Thursday, November 24, 2011

John Gray's Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Steven Pinker

Perhaps the most vehement attack on Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature is John Gray's review in Prospect magazine.  Gray is just as vehement in his attack on Frank Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order in The New Republic (November 9, 2011).  Both reviews show Gray's angry scorn for liberal capitalist republicanism and his nihilistic disdain for the Enlightenment idea of moral progress.

Gray's commitment to the intellectual tradition of the counter-Enlightenment is evident in his books Straw Dogs and Black Mass, and in an interview with Laurie Taylor.  A. C. Grayling has written a good rebuttal.  (See Peter Lassman, "Pluralism and its Discontents: John Gray's Counter-Enlightenment," in John Horton and Glen Newey, eds., The Political Theory of John Gray [Routledge, 2007].)

Gray dismisses the idea of moral progress in history as showing a utopian blindness to the harsh reality of the human condition, a utopianism that can only be explained as a secularization in the Enlightenment of the Christian faith in salvational history as leading to a final age of redemptive bliss.

Grayling points to the fundamental idea that Gray ignores: "trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect. . . . meliorism is not perfectibilism."  Contrary to what Gray implies, Pinker never claims that human history is headed towards the perfection of perpetual peace--a world without any war or violence.  But Pinker does claim that history shows a general pattern of declining war and violence, although the pattern can be broken by random contingencies that lead to irruptions of horrific killing. 

Another way of saying this is that Gray fails to see the differences between the French Enlightenment, on the one hand, and the British and American Enlightenments, on the other.  Pinker embraces the "tragic vision" of the British and American Enlightenments, in which human progress was constrained by the imperfections of human nature, in contrast to the utopian perfectionism in some strands of the French Enlightenment that explains the excesses of the French Revolution.  Pinker writes: "An acknowledgement of human nature may have been the chief difference between the American revolutionaries and their French confreres, who had the romantic conviction that they were rendering human limitations obsolete.  In 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the Terror, wrote, 'The French people seem to have outstripped the rest of humanity by two thousand years; one might be tempted to regard them, living amongst them, as a different species'" (185-86).

A crucial part of Pinker's argument is numerous statistical analyses of historical data showing a decline in violence.  How does Gray respond to this?  He repeatedly speaks about Pinker's "impressive-looking graphs and statistics," his "not always very illuminating statistics," and his "panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts."  That's it.  He breezily dismisses the statistics as "impressive-looking" without ever explaining what's wrong with the statistical arguments.  In fact, he never even mentions any of the details of these arguments, and thus he refuses to specify exactly what he thinks is wrong with Pinker's statistical reasoning.  We can see here the style of writing that Gray prefers--confident assertion unsupported by factual or argumentative reasoning.

Gray might respond to this by insisting that he has demonstrated Pinker's "resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts" by citing the many wars of the past 65 years that are ignored by Pinker.  Against Pinker's claim that the world has enjoyed a "Long Peace" since World War II, during which the Great Powers have not fought one another, Gray writes:
The Korean war, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, decades of civil war in the Congo and Guatemala, the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan war--these are only some of the armed conflicts through which the great powers pursued their rivalries while avoiding direct war with each other.  When the end of the Cold War removed the Soviet Union from the scene, war did not end.  It continued in the first Gulf war, the Balkan wars, Chechnya, the Iraq war and in Afghanistan and Kashmir, among other conflicts.  Taken together these conflicts add up to a formidable sum of violence.  For Pinker they are minor, peripheral and hardly worth mentioning.
Gray's readers are left with the impression that Pinker says nothing about these 19 wars listed by Gray because for Pinker, they are "hardly worth mentioning."  But any reader who actually looks at Pinker's book will notice that not only does he mention most of these wars, he offers evidence that they conform to the pattern of declining violence.  Consider, for example, the following passage:
To be sure, the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of the 21st century show that the country is far from reluctant to go to war.  But even they are nothing like the wars of the past.  In both conflicts the interstate war phase was quick and (by historical standards) low in battle deaths.  Most of the deaths in Iraq were caused by intercommunal violence in the anarchy that followed, and by 2008 the toll of 4,000 American deaths (compare Vietnam's 58,000) helped elect a president who within two years brought the country's combat mission to an end.  In Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force followed a set of humanitarian protocols during the height of the anti-Taliban bombing campaign in 2008 that Human Rights Watch praised for its "very good record of minimizing harm to civilians." (266)
Pinker's point is that even as the U.S. continues to fight wars, we can see the pattern of declining violence in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they show "an extraordinarily low number of civilian deaths for a major military operation" (267).  If there is a flaw in Pinker's reasoning, Gray has not identified it.

Furthermore, Gray is silent about how Pinker sets the "Long Peace" of the past 65 years at the end of a history of declining violence stretching back to the Stone Age.  It's the expansiveness of this deep historical pattern that makes Pinker's argument so powerful.  Gray does not even acknowledge this, much less refute it.

Oddly enough, Gray does acknowledge--in one sentence--that "no doubt we have become less violent in some ways."  This seems to be an admission that Pinker's argument is at least partially true.  But Gray says nothing more about this. 

Actually, I suspect that Gray has not bothered to read all of Pinker's book.  There is lots of evidence for this in Gray's review.  For example, Gray suggests that Pinker has ignored the scientific evidence showing that "human thought and perception are riddled with bias, inconsistency, and self-deception."  And yet Pinker actually stresses this point as part of his argument, because he explains that one reason why it's hard for us to see the decline in violence over human history is the "availability bias"--the illusion of calculating probabilities based on examples that are most easily recalled.  So we easily remember the dramatic atrocities of the recent past, but we are unaware of the great atrocities of the distant past, so we infer that violence is increasing rather than decreasing, and thus it has become a cliche to say that "the twentieth century was the bloodiest in history," although a statistical analysis of history denies this (189-99).  This is one of the main ideas of Pinker's book.  Gray says nothing about it.

Gray asserts that The Better Angels of Our Nature contradicts Pinker's earlier book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002).  In Blank Slate, Gray says, Pinker's "emphasis on the constancy of human nature limited the scope of future human advance."  By contrast, "the decline of violence posited in The Better Angels of Our Nature is a progressive transformation of precisely the kind his earlier book seemed to preclude."  But as I have pointed out in an earlier post, Pinker's argument in Better Angels is largely an elaboration of what he said in Chapter 17 ("Violence") of The Blank Slate.  There's no contradiction in saying that both violent conflict and peaceful cooperation are rooted in human nature, and so, while violence can never be completely eliminated, we can see moral progress towards declining violence as conditions cultivate the "better angels of our nature."

Another bizarre feature of Gray's review is that he accuses Pinker of not understanding Darwin's evolutionary science.  According to Gray, Darwin teaches us that moral progress is impossible, and thus "if Darwin's theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour."  Gray does not cite any particular passages in Darwin's writing to support this conclusion.  His only support is a vague assertion that Darwin taught that human beings are just brute animals, and therefore they can never rise above the violence of the animal world.  This ignores Darwin's insistence in the Descent of Man that the cultural evolution of reciprocal cooperation supports moral progress.  So, for instance, he declares in the last chapter: "The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection."

Gray's assertions about Darwin are as ungrounded as those about Pinker.


domenico said...

I read in Pinker's book: "Air Force followed a set of humanitarian protocols during the height of the anti-Taliban bombing campaign in 2008 that Human Rights Watch praised for its "very good record of minimizing harm to civilians."

I read in original HRW's article: "When aerial bombing is PLANNED, mostly against suspected Taliban targets, US and NATO forces in Afghanistan have had a very good record of minimizing harm to civilians. In 2008, no PLANNED airstrikes appear to have resulted in civilian casualties".

So not all the "anti-Taliban bombing campaign in 2008" but only the planned attacks...

And when attacks are not planned?
"US and NATO forces have been far more likely to cause civilian casualties in unplanned situations, normally when ground troops call in airstrikes as tactical support when under attack from insurgent forces, or to target insurgent forces on the move. The vast majority of known civilian deaths and injuries from airstrikes in Afghanistan come in these situations. Often these situations involve "Troops in Contact" (TIC).

Empedocles said...

I'd like to make a gentleman's bet. The most optimistic scenario I've seen predicts global oil production to peak around 2020 and begin to decline thereafter (others predict a sooner peak). I'll bet that if we are not able to either ramp up renewables to replace the lost energy, and/or are not able to switch other fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas or nuclear to do what oil does for us (mostly transportation), and if economic growth goes into decline as a result, then we will see an increase in violence that will persist for as long as the decline in energy production persists until human population stabilizes at a level that can be supported by the resulting levels of energy production. This violence will get increasingly worse as natural gas and then coal production peaks in later decades. If I'm wrong, it will be the most delicious crow I've ever tasted.

Troy Camplin said...

One has to wonder why it is that Gray *wants* Pinker to be wrong. That is the only explanation for the attack, since he can't deny the facts involved.

Anonymous said...

One post(there are more) about Pinker errors;

His statistics is wrong...