Science versus Ideology: Readers Comment on Ultrasociety



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It’s amazing how the landscape of book publishing has been transformed in the last ten (or even five) years. Not only it’s now possible for authors to reach readers directly, as I did with Ultrasociety, without the intermediaries of literary agents, publishers, and printers, but the reverse communication channel is also wide open. And fast—I started getting feedback from readers within a week of publication.

The Cliodynamica blog is the main route for readers to communicate with me. The posts following Branko Milanovic’s letter are one example of that, but I have also been getting comments on my other posts. I’d like to encourage more comments, so I will probably start the practice of posting an invitation to comment (an open post).

I also see comments on the Amazon (both the US and European subsidiaries) and GoodReads (many thanks for those who posted them!). And some critique appears in other people’s blogs. The last category I often don’t see, unless somebody attracts my attention to it (so drop me an e-mail, if you write critique on your blog).

On the positive side of things, everybody says that the book is well-written. This is very gratifying, because I invested a lot of time and money into making it so. The best decision I made during the publication process was to collaborate with two awesome editors, one for the macro-structure of the book and another for getting the paragraphs, sentences, and words right. In fact, I forget whether I mentioned it before, but publishing the book was a completely cooperative venture, in which I worked with half a dozen of other people. Without their expertise the book would be much, much worse (take a look at the Acknowledgments section of Ultrasociety for details). This is how indie publishing differs from self-publishing—self-published  authors do everything themselves, often with substandard results.

On the less positive side of things, some of the reactions to the book have been unhelpful, to say the least. Unhelpful not in the sense “critical”—I really welcome critique and debate, and unlike many academics I mean it. (However, no ad hominem attacks on me or others will be tolerated. Strike at ideas, not people!)

Some of these unhelpful comments are clearly knee-jerk reactions. For example, in a comment on ‘Marvin’ accuses me of being ignorant of biology. The offending phrase was this one: “in evolutionary terms 10,000 years is a blink” (which shows up in the first chapter that you can read without buying the book, which is what he clearly did). And then Marvin tells us that I am wrong to think that genetic evolution of humans stopped in the last 10,000. What’s particularly amusing is that this is precisely what I say in my class on human evolution (that genetic evolution has not stopped at all), and I give some of the same examples that Marvin brings up (e.g., lactose intolerance).

A different kind of unthinking reaction is when readers espousing conservative or libertarian positions accuse me of promoting typical progressive liberal views. This is a complete misreading of Ultrasociety. The conclusions I draw in it are driven not by ideology, but by science (although our science—Cultural Evolution—is still a very new discipline, so conclusions will change as the science matures). My personal views have changed dramatically, and even flipped on some issues since I started working in Cliodynamics and Cultural Evolution.

When I grew up in the Soviet Union I was force-fed Soviet-type socialism to the point where I completely rejected it. Arriving in the United State at the age of 20 I became a dyed-in-the-wool right-winger (quite typical of recent emigrants from beyond the Iron Curtain). I believed in untrammeled free markets, minimal role of the state, limited aid, if any, for the poor and so on. At the same time I was a big supporter of muscular foreign policy (somehow the basic contradiction of minimal state and interventionist foreign policy escaped me at the time). I voted for Reagan!

So what changed my mind? Science did. More precisely, switching from evolutionary biology to evolutionary social science. My critics shooting arrows at Ultrasociety from their own ideological bastions don’t give me enough credit. The views expressed there really stem from science, at least as I understand it currently (and, again, I am likely to continue changing my views as our science gets better).

Furthermore, my current understanding of cultural evolution does not really lead to endorsing either of the ends of the ideological spectrum. As another reviewer on says, “If you’ve got a fervent commitment to either conservative or progressive ideology, this might not be an easy read, as Turchin brings up plenty of uncomfortable facts for both world views.” This is right, once you start rigorously applying science, it may take you in unexpected, and even personally troubling ways.

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Dear Prof Turchin,

I read this book (and your others) and I think you are doing a great job to define Cliodynamics and its rules.

I have two questions that come up to my mind after the reading:

a) when there is a change of the human organization (from States to Empires or others changes like that) do you think the change starts with a new Ideology or a new Religion or the change is started by the material situation in which humans find themselves and that push for a new Ideology or a new Religion?

b) in other blog entries you speak about Denmark and its cooperative attitude. That doesn’t seem to fit with the new danish law about ripping off migrants of their small money to enter the country. Is Denmark changing too?




This was one of my favorite books of the year. Well written, interesting, informative, focused and able to carry a concise narrative across all its chapters. I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

The topic which I found most intellectually rewarding was on the ramifications of the Price Equation. Indeed, I think you could have spent even more time on its implications. I spent hours after reading the book thinking about what the variable in the equation really mean and on types of institutions that would lead to more conformance within groups, more selection pressures between groups and so on. Indeed, I would love to see you expand on the ideas here in blog posts.

For constructive criticism, I found chapter 3 to be far and away the weakest chapter. I get your point that internal competition can destroy group cohesion and performance. No disagreement here (except as below). However, your narrative runs on into an attack of business values by using the rhetorical trick of strawmanning using not one but two fictional caricatures. This technique honestly made me cringe. It amounted to here is a caricature of libertarian, business, bourgeois values composed by someone else who hates these values but it is accurate in my opinion so I will quote it. The discussion on Rank and Yank was similarly sloppy and the suggestion that you know more than those making a living on their decisions about how performers in sports or business should be paid relative to each other came across as naive. There actually are debates in business on the negative effects of rank and yank, and how people need to balance cooperativeness with the need to constantly weed out bureaucratic growth.

If I had been asked to give editorial suggestions, I would have suggested trying to make the points in the third chapter in a much more balanced and professional manner. Indeed, I would completely rewrite this chapter for the next edition, without the Gordon Gekko quotes if I was you. I really don’t get the sense that you are familiar with the internal workings of big business or sports.

The entire rest of the book, though was excellent. One bad chapter in a fantastic book.

For broader suggestions, here goes….

I sense that you could provide better distinctions between types of competition. You do allude to it in places, but I would suggest that there are CONSTRUCTIVE and DESTRUCTIVE types of competition (and both types of cooperation also).

Constructive competition is healthy competition, usually accompanied by rules to keep it so. Destructive internal competition does need to be suppressed, but constructive internal competition can actually be increased or fostered. The balance isn’t just between competition and cooperation, but between constructive and destructive types of each. It simply is not true that more internal competition destroys cooperation. If it is constructive competition, it can be guided to enhance cooperation. You can compete to cooperate better. The spectrum would be as follows:

Worst case: Extensive internal destructive competition
Middle case: No internal destructive competition
Best case: Extensive internal constructive competition to cooperate better

The value of external competition isn’t just to get us from the worst case to the middle, it is to force us to discover the best case, to begin a healthy competition to continuously seek to improve our level of cooperativeness and ensure that the healthy competition doesn’t become unhealthy.

I could provide more examples on constructive competition in business, economics and science if you are interested…


More feedback… I agree with you (once again) on the inadequacies of the by-product theory, and as I commented on Branko, I agree with you much more than with his position. But somehow chapter three, and only chapter three, derailed me from your narrative. Food for thought…

I sent you an email and would be interested in any further discussion or contribution.

And to emphasize my earlier point, your elaboration on the Price Equation really deserves more discussion in this blog. I would really like to see a deep dive/discussion/debate into what the ramifications are. It was one of the most important “aha” moments I have had in recent memory


Luigi, “the new danish law about ripping off migrants of their small money to enter the country.”

It’s interesting that it is so much uproar about the new Danish law, when everyone keeps quiet about the Germans doing exactly that on the perfectly legal basis.

First, some refugees are quite wealthy. Second, why should refugees be treated any differently than natives concerning benefits?

“Media reports have insinuated that Bavaria has begun taking valuables from migrants to pay for their upkeep. In fact, as ministries point out, this has always been standard procedure and is supported by German law.

German media reported on Thursday that Bavaria, joining Denmark and Switzerland, has begun confiscating valuables from newly-arrived refugees.

“Asylum applicants are searched on arrival at the reception centers for documents, valuables, and money,” state Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told Thursday’s edition of the “Bild” newspaper. “Cash and valuables may be confiscated if they are worth more than 750 euros [$820] and there is a state claim for reimbursement against the person, or one is expected.”

The mass-circulation daily also reported that police in the other major southern German state, Baden-Württemberg, could confiscate any cash and valuables over 350 euros, and that the average value confiscated per person in December was in the “four-figure range.” (!)

But there were some contextual caveats not mentioned in the tabloid’s report.

The Baden-Württemberg Integration Ministry clarified to DW that though cash was taken from refugees in individual cases following police spot-checks, searches are not carried out on every refugee.

“Refugees are not being systematically searched for cash or valuables,” said ministry spokesman Christoph Häring. “In the context of a general police check it was established that individual refugees had cash with them.”

Nor is this practice actually new. “They’ve always done that,” said Stephan Dünnwald of the Bavarian Refugee Council. “The refugees get a receipt for whatever they have on them, and then that money is used for any expenses the state incurs – usually they calculate around 400 euros a month. That’s part of German law – nothing to do with any new restrictions.”

“Last fall, a volunteer called me and said a Syrian family had had 10,000 euros with them, which had been taken from them at the border, and she wanted to know if they could get that money back somehow,” he added. “And I said, ‘well no,’ – I mean a family of five, and each of them cost 400 euros a month. After five months they’re probably still stuck in the first reception shelter and the money will be gone.”

The Baden-Württemberg ministry insisted that money is not simply taken away and poured into state coffers to offset the general costs of dealing with the influx of refugees. “The refugees are redistributed around the country, and the money travels with them, so to speak,” said Häring. “The money goes to the local district authority, and when the refugee opens a bank account, the money is transferred to it. But then of course it is taken into account when benefit calculations are made.”

Legal basis

The procedure appeared to receive support on Thursday from the federal government, whose integration commissioner Aydan Özoguz told “Bild” that states have the right to confiscate family jewelry if necessary, since that counts as personal wealth. “Asylum applicants certainly do not have it any better than Hartz IV recipients,” she said, referring to Germany’s standard unemployment benefit.

Though here, too, “Bild” left out some context: Özoguz’ office clarified to DW that the commissioner had not meant to express support for the policies of any particular state, but merely to confirm the “apparently widely unknown” legal situation. Under German law, all social benefits are dependent on the needs of the applicant, and therefore, anyone who makes an asylum application only receives help if their neediness has been established, a federal spokeswoman told DW by email.

In fact, Germany’s Asylum Seekers Benefit Act is fairly clear: all of the asylum seeker’s available income and fortune – as well as that of any relatives who live in the same household – must be used up before the applicant can claim any benefits, including the costs of accommodation. They are only allowed to keep 350 euros – roughly equal to what they would be able to claim monthly in basic benefits.”

Sorry for a long quote.

Mike Waller

I have no idea what happens in the UK, but the Germano-Danish model seems to me both daft and cruel. I should have thought that one of the best ways of ensuring that incomers became long-term burdens on the State would be to extract from them the funds that might better enable them to shift for themselves by starting businesses. Our social security system is coming under relentless pressure, but at least in some areas the claimant can have up to £16,000 in assets before State benefits start to be reduced. Given the long international history of customs personnel, police and other employees of the State taking money from the powerless for personal gain, Denmark’s move seems to many deeply distasteful.

That said, the point about Danes being good to Danes, not outsiders is no doubt valid. About a year ago a BBC documentary about the Swedes made exactly the same point. During the course of it, the point was made that Swedes are not so generous with social support because they are a very warm and gregarious people; rather because they are the reverse, they prefer the State to handle matters having to do with individual needs. But there, too, it was said the approach was breaking down as the number of immigrants increased.

Mike Waller

Peter, please would you elaborate on the following sentence:

“However, the main thrust of Chapter 3 is directed not at fictional or real businessmen, but at the proponents of the by-product theory, such as Richard Dawkins and C. G. Williams.”

My reading of it is that you are challenging the proposition that altruistic behaviours can only persist over evolutionary time-scales when they give some kind of worthwhile adaptive advantage to the individuals so acting, or to members of their kin group. Is my interpretation of your position correct?

Mike Waller

I am not seeking to undermine your own approach, but what I think I bring to the party is the idea that sexual selection makes cooperative behaviours evolutionarily viable even in relation to unrelated others even in the context of modern mass societies. An experience I had with my son gives an excellent illustration. We were in London with our small, nervous, whippet bitch and had to travel some distance by Underground. To avoid her being trampled on, he picked her up and to calm her down caressed and talked softly to her. The effect on the women in the carriage was so obvious that as we left the carriage he said to me “I wish I had know that before I got married!”.The conclusion I reach is that even in polyglot societies such as our own, we are continually under scrutiny as potential mates or as relatives of potential mates. Obviously resource holding potential is of great importance, particularly so with males. With females, beauty is likely to be key. However, for all but the most feckless mate selector, or ones with little or no choice, some degree of selflessness and reliability must be of comparable importance. After all, who wants a rich guy who will dump you once you get pregnant or a beautiful women who is likely to have you pay for other guys’ kids as a result of her infidelities? This is of particularly important with a species like ours that goes in for pair bonding and exceptionally long childhoods.

Accept that, and no appeal to evolutionary “by-products” is necessary. Presenting yourself as a “caring, sharing” potential father whose general decency is such he is not likely to be ostracised by wider society, is as relevant now as it was in any supposed era of evolutionary adaption. Not only that, the benefits of paying close attention to such considerations in the context of mate choice goes a very long way in explaining that other mystery, the evolutionary persistence of sexual reproduction itself.

Your comments would be very much appreciated.

Mike Waller

Self-evidently, Mafia families thrive at huge cost to the wider society; but they do so by defining the rest of the world as an out-group whom they have every right to exploit. Within their own criminal circles, they have codes the breaking of which is as damaging to them (even lethally so) as it is to ordinary folk in the non-criminal world. For example, if you are a member of the Mafia who has “disgraced” himself by “singing” to the authorities, who within the Mafia will want to marry your daughter? That is why other family members may well take it upon themselves to kill the offender to restore their family reputation. “Honour” killings present a similar case with kin murdering one of their own deemed to have brought disgrace upon the family. In both cases the key issue is that neither group has any interest in marrying beyond the boundaries of their group. “Remittance men” were less bloody examples to be found in the days of the British Empire. These were the profligate sons of “good” families who were paid a remittance for so long as they remained in some distant outpost of empire and did not return to further damage the status and marital prospects of their kin groups.

Although issues of personal and familial reputation must have been a major consideration in traditional societies – why else is the Bible so full of long lists of who begat who? – it most certainly did not die out with the coming of modern mass societies. If you do not wish to operate, Mafia-like, as a discrete group within a group, you can have no fixed notions as to whence might come your marital partner or those of your children. As a result you are driven routinely to adopt comparatively high general levels of altruism by behaving as a good citizen should. The outcome is much higher levels of co-operation to unrelated other than either kin selection (as previously understood) or reciprocal altruism could possibly sustain. Who, after all, with any degree of choice in mating matters, wants to plight their troth with an individual with overwhelming self-regard and/or a proven record of exploiting and betraying others?

I know that this sits uncomfortably with notions of multi-level selection by making them inessential; but I think that it has wonderful elegance about it. It certainly fits very well with Neo-Darwinism because, in the final analysis, all that is being selected for here is, on one-side, genes favouring the most judicious and broad-based of mate-selection procedures and criteria; and, on the other, genes favouring behaviours that achieve the ideal balance between the self-regard necessary to provide the focussed support of a mate and young, coupled with sufficient generalised altruism to indicate both reliability and an ability to sustain the regard of key players in the wider environment.

I am now an old man, but I remain convinced that given some wind in its sails, this could be the next big thing in evolutionary theory.

Juan Alfonso

Hi, Peter

I am already in chapter 5 (Sam colt´s “equalizer”) and it´s geting better and better! I loved the analogies between multilevel selection and sports competition. As a matter of fact I think that analogy could and should be taken even further.

The way you presented the Price equation is the most intuitive and understable I have ever seen. Thank you.

I am also remembering the insights from “War an peace and war” and I can´t help but think about the political situation here in Spain. Have you heard about it? Separatist elites in Catalonia are starting the Independence process (after having lost an tacit referéndum they fostered), while separatists from other regions (Basque country, Galicia) are watching in order to follow their example, as soon as the catalonian elites are successful.

In the meantime we don´t have a proper government because no political party earned a sufficient majority in last presidential elections (that´s the way our democracy works). There is a struggle between constitutionalist parties against pro-separatist parties on the one hand and right-winged against left-winged parties on the other hand. New corruption cases are presented in the news everyday (god bless free press!) and even the king´s sister is now accused of corruption.

It is madness, but what I see is a complete lack of asabiya and social capital. It looks to me like one of the final stages of imperiopathosis… but may be I am too pesimistic. What do you think?

Juan Alfonso

Yes, the situation in Spain is preoccupying. I think Spain is a case worth the effort to investigate. Specifically I would like to know where the extreme ideological pollarization comes from. It has been 80 years since the Civil War, the horridest manifestation of ideological pollarization, and we don´t seem to have advanced much to reconcilement…

Juan Alfonso

I have finished chapter 6 and I would like to point some things.

You speak about the Mae Enga model of warfare as an instance in which cultural evolution can´t take place because of 1. lack of variation and 2. lack of group extinction. This seems like a maladaptive version of warfare. A way that doesn´t take advantage of the possibilities of creative destruction.

Of course you don´t make any of these claims but it looks to me that they are implicit. In my opinion there should be an explanation as to why such an inefficient warfare model is prevalent in those kind of environments.

The explanation might be that the Mae Enga model of warfare is, as a matter of fact, adaptive in those environments. I have read about this explanation in Marvin Harris´ books: “Cannibals and kings” and “Cows, pigs, wars and witches”. I will try to summarize:

Some environments are fragile or just incapable of sustaining large human populations. We humans have the bad habit of reproducing fastly in every new environment we reach and we often end up exhausting or depleting the environment. That occurs because human increasing population requires more food and resources and therefore there is a need to intensify production and in doing so humans end up exhausting the environment. Often complete collapse follows. Other times cultural evolution seems to find ways for stabilizing the population and maintain low population densities, what makes the situation sustainable.

Selective female infanticide is well documented in populations with high rates of inter-band war. The Yanomamo are the most studied. Sex rates become biased: there are more males than females (though war casualties tend to equilibrate things in the long term). Anyway inter-band warfare tends to generate extense neutral zones because bands try to avoid each other. This ensures low population densities. Besides, war can be fostered by the need of animal protein in severely exhausted environments. I know that ritualistic cannibalism is common in New Guinea but I don´t know if the Mae Enga raid in order to get some extra (human) meat like the old aztechs seem to have done.

In “Collapse” Jared Diamond explains that humans got to New Guinea like 40 thousand years ago. They depleted the environment killing the megafauna. They almost chopped down all the trees. Very little was left to make a living so cultural evolution gave them adaptations to make their harsh environment sustainable. When discovered the highlands of New Guinea were found to have sophisticated agriculture (with low protein vegetables) and even silviculture… and, of course, intense inter-band warfare.

My point is that the Mae Enga model of warfare could be a cultural adaptation achieved through intense group selection through many thousands of years. What works well and is well adapted doesn´t need to change fastly and that is why there seems to be so little cultural evolution in that area; Any change could threaten the delicate equilibrium.

Juan Alfonso

I agree. Saying that it “works well” is a conversational mistake. I felt literally sick when I was reading about cannibalism and infanticide!…

However “adaptive” means neither “optimal” nor “morally aceptable”. I just wanted to point that all the intergroup competition and warfare must lead to the evolution of cultural adaptations that enable groups of humans to live sustainably in their environment, regardless of the “methods”… unfortunately, natural selection doesn´t care about suffering,

Take this as an example: you say in chapter 7 that archaic kings were portrayed in popular myths as “eaters of peasants”. Is it posible that that could have been meant literally? Couldn´t it be possible that in very archaic periods of state formation one of the drivers of territorial expansion was to acquire extra animal protein from the flesh of other humans?…

In the “civilized” world cultural multilevel selection keeps going on perhaps because new cultural adaptations lead to changes in the environment and because more adaptations allow us to keep succeeding in avoiding collapse due to environmental exhaustion. However In some very isolated places like New Guinea cultural multilevel selection could have reached a peak of stability thousands of years ago and that could be the reason why there seems to be no cultural evolution at all. For 10 thousand years they have survived and succeeded in sustaining their environment and that is “sufficing”.

I am not speaking about “nice” cultural adaptations but if we follow Dawkins´ analogy of “Climbing mount improbable”, evolution never goes downward in order to climb a higher (and nicer) peak…


Dr. Turchin:

I find your work, and the work of some other scholars such as Eric Kaufman in political demography, fascinating. I have always been interested in the Aristotelian anthropological “natural law” tradition, and in authors such as Ibn Khaldun and Machiavelli, who I perceive as carrying on this tradition in different ways.

What haunts me in reading your work is the ghost of Oswald Spengler. One perspective on cliodynamics is that you are taking what Spengler described based on impressionistic basis and developing it on a formal, rigorous and empirically verifiable basis. [I find this interesting as a Wittgenstein scholar as what Wittgenstein was doing with philosophy of language, so Spengler was doing with philosophy of history, and both employing similar methods based on Goethe’s influence.]

You say that your work does not conform to either left or right, but it strikes me that it lines up pretty well with certain strands of European conservatism, which in the Anglo-Saxon world found its clearest voice in the works of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke.

Perhaps you have not yet realized what you are up against, as your work is providing an empirical case against a certain set of assumptions that a lot of modern elite institutions take as dogmas which can not be questioned without being brought up on charges of heresy. I guess you are lucky you have tenure.

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