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Turchin on Human Sacrifice and Society

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Last week I posted on Human Sacrifice and State-Building, which focused on research findings published in Nature regarding the role of human sacrifice in establishing hierarchical societies. My interest was primarily in the way the gory practices of ISIS today seem to mirror this dynamic from prehistoric, ancient and chiefdom societies. Bogfriend T. Greer helpfully alerted me to the fact that noted scholar and cultural evolutionist, Peter Turchin also blogged regarding this research and took a critical posture.  Turchin, also addressed human sacrifice to some degree in his latest book, Ultrasociety, which has been on my list to read for his take on the role of warfare but which I have yet to do.

Turchin’s reasons for blogging this article are different from mine, so I suggest that you read him in full as I intend to comment only on selected excerpts:

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level?

An article published this week by Nature is generating a lot of press. Using a sample of 93 Austronesian cultures Watts et al. explore the possible relationship between human sacrifice (HS) and the evolution of hierarchical societies. Specifically, they test the “social control” hypothesis, according to which human sacrifice legitimizes, and thus stabilizes political authority in stratified class societies.

Their statistical analyses suggest that human sacrifice stabilizes mild (non-hereditary) forms of social stratification, and promotes a shift to strict (hereditary) forms of stratification. They conclude that “ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors to the large stratified societies we live in today.” In other words, while HS obviously creates winners (rulers and elites) and losers (sacrifice victims and, more generally, commoners), Watts et all argue that it is a functional feature—in the evolutionary sense of the word—at the level of whole societies, because it makes them more durable.

There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Watts et al. do not test their hypothesis against an explicit theoretical alternative (which I will provide in a moment). Second, and more important, their data span a very narrow range of societies, omitting the great majority of complex societies—indeed all truly large-scale societies. Let’s take these two points in order.

Turchin is correct that study focuses on Austronesian islanders in clan and tribal settings and that’s a pretty narrow of a base from which to extrapolate. OTOH, the pre-Cortez estimated population of the Aztec empire begins at five million on the low end. Estimates of the population of Carthage proper, range from 150,000 to 700,000. That’s sufficiently complex that the Mexica and Carthaginians each established sophisticated imperial polities and yet both societies remained extremely robust practitioners of human sacrifice at the time they were conquered and destroyed.

Maybe a more useful approach than simply expanding the data set would be to ask why human sacrifice disappears earlier in some societies than in others or continues to be retained at high levels of complexity?

An alternative theory on the rise of human sacrifice and other extreme forms of structural inequality is explained in my recent book Ultrasociety ….

….Briefly, my argument in Ultrasociety is that large and complex human societies evolved under the selection pressures of war. To win in military competition societies had to become large (so that they could bring a lot of warriors to battle) and to be organized hierarchically (because chains of command help to win battles). Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal. As I say in Ultrasociety, alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Again, I have not read Ultrasociety, but the idea that war would be a major driver of human cultural evolution is one to which I’m inclined to be strongly sympathetic. I’m not familiar enough with Turchin to know if he means war is”the driver” or “a major driver among several” in the evolution of human society.

Human sacrifice was perhaps instrumental for the god-kings and the nobles in keeping the lower orders down, as Watts et al. (and social control hypothesis) argue. But I disagree with them that it was functional in making early centralized societies more stable and durable. In fact, any inequality is corrosive of cooperation, and its extreme forms doubly so. Lack of cooperation between the rulers and ruled made early archaic states highly unstable, and liable to collapse as a result of internal rebellion or conquest by external enemies. Thus, according to this “God-Kings hypothesis,” HS was a dysfunctional side-effect of the early phases of the evolution of hierarchical societies. As warfare continued to push societies to ever larger sizes, extreme forms of structural inequality became an ever greater liability and were selected out. Simply put, societies that evolved less inegalitarian social norms and institutions won over and replaced archaic despotisms.

The question here is if human sacrifice was primarily functional – as a cynically wielded political weapon of terror by elites – or if that solidification of hierarchical stratification was a long term byproduct of religious drivers. It also depends on what evidence you count as “human sacrifice”. In the upper Paleolithic period, burial practices involving grave goods shifted to include additional human remains along with the primary corpse. Whether these additional remains, likely slaves, concubines or prisoners slain in the burial ritual count as human sacrifices in the same sense as on Aztec or Sumerian altars tens of thousands of years later may be reasonably disputed. What is not disputed is that humans being killed by other humans not by random violence or war but purposefully for the larger needs of a community goes back to the earliest and most primitive reckoning of what we call “society” and endured in (ever diminishing) places even into the modern period.

This also begs the question if burial sacrifices, public executions of prisoners and other ritualistic killings on other pretexts conducted by societies of all levels of complexity are fundamentally different in nature from human sacrifices or if they are all subsets of the same atavistic phenomena binding a group through shared participation in violence.

….The most complex society in their sample is Hawaii, which is not complex at all when looked in the global context. I am, right now, analyzing the Seshat Databank for social complexity (finally, we have the data! I will be reporting on our progress soon, and manuscripts are being prepared for publication). And Hawaii is way down on the scale of social complexity. Just to give one measure (out of >50 that I am analyzing), polity population. The social scale of Hawaiian chiefdoms measures in the 10,000s of population, at most 100,000 (and that achieved after the arrival of the Europeans). In Afroeurasia (the Old World), you don’t count as a megaempire unless you have tens of millions of subjects—that’s three orders of magnitude larger than Hawaii!

Why is this important? Because it is only by tracing the trajectories of societies that go beyond the social scale seen in Austronesia that we can test the social control hypothesis against the God-Kings theory. If HS helps to stabilize hierarchical societies, it should do so for societies of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. So we should see it persist as societies grow in size.

Well, human sacrifice persisted into the classical period of Greece and Rome, though becoming infrequent and eventually outlawed, though only during the last century of the Roman republic. That’s a significant level of complexity, Rome having become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world a century earlier. Certainly human sacrifice did not destabilize the Greeks and Romans, though the argument could be made that it did harm Sparta, if we count Spartan practices of infanticide for eugenic reasons as human sacrifice.

What muddies the waters here is the prevalence of available substitutes for human sacrifice – usually animal sacrifice initially – that competed and co-existed with human sacrifice in many early societies for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes this readily available alternative was sufficient to eventually extinguish human sacrifice, as happened with the Romans but other times it was not, as with the Aztecs. The latter kept their maniacal pace of human sacrifice up to the end, sacrificing captured Spanish conquistadors and their horses to the bloody Sun god. Human sacrifice did not destabilize the Aztecs and it weakened their tributary vassals but the religious primacy they placed on human sacrifice and the need to capture prisoners in large numbers rather than kill them in battle hobbled the Aztec response to Spanish military assaults.

Comments? Questions?

E.O. Wilson on the Evolutionary Origin of Creativity and Art

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

E.O. Wilson 

Last summer, eminent sociobiologist E.O. Wilson published an article in Harvard Magazine:

On the Origins of the Arts 

….By using this power in addition to examine human history, we can gain insights into the origin and nature of aesthetic judgment. For example, neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross. It may be coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs. It crops up again in the glyphs of the ancient Middle East and Mesoamerica, as well in the pictographs and letters of modern Asian languages. The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern abstract art and design. The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance. When a picture is more complex, the eye grasps its content by the eye’s saccade or consciously reflective travel from one sector to the next. A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes

This is fascinating.  My first question would be how we could determine if the pattern of degree of complexity is the result of cognitive structural limits (a cap on our thinking) or if it represents a sufficient visual sensory catalyst in terms of numbers of elements to cause an excitory response (neurons firing, release of dopamine, acetylcholine etc. ) and a subsequent feedback loop. Great art, or just sometimes interesting designs exhibiting novelty can hold us with a mysterious, absorbing fascination

Later, Wilson writes:

….If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in
greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole 

Very interesting.

First, while I am in no way qualified to argue evolution with E.O. Wilson, I am dimly aware that some biological scientists might be apt to take issue with Wilson’s primacy of multilevel evolution. As a matter of common sense, it seems likely to me that biological systems might have a point where they experience emergent evolutionary effects – the system itself has to be able to adapt to the larger environmental context – how do we know what level of “multilevel” will be the significant driver of natural selection and under what conditions? Or does one level have a rough sort of “hegemony” over the evolutionary process with the rest as “tweaking” influences? Or is there more randomness here than process?

That part is way beyond my ken and readers are welcome to weigh in here.

The second part, given Wilson’s assumptions are more graspable. Creativity often is a matter of individual insights becoming elaborated and exploited, but also has strong collaborative and social aspects. That kind of cooperation may not even be purposeful or ends-driven by both parties, it may simply be behaviors that incidentally  help create an environment or social space where creative innovation becomes more likely to flourish – such as the advent of writing and the spread of literacy giving birth to a literary cultural explosion of ideas and invention – and battles over credit and more tangible rewards.

Need to ponder this some more.

Numbers by the numbers: two

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — numbers as analytic categories, two, the duel and the duet ]

Charles Darwin once said of his fellow species biologists:

Those who make many species are the “splitters,” and those who make few are the “lumpers”.


The diagram above represents a card-game I’ve played on occasion in my mind, asking myself the question: what is the opposite of one?

Two is the usual answer — and it’s interesting, you can get there from one two ways: by adding, or by dividing.


The human mind very often thinks in binaries, we talk about us and them, friend and foe, the Allies and the Axis Powers, and even an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – our ideas of warfare, contest and justice alike are predicated on the number two.

As I said in my intro post, one is a single data point, perhaps an anomaly: two is a duel or a duet, an opposition or a trend.

So we don’t always have to think of us and them — we could also think about me and mine, you and yours, two heads are better than one…

And what if you can “turn” your enemy? Then the duel turns into a duet.


The duel is all about two competing, contending, fighting, agonizing to see who shall be the one. It is arguably the most basic form of combat, the simplest, and possibly the most profound. It can be close to symmetric — “they were perfectly matched” — or the very essence of asymmetric — David and Goliath.

The duet is about two collaborating, counterpointing, harmonizing — seeing how, together, they are one…

War-fighting and music-making, war and peace, regiment and free form, the march and the dance…


I am eager to know what sorts of insights you can derive from or find echoed in this series of posts.

When Does Conflict Become “War”?

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

When does mere conflict end and war begin?

Great philosophers of strategy and statecraft did not treat all conflict as war but regarded war as a discernably distinct phenomenon, different from both peace and other kinds of conflict. War had a special status and unique character, glorious and terrible:

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. “

    -Sun Tzu

“When the Corcyraeans heard of their preparations they came to Corinth with envoys from Lacedaemon and Sicyon, whom they persuaded to accompany them, and bade her recall the garrison and settlers, as she had nothing to do with Epidamnus. If, however, she had any claims to make, they were willing to submit the matter to the arbitration of such of the cities in Peloponnese as should be chosen by mutual agreement, and that the colony should remain with the city to whom the arbitrators might assign it. They were also willing to refer the matter to the oracle at Delphi. If, in defiance of their protestations, war was appealed to, they should be themselves compelled by this violence to seek friends in quarters where they had no desire to seek them, and to make even old ties give way to the necessity of assistance. The answer they got from Corinth was that, if they would withdraw their fleet and the barbarians from Epidamnus, negotiation might be possible; but, while the town was still being besieged, going before arbitrators was out of the question. The Corcyraeans retorted that if Corinth would withdraw her troops from Epidamnus they would withdraw theirs, or they were ready to let both parties remain in statu quo, an armistice being concluded till judgment could be given. “


“Thus, therefore, the political object, as the original motive of the war, will be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force, and also the amount of effort to be made. This it cannot be in itself; but it is so in relation to both the belligerent states, because we are concerned with realities, not with mere abstractions. One and the same political object may produce totally different effects upon different people, or even upon the same people at different times; we can, therefore, only admit the political object as the measure, by considering it in its effects upon those masses which it is to move, and consequently the nature of those masses also comes into consideration. It is easy to see that thus the result may be very different according as these masses are animated with a spirit which will infuse vigour into the action or otherwise.”

– Carl von Clausewitz 

We see from the above that war was not regarded as the same as either the political conflict which precipitated it or even, in the case of the Corcyraeans, the violence done against their interests in Epidamnus by the Corinthians, which did not yet rise to be considered war in the eyes of either Corcyra or Corinth. Instead the occupation of Epidamnus was something we would recognize today as coercion.  Like war itself, coercion operates by a calculus that is only partially rational; not only is the psychological pressure of coercion subject to passions of the moment, our reactions to the threat of violence -and willingness to engage in it – may be rooted in evolutionary adaptations going back to the dawn of mankind. Coercion, or resistance to it, usually is the midwife of war.

Prehistoric man lived a life that archaeology increasingly indicates, contrary to philosophical myth-making, was endemic in it’s violent brutality. Whether the violence between or within tiny paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands constituted private murder or warfare is a matter of debate, but the existence of the violence itself is not. Earliest firm evidence of a possible large skirmish or massacre dates back to 14,000 BC and definitive evidence for large-scale, organized battle dates to the end of the Neolithic period and dawn of the Bronze Age in 3500 BC.  Lawrence Keeley, in War Before Civilization, describes primitive man as being hyperviolent in comparison with those noted pacifists, the ancient Romans:

….For example, during a five and a half month period, the Dugum Dani tribesmen of New Guinea were observed to participate in seven full battles and nine raids. One Yanomamo village in South America was raided twenty-five times over a fifteen month period…. 

The high frequencies of prestate warfare contrast with those of even the most aggressive ancient and modern civilized states. The early Roman Republic (510-121 BC) initiated war or was attacked only about once every twenty years. During the late Republic and early Empire (118 BC -211 AD), wars started about once every six or seven years, most being civil wars and provincial revolts. Only a few of these later Roman wars involved any general mobilization of resources, and all were fought by the state’s small (relative to the size of the population) long-service, professional forces supported by normal taxation, localized food levies and plunder. In other words, most inhabitants of the Roman Empire were rarely directly involved in warfare and most experienced the Pax Romana unmolested over many generations. [Keeley,33] 

Simple, prestate societies probably waged “war” – a violent and deliberate conflict with rival groups and in alliance with rival groups against more distant interlopers – but the degree to which archaic and prehistoric humans culturally differentiated between this and their everyday, casual, homicidal violence remains unknown. Moreover, many academics would not accept the thesis of neolithic societies being “warlike”, much less, waging “war” as we understand the term until they rose to levels of social and political complexity generally denoted as chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires (“political” societies).

There’s something to that argument; a certain element of cultural identity is required to see the world in distinctly  “us vs. them” terms instead of an atomized Hobbesian “all vs. all” but I suspect it is far more basic a level of communal identification than the level of cultural identity typical of sophisticated chiefdoms like Cahokia or ancient Hawaii. Cultural and communal identity would tend to focus violence toward outsiders while increasingly complex political and social organization could “shape” how violence took place, molding it into recognizable patterns by regulation, ritual, taboo and command of authority. Once there is enough societal complexity for a leadership to organize and direct mass violence with some crude degree of rational choice and control, not only is war possible but strategy is as well.

Once a society is sophisticated enough to employ violence or the threat of violence purposefully for diplomacy or warfare, it is making a political decision to separate mundane and nearly chronic “conflict” and “war” into different categories. This would appear to be a primitive form of economic calculation distinguishing between conflict that generates acceptable costs and manageable risks and those conflicts that pose unacceptable costs or existential risks. This would give the relationship between primitive tribes the character of bargaining, an ongoing negotiation where the common currencies were violence and propitiation, until one party vacated the area or ceased to exist, most wars then having an innate tendency to escalate toward genocide (our current limitations on warfare, such as they are, derive from greater social complexity and political control over the use of violence).

If an economic calculus is indeed the root of the political decision to recognize some conflicts as “war”, that raises some interesting questions about modernity and advanced  states. What happens  when a conflict occurs with a state sufficiently complex that the ruling elite see their class interests as distinct and superceding those of the state? The calculus and what is considered “acceptable” costs or risks in a conflict vice those mandating “war” shift dramatically away from what might be considered “rational” state interest.

In a society at such an end-state, seemingly intolerable conflict might be tolerated indefinitely while full-fledged wars could be waged over what would appear to be mere trivialities to the national interest.


In addition to some already excellent and extensive comments in the thread, I would like to turn your attention to an interview post at The Last Word on Nothing recommended byZack Beauchamp:

Horgan, Hayden, and the Last Word on Warfare 

Ann:  I understand both of you have written authoritative and charming books on war — John’s, just out, is called The End of War; and Tom’s is Sex and War — and that you’vediscussed these matters before.  I also understand you disagree about war.  How could you not agree?   I mean, war is just nasty stuff and we shouldn’t do it, right?

Tom: Ann, you’re poking the hornet’s nest right off the bat! I don’t think John and I disagree about war, but rather about peace. Don’t get me wrong: we both prefer the latter to the former, by a wide margin. And there are many things we do agree on, I think, such as the substantial observed decrease in the frequency and lethality of war over the past several centuries, and the idea that culture is an important part of the balance between war and peace. But I think we do have a difference of opinion about the attainability of peace (John) versus the inevitability of war (me). I think this makes John a better person than me, and certainly a more optimistic one. And I really, really hope he’s right. In my mind it comes down to an argument about human nature, and whether the impulses and behaviors of war are inborn or acquired. Or at least, that’s my take. John, what’s yours? [….]

The Sociobiological Origins of Beauty

Sunday, March 6th, 2011


Great multidisciplinary talk by Dr. Denis Dutton on the possible evolutionary origins on culturally universal concepts of aesthetic beauty.

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