This webinar features evolutionary anthropologist and author Peter Turchin discussing his new book “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth“. Ultrasociety chronicles 10,000 years of human history from an evolutionary perspective, shows how warfare paradoxically caused us to become the greatest cooperators on earth, and begins to point the way toward a future without war. Peter is joined by Dan Hoyer, Project Manager of the Seshat Historical Databank, and David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life Editor in Chief and President of the Evolution Institute.
Slides from the presentation are available [here].
I may have missed something (Turchin’s accent is thick), but is the thesis merely about cultural evolution (meme selection) or biological evolution (gene selection)? If the former, it seems not highly contentious but also not very important. But if the latter, it seems very implausible. For one thing, it would mean that individuals from 20th-century forager or chieftain societies would have been unable to fit into modern society–which seems empirically false.
It is about meme selection and I do not agree that this presentation is unimportant. My sense is that every possible means of educating the wider society of the reality that the development of human societies is amenable to evolutionary analysis and thus the possibility that evolutionary theory could be successfully used in planning our future social development.
This model about the spread of “ultra-social” traits assumes that monumental architecture and the rise and fall of states and empires seems to be to be a “meme” version of E.O. Wilson’s idea about some mysterious “knock-out” gene that permitted the development of “eusociality” in his “Social Conquest of Earth”. The fact that people in hunter-gatherer economies cooperate in small camping parties and people in agricultural economies cooperate in much denser and larger communities does not mean that monitoring and sanctioning is not as significant in the former as in the latter. The development of a NEED to constrain elites and rulers requires analysis. It is not that people in powerful and wealthy elites are intrinsically non-cooperative; rather, they tend to in a subculture permissive of self-affirmation fallacies. They explain their own position in terms of superior intelligence, military or business savvy, or even divine intention (see the studies reported by Paul Piff, for example). These delusions might be conducive to magnanimous benevolence toward poorer classes, but can equally result in policies of structural violence that entrench widespread poverty and transfers wealth and property into the hands of a tiny elite class. Worse, it can orchestrate genocides by starvation or withholding of shelter and health care, as well as directly mass murder.
I am also uneasy about an assumption that the evolutionary drivers here are competition within societies and ultimately between societies. This vaults over well known relationships between population density and ecological degradation caused by deforestation, soil exhaustion, and associated escalated risk of epidemics, famine, starvation, conflict and collapse. Intensive agriculture in state societies tends to be unsustainable. The state solves this problem with increased predatory expansion into any territory still managed sustainably by tribal and hunter-gatherer societies. The predatory take-overs might involve more disciplined cooperation by soldiers of the state, but this does not mean that there is less cooperation in small scale subsistence economies. These cooperated over millennia to preserve the viable ecology of their commons. Elinor Ostrom got a Nobel Prize for demonstrating this.
It looks like a great project that will generate data that will be useful to historians for many years. A number of political scientists (especially Roger Masters, Why Bureaucracy?) have thought about the centripetal and centrifugal forces impacting states. A key factor is the quality of governance. How do rulers acquire, sustain, and use various sources of power, these sources to include authority, coercion, inducements, and persuasion. The skillful use of these various sources of power is what brings about “cooperation” in states, not so much the “voluntary” choices of individuals. Power is the capacity to produce intended and foreseen effects on others, or to get others to do things that they would not otherwise do. There may be need to more carefully define cooperation and the various forms it takes. Some forms discourage free riding; others facilitate it. Intuitively, there does seem to be an “iron law of oligarchy” where nepotism among rulers takes a firmer hold and diminishes the extent to which they govern in the public interest. Also, some societies collapse internally and fission due to civil war or other processes of fragmentation. It’s not always a result of conquest and subjugation. I’ll need to purchase and read the book. Thanks!