Book review: War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, by Peter Turchin
This book describes a plausible model of how conflict between hostile cultures such as Islam versus Christianity can create the kind of large-scale cooperation (asabiya) needed to create empires, and that the absence of a nearby border with such a conflict results in the decay of that empire.
It is very hard to evaluate how accurately he analyzes the evidence for his theory without a really complete knowledge of the history of several empires.
Asabiya resembles what Fukuyama calls trust, but is stronger, and includes some willingness to risk ones life for other members of ones society. Turchin implies that this is a desirable quality (although I can’t recall anything explicitly saying that). I wonder whether the wars it contributes to outweigh the benefits. The answer might depend on the extend to which it is possible to have trust without much asabiya (Turchin’s analysis suggests a pessimistic answer).
Much of the book contains standard style histories, mostly of times and places that haven’t received much attention. I often found these parts annoying because I couldn’t figure out which parts contained evidence for Turchin’s model, and most of them didn’t seem important enough for me to remember.
He suggests that inequality within an empire reduces its stability. Most of this isn’t very original nor backed up by much evidence. One idea that I hadn’t heard before involves the upper class intentionally reducing the asabiya of lower classes, especially with extreme forms of inequality such as slavery. It seems quite likely that the upper classes sometimes attempt this. But the other parts of the book suggest that this may backfire – conflict normally increases asabiya. Turchin writes as if geographic separation between the conflicting cultures is needed for this effect, but it isn’t obvious to me why.
The book is in some ways gloomy, suggesting that it would take an alien attack to create a big increase in worldwide cooperation. But he does leave some hope that recent technological changes may have made his model obsolete.
Book review: Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation by Joseph Henrich, Natalie Henrich.
This book provides a clear and informative summary of the evolutionary theories that explain why people cooperate (but few novel ideas), and some good but unexciting evidence that provides a bit of support for the theories.
One nice point they make is that unconditional altruism discourages cooperation – it’s important to have some sort of reciprocity (possibly indirect) for a society to prevent non-cooperators from outcompeting cooperators.
The one surprising fact uncovered in their field studies is that people are more generous in the Dictator Game than in the Ultimatum Game (games where one player decides how to divide money between himself and another player; in the Ultimatum Game the second player can reject the division, in which case neither gets anything). It appears that the Ultimatum Game encourages people to think in terms of business-like interactions, but in the Dictator Game a noncompetitive mode of thought dominates.
Robin Hanson has another interesting paper on human attitudes toward truth and on how they might be improved.
See also some related threads on the extropy-chat list here and here.
One issue that Robin raises involves disputes between us and future generations over how much we ought to constrain our descendants to be similar to us. He is correct that some of this disagreement results from what he calls “moral arrogance” (i.e. at least one group of people overestimating their ability to know what is best). But even if we and our descendants were objective about analyzing the costs and benefits of the alternatives, I would expect some disagreement to remain, because different generations will want to maximize the interests of different groups of beings. Conflicting interests between two groups that exist at the same time can in principle be resolved by one group paying the other to change it’s position. But when one group exists only in the future, and its existence is partly dependent on which policy is adopted now, it’s difficult to see how such disagreements could be resolved in a way that all could agree upon.