“Ultrasociety” by Peter Turchin

Paleo Retiree writes:

The book’s complete title: “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth.”

A stimulating, clear, fast and provocative attempt to explain via the principles of cultural evolution and population biology how humans learned to co-operate on the kind of immense scale that characterizes modern life. Consider the layers and intricacies of organization that are required for, say, the building of an airliner or the running of a cellphone network. How on earth did we tribal primates get to be able to do that? That’s the question Turchin is concerned with here.

Turchin’s basic idea is that, just as over zillions of years evolution produced complexity in creatures, so did evolutionary pressures at the level of human groups produce societies capable of ever more complex ways to trade, defend ourselves, create, and organize our lives. The mental trick required here is to think of societies — from tribes to kingdoms to early states to empires — as organisms that grow, compete, adapt (and succeed or fail) in much the same way species do. Over time, we learned how to run and inhabit societies considerably more complicated, large and powerful than the small groups that, in the Paleo sense, we’re crafted for.

A startling consequence of looking at things in this light: war, defeat and disease don’t play the roles they usually play in history books (tragedy, collapse, etc). Instead we come to see them as the culling-and-pruning forces in the evolutionary process. We try a lot of shit. Most of it goes nowhere and dies off. Meanwhile, the handful of innovations that do gain traction race through the world’s societies and are incoporated into yet newer political organisms. And evolution rolls on …

Fwiw, this is all catnip to me, and on a primitive level I not only buy the ideas completely but feel happy to the point of exhiliration to be exploring the world of these thoughts.

There are definitely going to be people who object to Turchin’s notions, some of them for perfectly decent reasons. For instance: Is group selection (which we now apparently call “multilevel selection”) in fact a real thing? There are people out there who I respect a lot who think that it isn’t or that it’s, at best, an insignificant factor. Another: Is Turchin doing nothing more than telling just-so stories? That’s a common objection to the notions of evolutionary biology and especially evolutionary psychology. Yet another: Isn’t this all awfully amoral? Shouldn’t we be deriving character-building lessons from the history we contemplate and read about? (But evolution is anything but moral.) I can’t deny that I indulged a few moments when I found myself imagining what kind of go the progress-skeptic English philosopher John Gray would have at Turchin’s ideas. I’d enjoy reading all the above, by the way. Stimulating debate, yay.

Turchin, who began as an evolutionary biologist and has since turned his attention to history and founded the school of “cliodynamics” — essentially an attempt to bring the rigor of statistics and math to bear on history, and to make the study of history more scientific and less literary than it can often tend to be — published “Ultrasociety” himself, bless his heart. Much like blogging, the self-publishing of books offers benefits (freedom, openness, quirkiness) and perils (unprofessionalism). And “Ultrasociety” does sometimes feel like it could have used one more editorial pass than it got. Turchin has, to put it mildly, a lively, brainstormy mind, and the effort of pulling his thoughts together sometimes shows. Also, the book’s tone wobbles, uncertainly if likably, between the very sophisticated and the hyper-accessible. But I’m pleased to report that in general the book features a lot more of the benefits than the deficits of the self-publishing approach. It’s great too that, as a writer, Turchin has a very amusing line in droll, rueful ’n’ soulful Russian humor.

Warmly recommended — and, as one Amazon reader-reviewer writes, “A lot to think about!”


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, History, Science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s