Pinker’s dirty war on prehistoric peace

Christopher Ryan challenges Steven Pinker’s dubious claim that we live in the most peaceful of times. Pinker bases his argument on a comparison of male deaths due to war using what he treats as modern tribal correlates of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The seven cultures listed on Pinker’s chart are the Jivaro, two branches of Yanomami, the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Murngin, Huli, and Gebusi.

Are these societies actually representative of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

No.

Are they even hunter-gatherers at all?

Hell no.

Only the Murngin even approach being an immediate-return hunter-gatherer society like our prehistoric ancestors, and they had been living with missionaries, guns, and aluminum powerboats for decades by 1975, when the data Pinker cites were collected.

None of the other societies cited by Pinker are even arguably immediate-return hunter-gatherers like our ancestors. They cultivate yams, bananas, or sugarcane in village gardens while raising domesticated pigs, llamas, or chickens. This is crucial, because societies are far more likely to wage war when they have things worth fighting over (pigs, gardens, settled villages), but tend to be far less conflictive when living as nomadic hunter-gatherers, with little to plunder or defend. Any first-year anthropology student knows this. Presumably, so does Pinker.

Beyond the fact that these societies are not remotely representative of our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors, there are more problems with the data Pinker cites. Among the Yanomami, true levels of warfare are subject to passionate debate among anthropologists. The Murngin are not typical even of Australian native cultures, representing a bloody exception to the typical pattern of little to no intergroup conflict. Nor does Pinker get the Gebusi right. Bruce Knauft, the anthropologist whose research is cited on this chart, reports that warfare is “rare” among the Gebusi, writing, “Disputes over territory or resources are extremely infrequent and tend to be easily resolved.”

To make matters even worse, Pinker juxtaposes these bogus “hunter-gatherer” mortality rates with a tiny bar showing the relatively few “war-related deaths of males in twentieth-century United States and Europe.” This is a false comparison because the twentieth century gave birth to “total war” between nations, in which civilians were targeted (Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki… ), so counting only male military deaths requires ignoring all the millions of civilians victimized by war.

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