Ultrasociety by Peter Turchin - Review (Part 2)

How did human societies become massive engines of cooperation?

Part 1

In order for Darwinian natural selection to take place we need a few basic things. First, we need a mechanism for generating variation. Second, we need ways of passing down that variation through time. And finally, we need a method for selecting the more successful variants from the less successful ones.

We've seen that in our scenario the mechanism for generating variation is culture. Cultural traits are passed down through time and have differential success in "reproducing" themselves, somewhat like genetic information passed down through DNA. This causes different cultures to fall on a spectrum on a range of attributes such as cooperativeness and social cohesiveness: "Once the capacity for culture evolved in our ancestors, it opened a completely new world of cultural evolution. It also made possible the evolution of culturally-transmitted traits by Cultural Multilevel Selection."

We've also learned that the main unit of selection in Cultural Multilevel Selection is groups and not just individuals or genes as in standard biological evolution. The Price Equations provided a mathematical framework for how this process could unfold.

Over time, however, as competition between groups became more frequent and intense, competition within groups declined. What was the source of this paradox?

The reason is because, as Turchin puts it, humans cooperate to compete. Internal competition makes groups less likely to prevail in head-to-head competition against rival groups, and therefore more likely to be eliminated in the tournament of war.

3. Cooperation

Turchin illustrates why this is the case by describing the internal dynamics of the disgraced energy trading firm Enron.

The CFO of Enron, Jeffrey Skilling—like so many in the American business executive class—was an ardent devotee of Ayn Rand as well as a fan of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Also, like many business executives, he was fanatically obsessed with competition. He believed that competition was the source and the driver of everything that was good and noble in the world. For example, in free-market capitalist theory, rival businesses competed against each other for market share driving "weaker" and less efficient businesses out of the market. Therefore, he thought, why not unleash the power of cutthroat competition within the organization to stimulate greater levels of success?

To this end he established a "rank and yank" system where Enron's employees were constantly evaluated and ranked against one another from the “highest performing” people to the lowest (the criteria are unspecified), with the lowest performers ruthlessly kicked to the curb. This brutal "Darwinian selection" mechanism assured that only the best employees would be retained, Skilling presumed. In his view, the "strong" would survive and the "weak" would be culled, giving rise to a lean, mean group of high-performing corporate Übermenschen.

Predictably, this led to social dynamics akin to scorpions in a vat. Everyone persistently tried to undermine and sabotage one another less they be perceived as a "low performer" and "yanked." As one Enron employee chillingly put it, “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat.” As Turchin wryly notes, "Why should it be surprising that such an atmosphere of cut-throat competition bred unethical behavior and financial impropriety—or, in plain English, cheating and fraud?"

Another salient example is that of Eddie Lampert and Sears. Lampert was a former hedge fund banker who—like Skilling—was a disciple of Ayn Rand. He was horrified to discover that corporations like the one he was supposed to lead were rife with what he perceived as "central planning." To remedy this situation, he instituted an "internal marketplace," splitting Sears into thirty, and later forty, independent, autonomous units each with its own executives and budget. Ruthless competition between these "internal businesses" would be just like competition in the "free market," he thought, spurring efficiency reducing costs. As he explained to Bloomberg Businessweek: “If the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly, they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance.”

It didn't work any better than it did with Enron. As the economist Ronald Coase explained a long time ago, corporations exist precisely because they allow cooperation on a large scale. That is, they cooperate to compete. With all the internal components of the company pitted against against each other in a high-stakes, winner-take-all competition, cooperation became all but impossible leading to justifiably paranoid executives fighting tooth-and-nail over every bit of turf. One executive described it as “dysfunctionality at the highest level.”

Eventually Sears filed for bankruptcy, costing its shareholders billions. It was an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved—everyone except for Lampert, that is, who walked away with over a billion dollars. As Turchin notes, while these are the most extreme examples, many major American corporations have implemented similar "rank and yank" schemes, including General Electric (where it was first pioneered by Jack Welch) and Microsoft.

The importance of suppressing in-group competition can be understood by studying the dynamics of professional sports teams, since they are an arena of life devoted to “pure” competition, free of the messiness and contingencies of actual wars: "The lesson that team sports offer is that we don’t just compete against each other as individuals. We also compete as team members against other teams. Team sports are a great metaphor—working together in teams is also pervasive in our normal lives."

He points out that implementing a “rank and yank” system among athletes on a team would be a disaster. If every athlete were in permanent direct head-to-head competition with his or her own teammates, then how willing would they be to pass the ball? Or assist in a goal where the point scored accrued to someone else's stats?

Imagine a basketball team managed in the same way that Jeff Skilling managed Enron. Skilling would rank all players by the number of goals they scored, pay the best-scoring player most of the money in the salary pool, and fire the one who scored the fewest. It wouldn’t matter to him that the “worst” player might actually play a key role in defense, or be the one who makes the most passes for scoring throws. Out she goes.

Skilling, then, would succeed in creating a highly competitive atmosphere within the team. Each player would want to score as many goals as possible. But that would not make a winning team...The lowest-ranked player will want to trip the next player up so that she can move up and avoid the sack. Higher-ranked players need to keep lower-ranked ones down. Very soon everybody realizes that their worst enemies are not the players on the other team. The real enemy is your neighbour in the huddle…

In fact, in order to avoid falling to the bottom, team members might even sabotage the efforts of the best players in a "crabs-in-a-bucket" scenario. In extreme cases they might even go as far as tripping or smashing the kneecaps of their fellow teammates with a crowbar à la Tonya Harding. Why not? Better her that you, right? "If I have to step on some guy’s throat..." Turchin informs us that studies show that teams which have more equal payrolls consistently outcompete teams which invest most their money in a few individual superstars. As Turchin notes, "Just as in team sports, a reduction of within-group competition and inequality makes groups stronger competitors. This general principle works equally well for football teams and for whole societies."

Perhaps the best demonstration of the fault of this naïve evolutionary logic was provided by a chicken breeder named William Muir:

In the 1990s, geneticist William Muir conducted experiments on chickens to see what would improve egg-laying productivity. In one trial...he let only the most productive hens reproduce. The results were disastrous. Egg-laying productivity didn’t increase. It plummeted. Why? Because the resulting breed of hens was psychopathic. Instead of producing eggs, these ‘uber-hens’ fought amongst themselves, sometimes to the death.

The reason this experiment didn’t work is that egg-laying productivity is not an isolated property of the individual hen. It is a joint property of the hen and her social environment. In Muir’s experiment, the most productive hens laid more eggs not because they were innately more productive, but because they suppressed the productivity of less dominant chickens. By selecting for individual productivity, Muir had inadvertently bred for social dominance. The result was a breed of bully chicken that couldn’t tolerate others.

The Rise of Human Capital Theory (Economics from the Top Down)

Societies also had to overcome what Turchin calls The Cooperator's Dilemma. These are what are often referred to in game theory as coordination or collective action problems. A coordination problem is one where all individuals would be better off cooperating but fail to do so because of conflicting interests between them which discourage such action. They are situations in which it is to the collective benefit of all but the individual benefit of none to undertake some sort of mutually beneficial enterprise.

With coordination problems, it’s often easy for a few people to "cheat"—that is to take advantage of other people's efforts while contributing nothing themselves (known as “free riding”). This puts cooperators at a disadvantage. If people collectively shovel out the back alley after a snowstorm, then you get the benefit even if you didn't personally do anything. But if everyone acted that way, the alleyway would never be cleared. The Cooperator’s Dilemma, then, centers around how to motivate the members of a group to work towards common goals rather than simply free-ride on the efforts of others.

Think about my war example: if your tribe’s warriors succeed in repelling the enemy, everybody in the village benefits—both those who fought, and those who didn’t. It’s the tension between the public nature of the benefits and the private nature of the costs that defines cooperation in the strong sense...

That is what the Cooperator’s Dilemma is all about. It would be better for all if everybody contributed to the common good, but it is to each individual’s advantage to shift the burden to others. If all follow this logic, no collective goods are produced and everybody is worse off.

The dilemma strikes not just in matters of war and peace, but in many other spheres of public life: providing good governance, creating public infrastructure (such as roads), funding research in science and technology, keeping air and water clean, and so on...

In fact, cooperation is not just one of many things that societies do, it’s the main thing they do. Production of public goods is what distinguishes a true society from a mere collection of individuals.

In order to deal with the cooperator's dilemma some societies institute moralistic punishment to ensure that there are downsides to free riding: "Moralistic punishment is basically a “leveling mechanism” that makes everybody equal within the group and, thus, shuts down within-group competition." Of course, there still need to be enough willing cooperators in the first place to make this work. As Turchin points out, a society comprised of nothing but “rational actors” motivated by pure self-interest alone will never be able to achieve any degree of cooperation. Every market system is underpinned by an atmosphere of societal trust and cohesion slowly built up over a long period of time; there is no exception.

Increasingly anthropologists are looking at the role religion played in the creation and enforcement of these social norms. In this theory, the threat of supernatural punishment kept free riders from taking advantage of cooperators, preventing cooperative individuals from being placed at an evolutionary disadvantage. It used to be thought that only so-called "Big Gods" were concerned with individuals' moralistic behavior, but that idea has been challenged more recently. Practices like these, and others like them, are what allowed large-scale societies to form1.

The Price Equations indicate that over time, cooperators tend to aggregate together. This is what allowed cooperative clusters to emerge both within societies and eventually on the level of whole societies:

The most important insight from the Price equation, which holds under all kinds of conditions, is that the key to the evolution of cooperation is how cooperators and non-cooperators are sorted...The general intuition is that when cooperators interact mainly with other cooperators, while free riders mainly deal with other free riders, then it is easier for cooperating traits to spread. In the technical jargon, this is known as “positive assortment,” and the math says it is at least as important as the balance of selective forces.

If your populations segregate themselves into cooperators and free-riders, obviously that will tend to make the group-level competition much more stark...In fact, they don’t even need to be in well-defined groups. If some areas have high densities of cooperators and others are where the free riders hang out, then it’s the same as having groups, even though there are no clear boundaries.

In the end, then, groups which sat higher on the spectrum of cooperation thanks to collective cultural norms and behaviors were able to persistently outcompete those who were lower down on the scale in the high-stakes battle for food, mates, and territory. Those groups won more often than they lost. And that's why those particular cultural traits spread, leading to cooperation on larger and larger scales as the "big fish" swallowed up the littler fish. This process is what provided the requisite Darwinian selection mechanism for "favorable" cultural traits—favorable, that is, from the standpoint of cultural survival and replication in the "proving ground" of war.

4. Warfare

Turchin argues that competitive pressures between various groups ramped up significantly during the last ten thousand years of human existence due to the increasing population pressure. Skirmishes and raids gave way to existential conflicts—existential in the sense that the losing side might find itself wiped out completely—i.e. genocide. Even if every single person on the losing side did not perish in such encounters, very often their culture was effectively wiped out—what Turchin refers to as ethnocide or culturecide.

Regardless of which scenario played out, the culture of the winning group was propagated while that of the losing group typically died out. Thus, the losing side in a conflict would have no choice but to adopt the cultural practices of the victors, causing successful cultural traits to propagate and spread, somewhat like successful genes. And, as we've seen, cultural traits diffuse horizontally through populations due to social learning and imitation causing entire populations to behave more-or-less homogeneously.

Turchin argues that this increased level of conflict between groups became so intense that it became the primary unit of selection under certain particular circumstances (circumstances which can be described by the Price Equations). Under such conditions, it was the ability to cooperate on large scales, Tuchin says, that was the most potent cultural advantage that any society could develop in order to give itself an edge over its rivals in existential conflicts. The reason is because larger groups almost always defeat smaller ones in head-to-head combat. Turchin illustrates this with a quote from Napoleon: "God is on the side of the big battalions."

What Turchin refers to as "the human way of war" relies on mobility and ranged weapons rather than physical strength and individual (one-on-one) combat. What this means is that initial size advantages between different groups are multiplied out of proportion due to something called Lanchester's Laws. What these laws demonstrate is that under certain conditions, the size advantage of the bigger army does not scale arithmetically (i.e. linearly), but rather geometrically (i.e. exponentially).

Individual combat gives a linear advantage to the larger group over the smaller one. This leads to a straightforward calculation: 1000 warriors against 700 will lead to 1000 - 700 = 300 surviving warriors in the winning tribe (assuming all warriors are equal). Under these conditions, two armies of equal size and skill will either wipe each other out completely or achieve no decisive victory. This is known as Lanchester's Linear Law. This condition operates when each warrior is paired off against only a single warrior form the opposing side at a time.

But under other conditions such as in relatively open terrain where the larger force is able to concentrate its attack on its enemies, or using ranged weapons such as bows-and-arrows or artillery; the advantage will compound over the course of the battle, meaning that the numerical advantage will be proportional to the square of each group size. This is known as Lanchester's Square Law.

Under this scenario, even a tiny initial size difference will yield a disproportionate advantage in battle, such that the larger force will have far greater odds of winning and will have far more surviving troops than its opponent. Lanchester's Square Law, for example, predicts that a force of 1000 soldiers against a force of 700—ceteris paribus—will lose only 286 soldiers (714 survivors), while the other side will be wiped out completely.

It turns out that it's math that's on the side of the big battalions.

I won't go into the arithmetic in detail here, but you can check out this YouTube video for more details: Lanchester's Laws: The Maths of War (12:45)

Obviously this is a vast oversimplification of actual combat in the real world, but it gives us a basic model to understand why societies which were able to massively scale up and deploy huge armies had such a dramatic competitive advantage. It also illustrates why the locations where the earliest states appeared in history were broad, flat plains in places like China and Western Asia. In these places, the ability to scale up and have a numerical advantage over your opponents played a disproportionate role in determining which groups survived and which did not. These places are known to linguists as "spread zones"—places were languages spread out widely, eliminating linguistic diversity: "Spread zones are therefore regions where competition between cultural groups is so intense that one group can drive many others to (cultural) extinction over a large area."

Conversely, places where states were weak or never developed at all were typically regions with impassible hills, mountains and valleys like New Guinea (despite a very early presence of agriculture) and Zomia (used as the exemplar of a stateless area by James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed). Linguistically, these are "residual zones"—places where linguistic diversity is highest. New Guinea alone is home to over 800 languages with a population of under nine million people (smaller than Sweden).

In other words, Lanchester’s Square Law yields an enormous return to social scale. If the opposing forces use a mix of ranged and shock weapons, numerical superiority will still be amplified, although not as much as with purely projectile weapons. So there is an intense selection pressure for cultural groups living in flat terrain to scale up, and a very high price to pay by those that fail to do so (recall where the first states emerged). In the mountains the selection pressure for larger societies is reduced considerably.

We know that, over the past 10,000 years, larger polities consistently outcompeted smaller ones, with the result that 99.8 percent of people today live in countries with populations of one million or more. There is something about the polity size, some great competitive advantage that it confers on the group, which explains why large-scale polities have taken over the Earth. It’s the principle...economists call “increasing returns to scale.”

This part of the book is sure to be controversial. Turchin even informs us that there is currently a "war over war" in the social sciences. As Turchin notes, "We may wish it were otherwise, but if we ignore it we will be failing at our job of understanding how social evolution really works."

Turchin's outlook on prehistoric warfare is midway between the Rousseauian view offered by some anthropologists and the ultraviolent Hobbesian scenario laid out by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

When it comes to interpersonal violence, Turchin rejects the notion that humans before civilization were mostly peaceful and nonviolent. He cites Lawrence Keely’s book War Before Civilization as proof that interpersonal violence was commonplace even before agriculture, civilization, or the state. Violent competition between different groups was frequent and often brutal:

Yes, during the climate chaos of the Pleistocene, warfare was probably rare. Human populations were in much greater danger of being wiped out by the advancing glaciers than by another foraging band. When the glaciers receded, enormous areas opened up for re-colonization. Avoiding aggressors by moving away was both preferable and feasible...

However, [Douglas] Fry and others...go too far when they suggest that “war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence” prior to 10,000 years ago...[T]here must have been periods of relatively stable climate when the local landscape would fill up. Nomadic foragers can be as territorial as farmers, and will defend rich hunting grounds or patches of valued plant resources. Once one group resorted to violence, war would spread: pacifist groups would be eliminated by natural selection.

But he disagrees with Pinker that violence has been on a continuous downward trend ever since prehistory. Instead, he argues that both violence and warfare took a quantum leap upward with the arrival of chiefdoms and states. Rather than acting as anodynes for violence as Pinker contends, these social constructs enabled warfare and violent conflict to take place on scales which were simply impossible for diffuse groups of foragers with less to fight over and plenty of room to flee. That is, violence escalated with the rise of storable surpluses, dense populations and sedentism; it didn't decrease as societies scaled up.

This intensification of warfare continued, he says, for thousands of years after the Neolithic Revolution as populations expanded and unoccupied territories gradually became filled up. In addition, he notes that the first archaic states were utterly miserable places to live for the vast majority of their inhabitants—far worse than the foraging and tribal societies which preceded them again contradicting Pinker’s Hobbesian view.

While there is confusion resulting from competing definitions [of war], and a great degree of controversy about evidence and how to interpret it, all parties agree on one thing: warfare was particularly vicious among pre-state farming societies...It is quite possible that the period after agriculture spread but before states arose was the most violent in human history—at least when measured by the proportion of people who can be shown to have died as a result of war.

Note that warfare is different than violence. The potential for violence has always existed in individual human beings to some extent. But warfare, by definition, is organized conflict between different groups of people. Therefore the question of whether war is somehow intrinsic to human nature is nonsensical. Warfare can only happen on the level of groups, not on the level of the individual. A solitary person in isolation cannot make war, therefore he or she cannot be said to possess any sort of "genetic predisposition" or “innate proclivity” for war.

It's also important to note that there are different kinds of violence. There's direct, interpersonal violence within societies such as homicide. There's structural violence perpetrated by elites such as human sacrifice, slavery, poverty, and mass incarceration. And there are violent conflicts between different groups of people which we designate as war. With this notion in mind, Turchin notes that, "different kinds of violence have followed distinct trajectories in the history of human societies. This happened, probably, because the increases and decreases in war, despotism, and homicide were driven by different causes."

Although Turchin argues that warfare increased in size and intensity with the advent of larger and more sedentary societies practicing agriculture, he does concur with Pinker (and many others) that interpersonal violence has declined during the last 5,000 years or so due to the suppression of violence inside of societies. The percentage of people dying in violent conflicts has also decreased during this time. Turchin refers to this trend as The Lambda Curve of Human Violence after that Greek letter lambda: Λ.

We have now put together all the pieces of this puzzle. We have a Darwinian evolutionary process working on the level of groups. We have social innovations leading to cultural variation between various groups. We have cultural behaviors spreading through societies and passed down through time via social learning and imitation. We see that some societies have a significant competitive advantage over others because they are more cooperative and can scale up to take advantage of increasing returns to scale, especially when it comes to war. And we have the selection effect of persistent military conflict removing smaller and less cooperative societies from the playing field allowing larger, more cooperative polities to expand and propagate their culture in their place.

This evolutionary dynamic, then, is what has led to the rise of Ultrasociety.

Societies can compete in many ways, but until quite recently the main—and the most demanding—way has been war. Just as economic competition eliminates the less efficient businesses, military competition in history eliminated less cooperative societies. The process is brutal....Nevertheless, this brutal, murderous force can also be creative. By eliminating poorly coordinated, uncooperative, and dysfunctional states it creates more cooperative, more peaceful, and more affluent ones...it even creates more just societies.

The central idea of this book is that it was competition between groups, usually taking the form of warfare, that transformed humanity from small-scale foraging bands and farming villages into huge societies with elaborate governance institutions and complex and highly productive economic life...It was competition and conflict between human groups that drove the transformation of small bands of hunter-gatherers into huge nation-states.

...War both destroys and creates. It is a force of creative destruction, to borrow a phrase from the economist Joseph Schumpeter. In fact, that phrase gets the emphasis wrong. War is a force of destructive creation, a terrible means to a remarkable end...Just keep in mind that when I call war “creative” or “productive,” my intent is not to glorify it nor to argue that war is in any sense good. By “creative” I simply mean that it has been one of the important selection forces for large-scale cooperative societies...

This process also led to another paradox. Ten thousand years ago, various societies around the world became much more unequal and much more despotic as they scaled up. Conflicts between societies became more frequent and intense. But eventually this trend went into reverse. Over the last five thousand years or so, societies became relatively more equal at the same time that interpersonal violence decreased. Things that were once commonplace in early societies like god-kings with absolute power and the practice of human sacrifice largely disappeared, replaced by rulers who were "merely" human who were subject to the rule of law. Warfare became less deadly; peace more widespread. Moral codes shifted and human life became regarded as more valuable. Competition moved primarily into the economic realm. Eventually even slavery was abolished and democracy supplanted monarchies all over the world.

What all these scenarios have in common is that the cultural traits of successful societies spread at the expense of the traits of the less successful. Everything from brutal genocide to the peaceful and voluntary adoption of institutions serves the process. The “destructive” part need not result in people being killed. What need to be destroyed are those cultural traits that make societies less successful—less cooperative, less internally peaceful, and less wealthy.

It’s also striking that, over the course of human history, the more dire forms of selection have been gradually giving way to gentler ones. This observation provides some grounds for optimism...

Turchin describes this process as The Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism. In the final post of this series, we'll take a look at how these trends played out over the course of human history, and what it means for the future.

ADDENDUM: The latest from Boyd and Richerson: https://t.co/bpq19HPDrP?amp=1

We present evidence that people in small-scale, mobile hunter-gatherer societies cooperated in large numbers to produce collective goods. Foragers engaged in large-scale communal hunts, constructed shared capital facilities; they made shared investments in improving the local environment; and they participated in warfare, alliance, and trade. Large-scale collective action often played a crucial role in subsistence. The provision of public goods involved the cooperation of many individuals, so each person made only a small contribution. This evidence suggests that large-scale cooperation occurred in the Pleistocene societies that encompass most of human evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that large-scale cooperation in Holocene food producing societies results from an evolved psychology shaped only in small group interactions. Instead, large scale human cooperation needs to be explained as an adaptation, likely rooted in the distinctive features of human biology, grammatical language, increased cognitive ability, and cumulative cultural adaptation.


* Which is why every single society in the world has penalties for nonpayment of taxes. The libertarian TaXeS aRe ThEfT!!!!!!!! argument is simplistic and asinine. No one should take these people seriously (and no one does outside of the United States). J.K. Galbraith said it best: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."