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The better robots of our nature
April 14, 2014 7:45 AM   Subscribe

War! What was it good for? Quite a lot, argues historian and archaeologist Ian Morris. Over thousands of years humans used war to build our societies, then turned it against itself. With luck our newly acquired habits and forthcoming robots will keep the world from returning to older levels of bloodshed.
posted by doctornemo (23 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
With luck our newly acquired habits and forthcoming robots will keep the world from returning to older levels of bloodshed.

I'm sure it will. For the side with the robots, anyway.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:00 AM on April 14 [3 favorites]


My political science professor in 1986 presented this thesis to us on the first day of class. His theory was that human splitting up into antagonistic groups was an adaptation and selected for because the groups socially developed faster in opposition to one another.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:05 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


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.

Nobody knows that. On average? An average across what set of data?

if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans

He takes it as self-evident that it couldn't, but it seems self-evident to me that it could, quite easily.
posted by Segundus at 8:06 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


I always remember my mind being blown (and I guess my username kicks this over into epon- territory) when Larry Hama put a miniature version of this thesis, more or less, onto Destro's bio filecard.
posted by COBRA! at 8:14 AM on April 14 [4 favorites]


Nobody knows that. On average?

Presumably based on corpse remnants they've found from Stone Age societies which show signs of violent death. People killing each other with primitive weapons probably create pretty easily-identifiable skeletal injuries. There's always going to be some uncertainty there, because maybe we're accidentally looking only at the Stone Age equivalent to Flanders Field Cemetery or something, but it doesn't strike me as completely implausible either.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:15 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Nobody knows that. On average?

Yeah. It's isn't a totally settled issue, but it is at least a pretty common topic of study. Steven Pinker's book a few years ago pushed it into the mainstream even.

Here's one example of such a study. Bone lesions and the like.
posted by Winnemac at 8:25 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


...our newly acquired habits and forthcoming robots will keep the world from returning to older levels of bloodshed.
Instead, we will progress to brand new levels of bloodshed!

(worryingly, this isn't just a dumb quip, it's also a more nuanced summary of the concerns at the end of the excellent linked article)
posted by roystgnr at 8:26 AM on April 14


His theory was that human splitting up into antagonistic groups was an adaptation and selected for because the groups socially developed faster in opposition to one another.

Something close to that was argued towards the end of Guns, Germs and Steel as well, basically to explain why Europe felt the need to go conquer everything all over the place while China, which was just as or more technologically advanced, felt quite content with what they had. The geographical explanation there was that Europe consisted of a bunch of peninsulas separated by mountain ranges (and therefore fragmented populations in opposition to another) while China has a broad coastal plain.
posted by LionIndex at 8:29 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.

I think what I dislike most about this kind of argument is the ham-handed teleology accompanied by the implicit moral judgement. While it may be true that larger, more organized societies were the result of wars, that's a different thing from saying that people created more organized societies by fighting wars, or the implicit judgement that war was the only or the most effective way to produce more organized societies.

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.

What a facile thing for someone of Morris' accomplishments to say. Color me very skeptical of anyone who looks at over ten thousand years of human history and comes up with only one conclusion. That's not being a hedgehog, that's grinding an axe.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:09 AM on April 14 [8 favorites]


Whatever happens, we have got
Assassin drones, and they have not.
posted by Iridic at 9:22 AM on April 14 [8 favorites]


'Dead Hand,’ Russia’s Terrifying Doomsday Device
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:34 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Very disappointed to just find out that the Soviet Union did not actually name their R-36 missile system for nuke warheads, "Satan". "Satan" was actually the name that NATO used to designate the system. Here I was thinking that the Soviets were being stone cold and tapping into biblical endtime fears in the US but it turns out that it was the godless heathens at NATO that were being diabolical. 'Dead Hand' is a nice spooky name but I wonder if the Soviets actually called it that.
posted by vicx at 10:06 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Called it. Reportedly, it is still fully operational. (The Russian name for the program is 'Perimeter.')
Wikipedia:
By most accounts, it is normally switched off and is supposed to be activated during dangerous crisis only; however, it is said to remain fully functional and able to serve its purpose whenever needed.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:23 AM on April 14


I think this is probably right, or at least half-right, in that adversarial systems lead to more rapid progress.

But the accumulated progress of mankind means we should easily move beyond the primitive consequences of an adversarial system - somebody has to be on the losing side.

Basically we should be able to have the benefits of adversarial relationships without the poverty, disease, death and destruction, et cetera.

There isn't any requirement then that this adversity necessarily needs to look like war.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 10:27 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


> Color me very skeptical of anyone who looks at over ten thousand years of human history and comes up with only one conclusion. That's not being a hedgehog, that's grinding an axe.

What are you talking about? He's not "com[ing] up with only one conclusion," he's making a point. It's an interesting point; you can agree with it or not, but he's writing a brief essay, not an all-encompassing analysis of all of human history, and it's silly to attack him on that basis.

By the way, a photo caption accompanying the article says:
A Ukrainian soldier stands guard near Crimea in March 2014. The tattoo on his forearm is a Latin quote of the late Roman writer Vegetius, meaning, "If you want peace, prepare for war."
The quote is "Si vis pacem para bellum," and it's the source of the name Pistol Parabellum.
posted by languagehat at 10:29 AM on April 14 [3 favorites]


"What a facile thing" - I hope the book digs into this more deeply, Iridic. His previous book managed to hit an awful lot of ideas in its manic rush through time.
posted by doctornemo at 10:29 AM on April 14


He recently gave a talk to the LSE, listen to him respond to skeptical academics' challenges. Neither facile nor teleological.
posted by Abinadab at 11:04 AM on April 14


if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans

He takes it as self-evident that it couldn't, but it seems self-evident to me that it could, quite easily.


Indeed. In fact our United States was an ersatz copy of something those same Native Americans developed on their own.

I'm also annoyed at his first sentence: "I was 23 when I almost died in battle." No, he did not. Had the event occurred, I don't think anyone would have used the word "battle' to describe it. I didn't expect anyone making the claims outlined in the FPP to actually have experienced war, but to call nuclear Armageddon "battle" strikes me as particularly dense.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:14 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


He's not "com[ing] up with only one conclusion," he's making a point.

Well, pardon me for assuming that when he wrote "When we put these three claims together, only one conclusion is possible," he meant that only one conclusion was possible. If he's making another point, besides there being only one conclusion possible, then it has eluded me.

he's writing a brief essay, not an all-encompassing analysis of all of human history, and it's silly to attack him on that basis.

Ok, is it silly to attack him on the basis of trying to squeeze his all-encompassing analysis of human history into a brief essay?
posted by octobersurprise at 11:21 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Many of us work for for-profit companies, which are "fighting" competitors every day. Others are creating culture and memes that "fight" for attention in the marketplace of ideas. As violence is growing less acceptable and commonplace with every passing decade, we may be graduating to another kind of competition which is less bloody but just as invigorating as old-style wars.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:37 AM on April 14


Nobody knows that. On average? An average across what set of data?

War has a horizon. We know where it is.

While there may be instances of battle and human slaughter before Cemetary 117, and it's likely there were, their evidence is lost to time. But we are evidence driven, and we must go by what the archaeology tells us - before the 15th millennium BCE, we have no reliable evidence humans killed humans systematically. We have lots and lots of other reliable evidence of what life was like for people going much, much further back, to long before modern man left Africa. War wasn't a part of it.

For some animals, war is instinctual - even in close relatives like chimps, and distant ones like ants. In humans, war is a technology, an invented method, and not instinct. This is what the archaeological record shows.

To me, this is good news, as all technology eventually becomes obsolete.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:57 AM on April 14 [6 favorites]


The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:21 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


"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.
>Nobody knows that."


Actually, if they look at people's remains from a given time period in a statistical manner... yes, people can and do know this. Sounds a lot like forensics to me.
posted by markkraft at 10:33 AM on April 15


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