… that probably ruins the whole thing. I have not yet read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, so I could be wrong, but if you have a copy check it out and tell me if I’ve got it right.
Breifly, the book says: ” it’s a meticulously documented argument about how much violence has declined from our hunter-gatherer days ten millennia ago through medieval times to the modern day. ” [from WEIT Website]
Here’s the thing. The data Pinker (and others) have been using over the last few years for “hunter-gatherers” includes mostly, or at least in large number, groups that are not hunter gatherers, such as the Ya̧nomamö or various groups in New Guinea .
These groups have exceptionally high rates of violence. There is not valid argument to force them into a hunter-gatherer category, and for some (but not all) they were hunter-gatherers not too long ago. But this is where the Evolutionary Psychology way of thinking about human behavioral becomes embarrassingly wrong.
If groups like the Ya̧nomamö underwent recent technological change from hunting and gathering to horticulture, which is likely the case (the transition would have happened around the turn of the 20th century, or about 50 or so years before they were first studied by anthropologists, at the latest), then it would be reasonable to argue that some of their features relate to that lifestyle. But the Evolutionar Psychology line is that we are adapted to our past (the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness) and not to our present (which makes a certain amount of sense but in a limited way). Therefor the psychological adaptations of the Ya̧nomamö are still forager like and not horticultural like because their brains are still being formed by forager genes and not horticultural genes.
However, it is also true that the Ya̧nomamö have undergone a very significant change in their economics, to the extent that they went from being people who benefit from low levels of violence and high levels of cooperation to people who benefit from being fierce. Therefore, their rates of violence have gone way up. The homicide and violence rate estimates for the Ya̧nomamö are for a group of horticulturalists living in a particualr setting at a particular time in their history, not for foragers.
It is interesting to contemplate for a moment the once-a-forager always-a-forager for a few generations idea for a moment. The implication here is that there must be people in the world who are foragers, were foragers recently, or those that have gone way beyond this and are very evolved into some other state. But the usual list (and again, I’ve not seen it) of “foragers” that Pinker uses includes people from New Guinea, and the evicence is that the kind of agriculture practiced in that part of the world, that the New Guinea people practice now in their traditional modality, is among the oldest in the world.
So, two things are almost certainly true: 1) The list of foragers who are not foragers that Pinker and others use includes people who’s foraging EEA goes back a century or two and people who’s foraging EEA ended thousands of years ago; and 2) There are probably people on Pinker’s list of non-foragers who are less violent (and more evolved?) who have shorter non-foraging histories than those on the list. Like many European groups.
Pinker’s book is in the mail. I may be wrong about the hunter-gatherer part, but I doubt it. Doubtless, the book has other stuff in it too, which may be just fine (but I suspect difficulties there as well, as Pinker seems to have a uni-lineal one-way view of history, as most non-experts do).