Ultrasociety by Peter Turchin - Review (Part 3)

How did human societies become massive engines of cooperation?

In the previous two reviews, we sketched out the basics of Cultural Multilevel Selection Theory. In the final part of the book, Turchin sketches out some of the ways CMST has played out over the course of human history. CMST gives us insight into several of the historical trends that have played out over the last few thousand years, including the rise of the first states, the expansion of societies, the role of trade and war, the beginnings of agriculture, and the evolution of religious ideas. Let's take a look.

5. The First Humanitarian Revolution

Turchin notes that humans have a flatter social hierarchy than our great ape relatives, which can be observed by examining the dynamics of band societies. In these societies, leaders don't monopolize or hoard resources and lead mainly through competence and persuasion. Decisions are made by consensus, which is sometimes referred to as "campfire democracy."

The reason for this, he argues, is because at some unknown point in prehistory, humans acquired the ability to throw projectiles accurately and at high velocity. Chimpanzees cannot do this. Chimps may make good mascots, but they're lousy baseball players.

Throwing rocks is far more effective doing it in groups than doing it alone. Throwing stones by yourself might frighten a predator, but a bunch of people throwing stones together is a lot more effective, as children quickly learn when trying to scare away hostile animals.

Eventually, stones, spears, and clubs gave way to projectile (ranged) weapons, such as slings, javelins, darts, and bows-and-arrows. All of these were initially invented as means to go after prey, but they also the side effect of allowing a physically weaker person to dominate or kill a stronger one. "It’s worth stressing that projectiles make much more powerful equalizers than hand-held weapons...Additionally, projectile weapons lend themselves much more readily to collective punishment."

This ability to use projectile weapons meant that physical strength and aggression were no longer required to gain high social standing among males, as is the case with great apes and other social primates. Instead of intimidation and brute strength, then, the ability to be socially adroit was the biggest advantage for achieving higher status and leadership roles. These roles were not seized by force, but freely conferred by the rest of the group.

This led to a flattening of social hierarchy. It was no longer possible to be an aggressive bully, because all the other men of the tribe had the same weapons as you and they knew how to use them. Domineering alpha males would quickly get their comeuppance—such as an untimely arrow in the back—as observed in numerous hunter-gatherers cultures all over the world.

Turchin summarizes the effect of putting killing power into the hands of the average person with an old adage from the Wild West: "God made man, but Samuel Colt made them equal."

The invention of lethal weapons reduced the intensity of selection on physical strength, simply because a man armed with a bow and arrow (or a Colt six-gun) is equal to any other similarly armed man. Skill matters more than physical brawn. A puny David felled the giant Goliath with a well-aimed sling stone. As a result of this relaxed selection pressure, differences of size and strength between the sexes in humans are the narrowest among the great apes.

Lethal weapons drove the evolution of egalitarianism, thanks to our collective ability to control and subdue aggressive, physically powerful males. Not needing huge musculature for male-to-male competition freed additional resources that could be channeled to the brain. Projectile weapons also increased the selection pressure for larger brains.

Turchin refers to this flattening of the social hierarchy in prehistory as The First Humanitarian Revolution.

6. The Rise of God Kings

Then something strange happened. With the emergence of agriculture; surpluses; and sedentism, human societies all around the world became a lot more unequal. Not only did did these societies become far more unequal than those of hunter-gatherers, but they became more unequal than just about any other species in the animal kingdom! No chimpanzee could control thousands of times more resources than another, for example. In various societies around the world, we see the emergence of things like god kings, slavery, and human sacrifice alongside class stratification and hierarchy. These early societies were especially despotic and violent—rulers literally wielded the power of life and death over their subordinates:

The first large-scale complex societies that arose after the adoption of agriculture—“archaic states”—were much, much more unequal than either the societies of hunter-gatherers, or our own. Nobles in archaic states had many more rights than commoners, while commoners were weighed down with obligations and slavery was common.

At the summit of the social hierarchy, a ruler could be “deified”—treated as a living god. Finally, the ultimate form of discrimination was human sacrifice—taking away from people not only their freedom and human rights, but their very lives.

For example, Turchin informs us that in Hawai'i, if a commoner's knee so much as came off the ground while eating in the presence of a tabu chief, he or she would be put to death on the spot. In the presence of the highest-ranking Hawaiian chiefs, ordinary people had to "fall down flat on their faces ... and ... continue till he is twenty or thirty yards past them” or else. The Hawaiians often depicted their chiefs as "sharks" devouring the commoners. The Chinese obliquely referred to their rulers as "large rats" devouring all their grain. Among the Bemba of Zambia, the leader was chosen exclusively from the chiefly crocodile clan. Here the metaphor was more direct: "The Crocodile clan tears common people apart with their teeth.”

This image of rulers “eating” common people in archaic states crops up time and again all across the world. Just to give another example, in ancient India, the king (raja) was called “the devourer of peasants” (vishamatta).

So it seems as though the average person in these societies didn't like putting up with these domineering elites very much. Would you?

Why did this happen, then, given that the trajectory was for human societies to become more equal over time? Why didn't the leveling mechanisms that had emerged in prehistory—the so-called "reverse dominance hierarchy" practiced by hunter-gatherers—curtail the rise of overbearing rulers? Why did the mechanisms which been so effective for so long break down? "The first farmers living in small-scale egalitarian societies did not surrender equality voluntarily. They were forced to give it up. How?"

7. Military Revolutions

One reason societies became a lot more equal is simply because they became a lot bigger. As societies scale up they tend to become a lot more complex, too. To coordinate all this increased effort and materiel, you need a lot more people to make sure things function smoothly. This, by itself, leads to an increase in inequality:

[G]reat distinctions in power, wealth, and status invariably follow the increase in the social scale.

Let’s be clear about what we mean by social scale. The term for an independent political unit that makes its own decisions about matters of peace and war is polity. A Mae Enga clan of 300-400 individuals is a polity, and so was the Kingdom of Hawai’i with 120,000–150,000 subjects when it was discovered by James Cook’s expedition. And so is the United States.

Polity size is key. A farming society could stay egalitarian, but only while people cooperated in small groups of hundreds or, at most, a few thousand individuals. Once the size of polity grows beyond tens of thousands and, especially, hundreds of thousands, it inevitably becomes hierarchical and unequal. There is no exception to this rule. 1

Once wealth differentials are established in a society, they tend to snowball absent some sort of redistribution mechanism. Turchin illustrates this process with a parable of "Cain and Abel"—Abel's initial advantages compound, while Cain's bad luck compounds as well. He describes this process as the Matthew Effect: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.2 This process works in archaic societies the same way it does today, just more directly (land, crops, and cattle instead of money, stocks and bonds).

Of course, that just raises the question of why these societies become bigger in the first place. Scholars often emphasize increasing returns to scale, but there are diminishing returns to scale as well. Plus, as we've seen, there are a lot of downsides for the average person when societies get bigger, inequality and despotism among them. The average person is much better off in a small tribal society than a large one (a point emphasized by James C. Scott in Against the Grain) Why, then, did they do it?

In most cases, increasing return to scale works only for a while, and if the group is too large you run into the opposite trend, “diminishing returns to scale.” A group of 100 hunters is no more efficient than a group of 10 in killing [a] buffalo. But if the buffalo has half a ton of meat, dividing by 10 yields fifty kilos to each hunter. Divided by 100, it’s only five kilos. That’s diminishing returns, and you are much better splitting your 100 hunters into groups of 10, each hunting its own buffalo.

Let us now ask, what kind of return to scale should we expect for cultural groups of 100,000 people? A million? What are such groups doing more efficiently than one of 10,000?

For along time, scholars have emphasized the economic benefits of scaling up. In this view, as economies become larger, with a greater variety of goods being produced and more occupational specialization, some sort of coordinating mechanism was required. This role was performed by chiefs. That is, chiefs provided primarily economic benefits to their societies. They coordinated labor efforts on collective projects like fortifications and waterworks, stored surpluses for periods of scarcity, and oversaw the redistribution of goods. This is sometimes referred to as the Managerial Model of state formation. Turchin rejects this idea:

One possibility is return to scale in economic production. In the modern world there is reason to believe that larger economies are more productive than tiny ones, due to such factors as extensive division of labor.

In preindustrial societies, however, economic production was never organized on the massive scale that we see today. The huge bulk of it took place within family-size units, or relatively small workshops...even in societies, such as Mesopotamia, that did rely on irrigated agriculture, all the necessary infrastructure was constructed at the local level by villagers cooperating with each other. There was no need for a huge state apparatus. In fact, as research by the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom showed, the involvement of state officials, often incompetent and corrupt, is actually detrimental to the efficient organisation of such “common pool resources.”

I find it difficult to believe that economic or information-processing advantages were the primary drivers of the transition to large-scale societies. Archaic-style states of which we have direct knowledge, such as Hawaii, did not have complex economies or specialized decision-making procedures (to deal with what kinds of problems?). The chiefs were involved with war and ritual; the economy worked well enough when left to the commoners.

In any case, it’s hard to imagine that commoners accepted their subordinate, even...debased, position in return for merely economic benefits. People living in small-scale societies are perfectly capable of organizing networks of long-distance trade that could (and did) move valuable goods across thousands of kilometers. They also construct networks of mutual support and obligation that allow them to weather periodic episodes of scarcity. You don’t need a centralized, despotic government to solve these problems.

Another possibility—explored in the book The Creation of Inequality by anthropologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery—is that certain segments of the society were able to monopolize ritual authority and use it to gain power over everyone else. That is, they parlayed their role as priests and shamans into political authority over the rest of the tribe, justifying their disproportionate power by appealing to a special relationship to the supernatural entities that everyone revered, whether gods, spirits, or ancestors. In other words, archaic states arose as theocracies.

Turchin acknowledges that religion no doubt played an important role in these archaic states, but he doubts that religion alone is what allowed societies to scale up or aspiring elites to set themselves up as omnipotent god-kings. He thinks it's more likely that religion was utilized after the fact as a justification for the enormous differences in wealth and status that emerged as societies scaled up:

Let’s go back to the origins of ancient despotism. Did it really grow out of religious authority, as Flannery and Marcus argue? I doubt it. Religion may help explain how the social order of archaic states was legitimated and perpetuated, but it does not explain how and why social deference arose in the first place.

For tens if not hundreds of thousands of years before agriculture, human societies had very effective social norms and institutions for controlling bullies. Why would they suddenly (in a few thousand years) replace them with institutions that gave the upstarts legitimacy? Long-term social “experiments”—attempts to impose a new morality from above—show that social norms and institutions which go strongly against human nature do not “take,” no matter how hard they are promoted.

Another common theory is that states formed when one group of people conquered another. This idea was put forward by the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer in his book The State, which argued that the first states formed when a group of nomadic herdsmen conquered a society of peasant subsistence farmers. This is known as the "Conquest Theory" of state formation. Oppenheimer wrote:

What, then, is the State as a sociological concept? The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.

A similar theory was put forward by the American economist Mancur Olson as the notion of "stationary bandits." Instead of simply raiding a peasant society, he hypothesized, nomadic bandits would eventually realize that it made more sense to settle down in one place, setting themselves up as a ruling class and coercively extracting wealth from the peasants via taxation rather than through intermittent banditry. In other words, a protection racket. These theories can be classified under the umbrella of conflict theories. 3

Turchin dismisses this idea as well. While he acknowledges it's a bit closer to the mark since it incorporates a militaristic aspect to state formation, these theories simply do not square with the historical and archaeological evidence:

The major problem for the theory, at least as it was originally formulated by Oppenheimer, is that it is not supported by data. Working more than a century ago, Oppenheimer simply did not have the wealth of knowledge about different kinds of societies since collected by anthropologists, nor the abundance of data that has been (literally) unearthed by archaeologists....the actual conquest of one people by another was relatively rare as a cause of...the rise of the first states in a particular world region.

Archaic states in Hawaii, for example, formed as a result of internal development, well before the Europeans arrived there. Another revealing case is that of Egypt, one of the two areas with the earliest states known to us (the other being Mesopotamia). It’s interesting because we know that when Egypt was unified for the first time, it was not through conquest by either land or sea nomads. Instead, the drive for unification came from within Egypt itself (Upper Egypt, to be precise).

Finally, conquest really is what centralized societies do. Small-scale, egalitarian societies fight for many reasons, but subjugation of territory or people is rarely an explicit war aim for them. These observations, of course, were made in societies that have been studied by anthropologists over the past century or so, but it seems reasonable to assume that small-scale societies in the past also fought mainly from motives of revenge and plunder...

Nomadic pastoralists, therefore, are not strictly necessary for the evolution of the state. This is good, because nomadic pastoralism evolved only after 1000 BCE, whereas the first states appeared in the Near East at least two millennia before that.

So what does Turchin think did happen?

Turchin thinks that archaic states formed because of warfarethe archaic proto-state was primarily a mechanism for defending one's territory from other hostile groups. The first paramount leaders emerged as warlords and military dictators rather than as priests or theocrats. The most important coordination effort required in early agricultural societies was not to scale up economic production (at least not at first), but to effectively manage attack and defense operations against aggressive neighbors as population increased.

We saw earlier how Lanchester's Laws meant that larger groups had a massive advantage against smaller groups. This fact put pressure on societies to scale up and get bigger. This makes more sense, he argues, than scaling up simply for potential economic benefits that most people wouldn't even see anyway. It also provides a compelling reason, he says, why people would willingly surrender some of their freedoms—even in our modern-day societies we see a tendency to "rally around a leader" when attacked or threatened by outsiders (recall September 11). If societies could not manage to scale up, then they were eliminated by societies which could:

The question is, what was the specific evolutionary mechanism that allowed larger societies to outcompete smaller ones, despite the downside of despotism? And the most obvious candidate, it seems to me, is war.

War is the reason why big states emerged. No other explanation really makes sense. I don’t deny that large-scale social integration can also bring economic and information benefits, but the returns to scale in these aspects of social function are primarily relevant for modern societies in which war is less pervasive. Economic and informational challenges simply did not loom as large in prehistory as the existential challenge of battle.

Besides, we have seen that war was the chief preoccupation, to the point of tedium, of archaic kings like Tiglath Pileser. We don’t find boastful inscriptions from Ashurnasirpal about trading networks or well-maintained irrigation systems. In their own official statements, the first kings were all about war. Shouldn’t we pay attention to what they tell us?

Successive military revolutions made this even more of a necessity. Turchin highlights the importance that military technology played in the rise of the first states. The first states emerged in the Bronze Age alongside chariots and cavalry which revolutionized warfare. The existence of these technologies meant that size advantages between rival societies became even more pronounced. High mobility and ranged weapons, as you’ll recall, meant that Lanchester's Square Law was in effect, giving an exponential advantage to the larger group over the smaller one. As methods of warfare became more and more devastating throughout history, the impact of war on cultural evolution became more pronounced. God is on the side of the big battalions.

Okay, but what role do god-kings and human sacrifice play?

Throughout this period, military leaders became necessary to coordinate attack and defense. These military leaders obviously had to wield enormous power in order to be effective. Turchin points out that a "mere" human is far less effective at commanding the loyalty of large numbers of people than one who is literally worshiped as a living deity. The presence of god-kings allowed societies to cohere at larger scales than chiefdoms. A god-king, he says, was more effective in unifying a large society and far more likely to be unquestioningly obeyed by the rank and file in battle than a paramount chief whose authority was merely temporal (and temporary). Plus, he was less likely to be overthrown when the conflict ceased.

To make his case, Turchin cites several examples of charismatic chiefs who managed to unite disparate tribes in opposition to an invading force, only lose their authority once the crisis had passed—typically by assassination (recall what hunter-gatherers do to power-hungry upstarts).

A god-king, on the other hand, faced no such challenge to his authority—no one would dare question a living god or incur the wrath of supernatural forces. In addition, a god-king could pass down his authority to his descendants without sparking a divisive power struggle. In Ancient Egypt, for example, the health of the Pharaoh was intrinsically bound up with the health of the whole society—if the pharaoh died, people thought society itself would collapse. Julius Caesar, by contrast, had no such protection when others thought he was seeking too much power for himself. Only by becoming a god, then, could these incipient military leaders legitimize their authority. And legitimate authority is effective authority. God-kings provided a more effective story for people to believe in, and that’s all any political system is really, a story.

The transition from Big Man societies to centralized chiefdoms in which power passed from father to son was not a simple matter of accumulating wealth and setting oneself up as a chief, with powers of life and death over others. As I discussed earlier...other tribesmen would never allow this to happen (would you?).

But in areas where war became so intense that it threatened the survival of the whole tribe, ambitious men could also pursue the military route to power. They negotiated alliances and led warriors in battle. If they were successful, they acquired much prestige and power. In wartime they were even given powers of life and death over the rank and file, because they needed to be able to maintain discipline and punish deserters or traitors.

Keeping these temporary powers after the war, however, turned out to be an exceedingly difficult proposition...A successful upstart who wants to become king needs something extra. His authority cannot be maintained by force alone; he needs to persuade others that he has legitimate authority.

Strangely enough, it is easier to become a god-king than merely a king.

The confluence of military authority with supernatural sanction emerged as the most effective way of uniting societies in the era before formal governments. This, in turn, altered religion as well: "As the study of religion shows us, heavenly arrangements are often a reflection of very earthly concerns." A historical example is Sargon's Akkadian empire, the first large empire we know of in history:

...the emphasis is on domination asserted over countries and peoples of uncertain extent. The language of domination is emphatic: People, cities and armies are "crushed," "knocked over,"—Sargon "cast them in heaps." The Akkadian word for "king" also began to be invested wih divine connotations. Naram-Sin, the grandson of Sargon, was later directly accorded divine states as well as the title "The Mightly, king of the four corners of the world." (Michael Mann, Sources of Social Power; p. 135)

Human sacrifice played a similar role in stabilizing early societies. By getting rid of malcontents, it maintained the social order and legitimized leaders' power of life-and-death over their people; both in war and outside of it. While not so great for the people living under this practice, human sacrifice did manage to maintain social cohesion in larger groups, which is all that mattered from an evolutionary standpoint. A recent study found that this horrifying practice is correlated with the emergence of large-scale societies all over the world:

Over time, as societies became larger, they also tended to become less egalitarian and more hierarchical. In 2016, the Jena group reported that Pulotu data support the so-called social control theory, according to which human sacrifice stabilized societies as they became more stratified, by legitimating class distinctions and political authority. It is probably no coincidence, Watts says, that the victims were often people who posed a threat to the elites, or who had fallen out of favor with them.

Did Human Sacrifice Help People Form Complex Societies? (The Atlantic)

God kings, therefore, allowed larger and more disparate groups to cooperate and larger societies to form, and these larger societies overwhelmed and dominated their more egalitarian neighbors—a tragic dynamic attested to time and again in history. Turchin informs us that the anthropologist Robert Carneiro had what he believed to be the most accurate account of this process.

A paradigmatic example from historical times is that of Japan. For 700 years, Japan was ruled by a military warlord known as the shogun. As Japan became increasingly threatened by foreign powers, Japanese leaders realized that the country needed to modernize and industrialize to avoid being colonized by Westerners. To that end, they restored the emperor—who had largely been relegated to a subordinate role under the shogunate—to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1868 in what is known as the Meiji Restoration. The idea was that reverence for a "living god" in the person of Emperor Meiji was necessary for the Japanese people to accept the fundamental changes to their society that were required. Under this arrangement, a unified Japan not only successfully resisted Western domination, but became a major global military and industrial power itself in just a couple of generations, occupying its neighbors. The best contemporary example might be the King of Thailand, who still acts as a unifying force for Thai people all over the world.

The sacred monarchies that survive into the postmodern age (Aeon)

This is also why we signs of large-scale social integration in the archaeological record before the rise of the first states, including large ritual centers such as Gobeckli Tepe, which predate states by millennia. Alcohol also provided an effective means of social integration and was ubiquitous in the earliest civilizations. Turchin speculates that the initial purpose of agriculture may have been to feed more warriors, which would have been necessary to prevail against aggressive neighbors in circumscribed regions. These social dynamics might explain why fascism is such a popular political choice in the world today for so many people.

8. The Fall of God Kings

The trend for societies to become more drastically unequal and more despotic continued for thousands of years during the Neolithic as warfare became more frequent and intense. Yet at some point in history, the trend reversed itself. God kings and human sacrifice vanished. The wholesale slaughter of one's enemies became something to be regretted rather than celebrated. Hierarchies became flatter once again. As a paradigmatic example of this transformation, Turchin cites the famous pillars of Ashoka in India, which were erected by King Ashoka when he converted to Buddhism and renounced war and conquest.

The pillars were erected in the third century BCE during what the German historian Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (because history supposedly pivoted around it). This was a period between roughly 650 and 200 BCE when similar transcendent humanitarian philosophies sprouted up all around the globe.

The Hebrew prophets, Ancient Greek philosophers, Chinese mandarins, and Hindu ascetics were all a part of this philosophical transformation. Rulers were seen as having a moral responsibility to their people rather than gods free to do as they wished. Extremes of wealth and inequality were denounced and the equality of all men seen as an ideal. The lives of women and slaves were accorded value. Formal laws were laid down and administered by bureaucrats rather than cruel and arbitrary punishments. Human sacrifice disappeared. Democracies flourished. Commerce expanded. The golden rule supplanted the rule of gold.

That's quite a dramatic change! Turchin calls this the Second Humanitarian Revolution. Why did it happen?

One reason is that societies all over the world had become a lot more diverse. As we saw in my review of The Human Swarm, societies grew mainly by conquering and assimilating their neighbors. This meant that societies became increasingly multicultural. For this reason, they had to find a way of integrating diverse groups of people into some kind of coherent whole—a challenge not faced by smaller, more homogeneous societies.

Societies also became much bigger in absolute numbers due to this process, comprising hundreds of thousands of individuals rather than just a few hundred or a few thousand. Imperial capitals like Rome held hundreds of thousands of people alone (and was where many Axial Age ideas took root).

Simply put, eventually things like god kings and human sacrifice became impediments to the creation of large-scale, stable, and cooperative societies as societies became ever larger and more ethnically diverse. In fact, such practices were actually harmful to social integration! It's easy to see why ritual killing and arbitrary punishments do not encourage faith in your leadership!

Rather than being an essential stepping stone to greater complexity...at these thresholds [beyond around 100,000 people] human sacrifice became a parasitic practice—an attempt, often by military heroes who had transformed themselves into “god-kings,” to seize and maintain power, to the detriment of social cohesion. That’s because, whereas human sacrifice might have terrorized the members of a smaller, simpler society into obeying their self-styled leader, it could no longer do so in a large and ethnically diverse one. There, it was easier to disobey the ruler, or desert, and evade punishment—and the temptation to do so only grew stronger as societies grew larger.

According to Peter Turchin...this mattered because the survival of historical societies often depended on their military prowess. Those that were less united and hence weaker on the battlefield may have found themselves destroyed by, or absorbed into, militarily superior ones that had rejected human sacrifice, having found better ways of promoting social cohesion. The Spanish conquest of the Inca could be considered an example of the survival of the fittest society, in this sense.

Did Human Sacrifice Help People Form Complex Societies? The debate over how well ritual killings maintained social order. (The Atlantic)

In addition, the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity meant that people had to find ways of cooperating with strangers who may have come from radically different backgrounds.

One innovation that made this possible was the emergence of doctrinal religions which were theoretically open to anyone regardless of race, class, gender, or tribe. These religions featured so-called "Big Brother" gods who enforced pro-social behavior with the treat of supernatural punishment—as one scholar put it: "watched people are nice people." In addition, the social hierarchy became flatter, because flatter social hierarchies tend to foster cooperation, whereas extreme inequality corrodes it (although ancient societies still remained highly unequal compared to today).

“Big Gods” are supernatural beings who have three important abilities. First, they are capable of looking inside your head to find out what you think. In particular, they know whether you really intend to fulfill your part of the bargain, or whether you are planning to cheat. Second, Big Gods care whether you are trying to be a virtuous person or not. And third, if you are a bad person, they can (and will) punish you...

Once the belief in a supernatural, moralistic punisher is pervasive in a group, non-belief becomes personally costly. People will not make deals with you, because you cannot be trusted. You may also be persecuted for not conforming to the group’s beliefs. You are better off at least professing belief and following the necessary rituals that prove it (attendance at prayer, fasting, etc). In fact, it becomes advantageous to become a true believer, because most people are not very good liars.

Why did this philosophical transformation occur when and where it did? Turchin contends that the places where these ideas first emerged according to Jaspers—Greece, Israel/Palestine, Iran, India and China—all had one important thing in common: they were all located near the Great Eurasian Steppe, and all of them faced similar existential threats from the warrior peoples who lived there.

Nomadic herdsmen represented yet another transformative military revolution, just like chariots and iron weapons in prior eras. Having to defend their herds from raids made these steppe nomads naturally-born warriors, and having to move their herds made them highly mobile (assisted by the stirrup and bridle), allowing them to attack in large numbers when and where they pleased. Composite bows gave them a deadly ranged weapon as well (recall Lanchester’s Square Law). For these reasons, the nomadic horse archers presented a pervasive threat to the large, sedentary civilizations that had emerged around the periphore of the steppe. The Scythians, the Parthians (Persians), the Huns, the Mongols, the Turks, and the Jurchen (Manchus) are some of the most well-known of these herding warrior cultures.

Mass conscription and defensive fortifications (most famously, the Great Wall of China) became key methods for defending one’s territory, engendering a need for greater levels of cooperation and social integration in the agricultural societies adjacent to the steppe frontier. Competition now worked in the opposite direction, pushing societies around the world towards more social justice, not less. Societies which were able to integrate Axial Age concepts like accountable rulers, a bureaucratic civil service, the rule of law, and doctrinal religion now outcompeted those which held onto "barbaric" practices such as human sacrifice and god-kings. This may be one reason why New World proto-states were so fragile, falling relatively easily to foreign conquerors who were heavily outnumbered and fighting on enemy turf.

In the perilous new competitive environment created by the military revolution of the Axial Age, states could not afford to crush their own populations in the manner of Hawaiian chiefs or archaic god-kings. The state’s survival now depended on being able to produce large armies of armed commoners. If you want your soldiers to fight bravely, you cannot oppress them. And if you have been oppressing your own people, it’s foolish to give them weapons.

In short, the despotic states couldn’t survive in the new military environment. Many were simply wiped off the map. In others, there must have been unease among the elites that made them more receptive to the message preached by the denouncers. In such states, the new egalitarian message fell (as one of the later denouncers might have put it) on good soil.

It was the existential threat of mounted horse archers, then, that triggered a wide range of cultural and military innovations along the steppe frontier during this period, and these innovations are what allowed sedentary agricultural civilizations to withstand the assault from the steppe nomads beginning around 1000-650 BCE. This historical circumstance was what ultimately lay behind the Axial Age pattern that Jaspers had noticed (and he was not the first to do so):

The military revolution of 1000 BCE that began deep in the Eurasian steppe triggered momentous developments in the belt of agrarian societies stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to China. The new ideologies—Axial religions—introduced a number of cultural innovations that buttressed our capacity for cooperation in large groups. These innovations included social norms and institutions that constrained rulers to act in less selfish and despotic ways. New ways of defining “us” expanded the circle of cooperation beyond single ethnolinguistic groups. And Big Gods provided one solution to creating trust in huge, anonymous societies of millions...

The ideas that drove this change originated within a swath of Eurasia stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to China. These were the regions where new forms of horse-based warfare, invented within the Great Eurasian Steppe, spread first...Although the ideas of the Enlightenment accelerated and deepened the movement of humanity towards greater equality, the roots of this macrohistorical trend go back to the Axial Age. And the moving force behind the trend was not reason, but faith.

Instead of warfare and conflict acting to increase despotism and inequality as it had for thousands of years since the rise of the very first states, the need for coopereration now acted as a restraint on those things, pushing us along toward Ultrasociety. The Enlightenment, which began a couple centuries ago, is less a break from the past but merely a continuation of a trend which has been unfolding for thousands of years.

While our modern capitalist societies still feature grotesque and mind-boggling levels of wealth inequality (which is a problem in my opinion), in theory at least, all men and women are created equal, and the life of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor is just as valuable as that of Bill Gates and Kamala Harris. Even racists nowadays are forced to hold up signs proclaiming "All Lives Matter." Turchin refers to this trajectory as The Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism:

9. The Arc of History

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Turchin argues along similar lines, but it might be better phrased as cooperation. More cooperative and peaceful societies have allowed us to accomplish great things at the same time as violence and despotism have decreased overall. This gives us some hope that these trends will continue into the future. The fight for racial and economic justice is simply the latest frontier.

What we have here is a paradoxical conclusion. It was violence—societies making war on each other—that drove the evolution of ultrasociality, and it was ultrasociality that ultimately made violence decline.

Tuchin spends the last chapter of the book in a dialogue with Steven Pinker's best-selling and highly influential tome The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Both books document a similar pattern—the decline of violence over human history and the emergence of large-scale, cooperative societies. But, as you'll recall, Pinker rejects group selection outright, and therefore, does not subscribe to the cultural multilevel selection theory which is at the heart of Ultrasociety.

Turchin points out that Pinker's book does not live up to it's own subtitle—it utterly fails to explain why violence has declined! He ponders several of the reasons Pinker gives for the historical decline of violence: Leviathan (i.e. the coercive apparatus of the state); commerce; feminization; cosmopolitanism; and the supposed "escalator of reason."

He sees all of them as insufficient to explain the decline in violence and warfare in human societies, seeing them as epiphenomena rather than root causes. The root cause, he says, is the cultural multilevel selection theory that he has outlined in the book. He argues that this model is far superior for explaining the trends which Pinker’s book describes:

The Better Angels tells a story about human history that coincides to an extent with the one I’ve been developing in this book. But Pinker’s version is both less powerful theoretically and less supported empirically. It’s an interesting example of trying to do history in a “sciency” way, an approach that I completely support. But I think we can do better. If we want make sure that violence declines, we need to understand why it declines.

Turchin concludes the book with an appeal for a more data-driven approach to the study of history—one that allows comparisons of different societies and cultures across space and time. He hopes that this will allow models like the one he has put forward in Ultrasociety to be examined and tested. He is not afraid of some models being overturned by new data, or new and better models coming along; as he says, "may the best idea win."

To that end, he describes the Seshat database project, with which he has been intimately connected since its inception. Named after the Egyptian goddess of recordkeeping, this database is intended to compile all available historical and archaeological evidence in quantitative data form so that cross-cultural comparisons can be made and evolutionary models empirically tested. As more and more data is inputted over time, the ability to test models like the one put forward in Ultrasociety should become more accurate and robust.

Why should you believe that I have the correct explanation?

Actually, I don’t want you to believe it. First and foremost I am a working scientist, and I know only too well that no theory in science can be the ultimate Truth (with a capital T). Over the source of my scientific life I’ve seen several radical changes of paradigms (it helps that Cultural Evolution is a rapidly developing field). What’s important is not that one’s ideas are correct, but that they are productive. Productive ideas lead to new theories and hypotheses that can be confronted with data. Data destroy some hypotheses and force us to modify others. Then we repeat the process...

I will not pretend that I have all the answers. Yet I am convinced that cracking the big questions we have dealt with in this book—the evolution of cooperation, the destructive and creative faces of war, and the strange trajectory of human egalitarianism—will be the critical step in developing effective policy recommendations. What we need to do now is develop the science of cooperation to the point where we can use it to improve people’s lives.

That's the end of the review! Hope you learned something.


This puts Turchin at odds with David Graeber and David Wengrow, who argue that there is no hard-and-fast link between group size and hierarchy; rather, they argue that social systems are flexible and move back and forth over time with no permanent direction. They write: "…there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organisation...it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe."

As much as it pains me to say it, I have to agree with Turchin on this. The data are pretty unequivocal—although there is some variation between societies of similar size, as a general rule, the bigger a society gets, the more unequal it becomes. See: An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution (Cliodynamica)


From the book of Matthew, chapter 25 verse 29: "For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away." Also known as The Law of Cumulative Advantage.


It should come as no surprise that these theories are very popular with libertarians. In fact, the most common search results come from the web sites of right-wing and libertarian think tanks.

Marxists, of course, have their own conflict theories which center around one class exploiting the others to funnel socially-produced wealth into their hands by gaining control over the fundamental productive apparatus of society (including access to spirituality and violence), rather than the "free and equal" exchange of producers in spontaneous markets.