Dynamics of violence

2 minute read

This week’s Science is a special issue focusing on human conflict. As you might expect, the issue includes an article focusing on Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The article is by Andrew Lawler, who talked with a number of bioarchaeologists who focus on violence and warfare in ancient societies Lawler:violence:2012.

Pinker blames what he calls anthropologists of peace for distorting the record on small-scale group violence. The classic gentle peoplethe Semang of the Malay peninsula, !Kung in Africa, and Central Arctic Inuitturned out to have higher homicide rates than those of American cities, Pinker says. He criticizes what he calls a single-minded determination to make hunter-gatherers seem as peaceful as possible.
Such charges puzzle some biological anthropologists and archaeologiststhe kinds of scholars who gather the type of data used in this debate. They do not argue for a Rousseauian perspective. But that doesn't mean they're ready to embrace a Hobbesian view, either. They 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. Pinker misused the bioarchaeological record by selecting a few populations biased toward supporting his argument, complains archaeologist Gwen Robbins Schug of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

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.