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This View of History Webinar: A Conversation With Peter Turchin

This webinar features evolutionary anthropologist and author Peter Turchin discussing his new book “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth“. Ultrasociety chronicles 10,000 years of human history from an evolutionary perspective, shows how warfare paradoxically caused us to become the greatest cooperators on earth, and begins to point the way toward a future without war. Peter is joined by Dan Hoyer, Project Manager of the Seshat Historical Databank, and David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life Editor in Chief and President of the Evolution Institute.

Slides from the presentation are available [here].

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  1. Prof. Emeritus Ferrel Christensen says:

    I may have missed something (Turchin’s accent is thick), but is the thesis merely about cultural evolution (meme selection) or biological evolution (gene selection)? If the former, it seems not highly contentious but also not very important. But if the latter, it seems very implausible. For one thing, it would mean that individuals from 20th-century forager or chieftain societies would have been unable to fit into modern society–which seems empirically false.

    • Rory Short says:

      It is about meme selection and I do not agree that this presentation is unimportant. My sense is that every possible means of educating the wider society of the reality that the development of human societies is amenable to evolutionary analysis and thus the possibility that evolutionary theory could be successfully used in planning our future social development.

  2. Helga Vierich says:

    This model about the spread of “ultra-social” traits assumes that monumental architecture and the rise and fall of states and empires seems to be to be a “meme” version of E.O. Wilson’s idea about some mysterious “knock-out” gene that permitted the development of “eusociality” in his “Social Conquest of Earth”. The fact that people in hunter-gatherer economies cooperate in small camping parties and people in agricultural economies cooperate in much denser and larger communities does not mean that monitoring and sanctioning is not as significant in the former as in the latter. The development of a NEED to constrain elites and rulers requires analysis. It is not that people in powerful and wealthy elites are intrinsically non-cooperative; rather, they tend to in a subculture permissive of self-affirmation fallacies. They explain their own position in terms of superior intelligence, military or business savvy, or even divine intention (see the studies reported by Paul Piff, for example). These delusions might be conducive to magnanimous benevolence toward poorer classes, but can equally result in policies of structural violence that entrench widespread poverty and transfers wealth and property into the hands of a tiny elite class. Worse, it can orchestrate genocides by starvation or withholding of shelter and health care, as well as directly mass murder.

    I am also uneasy about an assumption that the evolutionary drivers here are competition within societies and ultimately between societies. This vaults over well known relationships between population density and ecological degradation caused by deforestation, soil exhaustion, and associated escalated risk of epidemics, famine, starvation, conflict and collapse. Intensive agriculture in state societies tends to be unsustainable. The state solves this problem with increased predatory expansion into any territory still managed sustainably by tribal and hunter-gatherer societies. The predatory take-overs might involve more disciplined cooperation by soldiers of the state, but this does not mean that there is less cooperation in small scale subsistence economies. These cooperated over millennia to preserve the viable ecology of their commons. Elinor Ostrom got a Nobel Prize for demonstrating this.