War: What is it good for?: The role of conflict in civilisation, from primates to robots Hardcover – 3 Apr 2014
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Ian Morris' evidence that war has benefited our species-albeit inadvertently-is provocative, compelling, and fearless. This book is equally horrific and inspiring, detailed and sweeping, light-hearted and deadly serious. For those who think war has been a universal disaster it will change the way they think about the course of history. (Richard Wrangham Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human)
Perhaps you think that you already know everything about the history of all peoples on all the continents for the last 15,000 years. Even if you do, you'll still get a fresh perspective from this thought-provoking book. With this volume and his previous Why the West Rules-for Now, Ian Morris has established himself as a leader in making big history interesting and understandable. (Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed)
That war is the antithesis of everything we cherish in our modern civilization is that one rare idea nobody would dare disagree with in polite company. Nobody except Ian Morris that is. This delightful, erudite and thought-provoking book challenges some of our core beliefs. Morris argues, fairly convincingly, that far from being its antithesis, war is the mainspring of our civilization, and we are far from the last chapter of the history that war has made. You will be surprised, informed, entertained and most importantly challenged by this book. (Daron Acemoglu, coauthor of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty)
We now live in a far safer, healthier, and more prosperous world than any of our ancestors ever did. Ian Morris has drawn upon a breathtaking array of data from paleography, anthropology, history, psychology, and political science to demonstrate the unpalatable but inescapable truth that we do so thanks to what has for centuries been seen as mankind's greatest scourge: war. Written with all of Morris' habitual narrative flair, this brilliant book will surely change forever the way we think about human conflict and what we should attempt to do about it in the future. (Anthony Pagden Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and Wes)
Morris is the world's most talented ancient historian (Niall Ferguson)
Big thinker Morris (Why the West Rules-for Now) returns with an ambitious, epoch-spanning study of violence writ large across time and place ... By surveying germane, timely issues from containment to ICBMs and "doomsday devices," as well as speculating on the potentials of the transhuman and posthuman, Morris casts a wide net ... A fascinating and stimulating work sure to compel readers of anthropology, archaeology, history, and futurity. (Publishers Weekly)
A profoundly uncomfortable but provocative argument that "productive war" promotes greater safety, a decrease in violence and economic growth ... A disturbing, transformative text that veers towards essential reading (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
An ambitious, epoch-spanning study of violence writ large across time and place ... A fascinating and stimulating work sure to compel readers of anthropology, archaeology, history, and futurity. (Publishers Weekly)
Praise for Why the West Rules - For Now:
'A great work of synthesis and argument, drawing together an awesome range of materials and authorities(Andrew Marr)
A provocative and extraordinary contribution to wide-screen comparative history ... a true banquet of ideas. (Boyd Tonkin Independent)
One doffs one's hat to Morris's breadth, ambition and erudition (Sunday Times)
An astonishing work (David S. Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations)
He is a much wittier and more self-deprecating writer than most of his competitors, has a sharper eye for facts and anecdote, and steers well clear of the preening bombast that so often disfigures such tracts. Clever, acute and counterintuitive, his book is a pleasure to read, and though his argument may be depressing, it seems pretty persuasive. (Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times 2014-03-30)
Brilliantly argued across a huge sweep, combining history with human geography, human and natural sciences. It is a magnificent and stimulating read, and should be given to anyone involved in the business of war and peace, or the human fate in any respect - and already a book of the year. (Robert Fox Evening Standard 2014-03-27)
An exuberant and wonderfully entertaining tour de force of history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, evolutionary biology and technological and military speculation... a terrific book. (David Crane The Spectator 2014-04-04)
the author is an unabashed pop writer, using humour and anecdote to lively effect. The result is a mammoth work of scholarship, written in an entertainingly accessible style... If we think we can understand history, this admirably provocative book makes us think again. (Andrew Anthony Mail on Sunday 2014-04-20)
Morris has a lively writing style and enjoys provoking his readers. (Sir Lawrence Freedman Financial Times 2014-05-03)
It is the book's elegantly succinct prose that will most captivate readers. it is a book filled with lucid explanations of the most recondite questions, with many revealing quotations and witty asides. (Edward Luttwak Prospect 2014-05-22)
This is an astonishing book, full of controversy, brilliantly researched and thoughtfully argued ... one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking histories I've read in years. (Daily Telegraph 2014-04-26)
One of the most thought-provoking volumes you're likely to read this year. (Geographical 2014-06-27)
In this remarkable book, historian Morris argues not only that war is a source of technological advance but that it brings peace... the thesis is disturbingly persuasive. (Martin Wolf Financial Times 2014-06-28)
Gleefully provocative yet alarmingly persuasive... one of the most original history books in years. (Mail on Sunday 2014-12-07)
A bold and controversial rethinking of the role of war in human history and how it will shape our future, sure to provoke debate, from the bestselling author of Why the West Rules - For Now.See all Product description
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That claim is only the minor part of the message of the book War, by Stanford professor Ian Morris. The claim will probably find general agreement among the thinking public, in the western world at least. Citizens in democratic states with free markets recognise that their best interests lie in peaceful trade and cooperation. A Pax Americana has stabilised the free world and allowed a new and higher form of civilisation to flourish. Who among us would wish to disagree with that?
The major part of the message Morris delivers is more controversial. War, he contends, was the enabler for the evolution of modern states, which following Thomas Hobbes he calls Leviathans. Winning wars meant organising one’s own side more effectively than the enemy could organise its opposition, and this asymmetry became a ratchet in which bigger generally meant better. Might was right, and the biggest bully ended up taking all. Now we enjoy the peace and protection offered by the meanest monster on the planet, namely the sole remaining military superpower, the United States, Globocop.
Morris presents this message in a chatty style, replete with repetition to hammer home his core message, in the evident hope of making the book a popular bestseller. But this only serves to highlight the obscenity, to a casual modern reader, of the idea that war was ever good for anything. Only a scientist who had studied the steadily diminishing casualty figures for conflicts over the ages, as a fraction of all deaths and in comparison with death tolls from famine or plague or other diseases, and then calmly contemplated the cruelty of the evolutionary process in all its natural forms, could happily assert anything so positive about war. For if Morris is right, we should welcome the pursuit of war in its latest guises as harbingers of further societal evolution. And this offends the modern sensibility mightily, so much so that a better explanation of why we should welcome war than Morris provides is really essential if anyone is to take his core thesis seriously at all.
The steady diminution of homicidal violence over the last few thousand years is now a widely accepted fact. Steven Pinker described and sought to explain the phenomenon in his 2012 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. But Morris adds what might seem an ironic twist in his claim that this diminution was positively facilitated by the evolution of warfare. His point is that war forced the emergence of ever bigger and better Leviathans, which learned both to pacify their interiors and to stabilise their external borders ever more effectively as history rolled on. Leviathans are good for us, or at least better than life in a savage society beyond the reach of law and order, so anything that helped usher the big beasts onto the stage of history was good too, including war.
The irony of this claim is not lost on Morris, who may even look forward with relish to the stir it will doubtless cause among the chattering classes, but science is a hard taskmaster. We need to examine the claim more carefully than Morris has done in his brisk and breezy overview of human history from the stone age to the present day. Now, he says, we are sharing in a global hive mind in the cloud of online connectivity, which thinkers like Ray Kurzweil predict will lead to the singularity, the rapture of the nerds. Our own examination should highlight two aspects. One is the evolution of war-fighting technology from hand axes and wooden spears to robot systems in kill chains that end in nuclear apocalypse. The other is ongoing change in human nature, based as it always was in the biology of our genes and modulated as it soon will be by our growing power to transform ourselves both physically and mentally. These two sides of the evolution of Leviathans, both in the past and into the future, deserve a much wider and deeper analysis than Morris has so far conducted.
As to the technology of warfare, its role in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the depredations of horsemen from the steppes of Asia, the rise and fall of the British Empire and its ruinous German nemesis, the revolt and decay of Soviet communism, and the modern emergence of asymmetric warfare, all invite closer study. As for us, the human perpetrators and victims of war, the changes in our nature due to nutrition, religion, modern medicine, and genetic engineering all merit a closer look. Morris makes stabs at considering most of these issues, but misdirects some of his stabs and hence weakens his case.
On the Romans and the Huns and Mongols, Morris makes a pretty good case. The Romans generally made better use of iron weapons and iron discipline than their opponents and hence won big, but the Huns and later Asian nomads made better use of horses and mobile warfare for a thousand years and more. Then the Europeans fought back with guns, developed from early Chinese ideas, and created new Leviathans, which led in turn to what Morris calls the “Five Hundred Years’ War” that led to a brief Pax Britannica based on naval supremacy before the Americans took the prize. The demise of the British Empire in genteel poverty, as national debts accumulated to pay for the imperial struggle against German militarists in two world wars, gets a rather superficial gloss in the Morris myth, and much more about the role of national rivalries in Europe as well as about the gradual morphing of Anglo-American power when capital flowed westward would be needed to tidy up the tale, but still there is wide agreement on the main story here. The decades of nuclear confrontation in the Cold War were clearly shaped by the technological enablement of four-minute megadeath scenarios, but Morris does not really explain how this developed or evolved. Perhaps only a physicist could fill out that story properly. As for asymmetric warfare by western forces against various kinds of insurgents and fundamentalists, Morris has simply missed the sudden rise of electronic mass surveillance it triggered. But the jury is still out on what all this means, and clearly there are still plenty of devils in the detail to be chewed over.
Changes in human nature are even harder to evaluate, and they are crucial to making sense of our changing views of war over the centuries. Morris discusses the lessons offered by chimpanzees and bonobos in Africa, and their relevance to early humans, but most of his tale unfolds over a timescale in which genetic changes to Homo sapiens are unlikely to be significant. What he does not mention is the possible relevance of epigenetic changes, and of selection effects at the level of neural organisation, which could well have put significant distance between us and our remote ancestors. A simple comparison with breeds of dogs, which have an equally brief history, suffices to suggest their relevance. War may be civilising us by killing off the foolhardy, or the weaklings, or both, but it is hard to see how we can measure such effects. Morris mentions the roles of nutrition and disease in his tale, but again only briefly. Millions of Native American were sickened to death by exposure to European pathogens, and poor peasants were starved in their millions by Soviet and Nazi overlords in the gory days of their lordship. Such phenomena may have left genetic scars we shall measure some day.
The role of religion in war and human evolution is a topic that bursts the bounds of the analysis Morris undertakes, but it is surely relevant to the overall picture. The various religions variously foster sexual and martial discipline, and variously incite their followers to acts of wisdom or folly that have great relevance, over historical time, to the evolution of Leviathans. One need only mention the influence of Christianity on Roman martial prowess, for good or ill, in the latter days of the Roman Empire, or the impact of Islam on the warlike propensities and capabilities of the Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman empires, to see a huge research field, as yet only thinly cultivated. And the future impact of modern medicine and genetic engineering on our readiness as a species to engage regularly in war, “productive” or otherwise, is of course anyone’s guess.
The policy implications of the case for war in the book are hard to extract. If war has sometimes been productive, in the sense of fostering the growth of Leviathans that have in the end served us well, we should be less eager to condemn wars outright. In a world where conflicts still break out with distressing frequency, this may seem a disastrous conclusion to indulge. But more distressing is the idea that the fall in death rates may only be temporary. We see a lot of noise in the data, such as a thousand-year blip caused by horsemen from central Asia, and if the twentieth century had culminated in a nuclear spasm war with a death toll approaching a billion souls, which Morris briefly entertains, we would have seen the stats revert to stone-age levels. So the argument is dancing on thin ice as each new Leviathan finds new ways to cull us by many thousands or millions, and surely soon by billions. If in future the robots decide to continue on their terrestrial course without human aid and comfort, they might choose to delete mankind by means of an extinction-level event (a.k.a. ELE).
Altogether, Morris has opened a can of worms and hardly begun to sample its delights. His book is fun to read and stimulating, and he includes plenty of notes and references for readers who are determined to go deeper. But in the end, how much of his case is sustainable in science and how much is bluster and nonsense is still far from clear. To his credit, Morris says as much, but then, undaunted, he goes right ahead anyway and makes bold claims that will surely annoy more sensitive readers.
There are two kinds of bandit, the first is the roving kind that just comes along, kill lots of people, steals everything then runs off. The second kind is the stationary bandit, they come along, kill lots of people, takes over by putting in place government and robs the population via taxes.
The stationary bandit wants to protect their population from roving bandits (they will steal wealth that the stationary bandit would have got via taxes) and suppresses violence between the population (well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones.) This means the stationary bandit controlled areas are a lot safer to live in. This is very important when you take in to account archaeology findings that suggest Stone Age man lived in small groups and their lives were very violent with 10-20 percent dying a violent death. With stationary bandits, populations don't have to worry about violence as much, they can get on with doing their jobs, living safer and more prosperous lives.
Of course people are not going to just let the stationary bandit take over, thus war is how the stationary bandit takes control of the population and impose government with taxes to exploit the population, but at the same time protects them from violence from roving bandits and each other. The population is now a lot safer and this creates civilisation. It's government that's the good thing but the author argues that small tribes only submitted to government imposed on them via stationary bandits using war.
If this theory sound ridiculous, think of the Romans, invading, conquering and exploiting the defeated via taxes, but protecting their empire from roving bandits and imposing rule of law. Also The Romans deliberate gave the conquered the taste of the peaceful life with luxurys like public baths etc to tame them. ("What have the Romans ever done for us" in Life of Brian springs to mind.)
Yes governments fight wars with each other and some terrorise their population and the rest of the world, but overall in the long term the author thinks governments have been beneficial. Remember the violent lives of Stone Age man (10 -20 percent deaths from violence) even WW2 (which killed 60 million people, 2.5% of world's population) did not get close to that.
Farming played a big part in why the stationary bandit appeared with the lucky latitudes explanation from "Guns, Germs, and Steel" used ( more edible plants and animals that could be domesticated existed on the lucky latitudes than other latitudes making farming possible). How being a farmer with crops to defend would have effected fighting among groups is discussed.
The book goes in to detail about the rise of stationary bandit empires and the effects of things like chariots, guns and disease had on warfare between them and roving bandits. Warfare from biblical times through to both world wars concluding on the rumblings currently going on between America and China is covered. How the cost of warfare for stationary bandits made warfare less likely and how the vast resources of their empires effected choice of weapons and tactics of both stationary bandit and roving bandit is covered.
I don't agree with this, but the author believes that just like how governments protect their people from roving bandits and each other, the role of England as global cop during its empire did the same thing on a global scale, but America has now replaced England in this role.
Towards the end of the book things take a unexpected turn with hi tech science theories on how computers and the internet could change the world. We will merge with machines ( this has already started to happen e.g pacemakers etc) with computer enhanced brains. One claim is that now war (well actually governments) have created peace and prosperity in the near future the minds of everybody will soon be connected directly to the internet creating a giant superorganism rendering war obsolete. ( what about people outside the system?) But the author does speculate that maybe instead of eliminating war a new style of conflict where different parts of the superorganism fighting each other will appear. To be honest this section sounds silly to me.
The author believes this computation of everything needs to happen before American power as global cop fades because when that happens there will be no global stationary bandit to stop the other counties from fighting with each other.
Is the book correct? I don't know. I don't like what the author is saying but the argument seems reasonably solid.
Looking at the other Amazon reviews it appears this book is been misunderstood, I don't want to keep repeating myself so I recommend rereading this review a couple of times to get a proper understanding of what the book is saying. I can see warmongers using these theories to justify oppression, but that does not mean the book is wrong. A challenging, disturbing, and thought provoking read.
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