In Review: Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale’s “The Darker Angels of Our Nature”

Cancel culture has harassed Harvard professor Steven Pinker on more than one occasion. Not long ago, the witch hunters demanded the removal of Pinker as a fellow from the Linguistic Society of America. What was his crime? Pinker had the nerve to point out that modern Western Civilization is not the bogeyman social justice warriors make it out to be. As per Pinker’s seminal The Better Angels of Our Nature, there has been a consistent decline in violence over the past few centuries, and this is largely due to the positive influence of the Enlightenment and Western institutions.

Now, of course, you can disagree with Pinker’s thesis and yet maintain a civilized debate. That is what the authors of the volume The Darker Angels of Our Nature—a rebuttal of Pinker’s original book—have tried to do. The authors are all respected scholars, and they do bring important challenges to Pinker’s optimistic outlook, although such challenges are not especially innovative, and, indeed, Pinker has successfully responded to similar challenges in the past.

But occasionally, in their introductory chapter, editors Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale throw some cheap shots at Pinker, reminiscent of the cancel culture warriors’ tirades in years past. For example, they refer to a section of Pinker’s book, in which he discusses how Abel’s murder by Cain constituted a 25% global mortality rate at the time. Dwyer and Micale argue that “although Pinker knows the Biblical story not to be true, he insists on citing it as factual, rather than symbolic, just to illustrate his main thesis that ‘sensibilities towards violence’ have changed over time.”

This is simply not true. The symbolic meaning is never lost on Pinker. He only cites that story as a reflection of the mood of Biblical authors, as inhabitants of a world in which violence was far more prevalent than today. As Pinker notes in his book, “for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence,” and it therefore comes as no surprise that the authors of those ancient texts would include in their storyline a murder at a time when there were only four inhabitants in the whole world. Trying to portray Pinker as some sort of creationist because he cites a clearly mythical account in support of his thesis is quite dishonest.

Dwyer and Micale insist that slavery today is as a bad as it was at the height of the slave trade in the early 19thcentury. To build their case, they cite a figure of 40 million currently enslaved people worldwide. Of course, that remains a disturbing number, but Dwyer and Micale lose all sense of proportion. Considering that today’s world population is 7.9 billion, the fraction of enslaved persons is far smaller than what it was during the slave trade. Therefore, in previous epochs there was a far greater risk of being enslaved. And, for all their distaste of Western achievements, Dwyer and Micale should be reminded that—leaving aside the notable exception of Haiti, itself influenced by the French Revolution—were it not for Western influence, the slave trade would have gone on for far longer among the native populations of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

As part of their discontent with modernity, Dwyer and Micale mention that “capitalism, democracy and free trade have brought tremendous gains to the West, but it is equally undeniable that those gains have been achieved at the expense of the rest of the world, an exploitation that continues today. Many of today’s conflicts in Africa are intimately connected with global capitalism.” This is again dubious. While Africa’s conflicts surely have many causes, probably the main one is tribalism, precisely the same malaise that afflicts identity-obsessed campus activists. Dwyer and Micale’s argument is basically a reformulation of the simplistic thesis put forth by Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which has been thoroughly refuted by a plethora of scholars. While unregulated capitalism can of course be rapacious and destructive on occasion, in The Better Angels of Our Nature Pinker adequately demonstrates on the basis of capitalist peace theory how, in the grander scheme of things, capitalism has actually served as a bulwark against war.

And, of course, in a book lambasting the notion of progress, Dwyer and Micale cannot help but attempt to argue that past cultures were more peaceful than Pinker makes them out to be. For example, they claim that the Aztecs did not kill as many people as is typically believed, and that in Pinker’s account of the Aztecs “the long-standing religious meaning of human sacrifice within Mesoamerican societies is completely ignored.” Perhaps the number of victims in Aztec human sacrifice has been inflated, but to excuse such atrocities on the basis of “long-standing religious meaning” is a preposterous form of cultural relativism (again, a prevalent trend among cancel warriors throughout campuses).

Academic debate should always be welcome, and in that regard, The Darker Angels of Our Nature is an opportune contribution. However, given the cheap shots and poorly reasoned claims that are found within the introductory chapter of this book, it is unfortunately probable that the work will serve as further ammunition for the cancel culture warriors’ campaign of harassment against professor Pinker.


Image: Bhaawest, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is assistant professor of medicine at Ajman University.

2 thoughts on “In Review: Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale’s “The Darker Angels of Our Nature”

  1. I call the ideas defended in The Better Angels of our Nature “the Pangloss Pinker Peterson Paradigm”. I imagine Steven Pinker trying to cheer up the last victim of WWII in the ruins of Nagasaki by telling her the An Lushan revolt killed more people in percentage terms.

  2. Ummmm — Slavery does not exist in any WESTERN culture today.

    And the other thing about Africa is that it has no natural harbors — it is all a thourand feet above sea level.

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