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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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The situation [of competing theories] is made worse by the division of social science into “tribes” of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and economists. Each discipline tends to emphasize its own set of theories while disagreeing with others (and even among its own adherents). Social scientists are the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and drawing different conclusions about it. -- Peter Turchin, Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, Location 567.
The thesis of Ultrasociety is simple: over the course of human evolution, we humans have become the most cooperative species on the planet, outpacing our nearest rivals, the more numerous and highly cooperative ants. As Turchin points out, several factors account for this distinction, including two factors that take humans beyond the biological. First, in addition to biological evolution, which is slow and random, humans developed culture, the transmission of information via representation. The transmission of information by culture from generation to generation allows changes in human behavior to occur much more rapidly than any change in the human genome would allow. As a practical matter, the lives of humans, especially in the last 10,000 years (since the advent of agriculture) have changed by orders of magnitude far beyond anything that biological evolution by itself could have allowed.
Turchin identifies a second crucial spur to changes in human ways of life, and it may come as a shock to readers. It’s war. Particularly in the last 10,000 years, war is—for all its horrors—the most potent source of cultural evolution. War compels change and change occurs through cooperation within groups. As humans developed societies beyond those of hunter-gatherers, as they developed civilization (a society based on cities), war became more organized and pronounced, and increasing competition for survival ensued. The seeming paradox is at the heart of Turchin’s analysis.
By the way, Turchin notes that the idea of the "noble savage" leading a bucolic, pastoral life is a fantasy; in fact, hunter-gatherers have shockingly high rates of violent death from warfare and other forms of homicide. Note that Turchin is not a war-monger. He concedes the horror of war and that it entails destruction—often vast destruction. He is not, as some--especially during the period before the First World War--who think war a fine tonic for whatever ails society. Not at all. However, he recognizes war as a competitive environment that spurs intra-group cooperation.
Competition between groups and cooperation within groups, whether hunter-gatherer tribes or highly developed and coordinated nation-states are traits that evolutionary theory explain. The controversial (but increasingly accepted) theory of cultural multilevel selection is a key concept for understanding the dynamics involved in these competitions that require so much cooperation. To explain this, Turchin provides a brief history of evolutionary biology and the controversy about whether groups can evolve and undergo a process of natural selection. As recently as the 1970s, with the publication of Richard Dawkins's book, The Selfish Gene (and more recently in some of Steven Pinker’s work), mainstream biology believed that evolution occurred only on the level of individual genomes and not among groups. Turchin points out that there was an early, naïve theory of group selection that did not hold up to scrutiny. However, in work conducted by David Sloan Wilson and colleagues, the theory of multilevel selection became more sophisticated. This theory now provides a persuasive—albeit not universally accepted—theory of how groups compete and evolve.
Part of what makes Turchin's work fascinating is that he translates the highly theoretical and mathematically modeled work of evolutionary biology (his native field) into commonplace examples taken from anthropology and history. For instance, he draws upon his academic home at the University of Connecticut, which has a phenomenally successful women's college basketball program (and a successful men's program as well) to frame the problem of cooperation and competition within a group. He uses examples of sports teams as a microcosm of the problem of cooperation and competition. As a member of numerous sports teams and now as a boys varsity basketball coach, this issue has long intrigued me. How does one promote competition within the team to draw out the best individual performances and determine playing time, while requiring those same individuals to coalesce and cooperate unselfishly at the highest level to defeat an opponent? To the extent the team succeeds in cooperating against an opponent, the team will likely win. Maximum success depends on individuals putting aside their selfish interests (glory, pay) for the benefit of the team. Moreover, what applies to something as inconsequential as sports (at least at bill level of high school sports), applies to the level of intergroup competition in something as deadly serious as war. (Of course, this leads one to speculate on the relationship between war and sports, but that's a subject for another time). Turchin explains the dynamics involved and provides some revealing information about how relationships and status among members of a team affect team performance. Studies have shown that wide disparities in pay between professional players correlates with poorer team performance. Those teams with the greatest equality of pay tend to be the most successful. Although Turchin does not mention this directly, one has to wonder how this applies to society as a whole. With an increasing awareness of a growing inequality in American society since the 1970s, one can't help but notice the increasing social and political polarization that occurred during the same period. We have become an increasingly less cooperative polity and society as inequality has grown. Turchin also notes the triumph of individualist philosophies espoused by Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek (which is a selective reading of his total work by some proponents), and others who emphasize a highly individualistic and laisse-fair ideology. Turchin quotes the "greed is good" speech by the fictional character Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street as an exemplar of the ascendant selfish ideology that began running amok in the 1980s. Turchin makes clear that an undue emphasis on individual accomplishment and selfishness hurts the society as a whole.
Turchin can claim to be the founding father of Cliodynamics, a discipline that works to discern patterns in history and prehistory based on the quantification of data through mathematical modeling. Attempts of this sort in the past have been failures. Through the lens of philosopher like R. G. Collingwood (of whom I've been reading a great deal lately), this endeavor doesn’t qualify as history properly understood. For Collingwood, History is the history of thought and not the history of behavior. But Turchin's work and the work of others in Cliodynamics demonstrates the weakness of Collingwood's position. When Collingwood emphasizes history as the history of thought, including the thoughts behind human actions and choices, he limits history to examining the tip of the iceberg. Just as humans are the result of eons of evolution layered one upon another to arrive at our current state, with most of the functions of our bodies running involuntarily and without our conscious knowledge or decision, so with many of the actions of society. Many actions seen together, aggregated over large groups, display behaviors that are not the result of a conscious decision. Often they are the aggregate of individual decisions that reveal a larger pattern. We deal with this every day when considering market "decisions." (But note our personification of markets often leads to poor analysis. The “market” is not a conscious individual; it’s an abstraction of many individual actions aggregated for the convenience of analysis). Turchin analyzes data from the past to better understand the past. (Note: the only source of knowledge is the past!) To me, Cliodynamics is a welcome addition to the field of history. Although I retain my prejudice for history as the history of thought, with an emphasis on political and intellectual decisions, we simply cannot ignore the fact that human beings are both a part of Nature and apart from Nature. To understand the totality of the human past—the highest intellectual endeavor—we need to take advantage of all the tools available. Looking at history through different lenses provided by of social and natural sciences is a resource that we are foolish to ignore.
Indeed, in this book, Turchin suggests that perhaps we humans can move another step forward on our evolutionary journey and make war obsolete. The massive improvements in warfare and killing efficiency epitomized by atomic weapons make this more than a utopian dream. It's a practical necessity. The next logical—even necessary—step in cultural evolution must be increased cooperation, or we run the risk of regression to a less cooperative, must more barbaric (in the worst sense of the term) reality. Turchin uses the international space station as an example of the level of cooperation that nations are capable of attaining. He suggests that perhaps economic competition can replace war as a means of spurring cultural innovation without suffering the horrors of war. Paul Krugman, another social scientist inspired by Isaac Asimov’s vision of “psychohistory” outlined in his Foundation books, suggests we need an attack of aliens to foster an economic growth and cooperation, which is much in keeping with Turchin’s direction of thought. I believe that with the imminence of global climate change, we—as a species working through nation-states—will either ratchet-up our levels of peaceful cooperation to combat (by abatement and adaptation) what will become an increasingly alien environment—or we will suffer an increasingly deadly level of social and political conflict.
One mark of a successful book is that it leaves you wanting more. You hear yourself saying, “telling me more about this and that.” So it is with this book. The number of issues that it raises, the number of possible areas of explorations it suggests, are too numerous to list completely. But to name just one area of where I’d like to know more: Turchin describes the idea of “cultural evolution” as a scientific theory “based on mathematical models [that] are empirically testable.” Id., Location 330. Moreover, there is a tradition within sociology of social evolution and development theory, as well as theories of history (addressed by Turchin in War and Peace and War). However, I’m wondering about connections with theories of cultural evolution (or change) based on language and other symbolic systems, such as the work of Owen Barfield, Walter Ong, Jean Gebser, William Irwin Thompson and Ralph Abraham, and Clare Graves and Don Beck (an eclectic list, I admit). None of these thinkers, I believe, would necessarily disagree with the biologically based theory of cultural evolution espoused by Turchin, but it would be interesting to determine where they mesh and where they conflict.
So, I’ll stop here. With an outstanding book, the temptation is to go on and on about it. I’ll not. Go read it yourself.
Turchin asks, What is it about the cultures of certain groups that enables them to thrive when others fail? This is no easy task because the archeological record poses some puzzles. In resolving those puzzles, Turchin takes on key figures of the academic establishment, such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. His key analytical tool is called the “Price Equation”, actually the “Price Inequality”. It specifies when group selection is effective or not, in terms, not just of whether one group has an advantage over another, but also of the homogeneity of the groups. For example, a very cohesive group which has a military advantage over another group, and which defeats the other group, will be in a position to spread the cultural traits which characterize that cohesiveness. But if those cultural traits vary little from those of the defeated group, then there will be no cultural evolutionary effect. As an example of the latter Turchin cited endemic warfare in the highlands of New Guinea, where there is no difference between neighboring tribes. But in the modern world, significant differences in technology, institutions, or ideology can be spread quite quickly, not only by military victories, but also by economic supremacy.
The biggest puzzles center around inequality and war. Early humans lived in highly egalitarian societies of a few dozen to at most a few hundred individuals. These were so egalitarian that if a leader, such as a successful warrior, attempted to lord it over others as “chief” on a permanent basis, that person was soon demoted, even killed if necessary, as it undermined the sharing ethic on which survival depended. Yet at some point chiefdoms did develop, even to the point of becoming “archaic states” after a few thousand years, lavish but cruel regimes like that encountered by Captain Cook in the Hawaiian Islands. These states were ruled by god-kings who engaged in extreme despotism, violence, and warfare, which gave them an advantage over smaller and less cohesive neighboring groups. Then, around 1000 BC states slowly began to morph into empires with a lessening of overall violence, in part because a bigger fraction of the people lived within the imperial boundaries. Yet, unlike the archaic states, these empires paid more attention to social and economic justice and adopted universal religions. Why?
Turchin’s surprising answer: “Horses”. That is, warfare from the back of horses was perfected on steppes of Asia in the centuries prior to 1000 BC and reigned supreme all the way to the spread of guns and cannon around 1500 AD. Even much later Napoleon was defeated by Russia due to the superiority of the Russian light cavalry. Key factors included both the fearsome cavalry charge and the logistical mobility of horses. Archaic states were no match, even after upgrading their defenses. “The state’s survival now depended on being able to produce large armies of armed commoners” (p. 204). That is, too few subjugated commoners were willing to die for their despotic rulers, even with all their impressive titles and threats. Hence the rise during the Axial Age of Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Judaism, and more, with prophets denouncing injustice. Later Christianity and Islam emerged as more successful religions of empire, working “as a glue that holds together multiethnic groups in empires” (p. 207).
Note that Turchin, having grown up in Russia, is not religious himself, nor inclined to glorify war. In particular, he is careful to spell out the downside of multilevel cultural evolution - between group competition increases in tandem along with within group cooperation. Historically this has meant holy wars, imperial wars, world wars, cold wars, terrorism, and more. Yet per capita violence has declined dramatically, from a third of all men dying by violence in New Guinea to 1 in a 1000 in modern Denmark. Thus, despite present turmoil, there is hope over the long haul if we succeed in expanding “the circle of cooperation to encompass all of humanity” (p. 224). The key will be to continue to “develop the science of cooperation” (p. 230), noting that “all forms of inequality increase violence” (p. 222) by undermining cooperation and morale. So speaks one of today’s foremost interdisciplinary scholars.