The Fallacy of Human Progress

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is cited gleefully by leftists and cockeyed optimists as evidence that human beings, on the whole, are becoming kinder and gentler because of:

  • The Leviathan – The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent…self-serving biases.”
  • Commerce – The rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”;
  • Feminization – Increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”
  • Cosmopolitanism – the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which “can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”;
  • The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

I can tell you that Pinker’s book is hogwash because two very bright leftists — Peter Singer and Will Wilkinson — have strongly and wrongly endorsed some of its key findings. Singer writes:

Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution. Among the wide range of evidence he produces in support of that argument is the tidbit that since 1946, there has been a negative correlation between an American president’s I.Q. and the number of battle deaths in wars involving the United States.

I disposed of this staggeringly specious correlation here:

There is the convenient cutoff point of 1946. Why 1946? Well, it enables Pinker-Singer to avoid the inconvenient fact that the Civil War, World War I, and World War II happened while the presidency was held by three men who [purportedly] had high IQs: Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR….

If you buy the brand of snake oil being peddled by Pinker-Singer, you must believe that the “dumbest” and “smartest” presidents are unlikely to get the U.S. into wars that result in a lot of battle deaths, whereas some (but, mysteriously, not all) of the “medium-smart” presidents (Lincoln, Wilson, FDR) are likely to do so….

Let us advance from one to two explanatory variables. The second explanatory variable that strongly suggests itself is political party. And because it is not good practice to omit relevant statistics (a favorite gambit of liars), I estimated an equation based on “IQ” and battle deaths for the 27 men who served as president from the first Republican presidency (Lincoln’s) through the presidency of GWB….

In other words, battle deaths rise at the rate of 841 per IQ point (so much for Pinker-Singer). But there will be fewer deaths with a Republican in the White House (so much for Pinker-Singer’s implied swipe at GWB)….

All of this is nonsense, of course, for two reasons: [the] estimates of IQ are hogwash, and the number of U.S. battle deaths is a meaningless number, taken by itself.

… [The] estimates of presidents’ IQs put every one of them — including the “dumbest,” U.S. Grant — in the top 2.3 percent of the population. And the mean of Simonton’s estimates puts the average president in the top 0.1 percent (one-tenth of one percent) of the population. That is literally incredible.

As for Wilkinson, he praises statistics adduced by Pinker that show a decline in the use of capital punishment:

In the face of such a decisive trend in moral culture, we can say a couple different things. We can say that this is just change and says nothing in particular about what is really right or wrong, good or bad. Or we can take take say this is evidence of moral progress, that we have actually become better. I prefer the latter interpretation for basically the same reasons most of us see the abolition of slavery and the trend toward greater equality between races and sexes as progress and not mere morally indifferent change. We can talk about the nature of moral progress later. It’s tricky. For now, I want you to entertain the possibility that convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong counts as evidence that it is wrong.

My observation:

I would count convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong as evidence that it is wrong, if … that idea were (a) increasingly held by individuals who (b) had arrived at their “enlightenment” unnfluenced by operatives of the state (legislatures and judges), who take it upon themselves to flout popular support of the death penalty. What we have, in the case of the death penalty, is moral regress, not moral progress.

Moral regress because the abandonment of the death penalty puts innocent lives at risk. Capital punishment sends a message, and the message is effective when it is delivered: it deters homicide. And even if it didn’t, it would at least remove killers from our midst, permanently. By what standard of morality can one claim that it is better to spare killers than to protect innocents? For that matter, by what standard of morality is it better to kill innocents (in the womb) than to spare killers? Proponents of abortion (like Singer and Wilkinson) — who by and large oppose capital punishment — are completely lacking in moral authority.

Returning to Pinker’s thesis that violence has declined, I quote a review at Foseti:

Pinker’s basic problem is that he essentially defines “violence” in such a way that his thesis that violence is declining becomes self-fulling. “Violence” to Pinker is fundamentally synonymous with behaviors of older civilizations. On the other hand, modern practices are defined to be less violent than newer practices.

A while back, I linked to a story about a guy in my neighborhood who’s been arrested over 60 times for breaking into cars. A couple hundred years ago, this guy would have been killed for this sort of vandalism after he got caught the first time. Now, we feed him and shelter him for a while and then we let him back out to do this again. Pinker defines the new practice as a decline in violence – we don’t kill the guy anymore! Someone from a couple hundred years ago would be appalled that we let the guy continue destroying other peoples’ property without consequence. In the mind of those long dead, “violence” has in fact increased. Instead of a decline in violence, this practice seems to me like a decline in justice – nothing more or less.

Here’s another example, Pinker uses creative definitions to show that the conflicts of the 20th Century pale in comparison to previous conflicts. For example, all the Mongol Conquests are considered one event, even though they cover 125 years. If you lump all these various conquests together and you split up WWI, WWII, Mao’s takeover in China, the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the Russian Civil War, and the Chinese Civil War (yes, he actually considers this a separate event from Mao), you unsurprisingly discover that the events of the 20th Century weren’t all that violent compared to events in the past! Pinker’s third most violent event is the “Mideast Slave Trade” which he says took place between the 7th and 19th Centuries. Seriously. By this standard, all the conflicts of the 20th Century are related. Is the Russian Revolution or the rise of Mao possible without WWII? Is WWII possible without WWI? By this consistent standard, the 20th Century wars of Communism would have seen the worst conflict by far. Of course, if you fiddle with the numbers, you can make any point you like.

There’s much more to the review, including some telling criticisms of Pinker’s five reasons for the (purported) decline in violence. That the reviewer somehow still wants to believe in the rightness of Pinker’s thesis says more about the reviewer’s optimism than it does about the validity of Pinker’s thesis.

That thesis is fundamentally flawed, as Robert Epstein points out in a review at Scientific American:

[T]he wealth of data [Pinker] presents cannot be ignored—unless, that is, you take the same liberties as he sometimes does in his book. In two lengthy chapters, Pinker describes psychological processes that make us either violent or peaceful, respectively. Our dark side is driven by a evolution-based propensity toward predation and dominance. On the angelic side, we have, or at least can learn, some degree of self-control, which allows us to inhibit dark tendencies.

There is, however, another psychological process—confirmation bias—that Pinker sometimes succumbs to in his book. People pay more attention to facts that match their beliefs than those that undermine them. Pinker wants peace, and he also believes in his hypothesis; it is no surprise that he focuses more on facts that support his views than on those that do not. The SIPRI arms data are problematic, and a reader can also cherry-pick facts from Pinker’s own book that are inconsistent with his position. He notes, for example, that during the 20th century homicide rates failed to decline in both the U.S. and England. He also describes in graphic and disturbing detail the savage way in which chimpanzees—our closest genetic relatives in the animal world—torture and kill their own kind.

Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker’s entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease? By this logic, when we reach a world population of nine billion in 2050, Pinker will conceivably be satisfied if a mere two million people are killed in war that year.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is its overreliance on history, which, like the light on a caboose, shows us only where we are not going. We live in a time when all the rules are being rewritten blindingly fast—when, for example, an increasingly smaller number of people can do increasingly greater damage. Yes, when you move from the Stone Age to modern times, some violence is left behind, but what happens when you put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of modern people who in many ways are still living primitively? What happens when the unprecedented occurs—when a country such as Iran, where women are still waiting for even the slightest glimpse of those better angels, obtains nuclear weapons? Pinker doesn’t say.

Pinker’s belief that violence is on the decline reminds me of “it’s different this time,” a phrase that was on the lips of hopeful stock-pushers, stock-buyers, and pundits during the stock-market bubble of the late 1990s. That bubble ended, of course, in the spectacular crash of 2000.

Predictions about the future of humankind are better left in the hands of writers who see human nature whole, and who are not out to prove that it can be shaped or contained by the kinds of “liberal” institutions that Pinker so obviously favors.

Consider this, from an article by Robert J. Samuelson at The Washington Post:

[T]he Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

By cyberwarfare, I mean the capacity of groups — whether nations or not — to attack, disrupt and possibly destroy the institutions and networks that underpin everyday life. These would be power grids, pipelines, communication and financial systems, business record-keeping and supply-chain operations, railroads and airlines, databases of all types (from hospitals to government agencies). The list runs on. So much depends on the Internet that its vulnerability to sabotage invites doomsday visions of the breakdown of order and trust.

In a report, the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, acknowledged “staggering losses” of information involving weapons design and combat methods to hackers (not identified, but probably Chinese). In the future, hackers might disarm military units. “U.S. guns, missiles and bombs may not fire, or may be directed against our own troops,” the report said. It also painted a specter of social chaos from a full-scale cyberassault. There would be “no electricity, money, communications, TV, radio or fuel (electrically pumped). In a short time, food and medicine distribution systems would be ineffective.”

But Pinker wouldn’t count the resulting chaos as violence, as long as human beings were merely starving and dying of various diseases. That violence would ensue, of course, is another story, which is told by John Gray in The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. Gray’s book — published  18 months after Better Angels — could be read as a refutation of Pinker’s book, though Gray doesn’t mention Pinker or his book.

The gist of Gray’s argument is faithfully recounted in a review of Gray’s book by Robert W. Merry at The National Interest:

The noted British historian J. B. Bury (1861–1927) … wrote, “This doctrine of the possibility of indefinitely moulding the characters of men by laws and institutions . . . laid a foundation on which the theory of the perfectibility of humanity could be raised. It marked, therefore, an important stage in the development of the doctrine of Progress.”

We must pause here over this doctrine of progress. It may be the most powerful idea ever conceived in Western thought—emphasizing Western thought because the idea has had little resonance in other cultures or civilizations. It is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization—and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future…. The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted “a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination.” And Bury, who wrote a book on the subject, called it “the great transforming conception, which enables history to define her scope.”

Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.” In an earlier work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he was more blunt: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.”

…Gray has produced more than twenty books demonstrating an expansive intellectual range, a penchant for controversy, acuity of analysis and a certain political clairvoyance.

He rejected, for example, Francis Fukuyama’s heralded “End of History” thesis—that Western liberal democracy represents the final form of human governance—when it appeared in this magazine in 1989. History, it turned out, lingered long enough to prove Gray right and Fukuyama wrong….

Though for decades his reputation was confined largely to intellectual circles, Gray’s public profile rose significantly with the 2002 publication of Straw Dogs, which sold impressively and brought him much wider acclaim than he had known before. The book was a concerted and extensive assault on the idea of progress and its philosophical offspring, secular humanism. The Silence of Animals is in many ways a sequel, plowing much the same philosophical ground but expanding the cultivation into contiguous territory mostly related to how mankind—and individual humans—might successfully grapple with the loss of both metaphysical religion of yesteryear and today’s secular humanism. The fundamentals of Gray’s critique of progress are firmly established in both books and can be enumerated in summary.

First, the idea of progress is merely a secular religion, and not a particularly meaningful one at that. “Today,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, “liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.”

Second, the underlying problem with this humanist impulse is that it is based upon an entirely false view of human nature—which, contrary to the humanist insistence that it is malleable, is immutable and impervious to environmental forces. Indeed, it is the only constant in politics and history. Of course, progress in scientific inquiry and in resulting human comfort is a fact of life, worth recognition and applause. But it does not change the nature of man, any more than it changes the nature of dogs or birds. “Technical progress,” writes Gray, again in Straw Dogs, “leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.”

That’s because, third, the underlying nature of humans is bred into the species, just as the traits of all other animals are. The most basic trait is the instinct for survival, which is placed on hold when humans are able to live under a veneer of civilization. But it is never far from the surface. In The Silence of Animals, Gray discusses the writings of Curzio Malaparte, a man of letters and action who found himself in Naples in 1944, shortly after the liberation. There he witnessed a struggle for life that was gruesome and searing. “It is a humiliating, horrible thing, a shameful necessity, a fight for life,” wrote Malaparte. “Only for life. Only to save one’s skin.” Gray elaborates:

Observing the struggle for life in the city, Malaparte watched as civilization gave way. The people the inhabitants had imagined themselves to be—shaped, however imperfectly, by ideas of right and wrong—disappeared. What were left were hungry animals, ready to do anything to go on living; but not animals of the kind that innocently kill and die in forests and jungles. Lacking a self-image of the sort humans cherish, other animals are content to be what they are. For human beings the struggle for survival is a struggle against themselves.

When civilization is stripped away, the raw animal emerges. “Darwin showed that humans are like other animals,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, expressing in this instance only a partial truth. Humans are different in a crucial respect, captured by Gray himself when he notes that Homo sapiens inevitably struggle with themselves when forced to fight for survival. No other species does that, just as no other species has such a range of spirit, from nobility to degradation, or such a need to ponder the moral implications as it fluctuates from one to the other. But, whatever human nature is—with all of its capacity for folly, capriciousness and evil as well as virtue, magnanimity and high-mindedness—it is embedded in the species through evolution and not subject to manipulation by man-made institutions.

Fourth, the power of the progress idea stems in part from the fact that it derives from a fundamental Christian doctrine—the idea of providence, of redemption….

“By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs,” writes Gray, “Christianity . . . founded the modern world.” But the modern world retained a powerful philosophical outlook from the classical world—the Socratic faith in reason, the idea that truth will make us free; or, as Gray puts it, the “myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world.” Thus did a fundamental change emerge in what was hoped of the future. And, as the power of Christian faith ebbed, along with its idea of providence, the idea of progress, tied to the Socratic myth, emerged to fill the gap. “Many transmutations were needed before the Christian story could renew itself as the myth of progress,” Gray explains. “But from being a succession of cycles like the seasons, history came to be seen as a story of redemption and salvation, and in modern times salvation became identified with the increase of knowledge and power.”

Thus, it isn’t surprising that today’s Western man should cling so tenaciously to his faith in progress as a secular version of redemption. As Gray writes, “Among contemporary atheists, disbelief in progress is a type of blasphemy. Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege.” In one of his more brutal passages, he adds:

Humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith. They see the realization of human potential as the goal of history, when rational inquiry shows history to have no goal. They exalt nature, while insisting that humankind—an accident of nature—can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals. Plainly absurd, this nonsense gives meaning to the lives of people who believe they have left all myths behind.

In the Silence of Animals, Gray explores all this through the works of various writers and thinkers. In the process, he employs history and literature to puncture the conceits of those who cling to the progress idea and the humanist view of human nature. Those conceits, it turns out, are easily punctured when subjected to Gray’s withering scrutiny….

And yet the myth of progress is so powerful in part because it gives meaning to modern Westerners struggling, in an irreligious era, to place themselves in a philosophical framework larger than just themselves….

Much of the human folly catalogued by Gray in The Silence of Animals makes a mockery of the earnest idealism of those who later shaped and molded and proselytized humanist thinking into today’s predominant Western civic philosophy.

There was an era of realism, but it was short-lived:

But other Western philosophers, particularly in the realm of Anglo-Saxon thought, viewed the idea of progress in much more limited terms. They rejected the idea that institutions could reshape mankind and usher in a golden era of peace and happiness. As Bury writes, “The general tendency of British thought was to see salvation in the stability of existing institutions, and to regard change with suspicion.” With John Locke, these thinkers restricted the proper role of government to the need to preserve order, protect life and property, and maintain conditions in which men might pursue their own legitimate aims. No zeal here to refashion human nature or remake society.

A leading light in this category of thinking was Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the British statesman and philosopher who, writing in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, characterized the bloody events of the Terror as “the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.” He saw them, in other words, as reflecting an abstractionist outlook that lacked any true understanding of human nature. The same skepticism toward the French model was shared by many of the Founding Fathers, who believed with Burke that human nature isn’t malleable but rather potentially harmful to society. Hence, it needed to be checked. The central distinction between the American and French revolutions, in the view of conservative writer Russell Kirk, was that the Americans generally held a “biblical view of man and his bent toward sin,” whereas the French opted for “an optimistic doctrine of human goodness.” Thus, the American governing model emerged as a secular covenant “designed to restrain the human tendencies toward violence and fraud . . . [and] place checks upon will and appetite.”

Most of the American Founders rejected the French philosophes in favor of the thought and history of the Roman Republic, where there was no idea of progress akin to the current Western version. “Two thousand years later,” writes Kirk, “the reputation of the Roman constitution remained so high that the framers of the American constitution would emulate the Roman model as best they could.” They divided government powers among men and institutions and created various checks and balances. Even the American presidency was modeled generally on the Roman consular imperium, and the American Senate bears similarities to the Roman version. Thus did the American Founders deviate from the French abstractionists and craft governmental structures to fit humankind as it actually is—capable of great and noble acts, but also of slipping into vice and treachery when unchecked. That ultimately was the genius of the American system.

But, as the American success story unfolded, a new collection of Western intellectuals, theorists and utopians—including many Americans—continued to toy with the idea of progress. And an interesting development occurred. After centuries of intellectual effort aimed at developing the idea of progress as an ongoing chain of improvement with no perceived end into the future, this new breed of “Progress as Power” thinkers began to declare their own visions as the final end point of this long progression.

Gray calls these intellectuals “ichthyophils,” which he defines as “devoted to their species as they think it ought to be, not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be.” He elaborates: “Ichthyophils come in many varieties—the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be.” He includes also “the Romantics, who believe human individuality is everywhere repressed.”

Throughout American politics, as indeed throughout Western politics, a large proportion of major controversies ultimately are battles between the ichthyophils and the Burkeans, between the sensibility of the French Revolution and the sensibility of American Revolution, between adherents of the idea of progress and those skeptical of that potent concept. John Gray has provided a major service in probing with such clarity and acuity the impulses, thinking and aims of those on the ichthyophil side of that great divide. As he sums up, “Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream.”

And so it goes. On the left there are the ichtyophils of America, represented in huge numbers by “progressives” and their constituents and dupes (i.e., a majority of the public). They are given aid and comfort by a small but vociferous number of pseudo-libertarians (as discussed here, for example). On the right stands a throng of pseudo-conservatives — mainly identified with the Republican Party — who are prone to adopt the language and ideals of progressivism, out of power-lust and ignorance. Almost entirely muted by the sound and fury emanating from left and right — and relatively few in number — are the true libertarians: Burkean conservatives.

And so Leviathan grows, crushing the liberty envisioned by our Burkean Founders in the name of “progress” (i.e., social and economic engineering). And as Robert Samuelson points out, the growth of Leviathan doesn’t ensure our immunity to chaos and barbarity in the event of a debilitating attack on our fragile infrastructure. It is ironic that we would be better able to withstand such an attack without descending into chaos and barbarity had not Leviathan weakened and sundered many true social bonds, in the name of “progress.”

Our thralldom to an essentially impotent Leviathan is of no importance to Pinker, to “progressives,” or the dupes and constituents of “progressivism.” They have struck their Faustian bargain with Leviathan, and they will pay the price, sooner or later. Unfortunately, all of us will pay the price — even those of us who despise and resist Leviathan.

*     *     *

Related reading: Wesley Morganston, “The Long, Slow Collapse: What Whig History Can’t Explain,” Theden, October 26, 2014

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