been considerable violence and viciousness within the horde:

    the hunter-and-gatherer-era covers a vast time span, presumably comprising very long (early) periods when encounters with other hordes hardly happened or when avoiding the risks of contact with strangers was an easy and rational option, with enough space and food available for everyone.

    The fact that there may happen to be insufficient incentives to enage in a certain violent practice is not by itself proof of the absence of aggressiveness and a willingness to act violently, wage wars etc.

    For instance, slavery, it appears, was an economically unsustainable practice prior to the Neolithic turn. That did not make the affected peoples/hordes any less prone to instituting slavery once conditions changed.

    Indeed, slavery was resorted to as soon as there was enough surplus available to sustain specialists in violence and other non-producers who could manage the slaves, while the latter would be working in a "mode of production" where they could be used to increase the surplus.

    Best regards, from Germany,

    Georg Thomas

    1. Dear Georg,

      Danke für die freundlichen Worte (Ich nehme an, Sie sind Deutsche?).

      If not, thanks and that is a fascinating link, and it supports Pinker's thesis.


    2. Dear Lord Keynes,

      (Is this the proper way of addressing a Lord?)

      Danke für Ihre liebenswürdige Antwort in deutscher Sprache. In der Tat, ich bin Deutscher.

      (For those, who do not speak German:

      Thanks for your kind reply in German. Indeed, I am a German.)

      Es freut mich, dass ich Ihnen mit dem Link einen kleinen Gefallen tun konnte.

      (I am glad I was able to do you a small favour by providing you with the link.)

      Ich freue mich auf die weitere Teilnahme an Ihrem ausgezeichneten Blog.

      (I am looking forward to further participation in your excellent blog.)

      Mit den besten Grüßen

      (Best regards)

      Georg Thomas

  8. The main problem with Pinker's table, of his sources like Keeley, is that the data is that much of the data is just not very useful as a comparative sample, or is outright misleading.

    I'm referring mostly to the archaeological data, with which I'm more familiar. There are a great number of bioarchaeological studies looking at skeletal trauma in past populations, but Pinker basically ignores these and just uses a couple sources like Keeley and Azar Gat for a list of archaeological sites with rates of homicide or violence. But these aren't representative of the archaeolgical data at all. For example, The Nubia site shows a death rate due to warfare of 46% - but this site is obviously a massacre, not a general sample of the population. It's also an outlier for any population at that time. Studies of trauma rates among the Natufians, who were living around the same time in the Levant, show no such high levels of death due to violence. And those studies involve larger samples spread out over various sites.

    Then there other issues like the sites in BC supposedly having a violent death rate of 23%. But that 23% rate is actually just signs of skeletal trauma, healed and unhealed. Obviously this is totally different than a 23% violent death rate.

    These criticisms can be applied more generally to most of the items on that list. In general the archaeological data presented is simply not very meaningful.

    1. (1) I assume you are not disputing the existence of considerable evidence of war and violence in prehistoric society (just its prevalence): but even that datum shows that the so-called "anthropologists of peace" can't be right. As early as we look in the archaeological data violence is there.

      (2) Assume Pinker's pre-historic data is not representative. Well, that does not really refute most of his theory (certainly not for the past 800 years when we do have increasingly better and better data).

      It is also perfectly possible that hunter-gatherers had lower rates of violence, but violence spiked once agriculture was developed: which means the Leviathan state still reduced violence as history progressed.

      Also, there is also the evidence from contemporary hunter-gatherer and hunter horticulturalist societies: this data is pretty bad.

    2. I agree with most of that. It's certainly still possible that the general thrust of Pinker's argument is OK. It's just that his data is often quite bad. In the end, I'm still sympathetic to the general argument just because it seems very likely - I mean, who doubts that modern nations are less violent than medieval ones?

      I'll also note that the ethnographic evidence has many problems that have been pointed out more commonly than the archaeological problems.