Sunday, April 13, 2014

War, what is it good for?

Well, something, apparently, according to historian/archaeologist Ian Morris, author of "why the West Rules...For Now."

Morris takes up the gauntlet thrown down by Stephen Pinker about the fact that we are less likely to die by interpersonal violence than in times past. Why? Ian Morris claims that 10,000 years of war is ultimately the cause. He doesn't say war is good - far from it. But he claims that that as wars escalated, people paradoxically got safer - as societies conquered other societies, they incoporated them and set rules of order so that people would have to cooperate. This allowed larger and larger societies to form and larger and larger groups of strangers to cooperate without violence producing the large-scale societies and trading economies we see today. He adds that war today is so deadly that we are less willing to engage in it at a large scale - we'd prefer to cooperate instead: fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.

This observation rests on one of the major findings of archaeologists and anthropologists over the last century: that Stone Age societies were typically tiny. Chiefly because of the challenges of finding food, people lived in bands of a few dozen, villages of a few hundred, or (very occasionally) towns of a few thousand members. These communities did not need much in the way of internal organization and tended to live on terms of suspicion or even hostility with outsiders.

People generally worked out their differences peacefully, but if someone decided to use force, there were far fewer constraints on him—or, occasionally, her—than the citizens of modern states are used to. Most of the killing was on a small scale, in vendettas and incessant raiding, although once in a while violence might disrupt an entire band or village so badly that disease and starvation wiped all its members out. But because populations were also small, the steady drip of low-level violence took an appalling toll. By most estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all the people who lived in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans.

The twentieth century forms a sharp contrast. It saw two world wars, a string of genocides, and multiple government-induced famines, killing a staggering total of somewhere between 100 million and 200 million people. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 150,000 people—probably more people than had lived in the entire world in 50,000 B.C. But in 1945, there were about 2.5 billion people on earth, and over the course of the twentieth century roughly 10 billion lives were lived—meaning that the century’s 100–200 million war-related deaths added up to just 1 to 2 percent of our planet’s population. If you were lucky enough to be born in the industrialized twentieth century, you were on average 10 times less likely to die violently (or from violence’s consequences) than if you were born in a Stone Age society.

This may be a surprising statistic, but the explanation for it is more surprising still. What has made the world so much safer is war itself. The way this worked was that beginning about 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world, then spreading across the planet, the winners of wars incorporated the losers into larger societies. The only way to make these larger societies work was for their rulers to develop stronger governments, and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence within the society.

The men who ran these governments hardly ever pursued policies of peacemaking purely out of the goodness of their hearts. They cracked down on killing because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that rates of violent death fell by 90 percent between Stone Age times and the twentieth century...War made governments, and governments made peace.

My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found...

My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. Peace created the conditions for economic growth and rising living standards. This process too has been messy and uneven: the winners of wars regularly go on rampages of rape and plunder, selling thousands of survivors into slavery and stealing their land. The losers may be left impoverished for generations. It is a terrible, ugly business. And yet, with the passage of time—maybe decades, maybe centuries—the creation of a bigger society tends to make everyone, the descendants of victors and vanquished alike, better off. The long-term pattern is again unmistakable. By creating larger societies, stronger governments, and greater security, war has enriched the world.

When we put these three claims together, only one conclusion is possible. War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about 6 million people on earth. On average they lived about 30 years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day. Now there are more than a thousand times as many of us (7 billion, in fact), living more than twice as long (the global average is 67 years), and earning more than a dozen times as much (today the global average is $25 per day).
The Slaughter Bench of History (Ian Morris, The Atlantic)

Not mentioned in the article (but perhaps in the book) is the oft-repeated claim that warfare was a major driver of technological progress from the age of the chariot on down through history. The art of cannon-making informed the first steam engines. Military engineering was often the first type of engineering, and societies that got better at it stayed around longer. Even today many innovations come out of the MIC (which is sadly the only way we seem to be willing to fund them). Whether that's good or bad is another matter.

10 inventions that owe their success to World War One (BBC) Here's a good comment:
I recommend you all ready "Origins of Virtue" to understand war. Basically, if there were a group of humans that decided not to engage in war (no retaliation) they would quickly be wiped out by other humans who do. And if no humans took part in war, then we would be wiped out by animals or other primates a long time ago. Or there would come about a mutation by which some humans would war, and they would quickly enslave those who didn't. In this way, war or at the least the threat of war is essential to peace. Its tit for tat with instant reciprocity.
Morris' argument seems a bit deterministic to me. It reminds me of some of the arguments put forth in Nonzero - that we're increasingly turning away from competitive, zero-sum games where the winner wins at the loser's expense, and toward cooperative games where everyone gains. And no mention of the wealth and centralization of power caused by fossil fuels?

BONUS: The Declining Effectiveness of Violence (Monkey Business)

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