Friday, December 28, 2012

Industrial archaeology and workplace archaeology

I have, through no desire of my own, been doing industrial archaeology—working on the foundations of an early 20th-century gold-mining facility in a state park, but it could be any industrial site.
"Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana."
Lewis Hine 1908, Wikimedia Commons

The bulk of this project is traditional industrial archaeology, which is to say trying to reconstruct the various stages of the process by tying together historical documents (maps, flowcharts, etc.) with the current physical remains (a multi-tiered concrete foundation with footings and pads for machinery and plant). I am finding it interesting, in spite of myself, but it isn’t very satisfying.  Ideally I’d like to be able to push it a bit, going beyond considering the  facility solely as the outcome of engineering decisions about efficiency and process to treating it as a place of work and a livelihood for the people who spent most of their day there.  Call it Workplace Archaeology.

Recently a lot of archaeologists working on industrial sites have been thinking the same thing, trying to engage industrial archaeology with the anthropological and social-historical concerns of the broader discipline.  There has been some archaeological work on Workplace Archaeology.  Paul Shackel’s (2000) work at the Harper’s Ferry Armory is an early example.  Michael Nassaney and Marjorie Abel’s (2009) study of the residue of cutlery production is another. More recently Lucy Taksa (2005) analyzed the Eveleigh Railroad Shops in Sydney, Australia, from the perspective of workers’ resistance.  There have also have been a lot of thoughtful programmatic statements (e.g., Casella 2005; Symonds 2005), but we always tend to end up at the same place.  We can’t actually get at workers as workers

Usually industrial sites speak to us only of management. The place of work remains the place of technological and economic efficiency, the domain of the capitalist.  We can only really see the workers when they are in their homes (if they are fortunate enough to have a home).  This is simply the way the archaeological record is for the later 19th century.  Home is not a place of production for most workers.  It is, as far as the male factory worker goes, a place of consumption.1  We see workers in the archaeological record, not as producers, but as consumers.  

Unless you have some exceptional deposits or remains, that is pretty much where you are stuck.  Nothing in the material remains of the site I am working speaks of the workers.  The documentary record was better, especially now that now many government records are have been digitized and are searchable.  I was able to identify some of the workers and catch snapshots of them every ten years through census records.  I gained a much better sense of the workforce after this—who they were, their backgrounds, and what became of them.  What I learned was actually not what I expected, which makes it worthwhile. 

But did I learn this through “archaeology”?  No.  The straight archaeological remains from the site really are just about technology and engineering layout.  I can’t see anyway around that.  But who cares?  It’s not a game.  With any industrial site, you need to get the workers in there by hook or by crook.  You can’t just cut the historical research off at the technology and design of the industrial feature. 

If the only people we talk about at industrial sites are managers and capitalists, and we only talk about the workers as consumers, we are reproducing some insidious political narratives.

1The house is the workplace of his wife, and we need to start considering it in those terms—as a the site for the production and reproduction of the family, but that is another topic.  Even then there is little from this angle.  The household is still treated as a site of consumption. 

References cited

Casella, Eleanor Conlin
2005 “Social Workers”: New Directions in Industrial Archaeology. In Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions, edited by Eleanor Conlin Casella and James Symonds, 3–31. 1st ed. Springer, New York, NY.

Nassaney, Michael S., and Marjorie R. Abel
1993 The Political and Social Contexts of Cutlery Production in the Connecticut Valley. Dialectical Anthropology 18(3-4): 247–289.

Shackel, Paul A.
2000 Archaeology and Created Memory: Public History in a National Park. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publisherd, New York.

Symonds, James
2005 Experiencing Industry: Beyond Machines and The History of Technology. In Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions, edited by Eleanor Conlin Casella and James Symonds, 33–57. 1st ed. Springer, New York, NY.

Taksa, Lucy
2005 The Material Culture of an Industrial Artifact: Interpreting Control, Defiance, and Everyday Resistance at the New South Wales Eveleigh Railway Workshops. Historical Archaeology 39(3): 8–27.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Looting and the urge to grope history

A damaged petroglyph at Volcanic
Tablelands (Greg Haverstock BLM)
I had an earlier post on some archaeological site vandalism that actually may not have occurred--at the Glenwood Erratic in Alberta, Canada.  I thought it was a shame that that incident had gotten so much attention, because vandalism is a real problem on Native American sites.  Now some real vandalism has taken place at a petroglyph site, this one on BLM land at the Volcanic Tablelands near Bishop, California (Huus 2012, Sahagun 2012).

The looters used power saws to cut away at least five petrogyphs (one of which they broke and left in the parking lot), and deface a number of others.  They would have had to use at least a portable generator and a ladder to get get at the petroglyphs. This is more than casual vandalism. The effort suggests it was done for money.

Greg Haverstock, the BLM archaeologist at Bishop, notes the monetary value of the panels at $500-$1,500 a piece.  That's not much given the effort and risk. I wonder if they had a guaranteed buyer to make it worthwhile--an antiquities collector who will now own something they can't show off too much.

Just from the point of view of an archaeologist, I don't get the antiquity-collecting mentality. But looters and collectors do strike a chord with the US public.  Obviously there is the populist appeal of being "jes' plain folks" against "pointy-headed intellectuals," an argument that always plays well in the US.  But the needs that drive looting also make sense to a public marinaded in the assumptions of capitalism.

Reductionism and context
The idea that complex phenomena (like, well, human history) can only be understood when reduced to a pile of constituent physical bits is an ingrained one. When archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians talk about "context," the usual response is a polite but blank look.

In this vandalism case, however, the notion of context is pretty easy to understand. The petroglyphs formed a physical unit--the looters had to break them to get them out.  Most people get that some meaning has been lost. In other cases, where there is not a physical connection that needs to be physically destroyed, people have a harder time seeing the need to maintain context (or "provenience").

The second intuitive appeal here is that nearly everything is reducible to a thing that can be alienated--bought and sold. The value of, in this case, Native American cultural heritage is a financial one.  Even in those rare cases where looters are caught and prosecuted, the assessment of damages is a financial assessment.  In this society it has to be, I suppose, but it does make for strange arguments.  How much money is the knowledge that was destroyed worth (awkward since so since we have no idea what that knowledge potentially was)?  How much money is the anguish over the violation of an ancestral burial worth?

Related to this is Americans' instinctive distrust of the commons. The idea that there are things out there that are worth money but are not owned by anyone disturbs many people. Looters on federal or state land are seen, not as stealing from the public trust, but as individuals taking on the government.  The conversion of the commons to private property seems almost righteous.   

However the petrolyphs have a sacred character, and this was a act of desecration. I think many Americans (although obviously not all) are uneasy with too much mixing of commerce and religion. So there is a sense that not everything should be commodified, which might contribute to some of the outrage over the vandalism.

Looted artifacts, these now-isolated commodified objects, have a meaning that goes beyond their use-value.  There is an almost erotic aspect to how this is expressed--touching, feeling, holding the past. Ric Savage1, the former wrestler who stars in Spike TV's reality show American Looters Diggers, usually expresses justifies his activities using this trope.
“Anywhere anything ever happened, there is going to be something in the ground,” Savage explains. “Relic hunting depends on the hunter and what they are interested in and looking for. I look for historical artifacts. Modern coins, jewelry — that’s more scavenging. I like touching history.”
But critics don’t like Savage touching history. The Society of American Archaeology has criticized relic hunters for promoting illegal looting. [Huus 2012]
Of course the driving force behind the antiquities market is not the urge to "touch the past," but the urge to own the past.   And it's not even "the past."  It is a single isolated object that happens to be old.  There are people, many people, who feel they cannot appreciate the past (or other cultures) unless they can own it. If it isn't theirs, they can't feel any connection with it or have any understanding of it. The physical act of holding and owning an object satisfies some yearning for connection.  But of course it doesn't--that's why people have collections of artifacts.

When the only pleasure is ownership, the urge to consume is never satisfied.

1Sorry for the juxtaposition of "erotic" and "Ric Savage."

UPDATE (2/2/13).  The petroglyphs have been recovered, due to an anonymous tip.  Whoever left the tip did not give their name, giving up the chance for a $9000 reward.  This suggests the looters themselves left the tip.  They were pbviously unable to sell the petroglyphs.  Unfortunately they remain at large.  


Hoekstra, Dave
2012  "Relic hunter Ric Savage finds his Navy Pier souvenir."  Chicago Sun-Times, March 20, 2012.  (last viewed Nov 21, 2012)
Huus, Kari
2012 "Theft of sacred rock drawings stuns California tribe, federal officials." NBC News, March 20, 2012. (last viewed Nov 21, 2012)

Sahagun, Louis
2012  "Petroglyph thefts near Bishop stun federal authorities, Paiutes."  Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2012,,0,6886011.story (last viewed Nov 21, 2012)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jon Stewart on the history of anti-immigrant hysteria

19th-century nativism.
"The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things"
by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 2 September 1871.
Wikimedia Commons
Jon Stewart puts the US Right's nativist hysteria in historical context.  It's all good, especially since he is responding to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and Bernie Goldberg.  The both get a quick lesson on how Irish and Jewish immigrants were decried in exactly the same terms now used for Latino immigrants.   But the highlight is about the 04:00 mark.
You don't need to worry so much.  What you are demonstrating is the health and vitality of America's greatest tradition--a fevered frightened ruling class lamenting the rise of a new ethnically and religiously diverse new class, one that will destroy all that is virtuous and good, and bring the American Experiment crashing to the ground.  Except you are fogetting one thing.  That is the American Experiment--an ethnic group arriving on America's shores to be reviled and hated, living in squalor (or, if they are lucky, Squalor Heights), working hard to give their children or grandchildren the opportunity to @#$%* on the next group landing on our shores.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

One of my favorite things: Zotero

Having lanced my evo-psych boil for the time being (although I am sure it will erupt again), I thought I'd do something a little more fun, and cover one of my favourite research/productivity tools.  That would be Zotero.

It's free and open-source. I think it started off as a bibliographic manager, but has expanded well beyond that to a library and file of notes. You can grab the citation (usually a painless single click), and stash the pdf (usually grabbed automatically) and your notes (via a built-in editor) underneath the bibliographic entry.  If it is a webpage, zotero grabs a snapshot.  You used to be able to annotate webpages, but that function seems to have been recently dropped.

Once you have the entry, you can tag it.  You can also have another level of organisation by creating folders of citations.  I use tags mainly as permanent keywords (except for workflow-related tags like "To Read") and use folders for specific projects, which I delete when I'm done.

Creating a citation and bibliography in a document is just a matter of dragging and dropping, but for more involved work there are dedicated plug-ins for Word and OpenOffice. If you remember doing bibliographies manually, this is science-fiction, the kind with jet packs and flying cars.

You can sync your Zotero library among multiple computers using a remote server. has limited space, but I use JungleDisk (for about $8.00/month).

There are a couple of other Zotero-related applications that I find indispensable.
The main one is Zotfile.  This is an add-on that manages the pdfs attached to the references.  It will automatically rename pdfs to something a little less cryptic than the usual downloaded article filename. You can set the renaming rules, but the default author's-surname_date_title works for me.

If you use a tablet for reading, Zotfile will send the article you want to your tablet via Dropbox.  Read it on your tablet from Dropbox, mark it up and annotate it, and, when you are done, use Zotfile to retrieve it from Dropbox back into Zotero.

Zotfile will then extract your mark-ups and annotations and create a note under the bibliographic entry!!  This is brilliant. Zotfile is free but you should definitely make a donation.

 On my smartphone (Android) I have Scanner for Zotero.  With this I can scan a book's barcode and upload the bibliographic information into my zotero database.

Obviously I have an 8" Visio Android tablet (a Costco special) for reading pdfs. I use ezPDF Reader for this task.  It's not free ($2.99), but worth every penny, and more.  It's the best app for marking-up and annotating PDFs. As I noted earlier once you are done, Zotfile can go through and create a text file from your highlighted or underlined sections, and your marginal notes.

Zotero. Yes.   

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Steven Pinker and archaeology

Traveling in a hammock, Belgian Congo
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution
This is my second post on Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature (the first is here). This book is such a steaming pile, I need to vent but really don't want to spend time on it.  So I am going to end this particular foray into the colonial mindset and finish up on Chapter 2, which is the main archaeological and anthropological section. In this chapter Pinker argues that there has been a significant decrease in violence as a result of the development of the state. He presents his main evidence for this in a chart—Figure 2-2 in the book, but the same data is presented in two separate charts in an Edge talk he gave. The archaeological charts is below, but it is probably best to look at the chart in the book.

In my earlier post on the topic, I went over some of the more general conceptual issues Pinker faces in comparing non-state/state violence.  In this post I am concentrating on the actual quality of his evidence.  I am just going to talk about the archaeological data, otherwise things are going to get totally unmanageable, and I will never get to stop writing about the book. 

Pinker's evidence that the development of the state led to a significant decrease in violence is gleaned from a grab-bag of archaeological and ethnographic studies--studies that focus on human violence. He uses different datasets at each stage of his chart, none of which I think he really understands. His data for prehistory is the percentage of skeletons showing signs of fatal violence within each site, or group of sites.  The data for modern hunter-gatherer and horticulturalist societies is for the most part ethnographic data gathered through oral histories and reports.  The data for states is probably the most reliable (other than the Ancient Mexico figure). A big problem is here is that, although Pinker intends the chart to compare violent deaths in state and non-state societies, the only actual “state” included in the chart is the US (in 2005). The data are all harvested from secondary sources, some of which are highly questionable, and none of which were trying to answer Pinker’s basic question (actually it is an assumption, but let’s be charitable) —”is there a decline in violence from non-state to state societies?”

Even to those without an archaeological, anthropological, or historical background Pinker’s Figure 2-2 must appear dubious.  The big issue is figuring out exactly what is being compared here; what are the categories on the X axis and what is being measured on the Y axis?  The entities being compared are very different.  We start off with prehistory being represented by cemetery sites, or clusters of cemetery sites, leap to 19th/20th century hunter-gatherer/horticulturalist societies, then we come to “states.”  Notice that of the eight categories here, only one, the “U.S.  2005” is actually a state.  The rest are geographical regions (Ancient Mexico, Europe, and the World).  Pinker has made no effort to maintain an even roughly consistent scale of comparison.  This is important since the bigger the sample, the more variation will wash out.

The time frames represented by each category also fluctuate wildly, from days at one end up to centuries at the other.  What sense does it make to compare a mass-burial from a one-day massacre (the Crow Creek Site) to the planet Earth in the entire 20th century?  What possible conclusion can one draw from such a comparison?  

In the following table, I’ve listed the archaeological sites he uses in his argument.  I reviewed his original sources and, where I could figure it out, included the number of individuals in each cemetery (data that he really should have included).  There are some issues with his data that I need to address before proceeding.  A relatively minor, but still  significant, problem with this figure is how poorly it is cited.  One has to go through a pile of references hoping to find a match.  Fortunately Pinker used only three sources for his archaeological and ethnographic data—Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996), an article in Science by  Samuel Bowles ("Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?"), and Azar Gat’s 20008 War in Human Civilization.  Even so, I couldn't find all the sites in these books, so the chart may not be fully cited.

# burials
deaths by warfare
Nubia, nr. Site 117
12000-10000 BCE
Djebel Sahaba Nubia (Site 117)
2000-10000 BCE
Calumnata, Algeria
6300BCE-5300 BCE
Gobero, Niger
14000-6200 BCE
Volos’ke Ukraine
7500 BCE
Vasiliv’ka Ukraine
9000 BCE
Boggebakken Denmark
4300-3800 CE
Vedbaek Denmark
4100 CE
Skateholm I, Sweden
4100 BCE
6000 BCE
Ile Teviec France
4600 BCE
British Columbia 30 sites
3500BCE-1674 CE
Central California
1500BCE-1500 CE
Central California
1400BCE-235 CE
Central California (2 sites)
240CE-1770 CE (?)
S. California 28 sites
1400 BCE-235 CE
Kentucky (2750 BCE)
2750 BCE
Crow Creek, South Dakota
1325 CE
1300 CE.
Northeast Plains
1435 CE
Sara Nahar Rai, India
2140-850 BCE

I've grouped my carping about the archaeological evidence into three main categories: (1) Pinker's understanding of the data (2) Pinker's sample size, and (3) the manner in which Pinker selected his sample.

1) Poorly understood data

Djebel Sahaba (Site 117) and the “nr. Site 117” Site.  These sites should be grouped.  they probably belong to the same community.  Pinker uses grouped data in other cases, so he probably should here.  Or Djebel Sahaba should be dropped as representing something exceptional, either the remains of a battle or massacre, or the community buried people who died by violence separately.  Speaking the sites that might represent exceptional events…

Crow Creek, South Dakota.  This is a notorious site.  It is a mass grave, the remains of a massacre.  Using this site as just automatically representative of prehistoric mortality is senseless, especially when your sample is already small and biased.  There are no mass graves from Europe in the 20th century?  What would Pinker’s state-level death rates look like if he used cemetery data (as he should have)?

Vedbaek, Denmark, and Boggebakken, Denmark.  This is bad.  Unless there are two Mesolithic sites with 17 burials in Vedbaek, these are the same site.  Keeley calls it Vedbaek; Bowles calls it Boggebakken. The site is sometimes called Vedbaek-Boggebakken (e.g., Jochim 2011:127).  If these are the same site  (as they certainly seem to be), this is probably the most egregious error in Pinker’s data.  The rest of the errors can be attributed to lack of understanding of the evidence and appropriate methods.  But, this, THIS, is sheer laziness. He made no effort to clean his data.

As a side note, this mistake shows the importance of not just dumping other people’s numbers in to a hopper—“Vedbaek” (from Keeley) is 14% mortality, while “Boggebakken” (from Bowles) is 12%-- different numbers for the same site. This is probably because Bowles was only counting adults.  If you are going to use numbers from different studies, make sure the numbers mean the same thing. 

2) Sample sizes

Another issue to be aware of, especially if one quantifying and comparing data, is sample sizes.  Pinker doesn’t include how many individuals are represented by each cemetery in his sample, so I trawled through the sources to recover that information (information that should have damn well been in the book).  The problem here is the smaller the number of individuals in the cemetery, the greater the statistical impact of an individual showing evidence of violent death.  If there are only ten individuals in a cemetery, the percentage will jump by 10% increments.  Those are big jumps.   Note Sara Nahar Rai has a total count of only 10.  Ile Teviec only 16.  Boggebakken has a count of 17 (as does Vedbaek, for obvious reasons :) ).  Volos’ke has 18.  We need to consider whether these are adequate samples, especially when the comparative cases are continents and the entire world.  For Pinker’s analysis, which boils down to visual comparisons of percentages of uncorrected data (with the prehistoric data being summarized as a mean without error bars), I would be hesitant to use anything less than 50, simply because the statistical impact of single deaths is going to be exaggerated. 

3) Sample selection

This is probably the single largest problem with Pinker’s evidence.  In any kind of quantitative study, a first consideration is sample selection.  Is the sample biased?  Is it representative or has the author cherry-picked only the data that supports their position?  What is immediately obvious in reading Pinker’s discussion of his data is the absence of any kind of methodological discussion, and how few sites are presented as evidence.  Those are two big, bright red flags.  Pinker presents his methods for sample selections as being simply the sites “that he knew of”.  The criteria of selection is simply that he knew of the sites, more precisely he knew of these sites because they were given in tables in Keeley (1996) and Bowles (2009)—two sources dealing with violence in prehistory. Keeley was interested in demonstrating the existence of violence in prehistory, not its extent.  For this goal it was adequate to simply find sites where violence existed.  It is basically a collection of anecdotes.  We cannot use his collection of sites to infer the extent of violence because he only picked sites that showed evidence of violence.  The sample is fine for Keeley’s argument, but not for Pinker’s.  Bowles, beyond noting that he “studied all available archaeological and ethnographic sources that present (or are cited as presenting) relevant data”, does not discuss his sample selection at all, which is surprising for a Science article.  The emphasis of his article is on intergroup violence, and his sample is certainly skewed towards cemeteries that show signs of violence.  

If these are the only sites that Pinker “knew of”, he did not do enough research.  What he needed here was some kind of sampling design.  In relying solely on Keeley and Bowles, (as well as Gat for the ethnographic data), Pinker guaranteed, whether he realised it or not, that he would have a dataset consisting of practically nothing but cemeteries that show evidence of violence.  I don’t know how many prehistoric cemeteries have been excavated, and I don’t how many show no evidence of violence (hundreds at least, maybe thousands). Pinker needed a sampling program that would take  into account a population of all known cemeteries, not just those that showed evidence of violent death.  Given Pinker’s selection of the data, it is a given that non-state societies will be more violent, but this is the result of cherry-picked evidence, not necessarily reality.

I think, since WWII, we have seen an overall decline in death by violence.  Does this 60 years translate to “states are less violent than non-state societies.”  Of course not.  I am not sure it is even a meaningful question due to the different ways in which states and non-state societies deliver violence, and due to historical variation.  It may be possible to answer this question, or at least weigh in on it, but Pinker hasn’t done so.  He is not even wrong. You cannot pull something like this off without a great deal of historical understanding. If Pinker has such an understanding, it is not evident in Better Angels.  Instead he approaches the historical disciplines as factoid mines, carefully picking out the numbers he wants, and tossing them into an ideological hopper.  Better Angels fails as science and as history at a very basic level.   

References cited

Bowles, Samuel
2009     Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors? Science 324(5932):1293–1298.

Gat, Azar
2008     War in Human Civilization. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Jochim, Michael
2011     The Mesolithic. In European Prehistory: A Survey, Sarunas Milisauskas, editor, pp. 125–152. New York, Springer.

Pinker, Steven
2011a     A History Of Violence Edge Master Class 2011. Edge.

2011b     The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. First edition  New York, NY, Viking

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm died this week on October 1st, after a long illness.  I was going to say something about his influence on me, but his work is just part of who I am.  He leaves a giant hole in history.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The state, violence, and Steven Pinker

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar
Wikimedia commons

Another one on scienceness and history--I recently picked up a copy of Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Pinker 2011a).  I didn’t finish it.  I made through the first two chapters, flicked through the rest, and reshelved it.  It was enough to convince me that reading the rest of it would not be a productive use of my time.  [Edit: I did finally finish it, but I begrudge every minute I spent on it]. Life is too short for bad beer and this book is Coors Light, and at 835 pages, a 55-gallon drum of Coors Light. I don’t like calling a 800+ page book lazy, especially when I have never written a book, but somehow I feel compelled to do so.  The energy that went into all that writing could have been better directed into research.  A smaller book, but a better book.

To start, Better Angels is Whig history writ large.  There is a progress and a direction to human history, of which the European and North American liberal democracies are the current highest development. Nothing new there, except that Pinker is bringing the cachet of science.

His basic argument is that violence has declined throughout human history.  He has a six-part periodization—the growth of the state, the civilizing process (after Norbert Elias), the Enlightenment, the post –WWII “Long Peace”, the end of the Cold War (post 1989) and the Universal Declaration of Human Right (post 1948).  It’s an odd set of trends, what with everything piling up after WWII.  Pinker’s own lifespan is when historical inevitability really starts kicking into high gear.  “Panglossian” doesn’t begin to describe it.  Possibly there is a brilliant argument making this case later in the book.  I wouldn’t know, I didn’t read that far. 

I couldn’t find where Pinker defines “violence.”  And according to his FAQ, he doesn’t, or rather he just goes with the dictionary definition,  in which ”physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury.” As an aside he notes that economic inequality is not violence--“the fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralization with understanding.” While his reduction of economic inequality to Bill Gates having a bigger house than Steven Pinker is jaw-droppingly callow, one can agree that economic inequality is not the same as rape and genocide.  By his criteria, however, a parking lot shoving match is like rape and genocide, while slavery is not.  In this light, his statement about confusing moralization with understanding is disingenuous. 

The key chapter for me was Chapter 2 “The Pacification Process” where Pinker lays out the role of early states in reducing violence--the transition from the “anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies” to the first civilizations. (Chapter 1 is disposable—a series of scene-setting luridly violent vignettes from the standard Western Civ. timeline).  Chapter 2 is key for my purposes because it is where Pinker arrays his archaeological and anthropological evidence.

Nature, culture, and the "Primordialist Fallacy"
He is also making an unusual argument for evolutionary psychology—the transition from non-state societies (which Pinker gratingly refers to as being in “a state of nature”) to state societies is the transition from biology/human nature1 to cultural processes2 as the driving force of history.

So, to give Pinker his due, he does not see culture as just “noise” disguising true human nature.  Better Angels is about the positive role culture (in the form of “civilization”) plays in improving the human quality of life by controlling human nature.  Unfortunately, ability of humans to control their animal natures doesn’t kick in until we have militarized states.  For Pinker, culture is not a factor in non-state societies—they live, after all, in “a state of nature”.

There is a popular idea that if something is older it is more basic to human nature.  I am not sure if the Primordialist Fallacy is an officially-recognised fallacy, but it should be. Once we see culture, learned human behavioural variation, we need to be very cautious about identifying particular behaviours as  primordial rather than cultural. Until we know better, we have no reason to believe humans 3000 years ago were more “natural” than humans 2000 years ago.  It is possible, it is a topic for careful research, but it is not something we can assume.  And primordial human nature is certainly not something we get at, as Pinker does, by drawing a line through state/non-state societies, with human nature on one side and culture on the other.  

Hobbes/Rousseau (like you didn't know that was coming)
A convenient if rather lazy framework for writers on violence and warfare is the contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau.  This contrast provides a tidy narrative and easily defined villains.  Pinker finds the lure irresistible, especially given his propensity for straw-manning potential critics.  So we are treated to a mysterious group of Rousseauian “anthropologists of peace” and even a “peace and harmony mafia” that persecutes dissenters. 

In contrast to Pinker’s Hobbes/Rousseau dichotomy (which, to be fair, he inherited from other authors, particularly Lawrence Keeley and Azar Gat) the mainstream anthropological take is that human violence is a complex and variable phenomenon, and that the prehistoric evidence is spotty and inadequate, no matter what you are arguing.  The evidence is sufficient to say that incidents of violence existed somewhere in the world at certain times.  We will no doubt keep pushing the “earliest  violence” back in time as we discover more.  But does this really tell us something about human nature that we didn’t already know?  Humans have the capacity for violence.  We know that.  But if we want to talk about the scale and intensity of prehistoric violence, or make extravagant claims about its universality, then we need to do some careful research. 

Pinker didn’t do this research, not really. What he did do was trawl a couple of sources (precisely two in the case of the archaeology) for numbers (any numbers) that might support his thesis, no matter how ludicrous they might be.  For example, in later chapters, Pinker’s sources and numbers for the An Lushan revolt (a death rate he claims that amounted to 1/6 of the world’s population) have set off some sniggering on the internet (Quodlibeta: Steven Pinker and the An Lushan Revolt) and even on the staid (and awesome) BBC 4 radio show In Our Time.  It’s not enough to just have a number.  You need to be aware of how that number was generated and why it was generated. 

Where we have good chronological control we can see temporal variations through time and by region (e.g., Lambert 2002). No surprise there.  For example, where we usually have lack of evidence for violence, it is either in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, among “simple” hunter-gatherers, or bands. The relative lack of inter-group violence among bands is true ethnographically as well (Fry 2007). The spottiness of evidence for violence in the Paleolithic/Mesolithic is certainly in part due to the nature of the evidence—since we don’t have settlements and fortifications we must rely on skeletal evidence and some rock art.  Even just considering the skeletal evidence, we can see regional and chronological variations.  Some regions, such as Portugal, seem relatively peaceful, while others, such as Scandinavia, appear violent  (Thorpe 2003; 2005).

In Chapter 2, Pinker’s primary evidence is presented in a chart (Figure 2-2) that supposedly shows the decline of human violence from non-state to state societies.  He divides the chart in prehistoric (archaeological) non-state, ethnographic non-state, and (presumably) "state" societies.  The chart is available in Google Books, but a version is also presented in an Edge talk Pinker gave, which is the one I have used here.
Pinker's slide for the History of Violence Edge Master Class, 2011

Pinker arranged the data in this chart to give an impression of declining violence, presumably through time, although we are not sure quite what the X axis represents beyond “Non-comparable things Pinker is comparing”.  There is no particular reason not to arrange them the way he did, but it does serve to wash out variation, to make a complex situation very neat.  I think this probably has something to do with unease evolutionary psychologists have with human variation. They are, after all, in pursuit of a cultureless (i.e., invariant) human nature.

 In the following graphic I have arranged same data roughly chronologically and roughly geographically.  It no longer looks so neat.  Now we see hints of regional variation and sudden wild spikes in violence that might indicate exceptional events, such as wars and battles.  I will be drilling down on this chart in a future post.  There is so much wrong with it that it requires its own post.

Conceptual problems with comparing state/non-state violence
The evidence we have indicates violence varies geographically and temporally.  That makes a simple direct comparison between state and non-state societies a problem.  It seems to be a true observation that states are less violent internally. Elites do have an interest in maintaining a monopoly on violence within the state.  But also states operate on different spatial principles than non-state societies.  In many non-state societies, every group is “on the front line” simply because there is no front-line.  States concentrate violence on their borders, at least if the state is not in crisis. 

1) So if you want to look at the violence of states as measured by death rates, you do not look within the state, you look at the borders and beyond.  We must consider that sometimes a high death rate within a society is not because that society is inherently violent, but because they had neighbours who were inherently violent.  Non-state societies on the borders of states usually experience high rates of violence.  That rate of violence is not because they are a non-state society, but because they border a state society.  They will have a high death rate and the state society will have a low death rate.  States can build up high population densities in areas of low violence.  Non-state societies cannot do this so easily, especially when confronted with a state.

For example, Pinker uses the US in 2005 in the chart because it was one of the countries "worst years for war in decades, with the armed forces embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Together the two wars killed 945 Americans, amounting to 0.0004 (four hundredths of a percent ) of American deaths that year" (Pinker 2011).  As an example of the US' lack of violence, this rather misses the point.  The violence in Iraq in Afghanistan falls primarily on Iraqis and Afghanis--and is caused by the US state. Pinker is looking in the wrong place.

2) Beyond the historical consideration of who is “delivering” the high death rate, there is also the question of comparability.  Violence in non-state societies is “decentralized”, diffuse, and dispersed through out the society.  Everyone has a roughly equal chance of death by violence.  States concentrate violence and are capable of delivering it on a massive scale in a geographically limited area. They “project power” to use the lingo.  In essence the geography of violence in states is unevenly distributed.  The violence of states is not reflected by the death rate within states.    

3) Violence in states is also bureaucratized.  The people who commit the physical act of violence are relatively few but are backed up by often quite massive organizations dedicated to ensuring that that act of violence happens.  For example, after the 3rd century, the Roman state was little than a life support system for the military, a pattern that we often see historically.  What does it mean to say a state, such as Assyria or the late Roman Empire is less violent than a non-state society?  Is the dictionary definition of violence really an adequate metric?

I admire “Big History” and we need more of it.  I, however, don’t do it and I never will.  I work at the academic coalface.  I generate data more than synthesize it, and have to struggle to link archaeological data to broader archaeological and historical issues.  I know my specialty within archaeology, and get uneasy when I am too far from it. So  I don’t have then panache, the devil-may-care disregard for…oh…the niceties of clean comparable data sets that sweeping historical syntheses take.  Nor do I have the time.  But I see the need for big comparative studies, and accept that the data is going to be rough.  Otherwise we just stay mired in the small stuff. But to pull it off you need to do  It is not sufficient to grab other people’s data (i.e. numbers) out of context and shovel them into an ideological hopper without any effort to understand what those numbers represent, and, more to the point, what the potential problems might be.  You need to know what you are doing and you need to know what your data represents.  There is a fine line between devil-may-care and not giving a damn. Pinker doesn’t merely cross that line--he soars over it with an indifference that is almost majestic.
1The relevant components of human nature are five “demons” (instrumental violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology (ideology?), and four “better angels”— Empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason.

2The cultural/civilizational forces are a bit of a grab bag (1) Leviathan— the state, with its monopoly of force and legal systems, (2) Commerce— which, as we all know, is a “positive sum game” which expands circles of interes, (3) Feminization— an odd one, but it wouldn’t be proper evolutionary psychology without it. It is the growing influence of female nature on violent male culture, (4) Cosmopolitanism—the expanding awareness of other cultures,nations, peoples, etc.  through literacy and mass media, and (5) The escalator of reason— the “intensifying application of knowledge and reason to human affairs”
References Cited

Fry, Douglas P.
2007    Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. New York , NY, Oxford University Press, USA.

Gat, Azar
2008    War in Human Civilization. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Keeley, Lawrence H.
1997    War Before Civilization. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Lambert, Patricia M.
2002    The Archaeology of War: A North American Perspective. Journal of Archaeological Research 10(3):207–241.

Pinker, Steven
2011a    The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking, New York, NY

2011b    A History Of Violence Edge Master Class 2011 | Conversation | Edge.

Thorpe, I. J.N.
2003    Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of Warfare. World Archaeology 35(1):145–165.

2005    The ancient origins of warfare and violence. In Warfare, violence and slavery in prehistory : proceedings of a Prehistoric Society conference at Sheffield University, Michael Parker Pearson and I. J. N. Thorpe, editors, pp. 1–18. Oxford, UK, Archaeopress.