I am an avid consumer of science fiction and fantasy novels. The most interesting aspect of such fiction to me is how authors construct social structures within which their heroes operate. Whether this happens in some alternate world where magic is possible, or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” the authors need to create an internally consistent social reality. Some novels are so bad at this, that I stop reading them in disgust. But a surprising number of authors do quite a good job, probably because they have read enough history to internalize general mechanisms underlying the functioning of historical societies (cliodynamics), even if these authors would be unable to explicitly formulate these rules.
One example is Dune by Frank Herbert. I don’t know whether Herbert read Ibn Khaldun, but much of his cliodynamics, especially the aspects dealing with Arrakis and Fremen, could come directly from Ibn Khaldun. As a result, he creates a highly believable world (well, this is a science fiction novel), both ecologically and sociologically. This must have been an important reason why this novel was so successful.
There is one law of historical dynamics that Herbert discusses explicitly. This general rule may be formulated as follows: Harsh environmental conditions create a selective regime under which only the best survive, producing cultures with tough and capable warriors. This is the reason why the Emperor recruits his best shock troops, the Sardaukar, from the prison planet Salusa Secundus. Only the Fremen, evolving under equally harsh conditions of Arrakis, can match the ferocity and fighting ability of the Sardaukar.
What is particularly interesting about this hypothesis is that it is explicitly evolutionary. Nevertheless, I believe it is wrong. The problem is that it focuses on individual fighting ability, which is much less important than collective fighting ability. To give a single historical example, an average Roman legionary would most likely lose in a single combat against an average Celtic warrior. A Roman legion, on the other hand, would easily defeat an equal number of Gauls. Cooperation, discipline, ability to work as a team, willingness to sacrifice for the common good (in short, asabiya of Ibn Khaldun) is what wins battles and wars, not ferocity of individual warriors.
The selective regime that breeds militarily capable cultures is not harsh physical environment, but living in a ‘tough neighborhood.’ In other words, it is between-group selection, not individual selection, that creates aggressive expansionist cultures.
This post was prompted by a recent discussion with colleagues about whether people living in poor environments (those capable of supporting lower population densities) are more likely to go to war. The logic here is that people living under such conditions have greater incentive for attacking neighbors, than people living in rich environments. I think that in predicting incidence of warfare, incentives are less important than capabilities. So people living in relatively poor environments that are also characterized by intense between-group selection (e.g., Ibn Khaldunian Bedouins) would be expected to be quite troublesome for their neighbors. On the other hand, people living in poor environments with weak between-group selection (e.g., boreal forests) should be relatively peaceful.
I would be interested in hearing alternative views. And, ultimately it would be interesting to test the ‘Dune Hypothesis’ empirically.