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Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth Paperback – November 17, 2015
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"In Ultrasociety, we see a brilliantly original scientist at the top of his game. Turchin's delightfully readable book defends a bold thesis--that the institutions that have made today's extraordinary degree of human cooperation possible were forged by ten millennia of inter-societal military conflict. No future accounts of society's origins will dare to ignore his carefully crafted arguments in support of this claim." --Robert H. Frank, Cornell University, author of The Darwin Economy.
From the Back Cover
Cooperation is powerful.
There aren't many highly cooperative species--but they nearly cover the planet. Ants alone account for a quarter of all animal matter. Yet the human capacity to work together leaves every other species standing.
We organize ourselves into communities of hundreds of millions of individuals, inhabit every continent, and send people into space. Human beings are nature's greatest team players. And the truly astounding thing is, we only started our steep climb to the top of the rankings--overtaking wasps, bees, termites and ants--in the last 10,000 years. Genetic evolution can't explain this anomaly. Something else is going on. How did we become the ultrasocial animal?
In his latest book, the evolutionary scientist Peter Turchin (War and Peace and War) solves the puzzle using some astonishing results in the new science of Cultural Evolution. The story of humanity, from the first scattered bands of Homo sapiens right through to the greatest empires in history, turns out to be driven by a remorseless logic. Our apparently miraculous powers of cooperation were forged in the fires of war. Only conflict, escalating in scale and severity, can explain the extraordinary shifts in human society--and society is the greatest military technology of all.
Seen through the eyes of Cultural Evolution, human history reveals a strange, paradoxical pattern. Early humans were much more egalitarian than other primates, ruthlessly eliminating any upstart who wanted to become alpha male. But if human nature favors equality, how did the blood-soaked god kings of antiquity ever manage to claim their thrones? And how, over the course of thousands of years, did they vanish from the earth, swept away by a reborn spirit of human equality? Why is the story of human justice a chronicle of millennia-long reversals? Once again, the science points to just one explanation: war created the terrible majesty of kingship, and war obliterated it.
Is endless war, then, our fate? Or might society one day evolve beyond it? There's only one way to answer that question. Follow Turchin on an epic journey through time, and discover something that generations of historians thought impossible: the hidden laws of history itself.
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For me, the most powerful concepts in this book is the interaction between cooperation and competition, within groups and between groups. Unlike other social theories which attempt to use evolution, this theory can explain why altruism and cooperation have increased as civilization has advanced. This is not a side effect, or an accident - it is the consequence of competition between groups, and the essence of civilization. This theory is much more useful, and consistent with experience than 'selfish genes' or the 'greed is good' theories which have dominated political discourse for the past half-century.
The book can seem a little disjointed at times, as the author tries to keep the many threads tied together. It is a wonderful overview, and a fairly quick read - definitely makes you think
I remain a skeptic of multi-level selection theory to explain cooperation for warfare among H-G and tribal societies, it would seem that the simple B>C argument would suffice to explain cooperation among warriors. The better and more courageous warriors were more inclined to take risks and reap the benefits of success in war (prestige in the group, booty, captured women) than others who were not so courageous and either stayed behind or shirked. The rewards of war, especially for offensive war, were not shared equally.
The author's call for greater research on cooperation is a good one. Laboratory work needs to be supplemented with systematic observation of cooperation in natural settings. Cooperation in societies can scale from two individuals up to millions. There's need for answers to the questions of what determines levels of shirking and free-riding and what's the best way to curb it.
What's even more satisfying about this book is its elaboration of that theory -- 1. its explanation of how cycles of (different types of) violence waxed and waned in that evolutionary game, and 2. its detailed, excruciating supporting historical evidence -- both anecdotal and statistical.
Anyone who enjoys reading good history should thoroughly enjoy this book for its historical accounts alone. The coherent vision of global, multi-millennial movements of evolutionary cause and effect that informs those accounts makes it exceptional -- a real delight to read.