Ultrasociety (book review)

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 14. November 2016 - 0:01

Ultrasociety (book review)

Peter Turchin. 2016. Ultrasociety: how 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books. 266 p.

Book review by Arthur Lyon Dahl, International Environment Forum


Peter Turchin continues his scientific exploration of history and the rise and fall of civilizations in his new book: Ultrasociety. I have previously reviewed his 2006 book War and Peace and War and his significant paper published in Nature in 2010 Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade which warned of the kind of problems we see emerging in many countries today and which predicted a major crisis by 2020.

It may seem puzzling why I draw so much attention to Turchin’s research on war, which shows the role of constant threats, trials and suffering in building social cohesion. He is an avowed atheist, and he searches objectively for evidence of cause and effect and not just correlations with no explanatory power, in developing a science of cooperation. His recent research into the rise of increasingly large and complex civilizations, documented in this new book, leads him to the conclusion that religion and spirituality play an essential role in achieving higher levels of civilization.

After exploring the best explanations for how simple cooperative societies of foragers become communities of farmers through cultural group selection, and then became structured with despotic God-Kings and subservient populations, he concludes with many others that power inevitably corrupts. But this does not explain how mega-empires arose covering millions of square kilometres and including tens of millions of massively multi-ethnic people.

For example, King Ashoka of the Mauryan empire in India (268-239 BCE) converted to Buddhism and adopted a policy of non-violence - “victory through Dhamma” - meaning righteousness or virtue. He emphasized kindness, generosity, truthfulness, purity, not killing living things, moderation in spending and saving, concern for animals, the first protected species, and help for the disadvantaged, the poor and even prisoners. His administration was known for fair and efficient justice with no more wars and resulting prosperity, when art and culture flourished. There were similarly five good emperors in Rome (96-180 CE), social progress in the Han Dynasty in China, and in the Judeo-Christian west, King Louis IX in France (1226-70) alongside many less desirable rulers.

The difference is what Turchin calls the spiritual awakening of the Axial Age, with the emergence of a different model of society and radical ideas about the essential dignity of human life, leading to a new trend to social justice. There was a breakthrough in religion 800-200 BCE, with intellectual turmoil and spiritual awakening, in what has been called the Axial (pivotal) Age (Jaspers 1949). A new kind of often-monotheistic religion emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean (Judaism) and Persia (Zoroastrianism) through India (Buddhism) to China (Confucianism, Taoism), leading later to Christianity and Islam. Socrates (a very religious person) and Greek philosophy were part of this movement.

How did war and religion together reverse the tide of violence? There was a shift from domination to legitimate hierarchy, with new relations between gods and humans, and a new way of organising society. The Axial religions provided a new legitimacy of power, with universal empires administered in the name of a universal religion. Their gods were transcendental moralizers concerned with prosocial behaviour including by the rulers. There was the sudden appearance of a universal egalitarian ethic, with prophet-like figures who scorned riches and passed harsh judgement on existing social conditions, whom Bellah (Religion in Human Evolution, 2011) has called renouncers and denouncers. Faith reversed the tide towards greater social inequality.

Turchin describes the innovations of Axial religions:
- rulers are less despotic and selfish, decreasing inequality and promoting cooperation;
- a shift from tribal, ethnically-based religions to universal proselytizing ones, provides the glue for multiethnic empires;
- trust as a precondition for cooperation can extend beyond the immediate community;
- supernatural “Big Gods” know what you think and whether you intend to respect a bargain or cheat; they care if you are trying to be a virtuous person; and they can (and will) punish a bad person.

It follows that large groups that believe in a moralistic punisher will be more cooperative, because they are always being watched. Non-belief becomes personally costly, so it is advantageous to become a true believer. Sincere belief even restrains the all-powerful. The result is the co-evolution of better institutions and values, and a positive vision of future imagined communities.

Turchin is extending his research on the science of cooperation with a massive database of historical facts, as he sees that cooperation is key to fixing failed states and restarting failed economies. For those who see only the bad side of religion, this evidence from history assembled by an atheist provides a powerful argument for the role that religion can again play in addressing the growing social inequality and ethical vacuum of today.


Last updated 13 November 2016

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