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Conflicts with Pinker’s Assumptions

Congratulations, citizen of the world! You’ll be pleased to know the world you live in has become remarkably less violent in the past 50-100 years AND on top of all that, it’s all thanks to YOU! You, and absolutely every other fellow human being currently living, are amazingly intelligent, exceedingly compassionate, and astonishingly advanced in your use of logic and reasoning. As a result of these impressive improvements beyond the traits of previous generations you’re responsible for making the world a safer, less violent place. Sound too good to be true? I think it’s a bit audacious myself, but according to a recent article and book by author Steven Pinker this is exactly what has been happening over the course of the past century. Pinker argues that contrary to popular notions, incidences of violence world-wide have been shockingly low compared to other periods in world history, and that this decline stems directly from our capacity for reason. As Pinker states, “the most important psychological contributor to the decline of violence over the long term may.. be reason.”1

First, let’s examine the claim that violence is on the decline. Pinker claims, “there were far fewer deaths in war in the first decade of the twenty-first century than any of the five decades preceding it.”1 He also makes additional (unsupported) claims that declines can be seen for homicide, execution, and other general violent causes of death. As an exhaustive review of the history of violence is beyond the scope of this piece, I will instead offer one possibility that may, in part, contribute to the decline of violent deaths: advances in medical care. Medical professionals providing soldiers care during World War I were woefully ill equipped. Antibiotics were not even available yet and the death toll was staggering. In total, 116,708 American servicemen died during the war. Only 53,513 of those men were killed in battle.2 The rest likely perished as a result of complications from injuries or disease. By World War II, care-givers were armed with superior surgical techniques, medications and equipment. Military medics saw that given respite from combat, regular food and a clean environment around 85-90 percent of their patients could again become efficient soldiers.3 Jumping ahead to the modern era, it is entirely plausible that decreases in violent deaths could be partially attributed to excellent medical care. While a stab wound in the gut may have been universally fatal several hundred years ago, in the westernized world the likelihood of surviving this injury is quite high. Pinker does not make any effort to define violence, but merely suggests that the rate of deaths is much lower. It may be entirely possible that the amount of violence is no different than in previous centuries, and the number of deaths resulting from violence may be lower as a result of improved survival rates.

Pinker supposes that the decline in violent deaths is not attributable to any external factors but rather an enhancement of human reasoning. A bulk of his argument rests upon research conducted in the 1980’s by Dr. James Flynn into what was eventually named “the Flynn Effect”. Pinker explains that Flynn, “scoured the world for test scores, and the result was the same in every sample: IQ score had increased throughout the twentieth century.”1 He adds that the increase is not in general intelligence but rather in abstract reasoning and analogies. This summary of Dr. Flynn’s work is hardly accurate. First, Pinker makes it sound as though Flynn examined test scores from all over the world, in hundreds of countries. This is hardly the case. In fact, Flynn solicited test scores and research findings from researchers in 35 countries, all of which are part of westernized society.4 Additionally, Pinker insinuates that the assumed increase in intelligence has directly caused an increase in reasoning. Reasoners, he states, care about their own well-being and act, “as a part of a community of reasoners who can impinge on their well-being and who can comprehend each other’s reasoning”.1 While this opinion cannot be empirically refuted, it is an interesting contrast to quote from Dr. Flynn’s pivotal paper:

“… psychologists should stop saying that IQ tests measure intelligence. They should say that IQ tests measure abstract-problem solving ability (APSA), a term that accurately conveys our ignorance. We know people solve problems on IQ tests; we suspect those problems are so detached, or so abstracted from reality, that the ability to solve them can diverge over time from the real-world problem solving ability called intelligence; thus far we know little else.”4

This directly conflicts with Pinker’s assumption that increasing scores on IQ tests directly correlates to some measure of intelligence and therefore ability to reason within the real world. It is fair to assume that regardless of the veracity of Pinker’s claims regarding decreases in violence, it takes far more than clever prose and leaps of logic to prove reason is the root of this phenomena.

–Kara K

Want to cite this post?

K. (2011). Conflicts with Pinker’s Assumptions. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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1. Pinker, S. “Taming the devil within us” (2011). Nature. 478: 309-311.

2. Norris, M. Medicine and Duty: The World War I Memoir of Captain Harold W. Mcgill, Medical Officer 31st Battalion C.E.F. University of Calgary Press (May 15, 2007)

3. Herman, J. Battle Station Sick Bay: Navy Medicine in World War II Naval Institute Press; 1st edition (March 1997)

4. Flynn, J. Massive IQ Gains in 14 Nations: What IQ Tests Really Measure. (1987). Psychological Bulletin. 101(2):171-191.


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