In our modern era, we can find ample evidence of the role of war in destroying societies, but historically, the opposite appears to be the case — war was instrumental in organizing early civilizations. Supporting evidence for this comes from an intriguing new model based upon the popular computer game Civilisation in which competing tribes may evolve into organized societies and even world-ruling empires.
Spanning the historical epoch from 1500 BCE to 1500 CE, the “civilization simulator” was designed by Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut and his colleagues. The model was able to predict when and where complex human societies would likely emerge with 65% accuracy — based upon comparison to the known historical record.
Anthropological research observes that early nomadic human groups evolved into more organized societies with the establishment of strong social behaviors — principal of which is trust — built upon social institutions of government, justice, religion, and education. But how did these institutions get their start?
There have been earlier theorists who have posited the role of warfare in the evolution of human societies. But the Turchin model is the first of its kind to utilize historical data on this scale to investigate the role of warfare in the development of human civilizations.
In endeavoring to build their “cultural evolutionary model” of the rise of human civilization, the researchers first asked two key questions:
How did human societies evolve from small groups, integrated by face-to-face cooperation, to huge anonymous societies of today, typically organized as states?
Why is there so much variation in the ability of different human populations to construct viable states?
Modeling Early Human Societies and the Role of Warfare
To build such a model, the researchers divide the world — specifically the Eurasian continent — up into squares (similar to the game) and define each according to the type of terrain (e.g., how mountainous) and whether or not it was farmed. The farmed squares where accorded an “independent” group of people, some organized, other not. Those squares closest to the Eurasian Steppe were “seeded” with military “technologies” such as the domestication of horses — a critical advance in warfare — and spread out from these squares as the model/simulation was run.
As noted earlier, the simulation predicted where and when large empires would emerge with 65% accuracy. To verify the role of military technologies in this emergence, the researchers removed that variable from the simulation with the result that accurate prediction fell to just 16%.
Other factors were also tested. For example, removing the impact of land elevation reduced the predictive accuracy to 48%. This suggest that geography, though important, was not as important a factor as warfare in stabilizing larger societies.
According to Turchin et al, the reason for this is because warfare imposed a “selective pressure” on these early groups, forcing them to either evolve into organized societies, or be destroyed.
They also note than many social practices, like paying taxes, while providing “little benefit” to individuals (note: this claim is arguable), they none-the-less helped establish social coordination and thus stronger societies. in this way these societies out-competed
That’s because, although many measures were of little benefit to the individual – paying taxes, for example – they helped forge more coordinated, and therefore stronger societies that were able to out-compete less organized groups.
Quoting from the paper abstract:
‘Our results support theories that emphasize the role of institutions in state-building and suggest a possible explanation why a long history of statehood is positively correlated with political stability, institutional quality, and income per capita.’
Next up for the researchers: a simulation of the rise of complex societies in the Americas (e.g., the Maya, Aztecs, Toltecs, and Anastasi) and expanding the Eurasian model beyond the 16th century.
Expanding such models to include more modern societies will be challenging, as other factors beside warfare and conquest come into play; the spread of social institutions and culture is a more complex matter, involving mass media, large migrations (e.g., the emigration of Europeans to America in the early 20th century) and the assorted forces of “globalization” (commerce, travel, education, technology)
Of course, all this being said and demonstrated, one might ask: what factor(s) promoted the existence and spread of warfare itself? This may prove a more complex question to answer or to model, but there are a few other historical researchers whom have found a strong connection between human conflict (and “social upheavals”) and climate change (perhaps due to climate induced scarcity of resources).
The research and modeling results by Turchin et al were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, under the title ‘War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies‘
Some source material for this post came from the New Scientist article ‘Real-world Civilisation game shows impact of war’ by Hal Hodson