A year ago, together with Sergey Gavrilets and Laura Fortunato, we organized a conference at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville. The main theme was how we build and test theory of the evolution of social complexity. After the end of the conference we held a public debate on this question:

In the last 10,000 years, human societies have evolved from highly egalitarian bands of a few dozen people to huge societies of today with great economic and social divisions, thousands of professions, and elaborate governing structures. How this transition occurred is one of the greatest puzzles in science. To throw some light on this fascinating topic, NIMBioS will host a debate, focusing on the role of warfare in explaining the transition from simple to complex societies.

Thesis: Warfare has transformed us from living in villages to living in huge states, building cities and civilizations, and ultimately making our lives more peaceful.

Antithesis: Warfare is an unfortunate side-effect of the evolution of social complexity, but it was other evolutionary mechanisms that resulted in highly complex human societies.

For the thesis: Peter Turchin (University of Connecticut), Jeremy Sabloff (Santa Fe Institute)

For the antithesis: Sander Van Der Leeuw (Arizona State University), Tim Kohler (Washington State University)

At the end, the audience voted on who won the debate. Can you guess the outcome?

You can watch the debate to find out the answer here. However, as I am not a great public speaker, I would prefer that you read my argument, rather than listen to it. I myself hardly ever watch videos, always preferring the text for any serious argument. So here it is. Comments welcome!

Argument for the Thesis (Peter Turchin)

Here we are in this nice auditorium. Most of you are perfect strangers to me, yet I am not worried that you’d decide to kill me and cook my flesh over the fire. But if I lived 10,000 years ago, I’d be well advised to fear strangers. In fact, if I could shoot you from the bushes without risk, this would be a good idea, because it would ensure that you wouldn’t kill me.

Today we live in huge societies of millions of people, most of whom you’d never meet in your life. We often forget how much we depend on the ‘kindness of strangers.’ Strangers will help with directions when you are lost, but they are also responsible for the bread arriving in the supermarket. It is strangers that generally ensure that our lives are free of hunger and fear, that we can have fulfilling jobs – and that we can ask questions about how societies evolve. How did we make the transition from living in villages, surrounded by friends and neighbors, to huge societies of strangers, with thousands of professions and elaborate governance structures?

Read more at Social Evolution Forum.

Published On: January 13, 2013

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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