Review of Ultrasociety in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture

Ian Morris Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture October 1, 2017 Link PDF


In this ambitious, learned, and valuable book, biologist-turned-historian Peter Turchin addresses three big topics, which he defines as “the evolution of cooperation, the destructive and creative faces of war, and the strange trajectory of human egalitarianism” (230). His main goal is to explain the undeniable fact that humans are ultrasocial. Following the biologist Edward O. Wilson, he calls this the ability to “cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals” (14), and argues that “it was violence—societies making war on each other—that drove the evolution of ultrasociality, and it was ultrasociality that ultimately made violence decline” (219). As students of cultural evolution will be well aware, both this question and this answer have been around for a while. Scholars from many disciplines have been analyzing ultrasociality in the 40 years since Wilson’s pioneering work (my own favorite treatment is the economist Paul Seabright’s book The Company of Strangers), and the same is true of the idea that violence drove the rise of large human groups that then imposed ultrasociality on their members. This was a central theme in the political scientist Azar Gat’s monumental 2006 work, War in Human Civilization, and, in a sense, goes all the way back to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, published in 1651.
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