Tag Archives: war

Consider her ways

98.6 – 93.3 million years ago.

Here is my obituary for Ed Wilson, who died last year, and below some thoughts about ants.

There are some pieces of paleontology that really stand out in the popular imagination. Dinosaurs are so cool that even if they hadn’t existed we would have invented them. (Maybe we did, in the form of dragons. And look ahead (or back) to early April for the dinosaur-griffin connection.) Also, as I suggested in a previous post, transitions from one form of locomotion to another – flightless dinosaurs to birdsfish to tetrapodsland mammals to whales – really grab the imagination (and annoy creationists) because the largest and most distinctive named folk categories of animals (snakes, fish, birds) are built around modes of locomotion.

Evolutionary biologists tend to see things differently. Turning fins into legs, legs into wings, and legs back into flippers is pretty impressive. But the really major evolutionary transitions involve the evolution of whole new levels of organization: the origin of the eukaryotic cell, for example, and the origin of multicellular life. From this perspective, the really huge change in the Mesozoic – sometimes called the Age of Dinosaurs – is the origin of eusociality among insects like ants and bees. An ant nest or a bee hive is something like a single superorganism, with most of its members sterile workers striving – even committing suicide — for the colony’s reproduction, not their own. (100 million years ago – corresponding to March 29 in Logarithmic History — is when we find the first bee and ant fossils, but the transition must have been underway before that time.)

Certainly the statistics on social insects today are impressive.

The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominate the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment. As humans are to vertebrate animals, the eusocial insects are to the far vaster world of invertebrate animals. … In one Amazon site, two German researchers … found that ants and termites together compose almost two-thirds of the weight of all the insects. Eusocial bees and wasps added another tenth. Ants alone weighed four times more than all the terrestrial vertebrates – that is, mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined. E. O. Wilson pp 110-113

E. O. Wilson, world’s foremost authority on ants, and one of the founders of sociobiology, thinks that the origin of insect eusociality might have lessons for another major evolutionary transition, the origin of humans (and of human language, technology, culture, and complex social organization). In his book The Social Conquest of Earth he argues that a key step in both sets of transitions was the development of a valuable and defensible home – in the case of humans, a hearth site. Wilson returns to this argument in his book Genesis: The Deep Origin of Human Societies, just published, which I’ll get around to saying more about here eventually. On the same topic, Mark Moffett’s book The Human Swarm: How Human Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall,  asks how it is that we somehow rival the social insects in our scale of organization.

One trait found in both ants and humans is large-scale warfare. Wilson gives an idea of the nature of ant warfare in fictional form in his novel Anthill. It’s an interesting experiment, but also disorienting. Because individual recognition is not important for ants, his story of the destruction of an ant colony reads like the Iliad with all the personal names taken out. But Homer’s heroes fought for “aphthiton kleos,” undying fame (and got some measure of it in Homer’s poem). The moral economy of reputation puts human cooperation in war and peace on a very different footing from insect eusociality. (Here’s my take on “ethnic group selection,” which depends on social enforcement, perhaps via reputation.)

Consider her ways” is the title of a short story by John Wyndham, about a woman from the present trapped in a future ant-like all-female dystopia. It was made into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The title is from Proverbs 6:6, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.”


339- 322 million years ago

You’re trying to live without enemies. That’s all you think about, not having enemies.

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry

Enemies are the most important agencies of selection.

Geerat Vermeij, Evolution and Escalation

Much of what we’ve been seeing since the onset of the Cambrian, Monday, February 27, is the outcome of evolutionary arms races, leading to steady improvements in teeth, claws, armor, and mobility. It may well be that the onset of predation is what triggered the Cambrian explosion in the first place. The paleontologist Geerat Vermeij argues that arms races and escalation – not adaptation to the physical environment – are the greatest cause of progressive evolution.

We’ll see when we start getting into human evolution, biological and social, that enemies – other people especially – and arms races go on being a major motor of change. But arms races and escalation are going to look different in human evolution than they do in most non-human evolution. People are super-cooperators, and violent competition in humans tends to involve more group-against-group competition, with rival groups monopolizing and competing over territory. And in the human analog of predation – the formation of stratified societies, where elites live off the mass of the population – the human “predators” commonly band together under the aegis of the state to regulate their competition. At their best, human elites are less like wolves and more like sheepdogs.

Arms races operate with greater intensity in some environments than others. Races are more intense on large landmasses than small. Hence the common pattern in both biological evolution and human social evolution that isolated small continents and islands are especially vulnerable to invasion when their isolation ends. And arms races may be more intense, and the pace of evolution correspondingly greater, in the (more or less) 2-D terrestrial environment compared to the 3-D oceans.

Yet there may be something else involved in the initial move onto land – it’s sometimes among refugees from arms races that the greatest evolutionary advances arise. Fish moving onto land may have been doing it partly to get to someplace where enemies were weak or scarce. Human analogs might be the early Ionian Greeks fleeing the Dorian invasions, the settlers of Polynesia lighting out for the territories to escape a lowly position in a social order of ranked lineages, or the New England Pilgrims fleeing an un-Godly England. Or Vermeij himself – he is competitively handicapped, having lost his sight at three years old, but has made a distinguished career studying shelled invertebrates by touch.

Slava Ukraini

February 24, 2022, and after.

Russia’s attempted seizure of Ukraine this year, and the ensuing ongoing war, crystalized a new international division. This division runs deeper than the machinations and miscalculations of one autocrat. A recent report, A World Divided: Russia, China and the West, summarizes the current global divide in political attitudes. Some major findings:

Compare positive versus negative attitudes to Russia …

to China …

and to the US.

The last map is a near mirror image of the first two. Together the maps depict a world split in two, a Western / maritime rimland and an Old World heartland. 

And the division reflects a deeper divide in politics …

and social attitudes …

The division in attitudes between the West and the two Eurasian powers has developed only recently, but it has roots that go back for centuries. At least this is consistent with the thesis of a recent book, The Deep Roots of Modern Democracy: Geography and the Diffusion of Political Institutions. The authors present a modern data-driven version of an old argument, that maritime trade and naval power foster liberal, constitutional, and democratic government. Where access to the sea and trade was limited, autocracy was (and is) more likely to prevail. Also, maritime zones tend to smaller political units – city states and nation states (albeit sometimes with overseas colonies) – while more land-based zones, riverine and steppe, tend to sprawling multinational empires. Here is a map (from an earlier article by the authors) of one set of underlying geographic determinants: natural harbors. 

And here is their causal model:

Natural harbors, plus other factors in European history (here are a few from this blog), have fostered democratic development in some parts of Europe, and Europeans have brought democratic institutions with them as they have moved overseas (albeit sometimes democracy for whites only).

The appeal of a particular set of Western, and specifically Anglo-American, ideals – individualism, constitutional government, national self-determination – is broad but not universal. They developed in a particular geographic and historical context. A large portion of the world does not (pace the American Declaration of Independence) hold these ideals as self-evident truths, and even regards them (not always entirely without reason) as a mask for cynical power politics. 

And so The End of History is unfinished work.

Power laws, earthquakes, and war

On Boxing Day (December 26) 2004, a tsunami resulting from a 9.0+ magnitude earthquake killed about 250,000 people around the Indian Ocean. This was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The Indian Ocean tsunami illustrated a major theme on this blog: the importance of catastrophes in human history, and in the history of life and the universe.

Earthquakes are one example of a phenomenon following a power law statistical distribution. The frequency of earthquakes drops off as an exponential function of their magnitude, so that on a logarithmic scale, the magnitude-frequency relationship looks linear. This is known as the Gutenberg-Ritter relation. (The deviation from linearity in the upper left part of the chart below may reflect measurement error, with a lot of tiny earthquakes not being detected.)


Power law distributions are found in many other contexts, for example, in the frequency of wars versus their magnitude (as measured by the number of war deaths). A power law distribution is very different from the more familiar bell-curve Gaussian normal distribution: extreme “black swan” events that are astronomically unlikely under a normal distribution may happen at appreciable frequency under a power law distribution. Depending on the exponent, a power law distribution may not have a well-defined variance, or even a well-defined mean.

For a technical discussion of why small scale processes sometimes aggregate to generate normally distributed outcomes, and other times aggregate to produce power law distributions, here’s an article on The common patterns of nature. A take home lesson – not always covered in introductory treatments of statistics and probability theory – is that catastrophes and extreme outcomes can be an expectable part of the natural order.

Steven Pinker and Nichlas Nassim Taleb have squabbled about the implications of all this for the probability of a peaceful future. Here’s a level-headed review. Several recent books carry this argument further. In Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age, Bear Braumoeller makes the case there is no good reason to think that war is in decline. Rather “international orders” – whether the nineteenth century Concert of Europe, or the post World War II liberal order – have often made for peace among participants and conflicts with non-participants. On the other side, in The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency, John Mueller makes the case that the likelihood of war was and is greatly exaggerated, both during and after the Cold War, and argues for the virtues of complacency and appeasement. Of course this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine forces us to revise our estimate of the probability of major war upward, but it doesn’t prove Pinker wrong: a snow storm in April doesn’t prove that March isn’t a wintrier month.

And here are a couple of blog posts from me about why the bloody early twentieth century was maybe more than just a run of bad luck.

Saddam’s kin

May 2004 – April 2006

We’re now taking history at the rate of two years a day, getting close to one year a day on December 31.

After the American-led invasion of Iraq, it took more than eight months before Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of the country, was captured, on December 13, 2003. Tracking down Saddam was less a matter of deploying cutting-edge super-technology, and more a matter of rediscovering basic social anthropology. Here is a news story on the topic.

The gist is that two junior American military intelligence analysts began with a long list of about 9,000 names. They gradually narrowed this down to a “Mongo List” (it’s classified) of about 300 people, tightly interconnected by blood and marriage, who were involved in the resistance and connected with Saddam. Rounding up and interrogating central figures on the list ultimately led to Saddam himself. This approach was successful because Saddam’s immediate power base was his clan and kin.

In previous blogposts we have considered how different Eurasian civilizations developed different compromises between state power, established religion, and patrilineal clans. In the Middle East, clan-based politics have continued to be important right up to the present. In China, a millennia-old tradition of patriarchal clan authority was violently assaulted in the course of the Communist Revolution. In Europe, the move away from clan-based politics came much earlier. The decline of royal and aristocratic rule in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the rise of mass politics further weakened the rule of the clan (except insofar as the nation itself operated as a kind of imagined kin group). Hence the contrast between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Western Europe’s premier Evil Dictatorship: compiling a “Mongo List” of 300 of Hitler’s closest relations by blood and marriage wouldn’t get you far in understanding Nazi rule.

Here’s a valuable book on The Rule of the Clan, still relevant to the present.

Tutsi and Hutu

In just one hundred days in 1994, some 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi were murdered under the direction of the Rwandan government, with the participation of a large part of Rwanda’s Hutu majority population. This was genocide, the last major genocide of the twentieth century. However US diplomats were forbidden to use the word. Calling it genocide would have obliged the international community to intervene.

A few comments:

The internal violence in Rwanda was closely linked to external conflict. Next door to Rwanda is Burundi, with a similar demography – a Tutsi minority and a Hutu majority. But politics took a different course in the two countries. In Rwanda the Hutu took power when the country attained its independence in 1963, and the government directed massacres of Tutsi. Meanwhile, in independent Burundi, the Tutsi dominated, In 1972 100,000 Hutu were massacred there, while the next year saw anti-Tutsi riots in Rwanda. The genocide in 1994 followed a seizure of power by Hutu extremists, who played on fears of a Tutsi takeover. French political scientist Jacques Semelin calls Rwanda and Burundi “ethnic false twins.” He notes similar “fratricidal duos” in the case of other twentieth century genocides – Serbia and Croatia, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Ottoman Turkey and Czarist Russia. In each case, mass killing of ethnic minorities – of Croats, Jews, Armenians –  was tied, in the minds of the perpetrators at least, to life-and-death external threats.

The history of the Tutsi and the Hutu goes back a ways, although group boundaries were accentuated by Belgian colonial policy. Genetic and ethnohistoric evidence points to the Tutsi being a an offshoot of the great migration of Nilotic cattle-herders over the last millennium, while the Hutu derive ultimately from an even greater demic expansion, of the Bantu. The Tutsi came to speak the same language as the Hutu, and there has been some intermarriage between the two populations, but they are still physically fairly distinct from one another, with the Tutsi taller and thinner. These physical differences played into the development of ethnic animosity, an instance of “somatic prejudice.” A big theme of anti-Tutsi propaganda in the period leading up to the genocide is that Tutsi women were especially sexually alluring, but also wanton, dangerous, and emasculating. A few story titles, “Beautiful Tutsi Women as Bait into Servitude” and “The Death Trap of Tutsi Women’s Beauty,” make the point (as did a lot of visual pornography). In the Hutu Ten Commandments, a major piece of anti-Tutsi propaganda published in 1990, the first three commandments are concerned with getting Hutu men to resist the allure of Tutsi women. Sexuality and ethnicity are the source of some of our most intense emotions; together they make an especially combustible combination.

Europe of nations

September 1992 – April 1995

The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union was not widely anticipated. Academic Sovietologists were probably less likely than knowledgeable non-academics to anticipate that the Union was not going to last. One of the small number of people who got it right was public intellectual (and long-time Senator from New York) Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He argued a decade earlier that the Soviet system faced serious economic problems and that ethnic divisions were likely to lead to a collapse of the Union, as they had to earlier colonial empires like the British.

Being of Irish ancestry helped Moynihan to appreciate the continuing importance of ethnicity and nationalism under the cover of universalist ideologies. As warfare diminished in importance over the later twentieth century, the earlier Orwellian nightmare of a world divided into a few warring super-states receded, and an older vision of a Europe of nations revived. In 1900, neither Ireland, nor Poland, nor the Czech Republic was an independent country; by 2000 they were all running their own affairs – not because they built unstoppable military machines, but because they mobilized feelings of imagined community.

However there is a dark side to the return to nationalism. The newly independent nations of Eastern Europe were successful in resolving older border conflicts partly owing to a wave of mass killing and mass expulsions during and after the Second World War that tidied up the ethnic map. In Yugoslavia, where different nationalities were still heavily intermingled, the return to nationalism resulted in a civil war that killed about 130,000 people, and introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to the language.

At the time, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact, and of communism is Eastern Europe, was widely seen as the decisive victory of one ideology – liberal capitalist democracy – over another. As it has turned out however, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe did not represent The End of History, even European history. Nationalism helped finish off the Soviet Empire; now it inspires both the defenders of Ukraine and Russian invaders.

On a scholarly note: Is ethnic nationalism an expression in the modern world of an evolved human psychology, a psychology shaped by the process of kin selection, as some scholars have argued? I considered the matter in an article, Kin selection and ethnic group selection (and here’s a blog post). The short answer: it’s complicated. Here’s my conclusion to the paper

Both the study of prehistory and political psychology are changing rapidly in the face of new evidence from biology, especially genetics. It would be intellectually satisfying if we could integrate these findings under the heading of an already existing theory, by equating ethnicity with kinship and applying kin selection theory. But we’ve seen that this won’t work. Ethnicity, like kinship, may have to do with shared genes. There may even be such a thing as ethnic nepotism. But an evolutionary theory of ethnicity – even the barebones theory presented here – has to be something more than the theory of kin selection, because of the way ethnicity is entangled with some of the most complicated aspects of human sociality: norms, rules, and political ideals, and their connection with large-scale population processes.

The modern synthesis and the blank slate

August 1941 – November 1946

We’re now dividing time finely enough to include months as well as years.

For most of the later nineteenth century after the publication of On the Origin of Species. biologists were skeptical of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolutionary change – natural selection. It was only in the twentieth century that this began to change. When Mendel’s work on heredity was rediscovered in 1900, it was originally seen by many as antithetical to Darwinism. But with the pioneering theoretical work of Fisher, Haldane, and Wright, and the subsequent empirical work of Mayr, Dobzhansky, Simpson, Huxley, Stebbins, and others, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s theory of heredity were combined in what came to be called “the modern synthesis.” Julian Huxley’s book Evolution: The Modern Synthesis marked the coming of age of the theory.

In an earlier post I noted how Lyell’s and Darwin’s embrace of gradualism in explaining the past (as well as George Eliot’s celebration of Dorothea Brooke’s “unhistoric acts” and “hidden life”) had something to do with the political climate in England in the years after the French Revolution and Napoleon. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis was first published in 1942. It’s no surprise that the modern synthesis too was a product of its time, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offered gruesome antithetical demonstrations of how not to think about evolution, genes, and behavior.

Not coincidentally, at the same time that biologists in England and the United States were advancing the modern synthesis, social scientists – cultural anthropologists, behaviorist psychologists – were coming to embrace a strong blank slate view of human nature. (Carl Degler tells the American side of the story in In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought.) There grew up something amounting to a peace treaty between evolutionary biology and the social sciences, with the two fields agreeing to respect each others’ spheres of influence. Social scientists would leave biology to the biologists, accepting, for example, that neither a good upbringing nor acquired skills can improve your genes. Biologists in turn would largely steer clear of addressing social behavior. For example, the theory of sexual selection, which Darwin developed, and Fisher elaborated, was mostly dropped from the modern synthesis as it matured. Huxley argued (pretty unconvincingly in retrospect) that the elaborate mating dances and ornaments found in so many species were not a product of sexual selection, but merely helped to get individuals to choose the right species of mate. Westermarck’s pioneering work on the evolutionary psychology of incest avoidance and the incest taboo was largely shelved in favor of the shakier theories of Freud and Lévi-Strauss. Even Darwin’s work on emotional expression, which might have seemed fairly anodyne politically, was largely rejected by anthropologists. And the study of prehistory was affected as well.

It was only beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of sociobiology, that evolutionary biologists returned to seriously addressing social behavior. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), by E. O Wilson, made a nod to Huxley in its subtitle. It also announced the end of an intellectual peace treaty, and the opening of an intellectual war that persists up to the present.

And here is my obituary for E. O. Wilson, who died last year.


In 1928, Hitler’s National Socialist Party won just 2.6% of the votes in the elections to the German Reichstag. In 1930, the party won 18.3%, and in July 1932 37.3%. 

Clearly the world financial crisis beginning with the American stock market crash played a central role in turning the Nazis from a fringe party to the largest single party in the Reichstag. But why? Hitler didn’t run on a platform of starting another world war and wiping out European Jewry (although that’s pretty much what he intended). The formula “people turn to a radical leader in desperate times” though true, is also vague.

A recent book, 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler, by the Swiss economist Tobias Straumann, lays out some more concrete factors. At the end of the First World War, Germany was saddled with a large bill for reparations. The payments mostly went to Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy. These countries in turn paid back loans they had taken out from the United States to cover war expenses. For most of the 1920s, Germany was able to make its payments, and the government even went on a borrowing binge. But with the crash of 1929, making payments became much more difficult – almost impossible politically. German leaders like Bruning (Chancellor 1930-1932) did their best to negotiate and bargain in the face of foreign fiscal demands and domestic anger over reparations. But many Germans, persuaded that Germany was being bled dry by foreign plutocrats with the complicity of established politicians, gave their votes to the harshest critics of the reparations regime, the National Socialists (and the Communists). 

“I’ll never be hungry again”

… No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

Margaret Mitchell. Gone With the Wind

Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.

(First comes feeding. Then comes morality.)

Bertolt Brecht. “What keeps Man alive?” The Three Penny Opera
from https://ourworldindata.org/famines

Steven Pinker wrote an important book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, arguing that along a number of dimensions and on a number of time scales, human societies have been getting less violent over time. I think he’s probably right, but there’s an obvious problem to be wrestled with, the battle deaths in the First and Second World Wars and further associated deaths from starvation, disease and other mass killing. Here’s a figure from his book:


Pinker argues that there’s a lot of random variation around the long-term trend to reduced violence. The frequency distribution of sizes of wars (measured by war deaths) looks like random noise following a power law (like the frequency distributions of the magnitudes of earthquakes and the population sizes of cities). For war deaths, the exponent of the power function is less than 2, so that a handful of large wars have killed more people than a multitude of smaller wars.

However, I think there are also two more systematic causes of twentieth century mass violence,

I’ll talk about the first here, and the second in a later posting.

The anthropologists Melvin and Carol Ember did a study of the correlates of war across cultures, and discovered that one of the strongest predictors of warfare is fear of natural disasters and subsistence crises. This is not about chronic (i.e. non-crisis) food shortages. The most warlike people are not those who know that there will be a hungry season every year, when some of the population is pushed to the edge of starvation, but those who may be doing well now, but fear a disaster – drought, flood, insect plague, typhoon – in the future.

Europeans in the early twentieth century were better fed than any time before in European history. But the international and national markets that kept them fed, bringing grain and animal products from the Americas and Eastern Europe, and from country to city, also made them exceptionally vulnerable to interruptions in food supply. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a move toward protectionism spurred in part by fear of food vulnerability. This reached a crisis with the First World War, when England and Germany both attempted to interrupt each others’ food imports. England and the Allies were more successful: the blockade of Germany helped force the country out of the war, and pressured Germany after the war to agree to the Versailles Treaty. About 750,000 Germans may have died as a result (although the number is disputed).

The war also interrupted food supplies between country and city, as urban industry shifted from supplying consumer goods for farmers to producing war materiel, and farmers held back on supplying food.  Urban food shortages in turn contributed to both Russian and German Revolutions. In both countries, the aftermath of war was a determination on the part of a new generation of political leaders never to let this happen again, to make sure that one’s folk – whether the German Volk or the Russian urban working class – stood at the top of the food chain, even if it meant sentencing others to starvation.

For more on international trade, insecurity, and war there’s When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana. For food insecurity and war in England and Germany in World War I and after there’s The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation. And for food supply and mass starvation from World War I to World War II, there’s Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.