Evolution of War

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* Article: The Evolution of War. By Morris, Ian. Cliodynamics, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2012

URL = https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8jr9v920



“War and governance have co-evolved across the last 15,000 years, but much remains unclear about the process because historical narratives have not been integrated well into social-scientific analyses. Under the conditions of circumscription/caging that emerged in a few places after the ice age, war became productive, in the sense of producing larger, safer, richer societies. However, the larger states produced by war changed the environment around them, and for more than 1,000 years war turned counterproductive in the places that it had previously been productive, breaking up large states. After about 1400 CE a new phase of productive war began. This too began turning counterproductive in the 20th century CE. The most important question for the 21st century is whether productive war is currently mutating into a new form."


Author Summary

Ian Morris:

“Collective violence is an evolved part of human biology, but war also evolves as part of culture. The evolution of agriculture subjected human societies to circumscription, making it harder for groups that lost conflicts to move away. Over the long run, such groups were absorbed into larger, more complex societies, which formed governments that pacified the group internally and as a side-effect increased its prosperity. In the short run, some wars broke down these larger, safer, richer societies, and in particular cases—such as much of Eurasia between about 200 and 1400 CE—the two effects of war settled into an unstable equilibrium. But the main function of war in cultural evolution across the past 15,000 years — and particularly across the past 500 years — has been to integrate societies, increasing material wellbeing. Even though wars became more and more destructive, internal pacification lowered the overall rate of violent death from 10–20 percent in nonagricultural societies to just 1–2 percent in the twentieth-century industrialized world. By the mid-twentieth century war had become so destructive that rather than unifying the entire planet, another great conflict could destroy it. However, there are numerous signs that institutions are evolving even faster than the means of destruction, and that the twenty- first century will see the emergence of entirely new forms of conflict Resolution.”


From the Introduction:

"In this paper, I suggest that the role of war in the evolution of governance is simultaneously simpler and more complicated than most current theories recognize. Some scholars suggest that war is atavistic, a leftover from the last common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees some five to seven million years ago (e.g., Wrangham and Peterson 1996; Keeley 1996; LeBlanc and Register 2003). Others, developing a tradition going back to Margaret Mead (1940), argue that war is an invention, something humans dreamed up only as their societies became more complex (e.g., Kelly 2000; de Waal 2005: 143–45). The evidence is certainly mixed. On the one hand, historians like to point out that the twentieth century’s wars were the bloodiest in history, killing probably a hundred million people (e.g., Ferguson 2006; Snyder 2010); on the other, social scientists like to point out that war is less common today than ever before (e.g., Pinker 2011; Goldstein 2011). In fact, they add, violence of all kinds has declined sharply in the last 65 years. By virtually any measure—deaths in battle, homicides, rapes, assaults, spousal and child abuse, cruelty to animals—our world is less violent than that of our grandparents.

Already in the 1930s, Norbert Elias suggested that Europe had been growing less violent for half a millennium (Elias 1982 [1939]). The onset of World War II seemed to many people to have discredited his thesis, but more recent quantitative research has supported it strongly (e.g., Richardson 1960; Levy 1983; Eisner 2003; Spierenburg 2008; Roth 2009). Rates of homicide have collapsed, and, despite spikes in killing during the Thirty Years War and Ming-Qing Cataclysm, the Napoleonic wars, and the World Wars, population has grown so quickly that the risk of dying violently seems to have fallen by an order of magnitude. In the last few years, several theorists have attempted to make sense of these conflicting data within co-evolutionary models, seeing conflict and cooperation as two sides of a single process (e.g., Gat 2006; Bowles 2009; Bowles and Gintis 2011; Turchin 2011). My aim here is to support this approach by bringing in a broader historical perspective, drawing on ideas that I am developing more fully in a book (Morris, forthcoming).

The historical profession is as full of debate as any other group in the academy, but the one point that practitioners of most stripes seem to agree on is that the historian’s fundamental method is storytelling (or, in more technical terms, narrative emplotment: see, e.g., Stone 1979; Appleby et al. 1994; Berkhofer 1995). Social scientists often mock this technique as naïve (Diamond and Robinson 2010 have a useful discussion), but it does force us to think about the coevolution of war and governance as a continuous, ongoing process, rather than as a matter of successive stages in a more abstract model."

the Western Way of War

Ian Morris:

"In the last twenty-odd years, more and more historians have started speaking of a distinct “Western Way of War,” said to have been invented in ancient Greece and passed down to modern Europe and America. The military historian Victor Davis Hanson, who coined the term, suggests that “For the past 2,500 years, there has been a peculiar practice of Western warfare, a common foundation and continual way of fighting, that has made Europeans the most deadly soldiers in the history of fighting” (Hanson 2001: 5). Greek city-states regularly settled their differences with head-on charges between phalanxes of armored spearmen. “It is this Western desire for a single, magnificent collision of infantry,” Hanson argues (1989: 9), “for brutal killing with edged weapons on a battlefield between free men, that has baffled and terrified our adversaries from the non-Western world for more than 2,500 years.” In his History of Warfare, the most influential general book on the subject, John Keegan goes further. Since 500 BCE, he suggests, there has been “a line of division between [the Western] battle tradition and the indirect, evasive, and stand-off style of combat characteristic of the steppe and the Near and Middle East: east of the steppe and south-east of the Black Sea, warriors continued to keep their distance from their enemies; west of the steppe and south-west of the Black Sea, warriors learned to abandon caution and to close to arm’s length” (Keegan 1993: 332–33). The data, however, do not bear this out. Rather than a Western Way of War, there has been what I would call a Productive Way of War, created by circumscription/caging all across the lucky latitudes, and spread from there across the rest of the world. I call these wars ‘productive’ not just to provoke a reaction, but because I believe that it really is the best word. Circumscribed wars produced larger societies, which pacified themselves internally, increasing wealth and population and simultaneously reducing the overall rate of violent death. These wars tended to be even crueler and deadlier than the forms of warfare practiced in prehistory, but despite their short-term costs, in the long term the violence made people safer and richer. ‘Productive war’ seems like a very good description of this process. Through most of human history, people have fought more through raids and ambushes than through pitched battles (Keeley 1996; LeBlanc and Register 2003; Gat 2006). In the ancient lucky latitudes, however, as war drove the evolution of larger, safer, richer, and more sophisticated states, these larger, safer, richer, and more sophisticated states in turn drove a series of revolutions in military affairs. Like the late-twentieth-century revolution in military affairs (discussed in Krepinevich 1994 and Blaker 1997, and with more skepticism in Biddle 1998) they consisted of interlocking technological, organizational, tactical, and logistical advances; and again like the late-twentieth-century revolution in military affairs, we should think of these as being social, economic, cultural, and political transformations as much as military ones.

Generations of Military Transformations

All across the lucky latitudes, the first of these was fortification, which meant organizing communities well enough to build walls that would keep out raiders. Southwest Asia clearly had the earliest fortifications, perhaps as early as 9300 BCE at Jericho (the evidence is disputed), and certainly by 4300 BCE at Mersin, with a handful of possible cases in between these dates; and by 3500 BCE, fortifications were becoming quite common. At first glance, fortification looks like example of what some evolutionary biologists like to call the Red Queen Effect (Ridley 1995), in which adaptations in one species (e.g., foxes evolving to run faster) merely produce selective pressures for adaptations in other species (e.g., rabbits that also run faster). These cancel out the advantages of the initial change, and no species ever pulls ahead. Better-organized societies that could build fortifications went hand-in-hand with better organization of raiding, and, as destruction layers in settlements attest, raids turned into sieges. Unlike the classic Red Queen effect, though, ancient revolutions in military affairs did have major long-term consequences. In every case, a revolution could only succeed if a society reorganized itself with more powerful governmental institutions; and as societies did so, their governments pacified them internally in the name of cohesion against external foes (see Bowles 2009, or the highly mythologized account of early Rome in the first-century BCE historian Livy).

Second (where the chronology is fine-tuned enough to make the distinction) came the substitution of bronze for stone weapons, in the Old World at least. There, bronze weapons came into use in the late fourth millennium BCE, around six thousand years after cultivation had begun, and almost completely replaced stone weapons by 2000 BCE. Bronze reached the Indus Valley by 2500 BCE and the Yellow River Valley by 2000 BCE, perhaps in both cases by diffusion from Mesopotamia, and rapidly replaced stone for weapons in both places. The New World’s lucky latitudes, however, moved more slowly. If their populations had followed the Old World timetable and begun casting bronze weapons six thousand years after cultivation, these artifacts would appear in Teotihuacán and Moche sites, but they do not; and if bronze had become common another thousand to fifteen hundred years later, as it did in Southwest Asia, Cortés and Pizarro would have met Aztecs and Incas with bronze (although not iron) spearheads—which, of course, they did not. Andean metalworkers did experiment with copper around 1000 BCE, but metal never replaced stone for tools or weapons. Just why the New World’s early states were not major bronze producers remains an open question. Jared Diamond (1997: 360-70) suggests that geography may explain why innovations (including writing) came later and spread more slowly in the New World than in the Old. Eurasia, he points out, runs basically East-West, and ideas originating in Southwest Asia could spread thousands of miles to Europe or China within the same band of latitudes. The Americas, by contrast, run basically North-South. Ideas bubbling to the surface in Mesoamerica or the Andes could only circulate among a small group of people (relative to the Old World) before having to be carried across latitudes with very different ecologies. Because the interlinked populations in the New World were so much smaller than those in the Old, Diamond suggests, ideas and practices took longer to appear and much longer to spread. The third of the Old World’s revolutions in military affairs, and arguably the most important, was in command and control. It takes proper military discipline and staff work to maneuver large bodies of men, feed them, and get them to go right up to enemies and stab them (particularly when the enemies are stabbing back). Command and control are hard to document archaeologically, although the famous Vulture Stele from Lagash in Sumer, carved around 2450 BCE (Figure 4), seems to show a somewhat disciplined formation of infantry with officers. (Even if there is a good deal of artistic license in this representation, it certainly demonstrates that third-millennium Mesopotamians understood the concept and presumably also the advantages of battlefield formations and discipline.) Most likely, command and control began evolving soon after the rise of states, and persuading young men to do what they were told in life-threatening situations may have been Leviathan’s major challenge.

Fourth — in Eurasia—was the introduction of chariots. Horses were domesticated in Ukraine on the steppes (Figure 5) around 4000 BCE, but not until about 2200 BCE had herders bred beasts big enough to pull carts. By 1900 BCE such carts had crossed the Caucasus Mountains into Southwest Asia, and before 1700 BCE light versions carrying archers armed with composite/reflex bows were being used on battlefields. Their mobility revolutionized fighting, and by 1500 BCE they were the decisive arm in Near Eastern battles. At the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE the Egyptians and Hittites each fielded about 3500 chariots. By this point chariots were beginning to be used in Chinese war, and over the next few centuries they made their way into India too. (In the New World, where there were no horses, there were of course no chariots either.)

The fifth ancient revolution in military affairs was the appearance of mass formations of iron-armed and armored shock troops. This began in Assyria around 900 BCE, with dense columns of heavy infantry used in combination with cavalry, the latter made possible by the breeding of even bigger horses that could carry an armored man for hours at a stretch. Between 700 and 400 BCE Greek armies that relied overwhelmingly on heavy infantry without much cavalry support became the most effective land force in Western Eurasia, but by 300 the Macedonians had reintroduced cavalry and designed a more flexible phalanx. By 200 BCE, however, the Romans were able to get the better of the Macedonian kingdoms with armies that downgraded cavalry once again but exploited much more flexible formations of legionary infantry. In East Asia, Chinese armies followed a similar path a few centuries later, with mass heavy infantry coming in by 500 BCE and cavalry by 400, although iron did not fully replace bronze until the second century BCE. By 300 BCE South Asia had produced yet another variant, with armored elephants playing the decisive shock role and infantry relying more on the bow than the spear. Everywhere across Eurasia’s lucky latitudes, however, the first millennium BCE saw armies that regularly numbered in the hundreds of thousands seeking to win wars through battles decided by head-on collisions.


how war has made humanity safer and richer

Ian Morris:

"The historical record suggests three broad conclusions about how war has made humanity safer and richer.

First, while violence is a very inefficient way to create bigger, safer, and richer societies, war (or the fear of war) seems to be pretty much the only mechanism that has worked. Hobbes distinguished between “commonwealth by institution,” a peaceful process in which “men agree amongst themselves, to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily,” and “commonwealth by acquisition,” a violent process in which “a man maketh his children, to submit themselves, and their children to his government, as being able to destroy them if they refuse; or by war subdueth his enemies to his will, giving them their lives on that condition” (Hobbes 1962 [1651]: 133). The empirical details, however, show that in reality the two always go together. Soft power is the glue that makes large societies hang together, but it always depends on hard power.

Second, the evidence also shows that war is an evolutionary mechanism that works its magic only on very long time scales. Some people (particularly on the winning side) do find war a positive experience, but most people do not.

Third, war’s ability to produce bigger, safer, richer societies is shaped massively by geography. This builds on the argument in my most recent book, that geography has been one of the prime movers in history, but in a rather complicated way: geography determines how societies develop, but how societies develop determines what geography means, in a back-and-forth relationship (Morris 2010: 26–35)."