Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ultrasociality: The Key to Human History?

Peter Turchin's book deserves to be devoured in a few hours, and that's what I did. But, I emerged out of it with a sensation of disappointment (*). Possibly it was unavoidable: all the books that attempt to explain everything are destined to fall short in one way or another. But, surely, this is a book worth reading.

The concept of "ultrasociality" is becoming increasing popular as a tool to understand the characteristics and the evolution of human society. It is a concept taken from evolutionary biology that describes how some species attain evolutionary success by means of collaboration among individuals. The extreme form of this idea is found with social insects; ants and bees, whose behavior is usually termed "eusociality" ("the good sociality"). Humans don't arrive at the degree of hyperspecialization of some insect societies, but they are more socially specialized than most mammals, hence the term "ultrasociality".

The idea that collaboration is a fundamental factor in evolution is becoming more and more popular in biology. We are seeing the decline of some rather restrictive concepts that described evolution strictly as the result of individual competition alone. In the past, these concepts led to the idea that life was a battle of everyone against everyone else and the idea spread from biology to other economics and to politics. The consequence was a series of egregious disasters; for instance, the development of a style of management that encourages people in engaging in cutthroat competition with their coworkers. An example of how disastrous this idea can be is that of the management of Enron by Jeff Skilling, presently in jail for various felony charges (as described in Turchin's book).

Examining history in terms of ultrasociality, as Turchin does, turns out to be very rewarding. Indeed, the evolution of human societies can be seen as the result of a competition where victory goes to those societies whose members can collaborate better. So, cooperation among humans is good and Turchin notes that, over history, human societies have been increasing the level of collaboration among their members, just as they have increased in size and complexity. One of the results has been a remarkable reduction of their level of internal violence. It is becoming clear that the image of the "good savage", still popular in many quarters, is deeply wrong. Life in ancient society was much more dangerous than it is nowadays in our world, despite our fascination with the idea that all problems can be solved by carpet bombing someone.

Collaboration allows to create and manage more and more complex social structures. But that has a cost, as Tainter noted in his book "The collapse of complex societies". If this cost is worth being paid, there must be some returns from the deal. Turchin's thesis in his book is that it is mainly military competition that favor the larger size and complexity of a society. Turchin notes that a large army will normally defeat a smaller army and, evidently, a larger society can field larger armies and, therefore, will tend to gobble smaller neighbors, one by one. Villages beat foraging bands. Cities beat villages. States beat cities. Large states beat small states. Empires beat large states, and so on. (Cases such as the battle of Agincourt and the St Crispin's day speech are to be seen as exceptions that confirm the rule.)

There is no doubt that Turchin's point about the importance of military factors is fundamental and that it is often underestimated in our times. We live in a largely demilitarized society and it is difficult for us to understand how war and military structures were permeating the life of our ancestors of even just a century ago. But they were extremely important and, for most of human history, there has been no such thing as "pacifism" on record. Pacifist societies, if they existed, were wiped out of the map by less pacifist societies.

Yet, no matter how important war may be in the evolution of human society, putting war at the center of the model, as Turchin does, misses something even more fundamental. Yes, war is important, but, just like complexity, war has a cost. And if the cost of war is to be paid, there has to be a return. What kind of return does war bring? Here, I think we must emphasize that most wars, if not all, are for the control of economic resources. And when we start thinking in terms of resources, we see that war is important, but just a facet of the whole system.

The key point of this idea, I think, is that societies become ultrasocial not just because they can grow bigger and hence have bigger armies. No, they go ultrasocial because they need a certain size and complexity in order to optimize the exploitation of the resources they use. Let me explain this point.

Think of a band of foragers in a hunting and gathering society. The optimal size of such a group is probably around 50-100 people; a dimension honed to perfection by hundreds of thousands of years of testing: there has never been an empire of hunters and gatherers! Of course, bands may make war against each other and, in this case, size is surely an advantage, but, as Tainter taught to us, there are diminishing returns to complexity. There will be a band size over which the military advantages of size are overcome by the growing inefficiency in foraging. A group of foragers that's too big will simply split in two.

Think, instead, of an agricultural society. In this case, the optimal size needed to exploit agricultural lands is much larger than that of a foraging band. An agricultural society needs specialized people: priests, kings, armies, craftsmen, and so on. And these people need to be housed, fed, and organized. That, in turn, leads to the appearance of the structures we call "cities".

The optimal size of an agricultural city may go from villages of a few hundreds of individuals to relatively large cities of 10,000-20,000 inhabitants. These cities may fight for the control of the land and, obviously, larger cities may triumph over smaller ones. Again, however, we have limits to the size that an agricultural city can attain because of the increasing costs of transporting from the surrounding fields. Agricultural cities may form federations in order to field larger armies, but the fundamental social unit for a purely agricultural society remains the city-state as, for example, it was the case in ancient Greece.

The coalescence of cities into truly organic states requires different resources than those provided by a purely agricultural economy. In particular, states and empires seem to be the result of the exploitation of mineral resources. These resources are highly localized and need specific military and political organizations to be exploited and that involves a cost that may well be too high to be paid by a single city. Mineral resources also generate commerce and a network of exchanges that favor the formation of a corresponding political and military network. So, most empires of history have been mineral and commercial empires. The best example is probably that of the Roman Empire that grew on the exploitation of its gold mines and whose structure was based on the use of gold to pay for its large (and almost always victorious) armies. The modern empire that we call "globalization" was created for the management of the complex financial and military structures that control the exploitation of fossil fuels. And there is more than just fossil fuels to be managed and controlled: the complexity of our modern world is in large part the result of the complexity of the worldwide mining system that provides the world's economy with all the elements of the periodic table, packed and shipped to destination, something that the ancient couldn't even dream to have.

The most interesting result of this kind of view is that it can be used to understand what could be the future evolution of our society. We are, clearly, the most complex ultrasocial society ever having existed in human history. We may think that the trend in more ultrasociality and more complexity will continue but, if complexity is the result of the availability of mineral resources, then it will follow the cycle of mineral resource exploitation. It is a grand cycle that started millennia in the past, that is now at its peak, and that is likely to start winding down slowly in the near future.

With the gradual depletion of the cheap, high-grade mineral ores, the flow of mineral resources to the world's economy is destined to diminish. That would make incresingly difficult to maintain the complex structures that we have created in our society. In the long run, on a planet where high-grade mineral ores have mostly disappeared, there won't be need any longer for large organizations dedicated to exploiting them. We seem to be seeing the start of this phenomenon right now, in front of our eyes, with the globalized empire facing increasing troubles in maintaining the control of the mineral resources that created it.

We may speculate on what could be the long-term results of this process. One could simply be the return to a purely agricultural society and to the size of social groups to the level of city-states. That's what happened when the Roman Empire turned itself into medieval Europe.

But that's not necessarily our case. Imagine a society based on solar energy produced by photovoltaic panels manufactured using common and abundant silicon and aluminum. It would not need to exploit high grade mineral resources in order to have abundant energy available. It would have electricity and, as such, long distance data transmission and some kind of cheap, long range, transportation system. At the same time, it wouldn't need militarized structures in order to control the sources of its wealth. So, what kind of society would it be? A world empire or a federation of city states? How complex and "ultrasocial" would it be?  That is, of course, impossible to say, but we can say that over the long term, human history doesn't repeat itself but, rather, evolves into different and more complex forms. This is the fascination of history as a guide for the future.


(*) Peter Turchin is known as the proposer of the concept of "cliodynamics," the idea that the study of history must be based on quantitative data. As he says in a paper on "Nature" 
We must collect quantitative data, construct general explanations and test them empirically on all the data, rather than on instances carefully selected to prove our pet narratives. To truly learn from history, we must transform it into a science.
It is, of course, an excellent idea, but it has practical problems. For instance, I have been exploring the concept that many, perhaps most, societal collapses are related to resource depletion, and in particular to the depletion of mineral resources. Yes, but where to find the data to prove this idea? For instance, no matter how much I would love to have the data sheets for the production of the Serbian tin mines during the bronze age, these data are simply unavailable. And so, the idea that the collapse of the Mediterranean bronze age civilization was caused by a shortage of tin must remain just that: an unproven hypothesis. 

This is a problem for Turchin himself in this book, "Ultrasociety." In it, we find in it very little in terms of quantitative data or models; for instance, it doesn't contain a single table or graph. And while Turchin says at the beginning that he is interested in understanding the quantitative reasons for societal collapse, then he never gives a clear answer to the question. In the end, Turchin's book is not so much different than most history books: it moves on the basis of events, examples, anecdotes, and out of these it builds up generalizations that appear reasonable. That may be seen as a defect, but it doesn't detract from the basic intuition of the book about ultrasociety, that makes it innovative and worth reading.


  1. The idea that collaboration is a fundamental factor in evolution is becoming more and more popular in biology. We are seeing the decline of some rather restrictive concepts that described evolution strictly as the result of individual competition alone. In the past, these concepts led to the idea that life was royal battle of everyone against everyone else and the idea spread from biology to other economics and to politics.

    The confusion arises because almost everyone gets the relationship between genomes and organisms backwards. A natural mistake, because we are the organisms and we are thus heavily biased towards thinking that the genes exist in order to encode our development, but in reality we exist to propagate the genes, i.e. exactly the opposite. Once you realize and fix that common error, life is indeed a ruthless battle for maximizing the number of copies of those genes in the next generations, and there is no mistake in that understanding. Sometimes a good way to achieve that is for the organisms to collaborate. But the underlying process is still one of competition for who will be the most successful replicator.

    1. This is pure ideology. There is absolutely no proof for that, and there is also the fact that genes do not determine the organism. Epigenetic influences are also passed on.

    2. I accepted this comment because it raises a legitimate point. But, please, avoid this kind of unpleasant and unjustified tone. Further comments written in this way will not be passed

    3. Unpleasant is anything that starts with an insult

    4. If you think you know the truth, you have no need to insult anyone.

    5. I'm sorry if that came off as rude. It was definitely not meant as an insult, simply as a disagreement.

    6. I understood that - it was just a bit rash, that's why I published it.

    7. There is not that much proof that epigenetic influences are passed on. They are in some cases, but if anything is vastly overstated, it is the immense importance that some claim they have. And even the rock-solid examples are just add-ons to the classical picture of inheritance.

      But more importantly, that's irrelevant to the subject.

      You don't need "proof" of what I said because it was a description, not a theorem/conjecture.

      There are two main strands of thought regarding the origin of life -- replication first vs metabolism first. Personally I actually lean more towards the metabolism-first view, but what I said is true even under that understanding of the issue -- we all trace our ancestry back to self-replicating information molecules and it was those self-replicating information molecules that were able to organize fitter (or luckier) cells (and later organisms) around them that made it through evolution.

      You would need "proof" if I said that the "genes" are an active "conscious" entity that strives for maximization of their copies. But I said nothing of the sort.

  2. I am not sure if things can just 'wind down slowly' back to simpler social organizations. Given that world population will have to drastically decline, probably quite quickly, as mineral and fossil fuel resources dwindle. Plus the fact that we live in a 'full world' and there is nowhere to disperse this time round, unlike when the Roman empire dissolved into the Middle Ages.

    1. At the end of the Roman Empire in Britain (C400) the population didn't so much dissolve as collapse. 4 million to ~1 million. From a high functioning economically sophisticated society back to an agrarian late iron age one.

      A colourful synopsis is available here which license it to what we're seeing today.

    2. It really is a matter of perspective isn't it? Decades to some may seem long and to others feel like overnight. Ok so let's say Rome 'collapsed'. This makes it even less likely our current global civilization will have time and space for 'winding down'.

  3. Why veterans miss war:

    1. Pure ultrasociality at the tribal level. Note when he speaks about "brotherhood". In many respects, we haven't changed so much in the past 10,000 years

  4. Thank you Ugo for your book recommendation and analysis. I can also imagine a society based on alcohol energy production. In my little realm of Gaia our Iron Mining industry is crashing now as it has in the past. I understand this is happening in other big producing areas. This year was a record for Corn and Soybean crops in my area too. The estimated value market value of these crops is deemed to be below the cost of production now. The price of Oil and Natural gas is tanking world wide and there is quickly becoming a lack of storage for such. Perhaps we are reaching diminishing returns - of production value on many things? There does not appear to be a global shortage of any commodity except good sense in terms of long term views.

  5. Nature is a thousand-handed goddess with one hand. Dialectical materialism, quantification, and a discriminating mind serve up inductive theories, some more plausible than others. We can divide nature into discernible, value-laden parts, but no one can put them together again to achieve a whole. Categories are convenient constructions borne from human artifice. The tragedy is humans don't recognize it as such. Nature is not subject to cause and effect. There are infinitesimal causes and there are none. Nature is nothing and everything, no beginning, no end, no day, no night. Everything bleeds into everything else. A constant flux. Our phenomenological experience is not reality. It's subjective. The closest one can come to understanding is through intuition - a kind of enlightened, non-scientific deductive reasoning.
    We do not know anything beyond what we are capable of knowing. It is better when no one words are spoken. I say something and end up saying nothing.

  6. Re your Twitter comment, "In the long term, history does not repeat itself. It evolves toward higher complexity"; with increasing complexity comes increasing fragility, and consequently increasingly unpleasant results of catastrophe if/when it happens. It could bring renewal - perhaps the Black Death was one of the necessary precursors to the Renaissance - but the wars that used to kill thousands, now kill millions, and our next catastrophe might be terminal. Perhaps we are at a fork in the road between my worst fears and Mr Turchin's optimism; and the difference might be our ability to enter into unprecedented social evolution ... anyway, I've ordered the book.

  7. " human societies have been increasing the level of collaboration among their members, just as they have increased in size and complexity. One of the results has been a remarkable reduction of their level of internal violence."

    It seems to me that if humans have increased collaboration and reduced conflict between themselves it has been at the expense of decreased collaboration with the rest of nature and increased conflict with it. As W.R. Catton points out, at each step from ape to tool user to farmer we took over a greater fraction of the planet's resources while reducing other species that competed with us for the same resource. While that was ordinary succession, and probably sustainable in the long term, when we began to use fossil sunlight we went to far, overshooting the planets carrying capacity of humans and using the resource in part to reduce the capacity of the earth, washing soil down rivers into overfished oceans, doing both to support a massive overshoot of humans that will likely prove to be a 'flash in the pan' over biological time.

    Humans are smart enough to change the planet with little more than stones, fire, pointed sticks and fibres. By the time we found stored sunlight we were not yet wise enough to restrain ourselves and have now even forgotten that we are inseparable from nature.

  8. Ugo, I think you're getting some things backward in this otherwise excellent post! First, as other commenters have noted, you say that:

    "human societies have been increasing the level of collaboration among their members, just as they have increased in size and complexity. One of the results has been a remarkable reduction of their level of internal violence."

    This is a colonialist meme promulgated by thinkers like Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker, neither of whom are anthropologists, due to cherry picked data - and in fact the majority of the latter have a very different view on this matter - please see, for example:

    Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong


    Yanomami Ax Fight: Jared Diamond, Science, Violence & the Facts

    Further, you state that:

    "An agricultural society needs specialized people: priests, kings, armies, craftsmen, and so on. "

    I think it's entirely plausible that the relationship here is not one of x NEEDS y, but that x leads to a and b which lead to y. Taken to a provocative extreme: does a host need a parasite? Well, as Toby Hemenway points out, agriculture certainly led to surpluses and thus, whether needed or not, the kinds of hierarchy you describe, as well as numerous other impacts, perhaps chief among them population increase and accelerating resource consumption:

    Now, all that said, I think you are on target in terms of the impacts to be expected from the rates of change in the availability of mineral and fossil fuel resources going forward, although I don't think we'll pull off the 'society based on solar energy produced by photovoltaic panels ' you posit. We *could* - but I think what history tells us pretty conclusively is that we *won't*. Shame, really, but as the saying goes, the lesson of history is that we don't learn the lessons of history.

    1. Excuse me, gwizard, but I am not impressed by the criticism leveled at Pinker and Diamond; it seems to me to be mainly politically motivated. Generally speaking, I think there is good evidence that tribal societies were much more violent in relative terms than our modern world. Then, our modern world has plenty of problems, of course, but also a few good things.

      About your other criticism, I said "needs" because I think it is the correct word to describe the way an agricultural civilization functions. Then, of course, you may reasonably argue that kings and priests are parasites. Yes, but an egalitarian agricultural society doesn't seem to be common - if it ever existed at all. Then, many things will surely happen in the future......

    2. The general argument is that violence has been decreasing throughout the whole transition from hunter-gatherer to modern society, i.e. violence in Medieval Europe was higher than it is today while being lower than it is in tribal societies. Violence in the past in Europe was indeed much higher, and not just during times of war (you can see the remnants of that time on the margins of the continent -- Albania, Caucasus, etc.).

      Where is the colonialist motivation behind that claim?

  9. i was wondering.. considering wealth as a kind of "stored energy" in parts of society.. pretty much like heat. As such one can consider the distribution and calculate a value of entropy for a given society. Very low entropy in form of high social disparity would use a lot of work to maintain and be highly unstable while revolutions and collapses would lower entropy and increase stability (while destroying wealth). Did anyone attempt such an analysis by measuring the level of societal entropy throughout history ?

  10. sorry i meant that revolutions collapses and some wars would tend to raise entropy not lower it.

  11. I see once again a manifestation of one the more tragic aspects of the predicament -- the fact that ideological blindness is pretty much equally strong on all sides of the political spectrum.

    So the right refuses to even accept that there is a problem and stubbornly denies the reality/serious of climate change, peak oil, etc., because those things threaten its ideological foundations. And the left rightly ridicules them for it.

    But then that same left goes into the same kind of denial when it comes to topics such as the biological nature of humans, again because it threatens its ideological foundation.

    But guess what -- there is no getting out of this situation at least somewhat intact without a firm grasp of reality (or at least our best understanding of it) on all issues with no taboo topics. This includes both objective external physical factors such as climate, oil, ecosystems, etc. and internal factors such as a proper understanding of our own biological nature.

    Also, there are of course uncertainties but the precautionary principle in fact should steer us towards a more pessimistic view of everything (better be safe than sorry). So we have very good reasons to think that much of the behavioral patterns that are driving ecologically unsustainabile actions are hard-wired biologically, but we have no hard "proof" of that. Would it be wise to reject that idea because of a combination of ideological leaning towards the opposite view and scientific uncertainty? No, that would in fact be a very stupid thing to do, because if we have good reasons to think so, even without hard proof, then we are also faced with a quite high chance of those hard-wired behavioral patterns ruining everything we try to do to fix the problem if we do not account for them. Thus, we are best advised to work under the assumption that there is such a component to our behavior.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)