War & Progress

Cultural evolutionists are fervent believers in “progress.” There are many hidden assumptions packed into their idea of progress, but the primary ones are that “bigger” and “richer” is always better. These assumptions, usually hidden, are made explicit in this astounding piece on war, and its corollary benefits, just published in The Atlantic. There is so much wrong with the article that it is hard to know where to begin, so let’s consider the main points:

Contrary to what the song says, war has been good for something: over the long run, it has made humanity safer and richer. There are four parts to the case I will make. The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently. My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found. My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer.

When we put these three claims together, only one conclusion is possible. War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about 6 million people on earth. On average they lived about 30 years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day. Now there are more than a thousand times as many of us (7 billion, in fact), living more than twice as long (the global average is 67 years), and earning more than a dozen times as much (today the global average is $25 per day).

War, then, has been good for something—so good, in fact, that my fourth argument is that war is now putting itself out of business. For millennia, war has created peace, and destruction has created wealth, but in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting—our weapons so destructive, our organizations so efficient—that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible.

This is just surreal. The whole argument rests on the assumption, never proven and much in dispute, that violence and warfare have diminished since the Neolithic transition. This is, for the most part, progressivist and Panglossian bullshit coming from people like Steven Pinker. In “Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality” (2013) (pdf), anthropologist Brian Ferguson meticulously demonstrates this fact. The argument also rests on the assumption, never proven and much in dispute, that preagricultural or “Stone Age” peoples lived Hobbesian lives, “solitary, poore, nastie, brutish, and shorte.” There is considerable evidence to the contrary.

But the most problematic assumption in this piece is that bigger and more is always better. This author naively (or neoliberally) assumes that every person added to the world results in an added-person prosperity increase of $25 per day. It should go without saying that this global income average, multiplied by population, tells us nothing about the total quantum of human health and well-being among the earth’s more than 7 billion current inhabitants.

Although hunter-gatherers may not have earned $25 per day while living in densely packed and polluted urban areas (as most moderns do), a great deal of anthropological evidence suggests they led long, healthy, and satisfying lives. I have no idea how the author can conclude that hunter-gatherers eked out a living on less than $2 per day. Dollarized income figures are meaningless in Stone Age settings and cannot tell us anything about the happiness of humans in those societies. These kinds of comparisons reek of positivist ideology.

Even if it were true that violent deaths due to warfare have decreased as a percentage of total population size, this alleged decrease is hardly comforting. If we assume (as this author does) that bigger populations are always better, this must also mean that each human life is an addition and every loss is a subtraction. In this context, absolute numbers are just as meaningful as percentages. Looked at this way, nearly 200 million war-related deaths over the past century should not be counted as “progress” simply because this was a relatively small percentage of the world’s total population.

But hey, let’s celebrate bigger populations, bigger societies, bigger governments, bigger incomes, and bigger wars. To this list, many cultural evolutionists would also add, and celebrate, bigger gods.

In his conclusion, our author (a Stanford professor who just happens to be hawking a new book titled War: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots) predicts — contrary to all the historical evidence — that while wars have been good for us, they are now a thing of the past:

And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better.

This kind of adaptive cultural evolutionary talk is an expression of progressive faith. It is certainly not science. All this reminds me of a supremely ironic passage from Primitive Mentality (1923:331), in which Lucien Levy-Bruhl discusses Stone Age warfare:

As a rule, the attack is a surprise and it takes place at dawn. That is the ordinary method of fighting among uncivilized races; there are very few exceptions to it. A set battle is unknown to primitives, and the idea of it would seem absurd to them.

While living among the savages of New Guinea, Reverend Macfarlane recalled one of the chiefs questioning him about the civilized mode of warfare, and the chief’s look of amazement when “I described the rows of men placed opposite each other and firing at one another with guns.” The chief eagerly inquired whether the men on each side were within range of the guns, and when I replied in the affirmative he exclaimed: “Then you are great fools.”

He then asked where the civilized chief or head-man stood during these battles. “Oh,” said I, “he remains at home and sends his men to fight.” Upon hearing this, there was a great burst of laughter from the chief and his men.

May the Stone Age savages have the last sanguinary laugh.



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3 thoughts on “War & Progress

  1. David

    The (Neo Stone Age?) savages almost certainly will have the last sanguinary laugh!

    Seriously, $2 a day? WTF? I’d like to see how Morris arrived at that absurd figure. Even if some calculus existed that could derive such a comparison—in dollars, no less—it would still tell us nothing about the quality of life of your ‘average’ Stone Age humans (as if there were such). What could you buy for (“less than”) 2 bucks in the Paleolithic? Some Cave Bear jerky, maybe? How you gonna make rent? No new atlatl for you this year.

    Pinker, Morris, Niall Ferguson, and many others of their ilk are richly rewarded for their cynical apologia on behalf of empire and its aggressive ways. This discourse overlaps and interfaces with the kind of sports and finance and business talk ubiquitously found across the popular media. It’s too bad that work such as Brian Ferguson’s excellent demolition of Pinker’s program don’t get a more popular hearing. But editors at The Atlantic don’t really prioritize such non-literary qualities as the accuracy or empirical validity of a claim, I guess.

  2. Cris Post author

    It is absurd. If we could put a dollar price on Paleolithic game animals large and small (including fish), we would have to conclude that most hunter-gatherers (especially those exploiting the trophic abundance and huge biomass of Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas) were fabulously rich.

    Last I checked, a half-side of beef in the US costs at least $1,500 and an entire buffalo goes for $5,000. Both of these are items that a small group of average foragers might acquire in a day.

    And what price should we affix to the plants, fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers, and grasses that were also consumed in large quantities? We would of course have to put a dollar premium on all these, given that they were “organic.”

    Does intensive social interaction and widespread social support have a dollar value? What is the value of a Paleolithic or affluent hunter-gatherer retirement plan? Hell, even Neanderthals had those, with some of them being nearly crippled yet cared for into old age by their extended families.

    While we are pricing these “Stone Age” items and daily income figures, we should probably deduct the non-cost of land, habitations, water, sanitation, transportation, medical, utilities, entertainment, and taxes.

    What would it all have been worth? It’s hard to quantify, but even without Paleo-Mastercard, it was probably priceless.

  3. Larry Stout

    The more I read here, the more I absolutely love this website, Cris! How miserably few are the insightful and reasoned voices like yours — online, in classrooms, in business and government, or “on the street”. I consider that H. sapiens is fatally flawed, just smart enough to do himself in, but you, Cris, are a cut above. More than one savvy person has bemoaned not only the industrial revolution, but also the Neolithic (agricultural, animal husbandry) revolution. As a (retired) geologist, I will simply note that all species eventually go extinct; we’re relative newcomers on the evolutionary scene, and, remarkable though we may be, we’ll one day go down the phylogenetic tubes like T. rex. I’m going to Iceland in June, to view some volcanoes that just might hurry us along. Cheers!

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