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Pinker says, "The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force." If we accept this claim, what happens to libertarian arguments for anarchy?

He also fall to the myth of the wild wild west being extremely violent...

I usually like the posts here but this one was a waste of time... Sorry!

Hi Professor Boettke,

Mr. Pinker is deeply mistaken and uses false and misleading data to support his claim. I've recently read a book titled, Sex at Dawn, by Doctors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha and in addition to casting serious doubt on many things we think we know about human nature (such as being innately violent) the author's address Steven Pinker's claims specifically.

I notice the chart used in the WSJ times article refers to "Battle deaths" I am extremely curious to see the methodology behind that. Based on the blatant lies and falsehoods made by Mr. Pinker during his 2007 TED speech on this same topic, I would not be surprised to see that "battle deaths" do not include millions of deaths that occurred violently, yet did not fall into the "battle death" classification.

It is also worth mentioning that prehistoric man comprised of 95% of the time homo sapiens have been around for. Prehistoric man was decidedly less violent than modern man when agriculture was discovered. The theory that with agriculture came property and thus something worth fighting over seems reasonable. Obviously the authors flesh it out much more thoroughly in their work. The point being when Mr. Pinker makes claims like "Why has violence declined so dramatically for so long? Is it because violence has literally been bred out of us, leaving us more peaceful by nature?" it assumes we are violent by nature, which there is no supporting evidence for. And in fact, the scientists engaged in the study of human nature find evidence for the opposite. And secondly it indicates violence is falling, while Mr. Pinker uses narrowly defined misleading statistics to document a decline in military deaths or battles etc. In his TED speech he presented an extremely similarly misleading graph as the one visible in the WSJ piece, regarding the tiny bar of violent deaths in that graphs, Dr. Christopher Ryan remarked:

"To make matters even worse, Pinker juxtaposed these bogus mortality rates with a tiny bar showing the relatively few war-related deaths of males in 20th century US 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...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 20th century warfare? In his discussion of 'our most peaceful age', he makes no mention of the Rape of Nanking, the entire Pacific theater of WWII (including the detonation of two nuclear bombs over Japan), the Khmer Rogue and Pol Pot's killing fields in Cambodia, several consecutive decades-longs 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 20th century (male) war fatalities." - Sex at Dawn pg. 334

He goes on for a bit longer, and has a much stronger issue with Pinker's demonstrably false data used to suggest the idea that humans are inherently violent. The past 5,000 years represent less than 5% of our time here on Earth, the previous 95% in which we were sans agriculture, represent a starkly different idea of human nature than those like Hobbes or Dr. Pinker continually insist to be the case with. It is telling that they either have zero supporting data or can only resort to the use of extremely misleading pieces of data to verify such claims. It's just bad science.

As an aside, Sex at Dawn, is an amazing book and definitely worth checking out!

Roger Koppl,

That claim is absurd on its face. The only way one can make it is to ignore the first 95% of human life on this planet and instead pretend the last 5% is the entire sample size. That's only step 1. Step 2 is to then use a narrow and misleading term to represent violence such as "war deaths" which exclude millions of violent deaths that occurred yet were not counted, like what goes on in Africa for instance, and presto then you have your "thank god for the state otherwise those small, decentralized groups of people would have dropped 20 A-bombs not just 2!"

"Sex at Dawn"? Was that by John Cheever?

Robert Fellner: I briefly checked out your source who seem to have imagined some sort of sexual paradise for our Pleistocene ancestors. It seems they specifically deny intra-group sexual competition except for sperm competition. I don't see how that view would square with the genetic evidence which, apparently, shows quite unambiguously that in our genetic past a few men were gettin' all the action and many men were leaving no progeny. Anyway,all of that says nothing about inter-group competition. Even if each band was a hippie commune, there was war between bands, which is certainly a form of violence. Anthropological evidence seems to back up this view.

Even if Pinker can be shown to have erred, his claim is hardly "absurd on its face." He specifically considers our pre-agricultural ancestors, so he does not "ignore the first 95% of human life." Pinker considers all deaths by human violence, so even if his numbers for battle deaths underestimate the number of violent deaths caused by war, his overall empirical claim is not affected. Your attack on Pinker is passionate, but not very reasonable. And you do not seem to have read his little WSJ piece with care before blasting it as "absurd on its face."

You speak of Pinker's supposed "lies and falsehoods." That's a serious charge. But your comments do not themselves reflect enough seriousness to make me wonder if Pinker is a liar or otherwise off base.

It is a serious charge. It's not serious to: "briefly checked out your source who seem to have imagined some sort of sexual paradise for our Pleistocene ancestors."

If you took a more serious approach to the author's findings (like actually reading and correctly understanding them) I would extend the courtesy to you and respond with a comment asking first for evidence to validate your claim that "the genetic evidence which, apparently, shows quite unambiguously that in our genetic past a few men were gettin' all the action."

Or I'd ask for your supporting evidence for, "there was war between bands, which is certainly a form of violence. "

And then after you present evidence of warring prehistoric man (which would be fascinating as a guy who wrote a book on the subject remarked on how little existed...) I would ask how that comparatively measured to the rate of violence in post-agriculture society.

If my comments do not "reflect enough seriousness" what does that say about yours?

"He specifically considers our pre-agricultural ancestors, so he does not "ignore the first 95% of human life."

Really? Please share. I found it odd that you would make such a claim, without then presenting a sample of his treatment on the matter. But perhaps you were just being lazy. As I've read the article again I can only conclude you don't understand the term, "pre-agricultural" or you are making untrue statements as a result of your tendency to briefly check out sources.

And Dr. Ryan addresses the tribal sources Mr. Pinker uses to represent pre-agricultural man. Tribes that are situated in one place - because they grow crops, or in other terms are agricultural - are not valid examples of prehistoric man.

How's that for science, analyze the remains of Aztecs and other post-agricultural tribes and use them as indicative of what humans were like PRE-agriculture 100,000 years ago? Maybe he can analyze a chicken and tell us about the nature of a polar bear next?

Dear Robert,

I haven't studied enough of the different research to make an informed judgement. But I think you might be jumping to some conclusion on the critique of Steven Pinker, and also engaged in some rhetorical tricks by referring constantly to the authors of Sex at Dawn as Dr. but Pinker as Mr. I am sure you know that "Mr Pinker" is a Professor at Harvard, and has spent his career either at MIT or Harvard. So I think your rhetorical trick is not going to work.

Assess the arguments --- which I see you are doing --- but no need to try to rhetorically privilege one group of authors, and discount another (especially when there is a major disjoint moving in the opposite direction in the professional position of the respective authors, including educational background, publications, and professional appointments.

Please don't misunderstand me, perhaps Ryan and Jetha have come up with evidence that will overturn Pinker, but I'd have to examine that. My prior is that their theory of sexual commons doesn't sound right. But your defense of their work makes me want to look. My prior from other historical works, is that life in the past was not very pleasant -- -it was nasty, brutish and short, not communal, cooperative, and wonderful.

Since I know you are a student of Austrian economics --- I'd suggest reading Rothbard's Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Reason, and also his statements in Man, Economy and State on the origins of society. This might raise some challenges for you to think about with respect to this picture of the "pre-history of man". BTW, there was also a very interesting article in Nature recently that discusses the importance of trade for the development of social cooperation; and also Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist.

I apologize for referring to Steven Pinker as Mr. It wasn't an intentional tactic on my part, I honestly have no familiarity with academia and so forth and was initially going to refer to him as Dr. as well, but was unsure if he had a PhD and was too lazy to look it up and settled on the "Mr" tag instead. I certainly concede any rhetorical tactic meant to lessen his credentials would be foolish, as you mention he has them in spades!

I will certainly review the works you suggested, I believe I have read the Rothbard essay a few years ago, but I don't remember it all too well. I certainly was of the same position as the consensus on this matter before coming across this work. I highly recommend reviewing it for yourself, as I think it exposes some cracks in the narrative, that I for one, have accepted a bit too uncritically in the past.

One of my favorite parts about this book was his focus on confirmation bias and the tendency for us as people to fill in blanks with information that we have garnered from our own life. This is obviously problematic normally, but extremely so when the subject matter one is supposed to be researching is of human nature itself!

I'm searching for that Nature article but don't seem to be having much luck. If anyone finds it I'd like to see it as well. If you pass it along, thank you very much.

I'm still hoping to here how a libertarian anarchist might respond Pinker's claim that the state has reduced violent deaths over time. I would have that this claim would be a huge challenge to the anarcho-capitalist perspective. But both here and on Facebook I haven't seen a response or even an acknowledgment that it is challenging claim from that point of view. Or is the discussion happening somewhere I'm not looking?


This is an important historical question, but I don't think it undermines the fundamental point about self-governance, or the paradox of even limited government. Did the establishment of public authority curtail private predation? Perhaps. But it created the possibility of public predation! Is public predation worse than private predation? Well if you look at the social experiments of the 20th century and the strategic use of terror, I'd say it would be hard to deny that.

I think the libertarian is left back where North argues in STructure and Change --- the state can be the spur for development (by establishing property) and it can be the impediment to development (by confiscating). Negotiating that trade-off is the interesting point for political economy.

And remember in the "anarchy" work that we are doing here, it is the positive political economy of anarchism ---- the sort of work that follows, as Rajan put it, when you "assume anarchy" because you cannot assume a working framework.

Do we have more faith than others about people stumbling their way through and learning to live better together without the need for the establishment of a geographic monopoly of coercion? Of course. But it is an empirical project ultimately, not just a theoretical speculation.

FYI, I have recently had some thought on the matter published in Jrnl. of Bioecon:


It seems to me Pinker's point about the state is a bit confused, but is somewhat compatible with anarcho-libertarian ideas: the development of some institutional legal systems that are more or less effective at prohibiting private interpersonal crime and violence may help achieve the effect he is getting at, even if it could be done better with a minimal state or no state. Although he does not explain, as far as I can see, why 1870 or whatever finally saw a dramatic improvement in such institutions.

Thanks for that sensible answer, Stephan. You could say that we needed the state to establish law and order or even just that the state did, in fact, establish law and order. You could then say that the state's good services are no longer required and are, in fact, increasing violence compared to the anarchist alternative made possible by the state. I ain't buyin' it, but I do recognize that as coherent and not, like, contrived or something.

Pete, good point on empirics, which I also recognize.

Just to be clear and upfront, I'll repeat what I've said before on anarchy: I don't think anarchy is theoretically coherent since it would have to be designed. IMHO, when you pursue *that* point, you end up unable to say what the difference is between reforming the state and abolishing the state. And I think anarchy is so far from our experience that speculations on what it would be like are unreliable. I think of that last remark as a pure Hume.

I don't remember where I read this, but someone estimated the homicide rate in 15th and 16th century England to be about 30 per 100,000 per year, which was claimed to be fairly typical of peacetime Europe before 1800. Similar rates are found nowadays in Latin America, Russia, and some US cities, while the US as a whole has a rate of about 5, Canada, Europe, and much of Asia about 2 or 3 and Japan less than 1. Couldn't this be seen as an indication that economic growth stimulates peaceful co-existence as a desirable by-product? In other words, Detroit is a more typical human society in terms of violence than most of the rest of the West (and Far East)is today.

If we look at chimpanzee behavior, we can clearly see we are not from non-violent stock. In fact, what we see among our closest relatives is that hierarchical social structures, like that of chimpanzee troops (and human tribes, who protected their own territories, and thus did recognize property rights, contra Romantic notions otherwise), results in violent, war-like behavior, while more egalitarian social structures, like that of bonobo troops (and spontaneous orders), result in more peaceful, trading behavior. Understanding ape ethology helps one understand human ethology. It is a necessary foundation for really understanding human nature and, as a consequence, human action.

It is usually not "zero sum" plunder; it is usually negative sum because us-versus-them tribalism was all about not only raiding but killing. In a book entitled War before Civilization this point is made at great length and in detail.

@ James McClure
Very interesting article. Thanks for the link. I recommend this to anyone interested in the above conversation.

War Before Civilization further cements the point I have been trying to make. Agriculture is an extremely recent phenomenon in the history of man. Analyzing post-agriculture societies and using that data as indicative of the nature of man, while ignoring the previous 95% of man's existence, is not good science.

In the book, War Before Civilization, which has been referred to as "smashing the peaceful primitive man myth" the author writes: "The only way a gardening tribe or hunting band could conduct an extended [military] campaign would be by first becoming an agricultural state."

Prior to agriculture, in a world where there were at times only 100,000 homo sapiens on the entire planet, what exactly was the conflict that led to such supposedly high frequency of wars about? Why is there virtually no evidence of these violent conflicts in the roaming hunter-gatherer societies that were found in the first 95% of homo sapiens' existence?

This scarcity (or lack thereof) issue and the property rights that emerge because of it, also manifests itself in the chimp comparison. Jane Goodall's famous experiments with chimps found little evidence of violence. Yet by setting up a specific time and place with a locked chest of food to attract the chimps to a specific area, so she could conduct her research, all of a sudden there was something to be fought over. This phenomenon was documented by Goodall herself, and other researchers that were with her.

The natural state of chimpanzees and their living conditions were dramatically shifted during this research period. Goodall herself remarked at how violent the chimps were becoming as a result of the placement of a locked chest of food in the clearing area she set up to conduct her research. Isn't it at least possible, the violent reactions she then observed were a result of the conditions and environment the chimps found themselves in, as opposed to simply being "violent by nature"?

I think it is a mistake to ignore the first 195,000 years of man's existence and focus entirely on the past 5k or so, in which their entire living conditions were radically changed due to agriculture.

Furthermore, humans are genetically as close to bonobos as we are to chimps, and yet the bonobo does not exhibit any of the "innate" aggressive and violent tendencies that are claimed to be found in the chimpanzee.

This area of discussion becomes less and less clear the more I research it. I encourage all interested to do the same.

@David Hoopes: Glad you found my note interesting; thank you for recommending it to others!

You are talking about violence within the chimpanzee troop -- something that is relatively rare so long as there is a stable political alliance -- while I was talking about violence between chimpanzee troops. Chimpanzees do not engage in extended wars, but in border disputes. That does not make them any less deadly. One troop will engage in a war of annihilation on another troop whenever they encounter each other. Bonobos engage in far less in-group violence than chimpanzees, and their low population density makes interactions between troops rare at best, so we really don't know how they behave toward each other when two troops come in contact. Their intergroup behavior is suggestive, but not sufficient.

Yes, humans are slightly closer to bonobos genetically, but that doesn't mean our behaviors are necessarily caused by that closeness. Bonobos share a few neotenous traits with us, but we can see on the evolutionary tree leading toward us a great deal of evidence for more chimpanzee-like (and gorilla-like with the sexual dimorphism of some) behaviors than bonobo ones.

I note that you conveniently ignore all of the data on how much more violent tribes are than agricultural peoples. Lack of extended war is not the same as lack of war, or lack of deaths caused by war. Pre-agricultural tribes are terribly violent, and they consider everyone not in their tribe to be not-human. Civilization is truly civilizing. But that can only be seen if one takes off (or never dons) the romantic Rousseauean glasses.


I started reading Sex at Dawn, and I will be patient with it. But at first I am not as impressed with its basic argument as you seem to be, and I also don't think it is as based on empirical research as much as a theoretical framework that says that there was a peaceful and harmonious past. To be honest, look at the theoretical framework the authors rely on and think about why they want to have that image of our past for their critique of our present.

This isn't anything new as such, the narrative being constructed has been constructed before.

Anyway, I am going to withhold judgement until I read much more. I think mankind has exhibited throughout its history two fundamental propensities: (1) rape, pillage and plunder, and (2) to truck, barter and exchange. One exploits our violent side, the other relies on cooperation. Which direction we see in history is a function of the institutions under which we find ourselves interacting with one another. The problem is that the very institutions I would identify largely with steering us toward our cooperative side, are in fact the institutions that the authors of works such as Sex at Dawn think are responsible for our violent side. I actually think the empirical evidence weighs strongly in favor of my interpretation. But again, let me keep studying and trying to figure this out.

I agree with you that this is all fascinating stuff to learn about.

Professor Boettke,

I'm glad you find this research matter as fascinating as I do! I agree with your comments, especially the part that the institutions which we find ourselves under play a prominent role in shifting us towards either violence or cooperation.

As Sex at Dawn isn't specifically written to address this topic (with the exception of chapter 13 not too much time is devoted to it) I have sought out additional reading material to satisfy my intellectual curiosity! Anthropologist Douglas Fry wrote a very well-received book, "Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace" that I am going to tackle next.

I think the only thing we know for certain is that this will probably continue to be a very long running debate. My understanding so far is not that we are necessarily peaceful by nature, but just that we are also not necessarily violent by nature either. We have the capacity for both and I am certainly in full agreement that the institutions and environment we are placed in have a tremendous impact on bringing one or the other out. I also quite enthusiastically agree that trade and commerce are in a very large way responsible for moving us towards peace, and away from violence.


You wrote:

I note that you conveniently ignore all of the data on how much more violent tribes are than agricultural peoples. Lack of extended war is not the same as lack of war, or lack of deaths caused by war. Pre-agricultural tribes are terribly violent, and they consider everyone not in their tribe to be not-human.

I'm not sure why you are assigning a malicious motive to me, but I am not deliberately ignoring any data. I haven't come across that, if you could point me in the direction of some materials that document the terribly violent pre-agriculture tribes you talk about, I would appreciate it. Understanding of course that pre-agriculture means no farming, no crops, basically from human life that is from over 10,000+ or more years ago. Thanks!

I should be more gracious about the sources of people's arguments. Certainly ignorance of information is hardly uncommon, especially when we (typically) search out those things that already support out positions. It's not uncommon, and people don't do it for malicious reasons. We are just more comfortable confirming out own beliefs than challenging them. Since this is in good faith, I offer:



As I do not share the same tendency as you feel "we" do to "search out those things that already support our positions", I am quite familiar with the research done on the Yanomani. It's funny that in your comment you are projecting your experience with humans (either from yourself personally or people you know) and then projecting that as being a part of human nature - which is specifically the error criticized in the various forms of research that examine a tribe that is violent and then conclude - look humans must be violent by nature!

According to Patrick Tiereny, author of "Darkness in El Dorado, "The wars that made Chagnon and the Yanomani famous - the ones he wrote about with such relish in "The Fierce People - began on November 14, 1964, the same day the antrhopologist arrived with his shotguns, outboard motor, and a canoe full of steel goods to give away" Tierney cites Chagnon's own doctoral thesis, showing that in the thirteen years prior to his arrive, no Namowei (a large branch of the Yanomami) had been killed in warfare. But during his thirteen-month residence among them, ten Yanomani died in a conflict between the Namowei and the Patanowateri (another branch).

Kenneth Good, an anthropologist who frist went to live with the Yanoimami as one of Chagnon's graduate students and stayed no for twelve years, described Chagnon as a "hit and run anthropologist who comes into villages with armloads of machetes to purchase cooperation for his research, Unfortunately, he creates conflict and division wherever he goes."

See S@D pg. 195 for more and appropriate footnotes etc.

The fact that studies like these, which are rife with possible errors such as the disruption caused by the researcher, are the basis for the absolute claim that humans are violent by nature, is perhaps one of the most emphatic examples of the "ignorance of information and failure to search out these things that don't already support our existing viewpoints" that you mention in your comment above.

It's just not good science to assert such an authoritative claim of the nature of something, based on such flimsy and situational evidence. Especially when man is a social creature and disruptions in society have such a large impact.

Good later wrote that Chagnon's book had "blown the subject out of any sane proportion," arguing that "what he had done was tantamount to saying that New Yorkers are muggers and murderers."

Every tribe of this sort has been shown to have very high levels of violence. The few counter-examples have been shown to have less than honest -- or at least, ideologically blinded -- anthropologists doing the studies. The most famous cases is of course Meade, who was apparently unaware that she was being lied to by the people she was studying. There's that, too. Turns out you just can't always trust the people you are studying, and you never know when they are ridiculing you (as happened with the anthropologist Victor Turner, when he discovered that what he thought was a term of endearment was the tribe making fun of him).

Some simple evolutionary theory:

Suppose you have several tribes of people who trusted everyone they came into contact with, and another set of tribes who did not trust any strange tribes they came into contact with, and instead killed them when they contacted them. Which set of tribes is going to survive to pass on their genes? Now let us make this slightly more complex. Suppose some of the latter group also engage in trade with other tribes they have relatives in. Now which set of tribes will survive?

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