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War! What Is It Good For?

I’ve just returned from California, where I spent last two weeks. I dislike long-distance air travel, and when I do it, I try to hit as many birds with the same stone, so to speak. This means bunching up as many talks and visits as possible. On this trip I started at Stanford, then went to Davis. These visits were followed by a drive down Route 1 to southern California, where I gave talks at Irvine and Riverside.

The primary purpose of my Stanford visit was an informal workshop where we discussed a joint project on modeling trade routes in ancient, medieval, and early modern periods; and their possible effects on the evolution of complex societies and state formation. In the afternoon I also met with Ian Morris, the author of the widely acclaimed Why the West Rules—For Now.

I met Ian some years ago when he gave an invited lecture at Yale, and we immediately discovered that we share an interest in evolution, history—and war as a major engine of social evolution. Three years ago Ian joined us for a workshop I organized at Stanford on Failed States and Nation Building. Several papers resulting from this workshop were later published in Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History.

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One of the major themes at the workshop was our discussion of a major insight from the theory of cultural multilevel selection, that the rise of large-scale complex societies can only be understood as a result of selection operating on cultural groups and whole societies. Throughout most of human history the major form this between-societies competition took was warfare. The main proponents of this theme at the workshop were Peter Richerson, David Sloan Wilson, and I.

Meanwhile Ian, coming from a very different background of the history and archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean, has independently converged on a very similar answer (take a look at his article in the Cliodynamics issue mentioned above). His extended argument was recently published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.


Photo by the author

In his book Morris argues that “the main function of war in cultural evolution across the past 15,000 years—and particularly across the past 500 years—has been to integrate societies, increasing material wellbeing.” It was war, strangely enough, that made our societies larger, wealthier, and safer. It must be understood that the argument here is “over the long run.” It goes without saying that wars created, and continue to create an enormous amount of human misery. But warfare creates an environment in which only societies that are strongly cooperative manage to persist and expand at the expense of less cooperative ones. Without war (or more broadly, without competition between societies) cooperation would unravel and disappear. Thus, wars have not only a destructive side, but also a creative one.

I am in complete agreement with Ian that this general insight is very valid. However, making this argument immediately gets you in hot water.

Two years ago I participated in a public debate at the University of Tennessee, Was warfare a creative force in early social evolution? Naturally, I was arguing for the affirmative answer to this question.


Jerry Sabloff of the Santa Fe Institute and I arguing for the thesis. Source: NIMBioS

At the end of the debate, the audience voted, and our side was soundly defeated.


Top: our esteemed opponents, Tim Kohler and Sander van der Leeuw. Bottom: The sea of blue cards indicates that the antithesis had won. Source: NIMBioS.

However, it was clear to me (at least, I’d like to propose) that people in the audience voted not against our logic, but simply against war. In fact, during the questions period, I was soundly berated by one irate member of the audience as being a warmonger!

So I asked Ian, how his book has fared since it was published two months ago. He looked sad and replied that he has been getting a lot of flak from people who focus on the book title and berate him for being a warmonger. Actually, several reviews from reputable commentators that I’ve seen were cautiously positive. On the other hand, here’s an example from the blogosphere of a much less measured response:

American Public Turns Anti-War … Warmongers Desperately Reply, “But War Is GOOD for Us!”

Most people who react negatively to Ian’s book have not read it. When I brought it up later on my trip in a conversation with a colleague at a southern California university, he made a face, but then admitted that he hadn’t read the book. He explained that he disliked the title, because it suggested that war is good.

Oh well. Provocative titles sell books. I just checked, and War! was ranked as 3,873 in Amazon best-selling books – a very good result, indicating lots of sales. The downside is that you are likely to be misunderstood and your main message misrepresented.


Notes on the margin: Tomorrow I am taking off for another long trip. I am going first to Toulouse for a conference on The Military in Politics in the 21st century, which promises to be very interesting. Then I go to Moscow, where I give a keynote address at the 7th International Conference Cliodynamics: complex systems analysis and mathematical modeling of global, regional and country dynamics. After that to St. Petersburg for fun. I hope to be able to blog on the road, but can’t promise that…


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  1. Rod Brana says:

    The fallacy is the argument is to believe that cooperation can only come from conflict against another group. I believe humans and other animals display remarkable ability and openess to cooperate. Those who preach a benefit to war are giving excuse for people in power to comit crimes for economics and political gain. More cooperation would result from finding solutions that avoid war than from opting for brute force to solve conflicts. Lastly, those who spouse the benefits of war and want to sent young people to die and commit horrible acts against others should be the ones fighting in the front lines. People should not be viewed as disposable blobs of flesh to be used and discarded. War engenders hatred among groups and we can no longer pretend out planet is infinite and can hold grudges indefinitely. There are vast problems that humanity faces that require cooperation, water resources to name one. War breaks down the possibility of cooperation.

    • Richard says:

      I mean, it’s nice that you believe that, but what does the historical record show?

      You can be fervently anti-war & think war is horrible and still believe that it is through warfare that civilizations became what they are.

      You can be vegetarian, but it’s really hard to argue that humans would have evolved in to what they are if they had been herbivores.

      • Rod Brana says:

        Your interpretation of history is static. By that reasoning, you could argue slavery is good for society. The argument beg the question of who is included in “society” and who is sacrificed to be a victim. As a blog that is called social “evolution” I would expect an interest in projecting progress along an arc towards justice (paraphrasing MLK), and not a mechanistic view of an abstract “society” that services some and victimizes others. It may be intellectually stimulating to be detached analytically but not only is the analysis about the benefits of war flawed but it is also wrong. Morality has to be part of a social evolution as society is a human construct.

        • Richard says:

          Huh? I’m not making a value judgement.

          With regards to slavery, would you try to argue that slavery had no impact on the US? That what we are today (for good or ill) was not affected by slavery in the US?

          Would you not be interested in studying why slavery happens, why it still exists today, what could cause it to be more prevalent in the future, and what effects it has on society?

          • Rod Brana says:

            Of course slavery needs to be studied. Society has been virtually addicted to it, and to war.

          • Richard says:

            So slavery should be studied, but you oppose the act of war being studied?

          • Rod Brana says:

            Study war all you want. I disagree with the conclusion that war is somehow necessary or even that is has been beneficial for society. It has existed, people (who survived) have had to adapt to them. Whatever cooperation was done among fractions could had been achieved for goals other than killing. The reason the debate was lost is not because people have a dislike or ‘irrational’ fear of war, but because the arguments for it are weak and contrived. Thank goodness for new a generation.

            Quoting from blog above:
            “Without war (or more broadly, without competition between societies) cooperation would unravel and disappear. Thus, wars have not only a destructive side, but also a creative one.” — the parenthetical caveat is key: it is not war, but competition that engenders cooperation. Moreover, it is problem-solving together that engenders creative cooperation. The problem doesn’t have to be how to achieve the goal of killing people.
            The competition could be against a societal or technological problem, like how to immunize children around the globe against measles, a goal largely achieved, that required tremendous creative cooperation.

          • Richard says:

            “I disagree with the conclusion that war is somehow necessary or even that is has been beneficial for society.”

            But how can you disagree with a conclusion before studying something first?

            You seem to have a closed mind where you find some conclusions objectionable before ever considering any evidence.

            You’re really no different from someone who has decided that homosexuality is always and everywhere wrong and never had had an redeeming value to any society without ever studying its history and why it exists.

          • Rod Brana says:

            Well, when the comments become personal and offensive (close minded), it’s time to realize there are no possibility of reasoning. Your support of war is narrow because it overvalues what a few gain (Europe / the US / the elite who don’t have to fight the wars, the victors) and devalues the many that lose (colonies / the poor / the losers of armed conflicts). As in neo-classical Econ, those negative effects are treated as externalities. The cooperation, the “creativity” (if how to kill and subjugate can be considered creative) is seen from inside a bubble. I don’t know what homosexuality has to do with anything. Except, perhaps, that it wouldn’t surprise me that you would defend the hatred of homosexuality as a basis of “creative cooperation” by homophobics — as you do for war.

          • Richard says:

            Actually, calling you “close-minded” isn’t a personal attack because it’s hard to describe your attitude as anything but.

            However, I am tempted to actually engage in personal attacks.

            It seems that you are not very good with the liberal arts skills of critical reasoning and close reading. Nowhere did I say I support the act of war. In fact, I have family members who lived through war and died in wars, so I abhor war, and I’m fully aware of war’s negative externalities. Yet I support the study of war and will go where the data leads.

            The fact that you can not grasp my homosexuality example really says more about you than me, as does the fact that you so easily jump to assumptions about my views on homosexuality (your assumptions are wrong, BTW; do you see a pattern here?)

        • Anthony says:

          Evolution does not “progress along an arc towards” anything.

          When environmental conditions remain relatively static, organisms and super-organisms (societies) will drift towards becoming better adapted to that environment, for some value of “better-adapted”.

          War causes an accelerated drift towards those traits which make a society better-adapted for war, which also happen to be, in many (but not all!) cases, traits which make for “better” societies in peacetime, such as large-scale cooperation.

          • Rod Brana says:

            Nothing is predetermined, if that is what you mean by “… advances towards nothing.” But there are directions and consequences, those form the metaphorical arc. Societies have a choice about where it wants to go. It requires understanding the path we are on and visualizing the consequences.

            To vindicate war and find it necessary is to perpetuate the idea that there are no alternatives means to creative cooperation and staying in the arc of destruction for lack of imagination (or to serve the interests if a few).

  2. dashui says:

    Of course these students go home and pay to stream from netflix movies about war….

  3. stephenduplantier says:

    Peace is slow war, because conflict can occur in peacetime; and war is fast peace, because cooperation can occur during wartime. Maybe it’s all a question of where an event falls on a gradient of communication.

  4. EdwardT says:

    Warfare has increased hierarchies and levels of cooperation. I don’t disagree with that. To effectively fight with a group of people you need both.

    However two problems with the thesis:

    1. There is an underlying assumption that more cooperation is required for more peace, whereas you only need some – you only need more cooperation if there is an environment of group competition.

    2. Hierarchies with many layers may collapse worse and more frequently than hierarchies with fewer layers (civil war, terrorism, riots). Does Morris attempt to understand intra-polity warfare that blight the long periods of peace between intra-state war – even if some of it is low intensity?

    The argument for 2. (more cooperation = more peace) is that warfare is endemic to low-scale society. While modern inter-polity warfare is high intensity it is less frequent – we can enjoy the nice long gaps of peace in between. Tribal warfare by contrast is low intensity and constant – there never is any peace to enjoy.

    Surely therefore we are better off with this apparently progressive evolution towards less frequent war and more peace in between – eventually, if we don’t get wiped out in an apocalypse first, there may be eternal peace.

    However, this argument misunderstands the nature of cooperation. You only need lots of cooperation if you’re up against another group competing for the same resources. Once there is only one group in possession of all the resources you don’t need to give the wall 10 coats of paint – just one will do.

    Now, obviously, how do you get to that point where there is only one group without elimination through competition? War is required to get us down to one group?

    Nope. War not solved.

    If war is “solved” i.e. only one group left eventually the carry capacity will be reached and there will be nowhere for excess population to go = civil war.

    When you are down to one group you still have a massive hierarchy that will collapse or suffer endemic low-intensity warfare, just like the tribal warfare it was supposed to replace.

    The key to solving war is not to look at solving inter-state war but the causes of intra-polity war that was causing the low-intensity, frequent tribal conflicts, usually over resources.

    The solution to warfare is to find somewhere for that excess population to go to so it doesn’t start to fight over resources. In other words, we need to colonise space.

    Consider this as a case study

    Ukara island as metaphor for Planet Earth 2114
    link to

    Ukara island is a unique large-scale society (steady 16,000 population) which has evolved on an island in Lake Victoria (Tanzania). Despite living on a fairly barren island, the Ukaran people have reached the local carrying capacity through more advanced farming methods than those that are practised on the mainland and have developed their own system of private property rights.

    Since it is an island and resources are sparse there’s no good reason to invade. Warfare does not appear to be a factor in their existence. There are no big chiefs or significant government hierarchy on Ukara.

    The satellite photographs on Google maps offer a great view. From the air the settlements – poor sub-urban sprawl – are more forested, greener and perhaps a notch tidier than those on the nearby mainland e.g. Musoma city.

    The explanation seems to lie in the combination of the population cap the island imposes, and the fact their excess population can easily leave to find jobs on the mainland. The locals do not get too disrupted by demographic-structural effects which could lead to devastating fights over their limited resources because ambitious second or third sons have more opportunities elsewhere.

    This suggests to me that contra-Morris the unique conditions of Ukara shows warfare is not required for steady, peaceful cooperative society. What you need is firstly to reach carrying capacity of environment with one group and secondly an outlet for excess population.

    Cities of most large-scale societies are unlike this island in one respect – the inhabitants live strained beyond their local carrying capacity, whereas on this island the population maintains an equilibrium. This is why they can maintain their peaceful and cooperative society.

    • Richard says:

      They’re also small.

      I’m leery of using examples of less than 20K people as a template for billions of people.

      • EdwardT says:

        Fair enough, we need to look for related examples. Why not explain 19th century peace in Europe as a result of colonialism – the ability of European states to send ambitious individuals on adventures out of Europe. In the case of UK, they actually sent their criminals to Australia. by the early 20th century, almost every part of the world that could be colonised had been. in the final tally the UK had done very well, so had France and Belgium did pretty “good” in proportion to its size. Germany, however, didn’t have many colonies. Europe went to war again because there was no longer any room to expand outside of Europe. similar principle to the Ukara island.

        • Rod Brana says:

          Quoting: “Europe went to war again because there was no longer any room to expand outside of Europe.”

          The colonization involved wars. So, it is not like one can say “while there was colonization there was no war.” Thus, colonization was not an alternative solution to war. War was just moved further from Europe, temporarily. On a global scale it was still raging– granted, against weaker opponents.

          After the world war, the colorizing powers found it more useful to “cooperate” among each other against the anti colonialism and independence movements in colonies: Congo, Vietnam are just two examples.

          • EdwardT says:

            Yes agree, but the point is the war that occurred was outside Europe, so in Europe there was peace. Not making any claim other than that. It didn’t have to be war outside Europe. It was war because the rest of the world was occupied. It could just have been expansion – such as in the hypothetical case we are able to colonize Mars and other exoplanets. After the Second World War which ended the colonial system the Western states built governmental super-structures for the rest of the world that were not necessarily good for the rest of the world but managed to keep the peace in Europe/America.

  5. Ross David H says:

    It might be just as interesting (i.e. likely to sell books) but less contentious (so that the main point doesn’t get lost) to phrase it as “looking for a substitute for war, and peace isn’t it”. The main thing that war provides, is the same thing that bankruptcy provides in a market economy, which is that if an organization (nation or company) drops to the lowest x% of its peers in terms of its ability for cooperative action and innovation, then it is removed. Market economies don’t work without this “creative destruction”, and it is arguably more important than the fact that the most successful get more money. So what is needed, is a way for those societies (one thinks of failed states with endemic civil war) to be absorbed by more successful/cooperative ones. Up until this point in human history, this method has been invasion by neighbors who perceive weakness and the chance for pillage whenever a neighbor is divided. We can see in the current failure of the international system to find a solution for various failed states around the world, that we need a replacement for war here; simply NOT invading doesn’t solve the problem, it just leaves that failed state in perpetual civil war for a generation or more. We need a replacement for war, and peace isn’t it.

    • Rod Brana says:

      Finding a substitution to war would make a good topic. Agree. The last statement on your comment is interesting in that it suggests peace is not the answer to the failed states because they are at internal war … Yet, that is exactly the point: they are at war. The problem is not that they are experiencing peace; bringing more (external) war to them somehow is seen as an “answer”. That is like saying being healthy is not the answer because the patient has cancer.
      The alternative is to cooperate to find peaceful solutions and this achieving even higher levels of social progress than what wars can ever achieve.

  6. Jonas says:

    What you’re talking about is a fringe benefit of war. It’s not an intended purpose of it.

    War might be a bad thing, but people might still manage to find some silver lining from it. And after a while, people come to depend on that silver lining, because it gets built into the base of our system.

    It’s just part of the irony of history that people manage to harness bad things to good ends, and noble drives to bad ends. If you want to get rid of the bad things, you get rid of those good ends also, and on the flip side, if you want get rid of the bad ends, you get rid of those noble drives.

  7. Joe Brewer says:

    As a cognitive linguist who studies frame semantics (and the impact of word choice on the evolution of discourse), I am FASCINATED by the responses in this thread.

    Peter, if you’d like I can provide a frame analysis of the comments themselves to show how the “war is good” frame construct keeps people from engaging in productive dialogue. It might prove useful for broader discussions about how to increase intellectual progress on difficult and controversial issues — this one included.

  8. Ross David H says:

    I think Joe Brewer’s comment is spot-on: this thread is a textbook case of the framing of the question preventing much intellectual progress. My “we need a substitute for war and peace isn’t it” was an amateur’s attempt at reframing it in a way to allow for analytical thought to proceed without getting stampeded by emotional response. A non-amateur’s take on how to reframe the question might be just what is called for.

  9. ea4sie says:

    Set aside linguistic and framing problems, I just analyzed fallacies on this page. It was fun.
    link to

  10. Richard says:

    “You can be vegetarian, but it’s really hard to argue that humans would have evolved in to what they are if they had been herbivores.”

    Fallacy: False analogy.
    I think it is obvious to everyone.

    “ … Would you not be interested in studying why slavery happens, why it still exists today, what could cause it to be more prevalent in the future, … ”

    Fallacy: Red Herring.
    What studying slavery has to do with justifying wars as engines of progress?

    “But how can you disagree with a conclusion before studying something first?”

    • Richard says:

      Ugh. WordPress ate my reply.

      1. You put a fallacy here yourself (appeal to common sense). In fact, it is not obvious to everyone why that is a false analogy.

      2. Another fallacy (straw man; putting words in someone else’s mouth). Nowhere did I try to justify wars as engines of progress (you seem to lack the liberal arts skills of critical reasoning and close reading as well). Also, if you can not see the analogy between studying slavery and studying wars, then I’m not sure what else there is to say.

      3. And yes, you left unanswer my question (even though you quoted it):
      “But how can you disagree with a conclusion before studying something first?”

  11. O.Voron says:

    The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth

    link to