Friday, November 27, 2015

Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, by Peter Turchin

In Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth,  Peter Turchin has another book that translates his sophisticated models of historical dynamics into a prose exposition that non-specialists can enjoy. As in his previous work,  War and Peace and War, he has succeeded in his task by mixing accounts of historical (and pre-historical) incidents and epochs with lessons about the science of evolution. Having admired his accomplishment in War and Peace and War, I held high expectations for this book. He has met and exceeded those expectations by addressing a set of topics of even greater and wider import than those of his first (popular) book. He does this by following the course of most academics whom I admire: they transgress departmental boundaries to explore new connections and arrive at new insights. In his case, he moved from an academic specialization in population dynamics to helping found the new science of Cliodynamics, the study of history using large data sets to create mathematical models of historical dynamics. Although already a fan (and thanks to the internet for allowing groupies like me to follow along with new thoughts and trends between books), I almost shouted “Amen!” aloud when I read:

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.  
Mild-mannered look belies intriguing thoughts: Peter Turchin

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. Especially 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 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 the philosopher 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. 

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