Hunter-gatherers on the best-seller list: Steven Pinker and the “Bellicose School's” treatment of forager violence

Publication Date07 October 2014
Date07 October 2014
AuthorRichard B. Lee
SubjectHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Aggression, conflict & peace
Hunter-gatherers on the best-seller list:
Steven Pinker and the Bellicose School’s
treatment of forager violence
Richard B. Lee
Dr Richard B. Lee is a
University Professor Emeritus,
based at Department of
Anthropology, University of
Toronto, Toronto, Canada.
Purpose – The question of violence in hunter-gatherer society has animated philosophical debates since at
least the seventeenth century. Steven Pinker has sought to affirm that civilization, is superior to the state
of humanity during its long history of hunting and gathering. The purpose of this paper is to draw upon a
series of recent studies that assert a baseline of primordial violence by hunters and gatherers. In challenging
this position the author draws on four decades of ethnographic and historical research on hunting and
gathering peoples.
Design/methodology/approach – At the empirical heart of this question is the evidence pro- and con- for
high rates of violent death in pre-farming human populations. The author evaluates the ethnographic and
historical evidence for warfare in recorded hunting and gathering societies, and the archaeological evidence
for warfare in pre-history prior to the advent of agriculture.
Findings – The view of Steven Pinker and others of high rates of lethal violence in hunters and gatherers is
not sustained. In contrast to early farmers, their foraging precursors lived more lightly on the land and had
other ways of resolving conflict. With little or no fixed property they could easily disperse to diffuse conflict.
The evidence points to markedly lower levels of violence for foragers compared to post-Neolithic societies.
Research limitations/implications – This conclusion raises serious caveats about the grand evolutionary
theory asserted by Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and others. Instead of being killer apesin
the Pleistocene and Holocene, the evidence indicates that early humans lived as relatively peaceful hunter-
gathers for some 7,000 generations, from the emergence of Homo sapiens up until the invention of
agriculture. Therefore there is a major gap between the purported violence of the chimp-like ancestors
and the documented violence of post-Neolithic humanity.
Originality/value – This is a critical analysis of published claims by authors who contend that ancient and
recent hunter-gatherers typically committedhigh levels of violent acts. It reveals a number of serious flaws in
their arguments and use of data.
Keywords Violence, Warfare, Chimpanzees, Dominant ideologies, Evolutionary anthropology,
Steven Pinker
Paper type Research paper
The question of violence in hunter-gatherer society has animated philosophical debates since at
least the seventeenth century. In Hobbes’social evolutionary view, life in the “stateof nature” was
“nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 1651/1969, while Rousseau launched humanity’s trajectory
from a baseline of the “noble savage” (Rousseau, 1749/2003). In the twentieth century more
ethnographically and archaeologically grounded understandings of hunter-gatherer life have
replaced the speculations of the savants. Nevertheless the underlying debate has remained.
Steven Pinker,an avowed Hobbesian, has added a new twist to the debate. Despite humanity’s
deep flaws, there is reason for hope. Things are getting better. Like Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss,
Earlier versions of this paper have
been presented at: The Conference
on Hunting and Gathering Societies
(CHAGS), Liverpool, June 2013,
American Anthropological
Association Annual Meetings,
Chicago, November 2013, and
Canadian Anthropology Society
(CASCA) Annual Meetings,
Toronto, May 2014. A warm thank
you to the participants in these
forums for helping to clarify and
focus the issues: Pauline Aucoin,
Jean-Guy Goulet, Andrew Lyons,
Harriet Lyons, Ida Susser and
Frehiwot Tesfaye.Special thanks as
well to Larry Barham, Kirk Endicott,
Brian Ferguson, Mathias Guenther,
Nancy Howell and Sarah Hrdy.
PAGE 216
VOL. 6 NO. 4 2014, pp. 216-228, CEmeraldGroup Publishing Limited, ISSN 1759-6599 DOI 10.1108/JACPR-04-2014-0116

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