Pinker’s Porkies and Views on Human Nature

by Jun 30, 2013Violence2 comments

Not long ago Stephen Pinker, who appeared on Desert Island Disks this week,  published a book to great acclaim called The Better Angels of Our Nature [1]. In this he argued that violent deaths had steadily been decreasing over the last few centuries. His message overall was that things are getting better, and this was a message that has pleased many people, not least those who think that the socio-economic system in which we currently live is as good as it gets.

Pinker presents in a paradoxical way. He talks and writes like a  typical left-leaning liberal but many of his ideas have a somewhat reactionary tinge. In particular his enchantment with the idea that our personalities are primarily formed by our genes has been taken to suggest, as argued  by Judy Rich-Harris [2]  who he greatly admires, that parents make very little difference to  how a child turns out. His book the Blank Slate [3] similarly took huge swipes at the idea that our personalities might be the product of our experiences,  and I think in that he set up various ‘straw men’ to easily knock down. His argument was in too many ways selective, ignoring for example the extraordinary research from epigenetics showing how genes and environment interact powerfully and that genes have different effects depending on the environment that triggers them. More importantly he ignored the massive evidence about the  powerful effect of early experiences on programming our brains and hormonal systems [4], particularly the effects of stress, anxiety, trauma and neglect, and he also ignored  the extraordinary body of research from attachment theory about the impact of early experiences.

Central to the Better Angels argument is the idea that deadly violence was endemic  before recent history and indeed in prehistory. This fits into an almost Hobbesian view of humans as aggressive, nasty and competitive, with a violent nature that needs to be tamed by culture, morality and society, or in other words we are, to use Tennyson’s famous phrase, born ‘red in tooth and claw’.  This defines Human Nature safely as a nature that fits neatly with the dominant version seen in western capitalist market economies. This is though a different version to one seen for example in hunter-gatherer or more sociocentric cultures. Anderson [5] for example argues convincingly that the idea of an opposition between selfishness and selflessness is a legacy of market oriented societies in which individuality is uniquely valued. He and others suggest that this distinction simply does not work for most pre-industrial and sociocentric societies where, for example, personhood is defined in terms of group obligations.

I had not liked his thesis but had assumed there was some truth in it. Some anthropologists had argued convincingly that hunter-gatherer peoples can be extremely violent [6] while many accounts suggest that powerful group identities are formed via having outgroups, enemies, who are ‘other’ to us [7]. Many though had disagreed with Pinker on this, not least the brilliant primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy who found evidence of complex cooperative exchange systems in the societies she studied [8]. Basically cooperation was much more likely to ensure survival and murder and warfare were rare in prehistory, she argues.

A fascinating new book by Douglas Fry,  War, Peace and Human Nature  has perhaps put an end to this debate [9]. The book has over 500 pages of scholarly yet readable  articles which provide as much evidence as anyone could want that humans are not ‘naturally’ warlike. For once Obama was wrong, at least when he said warfare is as old as mankind. Here we can read many articles which show convincingly how many forager societies found effective ways of ensuring that disputes did not erupt into violence . Writers such as Endicott, Gardner and Butovskaya describe societies such as the Tanzanian Hadza and look at how and why they lived so peaceably. Others examine in depth the archaeological evidence across every known continent and every era prior to the last 10,000 years or so when settled societies began, to show how there is almost no evidence for warfare and mass killings. Others show how hunter gatherer life did not have the structures and systems to breed very much group violence. Social relationships were egalitarian with no rulers and people moved between groups, for example. People knew they would need neighbouring groups and warfare just was not generally an effective strategy. If my water runs out but I, or my family, helped you last year, you might help us next time. Over lifetimes such encounters develop into a rich system of mutual support and obligation Furthermore, the parenting of such societies, including high degrees of parental sensitivity and close physical holding, meant that people developed into empathic, cooperative and other-interested people. Similarly the strong prosocial and sociocentric messages meant that individualism and selfishness had little chance to thrive.

This is not to suggest that humans are all sweetness and light of course. However what it does suggest is that  different forms of social organisation give rise to different versions of what we call human nature. Warfare and aggression mainly developed and grew after settled and highly stratified societies formed. Up until then there was little need for warfare.  Possessions were few, food was generally available, social groups were fluid and so could not easily form into fighting bands, and potentially aggressive and murderous urges were quelled by very sophisticated sets of social rituals.

I think such research is important to counter the hopelessness many feel in the face of many current predicaments, whether climate change, or the financial crisis and whether we can make any difference to how society is organised. It counters the idea that human nature is just given and that our nature is a Hobbesian selfish individualistic one only. For most of our evolutionary history it appears that this was just not the case.


[1]          S. Pinker, The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. London: Penguin, 2011.

[2]          J. R. Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated. New York: Free Press, 2009.

[3]          S. Pinker, The blank slate. London: Penguin Books, 2002.

[4]          S. Gerhardt, Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. London: Routledge, 2004.

[5]          P. Anderson, ‘Is Altruism Possible?.’, 2008.

[6]          N. A. Chagnon, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes–The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[7]          S. Bowles and H. Gintis, A cooperative species: human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton: Princeton Univ Pr, 2011.

[8]          S. B. Hrdy, Mother nature: Maternal instincts and how they shape the human species. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000.

[9]          D. P. Fry, War, peace, and human nature the convergence of evolutionary and cultural views. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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