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


Title: Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth
Author: Peter Turchin
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Turchin argues for “multilevel selection”. This theory is based upon the belief that war forces individuals within societies to cooperate in very large groups, laying the long-term foundation for development.

The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, invented the phrase “creative destruction” to capture how capitalism creates wealth. Turchin turns the phrase on its head by writing that “war is destructive creation.”

Key Take-aways

  • Violent competition between groups forces the individuals within each group to cooperate more fully. War lowers the competition within groups.
  • The greater the level of cooperation, the larger the society and its military can be. This gives the society a great advantage in military conflict.
  • When one society gets a military advantage, this puts additional pressure on its neighbors. If the neighbors cannot increase in cooperation and grow in size, they will likely be conquered.
  • Because of this, empires have gradually grown larger and larger in size, population and military strength.
  • Government and economic institutions gradually grew to minimize conflict within societies, so they could better mobilize resources for war.
  • Religious and nationalist values also grew which encouraged cooperation within societies.
  • Today, non-violent economic competition is largely replacing violent military competition as the driving force in increased cooperation. This will likely increase cooperation without the bloodshed.

Important Quotes from Book

“ We often wish that people could work together better, but actually human beings are astonishingly good at cooperation. We are better at it than any other creature on the planet. The ISS shows how far we’ve come. And herein lies a profound puzzle, because according to the standard evolutionary science, we shouldn’t be able to cooperate very much at all. We shouldn’t have the capacity in the first place, and we shouldn’t have acquired it so fast. But we do and we did. I am concerned not so much to promote noble intentions as to understand how humanity evolved this strange ability to work together in groups of millions (and more). Once we understand this immensely important side of human nature, perhaps then we will see a way to cooperate even better.”

“This book is about ultrasociality—the ability of human beings to cooperate in very large groups of strangers, groups ranging from towns and cities to whole nations, and beyond.”

“A different perspective, one rooted in the new discipline of Cultural Evolution, disagrees. Yes, agriculture is a necessary condition for the evolution of complex societies. But it is not enough… The theory of cultural multilevel selection says that this evolution is only possible when societies compete against each other, so that those lacking the right institutions fail. The costly institutions of complex societies manage to spread and propagate because the societies that possess them destroy those that don’t.”

“The trick is to focus on factors that intensify intersocietal competition, which until very recently meant military confrontation: warfare. And between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE, the intensity of military competition in the Old World maps extremely well onto the spread of military technologies based on warhorses. So we built a model around this factor, and it did an incredibly good job of predicting when and where large empires arose in Eurasia and Africa.”

“This book is about the remarkable story of how the foragers and early farmers of prehistory evolved into the huge ultrasocieties of today, and how over the past 10,000 years the scale of human cooperation raced from the hundreds to the hundreds of millions, leaving our best competitors—ants and termites—in the dust.”

“it was war that first created despotic, archaic states and then destroyed them, replacing them with better, more equal societies. War both destroys and creates. It is a force of creative destruction, to borrow a phrase from the economist Joseph Schumpeter. In fact, that phrase gets the emphasis wrong. War is a force of destructive creation”

“Insecurity and war, with a constant threat of sudden (or, worse, excruciating and degrading) death, was the typical condition of human societies before “civilization”—before large-scale states with their governments and bureaucrats, police forces, judges and courts, complex economies, and intricate division of labor.”

“On my cultural-evolutionary analysis, cooperation and warfare were both critical in the transition from small-scale to large-scale societies.”

 “What distinguishes a true society from a mere collection of individuals? The answer is cooperation—people working together to produce public goods that benefit all members of the society. An important characteristic of cooperation is that while the benefits are typically shared among all, such public goods are costly.”

“When people first started cultivating plants and settled in permanent villages, war between tribes became more intense. Defeat now could easily result in the loss of land for growing crops, which meant starvation… Because the consequences of losing were so grave, societies came under great evolutionary pressure to get better at surviving war. This meant inventing better weapons and armor, building up social cohesion, and adopting better battlefield tactics. But the best thing you could do was simply become a larger group, so that you could bring big battalions to the fight.

This inexorable evolutionary logic forced villages to combine into larger-scale societies.”

“At every step, greater size was an advantage in the military competition against other societies. And yet increased size brings with it a whole host of coordination and cooperation dilemmas. Evolution had to find cultural mechanisms that would allow large-scale societies to function reasonably well without splitting at the seams is cooperation”

“Reduced internal violence is the obverse of increased cooperation”

“Societies can compete in many ways, but until quite recently the main—and the most demanding—way has been war. Just as economic competition eliminates the less efficient businesses, military competition in history eliminated less cooperative societies.”

“There is a pattern that we see recurring throughout history, when a successful empire expands its borders so far that it becomes the biggest kid on the block. When survival is no longer at stake, selfish elites and other special interest groups capture the political agenda. The spirit that “we are all in the same boat” disappears and is replaced by a “winner take all” mentality. As the elites enrich themselves, the rest of the population is increasingly impoverished. Rampant inequality of wealth further corrodes cooperation. Beyond a certain point a formerly great empire becomes so dysfunctional that smaller, more cohesive neighbors begin tearing it apart. Eventually the capacity for cooperation declines to such a low level that barbarians can strike at the very heart of the empire without encountering significant resistance. But barbarians at the gate are not the real cause of imperial collapse. They are a consequence of the failure to sustain social cooperation. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee said, great civilizations are not murdered—they die by suicide.”

“Social theorists have a name for smart people motivated solely by greed and fear—“rational agents.” It turns out that a group consisting entirely of rational agents is incapable of cooperation. In particular, such people will never manage to put together a fighting troop. This result has been proved mathematically, using an impressive array of abstract models,”

“In fact, no matter what others do, a rational agent’s best course of action is always to defect.

That is what the Cooperator’s Dilemma is all about. It would be better for all if everybody contributed to the common good, but it is to each individual’s advantage to shift the burden to others. If all follow this logic, no collective goods are produced and everybody is worse off. The dilemma strikes not just in matters of war and peace, but in many other spheres of public life.

In fact, cooperation is not just one of many things that societies do, it’s the main thing they do.”

“We want our group to succeed, but we also care about our own standing within the group and within the society as a whole. It’s important to recognize that “competition” can come in several guises. For example, if you work for a firm, your firm competes with other businesses in the marketplace, but at the same time you personally compete with other employees within your firm for salary increases, year-end bonuses, and promotion. In other words, competition can take place on many levels. And so the evolutionary theory that helps us make sense of the whole thing is called “multilevel selection.”

“This is one of the most important insights from the theory of multilevel selection: competition within groups destroys cooperation, but competition between groups creates cooperation.”

“ The central theoretical breakthrough in this new field is the theory of Cultural Multilevel Selection”

“the Price equation.

A cooperative trait will evolve (increase in frequency) if:

(Between-group variance/Within-group variance) > (Selection strength on individuals/ Selection strength on groups)”

“The most important insight from the Price equation, which holds under all kinds of conditions, is that the key to the evolution of cooperation is how cooperators and non-cooperators are sorted among the groups. Even quite weak group-level benefits can outweigh the costs of cooperation, so long as the cooperators somehow manage to bunch together. ”

“What imitation does, then, is make members of the same group more similar to each other. In other words, it destroys within-group variation. At the same time, different groups are likely to converge on very different sets of behaviors, so that variation between groups increases. ”

“We cooperate to compete… In other words, to succeed, cooperative groups must suppress internal competition. ”

“Projectile weapons are one of the most important technologies that shaped human evolution, but they rarely get the credit they deserve. People tend to be much more preoccupied with fire”

“There is one very striking difference between human beings, on the one hand, and chimps and gorillas on the other. Unlike our closest biological relatives, people are egalitarian.”

“Like chimps, young human males compete for status. As with chimps, their contests often take the form of physical intimidation and fighting. But human males do not form a dominance hierarchy based on fighting ability alone. Strange as it seems, physically powerful and aggressive men, unlike gorilla or chimp males, are not allowed to bully the weaker members of their bands.”

“The invention of weapons that injure or kill from a distance put our ancestors on an evolutionary pathway—first, to passive scavenging, then to competitive scavenging, and then finally, to hunting.

Lipid-rich foods like bone marrow provided the building materials for huge brains. ”

“Ranged weapons, together with the mastery of fire, literally made us human. They also defined what may be called the “human way of war.” The distinguishing characteristic of human combat is the ability to strike from a distance coupled with mobility. ”

“The first large-scale complex societies that arose after the adoption of agriculture—“archaic states”—were much, much more unequal than either the societies of hunter-gatherers, or our own. Nobles in archaic states had many more rights than commoners, while commoners were weighed down with obligations and slavery was common. At the summit of the social hierarchy, a ruler could be “deified”—treated as a living god. Finally, the ultimate form of discrimination was human sacrifice—taking away from people not only their freedom and human rights, but their very lives.”

“Which is very puzzling. For more than 90 percent of our evolutionary history, the overall trend of human social evolution was towards greater equality, as we abandoned the social hierarchies of our great ape relatives. But then a few thousand years after the adoption of agriculture, humans gave up on their fierce egalitarianism and accepted despotism.”

“on flat plains, with warriors using projectile weapons, any numerical superiority that an army can achieve over its enemy is magnified out of all proportion. In other words, Lanchester’s Square Law yields an enormous return to social scale… So there is an intense selection pressure for cultural groups living in flat terrain to scale up, and a very high price to pay by those that fail to do so (recall where the first states emerged). In the mountains the selection pressure for larger societies is reduced considerably.”

“all parties agree on one thing: warfare was particularly vicious among pre-state farming societies. There is a lot of empirical support for what I called the Λ-shaped curve of warfare during the past 10,000 years. It is quite possible that the period after agriculture spread but before states arose was the most violent in human history—at least when measured by the proportion of people who can be shown to have died as a result of war.”

“The archaic chiefdoms and states persisted through several millennia (with the first chiefdoms appearing in the Middle East roughly 7,500 years ago, and first archaic states dating to 5,000 years ago). Their typical pattern was of recurrent rise and collapse. Simple chiefdoms (a chief governing several villages) were repeatedly unified into complex chiefdoms (a paramount chief over subordinate chiefs) before collapsing back into simpler configurations. In the same vein, complex chiefdoms cycled to archaic states and back.

Around 2,500 years ago, we see qualitatively new forms of social organization—the larger and more durable Axial mega-empires that employed new forms of legitimation of political power. The new sources of this legitimacy were the Axial religions, or more broadly ideologies, such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (and later Christianity and Islam).”

“The most remarkable feature of all the Axial religions is the sudden appearance of a universal egalitarian ethic,”

“ During the second millennium BCE the western steppes, north of the Black and Caspian seas, were inhabited by Iranian-speaking pastoralists, who included the progenitors of such groups as the Persians, Medes, Cimmerians, and Scythians. Around 1000 BCE these steppe dwellers developed a new military technology, one of the very few that can truly be said to have changed the course of history.”

“Effective horse-riding, good enough to use the horse in war, required very substantial technological evolution. Both the bridle and the saddle are complex contraptions, consisting of many components. Perfecting them took literally thousands of years, with constant improvements added in a cumulative fashion. The stirrups alone emerged more than 1,000 years after the first cavalry. Iranian pastoralists combined the ability to ride horses effectively with two other technologies. The first was the composite bow,”

“The final technology was iron smelting, which developed around 1200 BCE.”

“This combination of horse-riding, composite bows, and iron yielded an exceptionally effective military technology, which ensured the dominance of steppe horsemen for 2,500 years (until gunpowder made their mounted archery obsolete)”

“ For more than two millennia after horse-riding was invented, the warhorse remained the most important military technology bar none. ”

“The invasions of horse archers from the steppe into southwest Asia triggered a cascade of interrelated military, political, and religious upheavals. The centuries around 500 BCE saw a military revolution and intensification of warfare, which made agrarian states much more vulnerable to extinction.”

“Another Axial Age innovation was the shift from tribal, ethnically based religions to universal, proselytizing ones… universal religions expand the circle of cooperation beyond the ethnolinguistic group; they work as a glue that holds together diverse groups in multiethnic empires. Of course, the obverse side is that by creating a much stronger feeling of “us,” the universal religions deepen the chasm between “us” and “them”—the adherents of a rival faith.”

“As the circle of cooperation increased during the past 10,000 years, more and more people found themselves living in huge, ultrasocial societies—ultrasocieties. Over time, ultrasocieties evolved ever better institutions to keep internal peace and order. These effective institutions served to suppress crime and outbreaks of internal political violence, such as insurrection and civil war. Institutions, however, are only a part of the story. Equally important are the values held by the majority of the population. ”

“ So, in reality it was the coevolution of institutions and values that made cooperation in ultrasocieties possible. And a unified theory must account for both.”

“What we have here is a paradoxical conclusion. It was violence—societies making war on each other—that drove the evolution of ultrasociality, and it was ultrasociality that ultimately made violence decline.”

“And so nationalism and religion simultaneously increased cooperation within and conflict between groups. ”

“ Increasingly, the nature of competition is now non-military. Non-violent means of economic competition, which first evolved in the service of military imperatives, have acquired a life of their own. Societies compete not only to build the most impressive and destructive military machines, but also to provide a better existence for their citizens.”

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