History and Group Consciousness

By Douglas Jones July 16, 2012 One Comment

I teach a course every year or two called “The Anthropology of Violence and Non-Violence.” I’ve used Peter Turchin’s “War and Peace and War” as one of the assigned books the last several times; the next time I’ll be adding Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Natures” to the reading list. Pinker’s book reflects the same view of psychology in history as his recent comments on group selection, but is longer: the book might be taken as an extended application of his theoretical perspective. In this piece, I offer a Turchinian take on Pinker’s discussion of war and recent history, and suggest how this may illuminate the argument about group selection. (It should not be assumed that my “Turchinian take” would be endorsed by Turchin.)

To a crude first approximation, history presents a number of unidirectional trends. Pick some region of the world and see what it looks like at two separate points in time. On average, most of the time, you will see greater population densities, more wealth, more urbanization, larger-scale institutions, more advanced technology, more accumulated knowledge, and so on, later than earlier. Yet this is only a first approximation. A less smoothed, “second order” look at history will reveal many exceptions to the unidirectional rules. Sometimes civilizations collapse into barbarism, economies go bust, populations cycle, and knowledge is lost.

Steven Pinker makes a compelling case that there is an important first order trend, on both long and short term time scales, toward decreasing violence per capita. Yet he is aware that there are many exceptions to the rule. America had higher rates of violent crime in the 1980s than in the 1950s. Even more strikingly, the twentieth century in some respects represented a turn for the worse relative to most of the nineteenth century, being far more violent than an observer in the year 1900 might have expected. Tens of millions of people died in world wars and in state sponsored mass murder. Torture and forced labor were introduced on a large scale in highly civilized nations where they had been waning or absent.

How are we to account for second-order deviations from first-order trends? From a sufficiently distant perspective, we might treat the variation as random. Pinker takes this approach when he notes that the magnitude vs. frequency of wars follows a fat-tailed power-law distribution: with wars, as with forest fires and earthquakes, when they’re big they can be really big. So even if overall trends are in a pacific direction, there’s some probability of things getting really bad. However “stuff happens” isn’t an entirely satisfactory approach to what went wrong in the twentieth century: Hitler was arguably a fluke, but it’s harder to make that argument for fascism in general, and even harder for communism. Thus Pinker also supplies something of a laundry list of more particular causes: romantic militarism, totalitarian ideologies, etc.

Various social thinkers have claimed that it’s possible to go further than this, to develop a more systematic macro-historical understanding of why the road of progress has so many speed bumps and detours. According to Marx, for example, there is a long-term first-order trend toward progress, owing to improvements in the material “forces of production.” But there are also social “relations of productions,” that sometimes facilitate the development of forces of production but other times – as a mode of production falters — act as fetters on the forces of production. On this view, the fall of Rome resulted from a crisis in the slave mode of production, and the crisis of the twentieth century from a crisis of capitalism. Thus (so the story goes) both first-order progress and second-order “contradictions” are accounted for in one theory.

The Marxist story doesn’t seem very plausible at this point. But I think there is a view of history that makes the extreme violence and upheaval of the twentieth century look like less of a fluke, and can also be integrated with research and theory in other areas. The historian Theodore von Laue, in his book “The World Revolution of Westernization,” argues that the origins of the twentieth century’s political extremes lie not in the struggle between capitalist and proletarian, but in the collision between the West and the Rest. The encounter with the West offered not just material advantages and disadvantages, but enormous challenges to the social identity of non-Westerners. “The major effect of the world revolution of Westernization – generally downplayed in the West – has been to undermine and discredit all non-Western cultures. The victorious Westerners … left the rest of the world humiliated and in cultural limbo” (p. 4-5). The eventual result, von Laue argues, was a series of counter-revolutions in reaction to the revolution of Westernization, each of which devised its own anti-Western version of modernization. It is an explicit part of von Laue’s argument that people do not live by material factors and individual rational choice alone; if they did, the encounter between Western and non-Western societies might have been a smoother, more unilineal process of the spread of Enlightened ideals along with new technologies. (See also von Laue’s book “Why Lenin? Why Stalin? Why Gorbachev?” for a development of this argument with respect to the Soviet Union.)

To those who are familiar with Peter Turchin’s work on war and the rise and fall of empires, this will sound like a familiar story. Turchin argues that group identity, and concomitant “imperiogenesis,” operate with particular strength along “metaethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures abut. For example, between about 1000 BC and about 1600 AD a major metaethnic frontier separated farmers and pastoralists along the edges of the Eurasian steppe. Most of the really big empires in history formed on one side or the other of this divide, sometimes in cyclical fashion. (And many of the major episodes of mass killing listed in Pinker’s book occurred along this frontier.) Thus the formation of the Mongol empire in the thirteenth century was followed, after several centuries, by the formation of enormous empires along the Mongol periphery: Muscovy, the Ottoman empire, Safavid Persia, Mogul India, and Ming China. All these were in various ways a delayed response to the rise of the Mongols. Western Europe and Japan, farther from the steppe, saw less pressure toward formation of monster-size states in this period.

An important part of this theory is that rational choices by individuals seeking their own advantage are not enough to explain what’s going on. Cooperation between individuals also requires shared norms and a sense of trust and solidarity, which are formed particularly in the context of group-against-group competition between radically different groups. Ultimately, according to a number of authors, we are looking at the working of a group psychology shaped by multi-level selection: for long spans of evolutionary history, some groups have enforced strong prosocial norms, others haven’t, and the former have tended to replace the latter. People in both sorts of groups may have behaved adaptively, on average, in response to their social surroundings, but higher-level selection has determined how those social surroundings have evolved.

Pinker would not deny that social contexts influence the evolution of individual traits through natural selection, while individual traits in turn influence social organization. The big question is whether we can go beyond just talking about “interaction” between the individual and the social to develop more systematic theories. Ideally we would like to combine the economist’s and behavioral ecologist’s insistence on the importance of individual incentives with the old-time social anthropologist’s insistence on the importance of norms, roles, and social structure. In other words, a “monads with gonads” approach needs to share some space with a “Darwin meets Durkheim” approach. I think multilevel selection theory as currently being developed in the human sciences looks like a promising move in this direction; as I have argued above it looks particularly promising for bringing social psychology to bear on historical dynamics.


Steven Pinker. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking

Peter Turchin. 2007. War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. Plume

Theodore H. von Laue. 1989. The World Revolution of Westernization: The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective. Oxford

Theodore H. von Laue. 1997. Why Lenin? Why Stalin? Why Gorbachev? The Rise and Fall of the Soviet System (3rd edition). Longman

Published On: July 16, 2012

Douglas Jones

Douglas Jones

The underlying theme in most of my research is understanding how a limited stock of innate ideas can be recombined and customized to generate the kaleidoscopic variety of human cultures.

My early research was on standards of physical attractiveness across cultures. In research in the United States, Paraguay (Ache Indians), Brazil, and Russia I found evidence for both universals and variation in standards of attractiveness.

My current research goes in two major directions.

First, I am working on some new approaches to the study of kinship. I am interested in how people think about kinship, which means investigating how the bewildering profusion of kinship terminologies around the world may generated by a few (possibly innate) universals of social cognition. And I am interested in how the anthropology of kinship relates to the biology of kinship, which means investigating what the biologists’ theory of kin selection looks like when modified to accommodate the human aptitude for cooperation and moral behavior.

Second, I am interested in race and racial categorization in Brazil. Brazil is often presented as sharply contrasting with the United States, with a rich vocabulary for describing race, racial mixture, and somatic variation, and no sharp lines drawn between the categories of black and white. My current fieldwork joins ethnography and experimental methods to investigate how far Brazilians’ underlying ideas of races, essences, living kinds and the inheritance of race really differ from those of U.S. Americans.

One Comment

  • Peter Turchin says:

    Doug, I think your comment is right on. Pinker and others may explain away the ability of humans to cooperate without multilevel selection theory. But their theory does not explain any of the nuances: why did large-scale societies evolve in some world regions and not others? What accounts for the timing of such transitions? And under what conditions do we see the process work in reverse, with cooperation unraveling?

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