Tag Archives: war

Consider her ways

104-98.6 million years ago

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 tune in early April for the dinosaur-griffin connection.) Also, as I suggested in the preceding post, transitions from one form of locomotion to another – flightless dinosaurs to birds, fish to tetrapods, land 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.

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.

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.”

Nature red in tooth and claw

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, Saturday 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 more like sheepdogs and less like wolves.

Yet 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 getting out from under 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.

Europe of nations

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 Irish by 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 was 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.

On a scholarly note:

The theory of comparative advantage, in economics, and the theory of kin selection, in evolutionary biology, are two of the great theories in the social sciences. But both theories, in their usual elementary form, depend on some simplifying assumptions. You can get in trouble if you apply either theory carelessly without noticing if those assumptions are violated.

When it comes to winners and losers in international trade, I’ve already noted some complications. What’s of note where this post is concerned: some people have tried to apply the theory of kin selection to explain ethnicity and ethnocentrism as expressions of ethnic nepotism. But converting coefficients of inbreeding into coefficients of relatedness among kin is a dicey business. I’ve had more to say about the topic in a couple of articles, and a blogpost, and will have more to say in the future. Stay tuned!

Solution unsatisfactory

In 1940, when the world war in Europe was mostly England versus Germany, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called Solution Unsatisfactory (published in 1941). Heinlein anticipated the development of nuclear weaponry, although in his version, the weapon took the form of a radioactive dust that could easily wipe out a whole city, instead of a bomb. In the story, the new superweapon raises the horrific possibility of mass annihilation. The main character, Colonel Clyde Manning, summarizes it this way:

Here is the probable future, as I see it, potential in the smashing of the atom …. Some power makes a supply of the dust. They’ll hit us first to try to knock us out … But our army … would have planes and a supply of dust somewhere where the first dusting wouldn’t touch them. Our boys would bravely and righteously proceed to poison their big cities. Back and forth it would go until the organization of each country had broken down so completely that they were no longer able to maintain a sufficiently high level of industrialization to service planes and manufacture dust. … The other nations would get in the game. It’s a vicious circle that cannot possibly be stopped until the entire planet has dropped to a level of economy too low to support the techniques necessary to maintain it. My best guess is that such a point would be reached when approximately three-quarters of the world’s population were dead of dust, disease, or hunger, and culture reduced to the peasant-and-village type.

After the dust has been used to force Germany to surrender, and after a brief nuclear war between the United States and the “Eurasian Union” (the Soviets), Manning takes the only way out of the trap. He uses the new weapon to establish a world-wide military dictatorship, with a monopoly of airpower and atomic weaponry, staffed by an international military force independent of any one nation under his personal command. The narrator concludes:

For myself, I can’t be happy in a world where any man or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing. I don’t like anyone to have that kind of power. And neither does Manning

Curiously, Bertrand Russell, later famous as a better-Red-than-Dead disarmament campaigner, followed the same logic in The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War, published in 1946. In his view, the future might hold an atomic war in which “destruction will continue until disorganization makes the further manufacture of atomic bombs impossible.” But there was a more hopeful alternative:

It is entirely clear that there is only one way in which great wars can be permanently prevented, and that is the establishment of an international government with a monopoly of serious armed force. An international government, if it is to be able to preserve peace, must have the only atomic bombs, the only plant for producing them, the only air force, the only battleships … Its atomic staff, its air squadrons, the crews of its battleships, and its infantry regiments must … be composed of men of many different nations; there must be no possibility of the development of national feeling in any unit larger than a company.

Sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or at least threatening to break them:

Stalin … will have to be persuaded … to permit the creation of an effective international government. … The only possible way … is by a mixture of cajolery and threat, making it plain to the Soviet authorities that refusal will entail disaster, while acceptance will not.

I don’t know that Russell was a science fiction fan. His agreement with Heinlein is more likely a case of great minds thinking alike – and in this case a little too rationally – about human affairs.

“The ballad of the soldier’s wife”

Here’s the song by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht,
performed by Marianne Faithfull (video) and by Amanda Palmer (video).

For the role of plunder in the Nazi political economy, there’s Götz Aly Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.

Here are the lyrics:

Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two
Came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Oslo over the sound?
From Oslo there came a collar of fur,
How it pleases her
The little collar of fur
From Oslo over the sound.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the wealth of Amsterdam?
From Amsterdam he got her a hat,
She looked sweet in that,
In the little Dutch hat
From the wealth of Amsterdam.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Brussels in Belgian land?
From Brussels he sent her the laces so rare
To have and to wear,
Those laces so rare
From Brussels in Belgian land.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Paris city of light?
In Paris he got her a silken gown,
It was envied in town
That silken gown
From Paris city of light.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the south, from Bucharest?
From Bucharest he sent her a shirt
Embroidered and pert,
That Romanian shirt
From the south, from Bucharest.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the far-off Russian land?
From Russia there came just a widow’s veil
For her dead to bewail
In her widow’s veil
From the far-off Russian land,
From the far-off Russian land.

Uneven development


If much of the history of Eurasia between 1000 BCE and 1600 CE was shaped by the clash between farmers and city folk, and pastoral nomads from the steppes and deserts, then much of the history of the twentieth century was defined by the collision between Western and non-Western societies. This is one way to see the rise of communism. Traditional Russia and China had developed autocratic institutions that allowed them to cope, more or less, with military threats from the steppe. But these institutions proved desperately unequal to coping with a new set of military challenges from the West and Japan.

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Natures portrays the march of history as a process of diffusion of enlightenment ideals. On a long enough time scale he may be right. But on a medium time scale we see something different – the formation of powerful states on either side of the meta-ethnic frontier dividing industrialized societies from independent but militarily vulnerable peasant societies. Chance and individual personalities played a role in the bloodshed of the twentieth century, but there were also larger forces at work in The World Revolution of Westernization.

Here is a short piece of mine (not from the blog) on History and Group Consciousness relating this topic to arguments about group selection. I argue that taking group selection seriously as an engine of historical dynamics may give us a better understanding of recent history.

Marxism is not very successful as a scientific theory, but in its heyday it was enormously successful as an ideology involved in subordinating masses of individuals in larger collective projects. Here’s a famous speech by Stalin to industrial managers in 1931, in the midst of the first Five Year Plan and the collectivization of agriculture, and on the eve of mass starvation in the Ukraine

It is sometimes asked whether it is not possible to slow down the tempo somewhat, to put a check on the movement. No, comrades, it is not possible! The tempo must not be reduced! On the contrary, we must increase it as much as is within our powers and possibilities. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the workers and peasants of the USSR. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the working class of the whole world.

To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. But we do not want to be beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten! One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual defeats she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and the French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her – because of her backwardness, because of her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. They beat her because to do so was profitable and could be done with impunity. You remember the words of the pre-revolutionary poet : ‘You are poor and abundant, mighty and impotent, Mother Russia.’ Those gentlemen were quite familiar with the verses of the old poet. They beat her, saying : ‘You are abundant’, so one can enrich oneself at your expense. They beat her, saying : ‘ You are poor and impotent,’ so you can be beaten and plundered with impunity. Such is the law of the exploiters – to beat the backward and the weak. It is the jungle law of capitalism. You are backward, you are weak – therefore you are wrong; hence you can be beaten and enslaved. You are mighty – therefore you are right; hence we must be wary of you.

That is why we must no longer lag behind.

In the past we had no fatherland, nor could we have had one. But now that we have overthrown capitalism and power is in our hands, in the hands of the people, we have a fatherland, and we will uphold its independence. Do you want our socialist fatherland to be beaten and to lose its independence ? If you do not want this, you must put an end to its backwardness in the shortest possible time and develop a genuine Bolshevik temperament in building up its socialist economy. There is no other way…

We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.

“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.”

Gone With the Wind


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 greater than one, 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.