A conversation about how Cultural Evolution helps us understand the rise of complex societies in human history
A week ago I gave an Evolution Institute webinar about how our “ultrasocieties”—huge cooperative groups numbering in hundreds of millions of people and more—evolved over the last 10,000 years. The talk is based on my popular book Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. You can watch the webinar on the Evolution Institute web site.
We ran out of time before I could answer all questions during the webinar, and so I thought I’d use my blog to deal with the questions people sent in.
Jack asks: Do you see the spread of a scientific based liberal education being as powerful as something like war in the evolution of ultrasociality?
PT: In Cultural Evolution we distinguish between traits that evolve, and evolutionary forces that cause such traits to spread or wither. Warfare, and more generally, competition between societies, is one of the most powerful evolutionary forces explaining how human societies changed over the past 10,000 years. An example of a trait (what evolves) that I used in the talk was equity norms and constraints on ruler and elite selfishness.
Forms of education, about which you ask, is another kind of thing that evolves. Because liberal education is a very recent innovation, it’s too early to tell what its ultimate effect will be. But other forms of education, which were adopted by various historical societies in the past, have certainly played a very important role in making societies succeed, or fail. For example, Victor Lieberman presents a powerful argument in his book Strange Parallels that institutions of education in the early modern empires forged a common sense of identity, especially among the elites. Modern education serves a similar function by binding together (hopefully) the whole society, and not just the elites, by building a common set of social norms and preferences that make cooperation at the level of the society more possible.
Tom asks: Warfare almost certainly is the most significant selection force acting on cultural groups. Would we be able to include other selection mechanisms? At least to see relative strength vis-a-vis warfare.
PT: To expand on one of the points I made at the end of my presentation, I think that the success of modern societies in delivering broad-based improvements in their citizens’ quality of life has become more important today than mere military muscle. Thanks to modern communications and inexpensive mass travel, people visit other countries and see how the locals live with their own eyes. That puts a lot of pressure on the elites of those societies that fail to deliver. Note how concerned the Chinese leaders are with not only sustaining the overall rate of economic growth, but also ensuring that no large segments of the country’s population falls behind (thus, their efforts to bring rural areas along).
The recent rise of populist parties in Europe is another example. There are huge swaths of European populations (especially the younger cohorts) who have experienced a decline in their quality of life, compared to the parent generation. They are unhappy and they are putting pressure on their leaders. So I think this is an extremely potent force of Cultural Evolution.
Tom asks: Today we are seeing a next-level ideology (globalization) competing with nation-state ideology. What is the cultural selection force that will determine which ideology dominates, if not warfare?
Success at delivering broad-based improvements in the quality of life (see above). In the West, the ruling elites currently subscribe to the globalist ideology. They have also presided over declines in the quality of life of their populations. It is inevitable that anti-globalist, nationalist counter-elites will start winning elections. If nationalist elites prove to be able to reverse declines in well-being, their ideology will start spreading by imitation. If not, the opposite will happen. And this is an example of cultural group selection.
Anthony asks: Diplomat and International Relations theorist here. Peter, have you had much engagement with the IR field in applying these models/approaches to contemporary strategic behaviour? There is considerable overlap between your presentation and structural realism, such as that of Kenneth Waltz.
In my opinion, the neo-realism is the best empirically supported IR theory. I’ve written about it in this blog post:
Jan asks: Question: In the chart showing the increasing social scale of political entities over time, we reached 100 million people polities about 200 years ago. Can we consider that China brought us to 1 billion? And should we expect to reach polity size of 10 billion, i.e. the entire human population, in a few hundred years?
Aha, this is a very interesting question. Yes, I expect that the scale of polities will reach 10 billion in a few centuries. But no, I don’t expect that the entire human population will be within this polity. By 200-300 years in the future the humanity is likely to colonize the Solar System and perhaps even establish colonies in other solar systems nearby. Just about only realistic scenario that will have all humans becoming encompassed by a single polity is if we get attacked by genocidal Alpha Centaurians or some such.
But to solve the world problems it is not necessary to create one huge global state. Some problems are truly global – stopping the wars and preserving our planet, and require international cooperation. Others, such as delivering broadly based and sustained (and sustainable) improvements in economic well-being, can be, and should be solved locally.
Bradly asks: Can you please speak a bit about how ultra-sociality decreases within societies that are successful at conquering others?
More broadly, societies that are not intensely competing with other societies are susceptible to the operation of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Their elites become selfish and use their power to enrich themselves. The result is growing inequality, with a few wealthy and powerful capturing most of the fruits of the economic growth, and the majority of the population becoming immiserated. This argument is developed in much greater detail in Ultrasociety.
Shron asks: Would I be correct to see your theory as bolstering the interpretation of the sudden rise to riches of Europe in the past several centuries as resulting in large measure from its fragmentation and penchant for constant warfare?
This is certainly part of the answer. But I have a much more elaborate theory for the rise of Europe in the works. Ask me again in a year’s time – by then I should have developed a mathematical model and I hope the Seshat project will yield the data to test the model. Also, this will be the heart of the sequel—Ultrasociety II.
Shron asks: Talking of gentler forms of competition, I was struck by the absence of trade from your discussion of competition, since it would seem to me to be a competition mechanism on par with war in terms of its ubiquity in human history? How do war and trade interact with each other, and has there been a fundamental change in this relationship?
I don’t see trade as a competitive process, but rather as a cooperative one. What I think has changed in the last few centuries is that it is now possible for small countries to get ahead by establishing cooperative relations with other countries, profiting from the resulting division of labor, and thus delivering sustained improvements in well-being to their populations. Think the Netherlands during its Golden Age.
Thank you all for coming to the webinar, and for your questions! If you liked it, spread the word about Ultrasociety!