Book Review: War and Peace and War

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 18. February 2014 - 13:20


Peter Turchin is an evolutionary biologist who has turned his expertise in modeling the rise and fall of animal populations to explore similar processes in empires. In his book "War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires" (2006, Pi Press and Plume Book, Penguin Group, New York), he explores world history to understand what makes empires grow and then collapse, looking at Russia, Rome, Islam and Medieval Europe, among others.

His central thesis is that societies on a frontier between two very different cultures are subject to stresses that force them to build social cohesion faced by an enemy. The strength that comes from cohesion, effective organization and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good allows such societies to expand into empires. The success of an empire, however, contains the seeds of its own downfall. The wealth of a growing population and improving technology produces a successful elite, until excess population allows increased exploitation of labour and an overshoot of food production capacity, in which the poor suffer and the elite continue to live well. A generation later the excessive concentration of wealth leads to conflict among a too numerous elite over a shrinking resource base, and the civilization loses cohesion and collapses, perhaps through several cycles. Turchin's view is a largely negative one, that it takes wars to build empires, and civil wars to destroy them.

What Turchin hints at with respect to Islam, but does not explore, is whether forces other than the constant threat of an enemy on a geographical frontier can bring about social cohesion. It seems reasonable that the rise of a new religion can create another kind of cultural frontier, with those sharing the new values building social cohesion as they work to transform society. Turchin's theory by extension could suggest that a highly cohesive social and spiritual movement can overcome the negative forces around it and expand rapidly into a global civilization. In addition, if its social cohesion comes not from constant external threats but from an inner spiritual force for unity in diversity, that civilization should be able to achieve sustainability in its use of resources, prevent the excessive concentration of wealth in an elite, and thus rise above the cycle of decline and fall that has characterized past civilizations, or at least slow the cycle to the millennial span of religious revelations.

Subsequent to publishing his book, Peter Turchin has published a notable paper in 2010 in the leading scientific journal Nature. He draws the parallel with the educated young elite of today who no longer have access to the success and comfort of their parent's generation and may become the revolutionaries, producing factionalism, anarchy and ultimately collapse. He predicts a risk of political instability and impending crisis in Western Europe and the USA peaking in 2020. The only way to avoid this would be to reduce social inequality. The reference to this paper is Peter Turchin, 2010. Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade. Nature, vol. 463, p. 608 (4 February 2010). doi:10.1038/463608a. See also my previous blog

Last updated 18 February 2014