Sunday, July 01, 2007


In Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson developed an evolutionary theory of religion as a product of cultural group selection. Religion binds people together and thus allows groups to function as collective units, which suppresses competition within a group and thus strengthens the group in competition with other groups. Religion arises from certain natural propensities--such as moralistic cooperation, symbolic thinking, and the capacity for cultural learning--that have been shaped by the genetic evolution of the human species. But the development of the various religious traditions arises from the cultural evolution of human groups.

In Evolution for Everyone, Wilson suggests that an evolutionary science of political history and international relations could be developed based on the idea that "nations are nothing more than very large groups that are trying to function as collective units." And yet, "a book on political evolution comparable to Darwin's Cathedral has yet to be written" (283-85).

Peter Turchin's new book--War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires--would seem to be the kind of book that Wilson is looking for. Turchin is a biologist at the University of Connecticut who has been developing an evolutionary science of political history that is summarized in this new book.

In recent years, there has been a tendency in both the social sciences and the biological sciences to try to explain social behavior as a product of self-interest. In evolutionary biology, this arises from the attempt to explain social life as ultimately driven by "selfish genes." In the social sciences, this arises from the attempt of "rational choice theory" to explain social behavior as motivated by the rational calculation of selfish interests. Against such thinking, Turchin argues that any science of cooperation must explain the capacity for self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, which is the necessary condition for cooperation. Research in experimental economics--particularly, in "ultimatum games" and "public goods games"--indicates that the majority of human beings cooperate even when the cooperation requires some sacrifice of narrow self-interest. And research in evolutionary theory indicates that we cannot explain human ultrasociality--human cooperation within huge groups with millions of members who cannot be bound together by ties of kinship or reciprocity--except as a product of cultural group selection.

In his book, Turchin employs the theory of cultural group selection to explain the rise and fall of empires throughout political history. The medieval Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun argued that the success of political communities depended on asabiya, an Arabic word that can be translated as "group feeling" or "group spirit." Asabiya is the capacity of a social group for collective action, the disposition to cooperate within one's group to compete with those outside one's group. Nations expand and empires rise when they have strong asabiya. They fall when their asabiya weakens.

Human ultrasociality--our ability to act in cooperating groups with millions of members--depends on two key adaptions. The first is our disposition to be "moralists" or conditional cooperators. Most of us will cooperate in a group as long as we think enough of the others are cooperating, and we will punish those who don't cooperate. In evolutionary history, groups with enough moralists would have outcompeted groups who did not have enough cooperative members. The second adaptation is the human ability for language and symbolic thinking. This allowed human beings to use symbolic markers to define their group membership, so that they could identify themselves as belonging to huge groups of people who would otherwise be strangers. Religious symbolism, for example, allows religious believers to identify themselves as members of a religious group competing with those outside their religious group. Christians could band together against pagans. Muslims could band together against Christians. Some of the most successful empires or civilizations have arise from such religious commitments.

Turchin further develops this idea by arguing that groups with high asabiya arise on "metaethnic frontiers" where between-group competition is especially intense, which promotes a strong in-group/out-group distinction. So, for example, the metaethnic frontiers where Christianity and Islam met in competition might cultivate an intense sense of group solidarity on both sides of the frontier.

Most of Turchin's book applies this theory of cultural group selection working at metaethnic frontiers to particular examples of empires that have risen and fallen--ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Islam, the medieval Germans, Russia, the modern European nations, and the United States.

He also indicates how his concept of asabiya is recognized in contemporary theorizing about "social capital" by Robert Putnam and others, and how his concept of metaethnic frontiers is recognized in Samuel Huntington's account of the "clash of civilizations."

He also suggests that his metaethnic frontier theory predicts the possibility of a new Islamic caliphate emerging in the Middle East if the Western powers continue to challenge Islamic civilization.

Although I do not necessarily agree with all of Turchin's claims, I do think that his book lays out what would be a big part of what I have called "Darwinian political science."

1 comment:

jonathan even-zohar said...

Great review. I think Turchin best accomplishment is to bring forward a social evolutionary theory and weave it so thoroughly in the historical narrative. He bridges a huge gap between the social scientist and the historian and at the same time helps both better understand each other's subjects. Greta interdisciplinary work.