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War Was the Main Driving Force In the Evolution Of Ancient Societies

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THEME:   LIFE STYLE

By Dan Bart | October 2, 2013 5:38 pm

War was the main driving force in the evolution of ancient societies, a controversial new study of Dr. Turchin finds. 

War was important in driving the evolution of complex ancient societies

War was important in driving the evolution of complex ancient societies

Turchin’s approach — which he calls cliodynamics after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history — is part of a groundswell of efforts to apply scientific methods to history by identifying and modelling the broad social forces that Professor Turchin and his colleagues say shape all human societies. It is an attempt to show that “history is not ‘just one damn thing after another’”, says Turchin, paraphrasing a saying often attributed to the late British historian Arnold Toynbee.

The study used a computer model to predict the time and place of ancient empires’ origins. Researchers found that incorporating the spread of military technologies resulted in a model that was 65 percent accurate in explaining how these societies evolved and spread. An alternative model that omitted such technologies was only 16 percent accurate.

“Before we went through this exercise we did not know whether competition between societies, taking the form of warfare, was really an important driver in the evolution of large complex societies,” says Peter Turchin, lead author of the study. “Now we know that it is the main factor, with the presence of agriculture as a necessary condition, and various environmental effects also playing a role.”

Since it is only 65 percent accurate, some of the factors that account for the spread of societies are missing. “Undoubtedly, cultural peculiarities also play a role, although they were not included in the model,” Turchin says. “But since the model predicts two-thirds of variance in the data, other factors must be of lesser importance than those included, at best explaining the remaining third.”

If war was important in driving the evolution of complex ancient societies, is it still doing the same today?

“We have a plan to develop a model for post-1500 history, but of course instead of cavalry and archery we will use gunpowder weapons and oceangoing ships,” says Turchin.

This type of model, though, would not be the most accurate to explain 21st century cultural evolution, he says.

“More recently, non-military competition between societies has become of more importance, compared to the period we studied,” he says. “So [to explain today] we need to focus on economic and perhaps ideological competition.”

 “Our results are likely to generate much controversy, which is why we plan to continue with this research program to address various criticisms that people will be bringing forth.”

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