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Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Whether you agree or not with the premise made in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, it cannot but help to provoke a great deal of interest in anyone who thinks and cares deeply about the human condition. The significant amount of media attention given to the book suggests that we humans, as a species, have a strong need to understand (or wish to believe) that we, as a species, are making progress as moral beings.

Pinker thinks so. I would like to think so, too. But I am not so sure. He begins with this assertion in the Preface,

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not — and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.

With already too many people following me around (read: books) like a phantom of the library, I am far from being in the position of reading, cover to cover, Pinker’s 700 plus page book. Nevertheless, I could not resist.

Since its arrival, I periodical find myself, when I have the spare time, to not read it from cover to cover but to dip into and out of it as the moment takes me. Of course, I would like to read it from the beginning to the end. That is not likely for the time being. Further, it is a book that I think I should study as there is a lot of material in it of interest and relevance to my own research and writing. I must, therefore, make the time for it.

All this preamble is my way to lead you into the dilemma I now found myself with the book.

I have read something in it that I know is not true. Pinker states otherwise. In fact, it is such a blunder that I can not believe he has made it. Further, it is a significant, pivotal point in his argument about our moral evolution. He writes in the chapter entitled ‘The Rights Revolutions’ in the subsection called ‘Animal Rights and the Decline of Cruelty to Animals’ the following:

But any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism. Hitler and many of his henchmen were vegetarians, not so much out of compassion for animals as from an obsession with purity, a pagan desire to reconnect to the soil, and a reaction to the anthropocentrism and meat rituals of Judaism. In an unsurpassed display of the human capacity for moral compartmentalization, the Nazis, despite their unspeakable experiments on living humans, instituted the strongest laws for the protection of animals in research that Europe had ever seen. Their laws also mandated humane treatment of animals in farms, movie sets, and restaurants, where fish had to be anesthetized and lobsters killed swiftly before they were cooked. Ever since that bizarre chapter in the history of animal rights, advocates of vegetarianism have had to retire one of their oldest arguments: that eating meat makes people aggressive, and abstaining from it makes them peaceful. (462)

Now, it is possible that buried elsewhere in the 700 pages Pinker refutes the claim that Hitler et al were vegetarians and the Third Reich were the forerunners of the contemporary animal rights movement. I just have not come across … yet.

Having got this benefit of the doubt out of the way, I am left with asking: How can someone as smart as Pinker get it so wrong?

Hitler was no more a vegetarian than the Third Reich gave birth to the contemporary animal rights movement. This nonsense is usually written by those who oppose animal rights and have a financial vested interest in the commercial exploitation of animals. But a world-renowned psychologist and author studying the behavioural and moral development of our own species?

Nevertheless, I will continue to read the book. But all the pleasure, excitement and the anticipation of discovering new things and ideas, well, they are long gone. Which is such a shame.

 

 

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  1. Karen
    November 25th, 2011 at 01:14 | #1

    When I read such clearly and obviously incorrect things in books, it makes me question the integrity and veracity of everything else the author says. Good for you for continuing to read the book to try to glean anything of use out of it. I would have had to put it down permanently. I guess the publisher’s fact checkers were asleep at the wheel.

  2. January 3rd, 2012 at 23:57 | #2

    If you write a book with such a broad sweep, you might not gather multiple differing references for what’s simply an illustrating anecdote. My understanding (not double checked) is that Hitler was a vegetarian – but only for faddish periods between binges of Germanic animal products – and that the Nazi’s did pass laws against animal experimentation – but never enforced them.

    If you’re interested in more of what Steven Pinker says about human violence to other animals (which you might not be) you could hear the seasonal episode of our internet radio show, “Peace on Earth?”. Peter Singer and Gary Francione, in the context of Steven Pinker’s book, talk about whether we animals will ever achieve it. Diana, naturally, asked Steven Pinker himself about it at a talk & via email.

  3. January 4th, 2012 at 06:54 | #3

    Thanks, Ian, for your comment. I’m not sure a ‘broad sweep’ is sufficient defence for writing a book which includes such a glaring inaccuracy as ‘Hitler was a vegetarian,’ given the readily available evidence to the contrary. This point is particularly important given how Steven Pinker pivots his main thesis around it. It’s a real shame that poor research and fact checking mars an otherwise laudable book.

  4. November 4th, 2012 at 15:18 | #4

    reading the book right now (at page 250, not sure if i will ever reach the end because indeed there is so much to read) and i like it but i was a bit surprised to read the examples pinker gives (don’t remember where) of cruel medieval practises towards animals… he gives them as illustrations of how cruel people were to animals, but one by one they are things that still happen to day (pinker would then probably argue that they happen less often today and are illegal, but it doesn’t seem convincing to me). he talks about dogfighting, bear baiting etc.

  5. November 5th, 2012 at 11:18 | #5

    Tobias: Many thanks for your comment about Pinker’s book. The book had so much promise but drowns under the weight of the evidence, which turns out to be questionable in the way that Pinker deploys it.

  6. RJ
    December 29th, 2013 at 22:22 | #6

    “Now, it is possible that buried elsewhere in the 700 pages Pinker refutes the claim that Hitler et al were vegetarians and the Third Reich were the forerunners of the contemporary animal rights movement. I just have not come across … yet.”
    I don’t think he is making this claim; he is simply stating that vegeterians commonly have to deal with the good old “but Hitler was vegeterian, so being vegeterian does not necessarily make you a good/better person” claim. Not more and not less.

  1. December 1st, 2011 at 12:16 | #1