But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another.
Today’s higher populations also pose a deeper methodological problem. Pinker plays down the technical ability of modern societies to support greater numbers of human lives. If carrying capacity increases faster than mass murder, this looks like moral improvement on the charts, but it might mean only that fertilizers and antibiotics are outpacing machine guns and machetes — for now.
There is also a more fundamental way in which the book is unscientific. Pinker presents the entirety of human history in the form of a natural experiment. But he contaminates the experiment by arranging the evidence to fit his personal view about the proper destiny of the invdividual: first, to be tamed by the state, then, to civilize himself in opposition to the state. The state appears in Pinker’s history only when it confines itself to the limited role that he believes is proper, and enlightenment figures as the rebellion of intelligent individuals against the state’s attempt to exceed its assigned role.
There’s much, much more in what I suspect is the definitive takedown of Steven Pinker’s latest book by Bloodlands author Timothy Snyder.