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Evolution and War: Basic and Advanced

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John Horgan, whose article on evolution and war was the subject of my last blog, has written a blog in reply and informed me of a second article that he has written on the subject. Since I accused him of flunking Evolution 101, I shouldn't be surprised that he called me an "arrogant evolutionary reductionist." How ironic, that two thinkers on war should so easily lapse into the intellectual equivalent of saber rattling and war! I hereby apologize and lay down my saber in hope of fostering a more collaborative discussion.

First I will try to achieve a consensus on some basic issues. If we can't agree on these, then we can't even leave square one. Then I will jump to an advanced level by showcasing the work of Peter Turchin, author of War and Peace and War among other books. My hope is that everyone who thinks about war and peace can begin to approach his level of sophistication, even if they don't agree with him in every respect.

Leaving square one: Too often, discussions of war have implicitly or explicitly assumed the following formulae:

(evolution/genes/innate/biology)=(war is inevitable/nothing can be done)

(learning/culture)=(war is preventable/anything is possible)

The point that I was trying to make in my last blog is that these formulae are profoundly wrong and unhelpful. Evolution is all about context sensitivity. All organisms are elaborately designed to change their phenotypes in response to environmental change, according to rules that evolve by prior evolution. Adaptive phenotypic plasticity turns genetic determinism on its head, as I discuss in a chapter of Evolution for Everyone titled "How I learned to stop worrying and love genetic determinism." If we were instructed by our genes to "do X under all circumstances", we would have little capacity for change. But if we're instructed by our genes to "do X under circumstance X', do Y under circumstance Y'..." and if we decide that Y is a desirable behavior, we need merely provide circumstance Y' and Y becomes easy. Knowledge about evolution becomes a powerful tool for environmental intervention.

Moreover, learning and culture do not stand outside the orbit of evolution but must themselves be understood from an evolutionary perspective. Even B.F. Skinner, who most people associate with the "anything is possible" view of human nature, regarded operant conditioning as a product of genetic evolution and a process of evolution in its own right. The if-then rules provided by genetic evolution include the reinforcers that cause behaviors to be learned and transmitted in a more open-ended fashion.

To summarize our progress so far, we can't leave square one on the subject of evolution and war unless we abandon these formulaic assumptions. Evolution is all about change and only by the strangest of secondary assumptions can it be interpreted as an incapacity for change. The interesting question is this: Have smart people already discovered all the answers without using the E-word, or would a sophisticated knowledge of genetic and cultural evolution lead to new answers about the causes and prevention of war?

It's a complex world: In his reply to my previous blog, John chided me for implying that war can be prevented by finding the right environmental context, as easily as sunburn can be prevented by applying sunscreen. Here is the relevant passage:

Wilson, of course, doesn't specify the environmental conditions under which war always occurs. That's because there are no such conditions. For example, war is often linked to population density, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and sedentary cultures, but war does not always occur when all these conditions are met. Conversely, war may break out and persist when none of the usual risk factors are present. War is both over-determined and under-determined. That is what makes it such a frustrating and fascinating topic for scientific analysis -- and why it makes fools of arrogant evolutionary reductionists like David Sloan Wilson.

Gracious! I hope that I can get John to back down from his own fiery rhetoric. First, there is a big difference between no conditions and complex conditions. If there are truly no conditions that cause war, if it is purely random, then there is nothing left to discuss, regardless of whether we are evolutionists, another sort of scientist, or a postmodernist. If the conditions that cause war are complex, with multiple interacting factors (including chance), then outcomes cannot easily be predicted on the basis of single factors. In this case, it is everyone's job to figure out what is going on, in all its complexity, and it is an open question whether a sophisticated knowledge of evolution can contribute to understanding. The important point is that emphasizing complexity is no argument at all against the relevance of evolution. Evolutionists are fully aware that it's a complex world.

In addition, single factors are sometimes so important that they can be straightforwardly identified and changed. In my aforementioned chapter, I discuss the work of Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, who demonstrate a strong relationship between violent conflict among men and early reproduction in women to life expectancy and income inequality in Chicago neighborhoods. If you want men to get along and women to delay reproduction, try providing a social environment that enables the average person to live into their seventies with a relatively equal sharing of resources. That remedy might not be as easy as applying sunscreen, but the results will be as reliable.

I'll end this section with a word about postmodernism, which I mentioned pejoratively in my last blog, prompting HeevenSteven to ask for a clarification. In its extreme form, postmodernism treats science as equivalent to any other belief system without any special claim on what counts as knowledge. It is this position that royniles defines as "something from which the absence of leaves one profoundly enriched and liberated." I recommend the book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by philosopher Paul Boghossian for the highbrow version of royniles' definition. As Paul shows, nothing has happened in philosophy to challenge the truth of such statements as "there were mountains on earth before there were people."

There is, however, a more moderate form of postmodernism worth keeping, which emphasizes the extreme complexity and context sensitivity of cultural systems and questions whether assertions of truth in any particular culture, including scientific culture, are in fact part of the culture's ideology. Insofar as postmodernism, relativism, and constructivism merely emphasize complexity and ideology masquerading as truth, they fit comfortably with scientific approaches that also emphasize complexity, including evolutionary theories of human belief systems, as described in my book Darwin's Cathedral and elsewhere.

Jumping to the advanced level: Meet Peter Turchin. The son of a famous computer scientist and pioneer of the artificial life movement, Peter began his career as a biologist specializing in population dynamics, such as the boom and bust cycles of bark beetles. These cycles are influenced by multiple factors and are therefore complex and irregular. If you want to appreciate complexity in the biological world, read Peter's earlier work, which places an equal emphasis on mathematical modeling and the analysis of time series data. At some point Peter decided that he needed a new challenge and decided to approach human historical dynamics in the same way as nonhuman population dynamics, including the same emphasis on mathematical modeling and time series analysis of historical trends in the real world. He calls this approach Cliodynamics, from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes. Peter's most accessible book is War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations and his newest book, Secular Cycles, was just published by Princeton University Press. For a shorter introduction to Peter's work, I recommend the article titled "War and the Evolution of Social Complexity: A Multi-level Selection Approach" available on the Cliodynamics website.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss Peter's work in detail; better to read it yourself. The point I want to emphasize here is that Peter is operating at a level of sophistication concerning evolution and complexity that makes the formulaic discussions outlined above seem silly by comparison. That doesn't make Peter's work incomprehensible; he is perfectly able to write for a general audience in addition to his more technical work. It's just that he is making use of contemporary genetic and cultural evolutionary theory. He might not have everything right, but getting it right will require operating at the same level.

I hope that everyone interested in evolution and war can permanently leave square one and gravitate to the level represented by Peter's work. As I concluded my last blog, we have a lot of work to do.