The Social Evolutionary Roles of Internal versus External Wars



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Joe Anoatubby raises a number of good points, with many of which I find myself in complete agreement. However, one thing I cannot emphasize too much is that generic violence is not a good conceptual category. We need to look at different sides of it separately, for reasons that actually have a lot to do with the main topic of this forum, social evolution.

My article in the Journal of Peace Research very carefully defines what I mean by political instability and what I gathered data on. It is collective violence within states. Thus, I distinguish it from individual crime, such as homicides, on one hand, and from interstate warfare, on the other.

This focus is conditioned by the theory, which attempts to explain instability waves (prolonged periods of political violence) that, if they are strong enough, often result in state breakdown and onset of full-blown civil war. But there are two additional, and equally important reasons to distinguish ‘internal war’ from ‘external war.’

The first reason is related to one of the main topics of the Social Evolution Forum, the evolution of cooperation at the level of whole societies. Internal warfare clearly represents a failure of cooperation within a society. On the other hand, external warfare can only be possible on the basis of strong ability to cooperate. So from the social evolutionary point of view these two types of conflicts are logical opposites of each other and should not be mixed in. To add to this, if warfare is the chief selection force for the evolution of cooperation in large-scale societies, as I and others believe, then by ‘warfare’ we most emphatically mean ‘external warfare.’

The second reason is actually related to the first. In historical record internal and external wars tend to be negatively correlated. If a society is torn apart by an internal war, it is hardly in position to prosecute a successful external war. This is why there is an empirical pattern that most territorial expansion due to conquest is usually accomplished by societies who  are in their integrative secular phases, and they often tend to lose territory while in disintegrative phase. See, for example, my book Historical Dynamics (the sections on France and Russia at the end). Furthermore, being attacked by an external enemy usually makes a society more cohesive – different political factions forget about their petty quarrels and unite to repel the common foe.

But the relationship between internal and external warfare is more complicated than a simple negative correlation. First, many a ruler, facing growing discontent by the populace and the elites, has tried to solve his problems by a ‘little victorious war,’ only to find things going disastrously wrong, losing legitimacy, and triggering the very revolution that he tried to avoid. Second, when a country decends into revolution and civil war, the neighbors are tempted to intervene, as happened in the wake of the French Revolution, which helped to trigger the French Revolutionary Wars.

So both social evolutionary logic and my experience in analyzing historical dynamics suggest that it is best to keep internal and external warfare as separate conceptual categories, and then analyze the complex interactions between these two variables, rather than lump them together.

Let’s apply these general insights to the American history. First, note that the two periods of internal peace in the U.S. coincided with a very vigorous pursuit of external wars. In fact, these were the periods when the U.S. was really threatened by outside players, rather than getting involved in ‘wars of choice.’

The first such period was the first half of the nineteenth century as Joe points out. This was when Americans were attacked on their own soil (the White House burned and New Orleans attacked by the British during the War of 1812). This is not to say that the Americans were the victims, far from it…

But much more important were the recurrent conflicts between European Americans and American Indians, which was pretty much nonstop from the Revolutionary War to the Removal Era Wars (so, from 1775 to 1842). In my book War and Peace and War I discuss how these wars, and American Indian wars in general, played the decisive role in the social evolution of the U.S. In general, these were very bitter wars, characterized by atrocities on both sides, and eventually by successful genocide on the part of European Americans.

The second such period was the World War II, when Americans again were attacked on their own soil (although a fairly remote part, the Hawaii). Again it was a period of national consolidation which contributed to the decrease of internal instability.

Note that these two periods were also when the United States dramatically expanded its geopolitcal reach. It became the continental power between 1776 and 1848 (the only other major addition was Alaska), and it became a world hegemonic power in the post-1945 period.

Returning to Joe’s points, I believe that we should treat American-Indian wars as external wars and distinct from internal instability (and in fact, negatively correlated with it). This is the approach that I adopted in the JPR article, where I treat Indian-American conflicts as instability only after the ‘official’ closing of the frontier in 1890 (and there were few such events, anyway). During the Antebellum period the U.S. may have regarded the Indian territories as their own, and suppression of Indians as an internal matter, but this was certainly not the Indian point of view, most of whom considered themselves as separate nations.

Finally, a useful concept here is ‘parochial altruism,’ which is the tendency to cooperate with members of in-group to better compete against the members of out-groups.

I think the above offers a very useful conceptual framework to view the empirical facts so well summarized in Joe’s post.

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Joe M. Anoatubby

Since peace treaties, under the constitution at least, represented the law of the land. They represented unbreakable commitments by the US government to peoples within America’s claimed sphere of influence. Indians understood that the US was representing its rule of law as a solemn commitment to protection to Indian land claims within the sphere claimed by the United States. Indians educated under the “Civilization” program, implemented during Washington’s first administration, were well aware of the need of Indian people to develop legal defenses based upon these treaties to counter unwanted interlopers and invaders from the United States. Indian people understood that these treaties were to be honored and the government even acted to support Indians rights under treaty stipulations (that is not to say that the Federalists and later Jeffersonian Republicans didn’t appreciate the need for frequent renegotiatation of treaties if older ones could not be enforced effectively. But they did support Indian efforts to hold America to its word. There were, after all, ways to apply economic pressure on Indians that could force them to the negotiation table.

This fact that the government seemed to be supporting Indian claims despite local interest in gaining Indian land put the federal government at odds with state politicians that represented American citizens, who, immersed in a culture of deep seated ethnocentric bias against Indians, wanted them out of the way, Thus, deep resentment among Georgians and later Alabamians and Mississippians, whom, under federal law, were prevented from interfering with or overruling the Federal government on issues covered by treaties led them to support General Jackson’s political movement. Jackson, of course, made clear that he cared little for these treaties and notably even flagrantly ignored the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester. Incidently, the Supreme court also had ruled in an earlier decision that Indians were “domestic, dependent nations”, a moniker that would seem to indicate to some extent that from the standpoint of the American government that Indians were indeed inclusives in the American sphere. That decision was rendered when Georgia had attempted to invalidate Indian rights by extending its laws over Indian lands.

Ultimately, the southern states extended their laws over these regions succesfully only after Jackson and the Democrats successful rise to power. Since Jackson represented the interests of Americans who wanted Indian land, all he had to do to silence his opposition was to demogogue Indians in racial terms. it would have taken a significant movement in the political realm to mount a counter to Jackson’s abrogation of law. Given that most Americans didn’t think Indians and whites could live together peacefully, an attempt to impeach Jackson would have required an extraordinary political courage that with few exceptions, John Quincy Adams among them, just didn’t manifest. It did however impart a legacy among Whigs and later Republicans that Democrats were political demogogues that did not understand the rule of law. The Era of Reform clearly was in part motivated by a convulsive response to a perception of lawless Jacksonianism and this movement helped to forge the linkages the made the Republicans of the 1850s political posturing to be successful.

This of course is a more purely historical analysis than is generally presented in the realm of this blog. I appreciate that the purposes of this blog may indeed not necessily mirror perfectly the type of analysis I have provided. But, of course, all scholarship should face scrutiny. The question about whether Indians were inclusives or exclusives, I think, is an important one to consider. In my experience it is undeniable that some degree of social evolution has taken place in American society. The extent and persistence of racial exploitation as a political tool seems to me to be the reoccuring theme in all of this. American is, no doubt, seeing another wave of political posturing on race in the present. Coupled with contemporary economic misery, will this be the stimulus toward yet another round of violent upsurge in American society. I would argue that it is already happening.

Peter Turchin

As a general point, such a historical analysis is very appropriate both for this Forum, and for the discipline of social evolution in general. Not engaging with history on its own terms would be like evolutionary biologists ignoring paleontology. The historical record is our best source of data for testing theories of social and cultural evolution.

Although we disagree on whether to treat American-Indian wars as external vs. internal warfare, this does not preclude fruitful dialogue. What would be particularly useful if someone would quantify the dynamics of American-Indian wars in the same way I quantified political instability (for example, by the distribution over time of fatalities resulting from these conflicts). This would allow others to look at warfare dynamics in either combined or separate ways. Moreover, it would be interesting to see whether these wars had a 50-year periodicity. Perhaps, going in anti-phase with the other indices of political violence, or perhaps in phase. Lots of interesting questions can be asked once we have quantitative data.

John Lilburne

Mike Alexander carried out some analysis using the kondratiev cycle
Down wave Death/ Upwave Deaths/
100 000 100 000
1490-1519 5.5 ± 0.8 1519-1555 16.1 ± 1.7
1555-1581 12 ± 1.4 1581-1598 9.6 ± 1.0
1598-1625 20 ± 4 1625-1657 69 ± 6
1657-1696 40 ± 6 1696-1718 66 ± 10
1718-1738 7.7 ± 2 1738-1770 40 ± 8
1770-1787 3.7 ± 1 1787-1814 81 ± 9
1814-1850 3.2 ± 2 1850-1873 32 ± 8
1873-1895 4.1 ± 2.9 1895-1920 223 ± 98
1920-1946 387 ± 123 1946-1980 137 ± 62
Downwaves death tend to be internal tensions Upwaves tend to be intercountry dominance wars.The big exception was WW2 which in some ways was probably the sequel to WW1

Peter Turchin

Thanks, John for bringing up Alexander’s work. I have his book, The Kondratiev Cycle, from which you took these data. One thing to note is that Alexander is focusing on K-cycles, but the 50-year peaks in political violence sometimes coincide, and sometimes not with K-cycles. Now that we have the data it would be an interesting idea to do a more formal analysis.

I read Alexander’s book some yeas go, and generally found it quite good and insightful. Incidentally, the current K-cycle is now in its ‘bad’ phase, which will last probably to 2020 or 2025. So this will be yet another source of additional pressure on the system.

Tim Tyler

Surely memes are chiefly responsible for the evolution of cooperation in large-scale societies. They are largely responsible for large-scale societies in the first place, large-scale conflicts between them, and high levels of cooperation within them. One reason is that shared memes produce high levels of cultural relatedness, which leads to cooperation through cultural kin selection.

If you want to invoke warfare, it should surely be meme warfare. Meme warfare is not necessarily the same as warfare between humans. For example, Google and Facebook may be in an epic meme war with each other – but few humans have died in the heat of the battle.

Peter Turchin

OK, Tim – but just talking about it in a general way is not science. Where are the quantitative studies about how relative frequencies of different ‘memes’ change with time? Where are mathematical models that make predictions, which could be tested with such data? If you and other proponents of memetics want to advance it, it’s time to start doing real science.

Tim Tyler

Practically all the students of cultural evolution that use techniques derived from population genetics are looking at how the frequencies of different memes change with time. There are large numbers of studies relating to the issue – based on usenet (e.g. Michael Best, 1997), Twitter (L. Weng, 2012), books (J. Michel et. al. 2011) – and so on. Surely, as a scientist working in a related field you are aware of this sort of material. So: it isn’t clear to me what are you are talking about.

* J. Michel et. al. 2011 Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books.
* Weng, 2012 Competition among memes in a world with limited attention
* Michael Best, 1997 Models for Interacting Populations of Memes: Competition and Niche Behavior

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