Failed States and Social Evolution

The problem of failed states and the challenge of state-building (or nation-building) is never far from the agenda for places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and probably soon also for Syria and Libya. Here’s a new angle on the issue: Peter Turchin asks “can evolutionary science contribute to more effective nation-building?”

The type of evolutionary science he refers to is the theory of cultural selection. Here’s the best concise summary I have seen of the theory:

Today, almost all of inhabitable Earth surface is divided between states, although not all of them are functioning well. How did this happen? As far as I know the only theory that offers a logically consistent and empirically tested answer to this question is the theory of multilevel selection of cultural traits, or cultural multilevel selection, CMLS for short. […]

The answer offered by the theory is simple. Prosocial (and ultrasocial) norms and institutions spread as a result of competition between societies. If competition between societies is sufficiently intense to overcome the tendency of such cultural traits to collapse within societies, the overall pattern will be of spread. If not, evolution will result in the extinction of these traits. […]

Although human societies can compete in many ways, the main mode of competition throughout human history has been warfare … Recent research has demonstrated that those regions (and periods) where warfare resulted in particularly high rates of cultural group selection were precisely the ones where large-scale states and empires repeatedly arose (Turchin 2011). Note that what is important is not how many people are killed in wars, but whether warfare results in cultural groups going extinct—either as a result of genocide (when groups are physically exterminated), or more frequently as a result of ethnocide and ‘culturicide’ (when losing groups’ culture is replaced with that of the winners). In my work, I have been referring to such hotspots of nation- and statebuilding as metaethnic frontiers (Turchin 2006).

Until c.1500 AD the most important metaethnic frontiers (from the point of view of state- and empire-building) were the steppe frontiers between settled agriculturalists and pastoralist nomads. This is why the historical pattern of state formation has been precocious state-building activity in the ‘imperial belt’ situated to the south of the Great Eurasian Steppe …, and gradual spread of state-level organization to the rest of Afro-Eurasia (statebuilding in the New World followed a somewhat different trajectory, but it was governed by the same general CMLS principles). After 1500, however, the early-modern Europeans took over from the Inner Asia nomads, and locations where state-building was particularly intense shifted from steppe frontiers to ‘gunboat frontiers’ (Turchin 2011). The precise role of Europeans in statebuilding varied. At one extreme, new states were built by European immigrants (e.g., the United States). At the opposite extreme, European pressures caused native societies to build or rebuild their nations themselves (the Japanese in the nineteenth century; the Chinese in the twentieth century). Also interesting are intermediate cases, such as India, in which the new nation that became independent in 1947 combined native cultural elements (e.g., the role of Hinduism) with institutions transplanted by the British (e.g., democratic form of government) […]

Turchin sum up the theory:

inter-state competition plays an important, perhaps even decisive role in nation-building (this is a direct inference from the multilevel selection theory). Because the primary mode of such competition has been warfare, we are faced with a paradoxical conclusion that warfare was responsible for the evolution of complex, large-scale societies. … Strong states, thus, imposed internal peace and order and abolished internal warfare, but the primary reason for strong states was interstate competition and warfare.

In the past warfare and imperialism stimulated state-building. But in the present, there is less warfare, it is less acceptable, and imperialism is forbidden. So this stimulus to state-building appears to be closing off. (I touched on this issue here.) Nobody would suggest that to build states in Kosovo or Afghanistan or Somalia outsiders should provoke wars with Serbia or Iran or Ethiopia. Of course, perhaps the NATO war in Afghanistan over the last decade may have strengthened the Taliban, making it more cohesive, and more of a state-building force. That would be political irony indeed!

I am wondering if India and Africa are anomalies for the theory of war-caused state-building. India had weak states. Was this through lack of warfare or absence of metaethnic divisions? Africa historically had a fairly low degree of social complexity. Was there a lower level of warfare or absence of metaethnic divisions causing this? Or were other reasons specific to India and Africa at work?

Well worth a read of the whole:

Peter Turchin, Failed States and Nation-Building: A Cultural Evolutionary Perspective Cliodynamics, 3(1) 2012, 158-171.


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