The main idea of this book is that human history is the story of evolutionary process of cooperation and competition at two somewhat separate levels: between individuals and societies that led to continuous increase in scale and power of humanity often via critical events of distractive creation.
Chapter 1. The Puzzle of Ultrasociality:
From Gobekli Tepe to the International Space Station
Author defines Ultrasociality as ability of humans to cooperate in very large groups of strangers. As examples he provides International Space Station, CERN, and other huge UN or multistate projects. The research in cooperation includes development of Seshat Global History Databank that would contain all known facts and numbers relevant to human societies’ past. Here is a nice representation of increase in scale of cooperation over the time:
Author also discusses increased matematization of history and attempts to make it more into hard science of human development with Cliodynamic models producing insights in the past and future of human societies. One such attempt that author works on is based on competition between societies, mainly military competition as driver of increase in the scale and complexity of societies. So far this model seems to be quite good in retroactively predicting raise and fall of societies as long as military competition involved, but fail to predict anything when it is switched off. At the end of chapter author posits that cooperation is extremely fragile and competition is what caused development of large military powerful societies.
Chapter 2. Destructive Creation
How cultural evolution creates large, peaceful, and wealthy ultrasocieties
Here author looks at examples of competition between different societies such as American Indians and European settlers and then moves on to define field of Cultural Evolution that is forming practically right now. However it is not only competition that defines evolution; it is also cooperation both between individuals and societies.
Chapter 3. The Cooperator’s Dilemma
Selfish genes, “greed is good,” and the Enron fiasco
This chapter starts with some interesting detour into contemporary American politics and its ideological underpinning in libertarian ideas of Ayn Rand and economic ideas of Misses and Hayek, which in author’s mind somehow tied to real corporate crooks like Enron’s Skilling and fictional like Gordon Gekko. One of the funniest things here is a direct link author sees between Selfish Gene of Dawkins and Skilling’s machinations. However much more interesting is core of the chapter: discussion about the cost of cooperation and how evolution at the final count defines optimal for survival mix of cooperation / competition. Author also looks here at kin selection and reciprocal altruism as alternative of group selection, but finds both ideas wanting. The final part is directed against ideas of morality as byproduct or even mistake of evolution when people genetically inclined to help others nearby because they normally were always kin in hunter-gatherers societies, even if they are not kin in the contemporary one.
Chapter 4. Cooperate to Compete
What team sports teach us about cooperation
This is somewhat technical use of team sports to analyze interplay between team benefit and individual benefit when good player often have to sacrifice for the team. Author even provides a nice formula for development of cooperative traits:
Chapter 5. ‘God Made Men, but Sam Colt Made Them Equal’
How early humans suppressed alpha males.
There is always tension between individual and group benefits and this chapter looks at traditional ways to suppress individual who does not comply with what is considered best for the group. Author starts with idea that hunter-gatherers societies are egalitarian due to revers dominance: that is when attempts to dominate by one individual over others lead to cooperative resistance with use of projectiles giving humans clear advantage comparatively to gorillas because they allow simultaneous attack of majority of weak against minority of strong. The technological development of such attitudes eventually led to “the Great Equalizer” that allow even a very weak women to put bullet into very strong man, dramatically decreasing actual need to do it and providing strong reason for peaceful cooperation.
Chapter 6. The Human Ways of War
War as a force of Destructive Creation
This chapter is looking at the specifically human way of war, which no other animals use: extensive application of projectiles to kill at the distance. The evolution of projectiles from stones to intercontinental missiles had significant impact on social evolution of human societies.
Chapter 7- The Rise of God-Kings
The alpha male strikes back
This is about massive implementation of agriculture that led to increase in military competition between societies because of stationary nature of resource acquisition and ability to save resources over time: functionality that was lacking in hunter-gatherers societies. Consequently this military competition caused creation and evolution of the state as the system best suitable for concentration and mobilization of resources for military straggle under unified command of hierarchical elite or alpha males.
Chapter 8. The Iron Law of Oligarchy
Why power inevitably corrupts
This is review of ideas about state formation. It references Franz Oppenheimer and Ibn Khaldun. However author rejects Oppenheimer idea of conquest as main method of state formation relaying rather on internal formation of hierarchical structures. This is what is considered the iron law of oligarchy: powers obtained by military leaders during war with external opponents are retained after the end of war to suppress internal, providing formation of permanent oligarchy and eventually aristocracy.
Chapter 9. The Pivot of History
The spiritual awakening of the Axial Age
After discussing in precious chapter law of oligarchy and formation of the state with practical elimination of human egalitarism, that was the rule in hunter-gathering societies for millions of years, author posits the question: how come that the later development of military technology and society brought back egalitarism and new democratic forms of society organization. Author relates it to Axial Age 800-200 BCE when major new ideological constructs were built around the world: Confucius, Jewish monotheism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrism, with all of them promoting egalitarian ethics. Author sees this development as foundation for large-scale “Axial” empires that combine multiple ethnicities into one powerful entity. However the root cause was the military development in use of horses. It forced creation of big enough entities so to limit fighting against military effective nomads to borders, providing relative peace for internals. Eventually it also created condition for Enlightenment.
Chapter 10. Zigzags of Human Evolution
And the science of history
The last chapter summarizes the set of ideas presented in this book and provides their very nice graphical presentation:
t seems that at this point competition between societies moved away from military domain into economic and societal, practically competing for superiority in quality of live.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I think that evolution is the best-known method to analyze not only biological development, but any process which combines two steps: change and filtering. The model of cultural evolution seems to provide a very good framework for understanding history and it would be interesting to see what would come out from development of massive databases of archeological and other historical data. I believe that it could eventually turn history into real science with ability to build hypotheses and test them against materially significant amount of data. However I also think that part about development of ideas and know-hows needs more attention because whatever are circumstances, the human thought comes before human action and this variance of thought and created memes actually moves individuals and later societies in one direction or another.