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Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  222 ratings  ·  38 reviews
Follow Peter Turchin on an epic journey through time. From stone-age assassins to the orbiting cathedrals of the space age, from bloodthirsty god-kings to India’s first vegetarian emperor, discover the secret history of our species—and the evolutionary logic that governed it all.
Kindle Edition, 274 pages
Published November 17th 2015 by Beresta Books
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Aaron Arnold
Dec 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Ultrasociety is an extension of Turchin's thesis, laid out in his earlier War and Peace and War, that warfare is the primary driver of civilization. Why are humans so good at cooperating together in groups? Because warfare between groups is a powerful selector for traits of cooperation, so over time societies that have been good at getting their members to work together within groups have outcompeted less cohesive ones. Or, as Benjamin Franklin said to encourage his fellows struggling to establi ...more
Grzegorz Chrupała
Dec 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
At the start of this book Turchin makes a big deal of the scientific approach to history - implementing theoretical ideas precisely enough that they can be tested against data. Unfortunately the material in the following chapters doesn't even come close to fulfilling this promise - it is just garden variety storytelling. Some of it is compelling, much of it is extravagantly speculative. The bits when he goes on about the life style of Pleistocene humans are especially egregious. This is not to s ...more
Dec 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: white
You can read a book about ancient Rome, or about ancient Egypt before that, or about tribal states that were around before both of them, or about the prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies that were around long before any of those. All of those are interesting topics. What this book brings you, is the perspective that comes from looking at all of them, and more besides.

Too often we are presented history as if it is a linear march upwards, or a long series of events with no patterns whatsoever. Th
Steve Greenleaf
In Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, Peter Turchin has another book that translates his sophisticated models of historical dynamics into a prose exposition that non-specialists can enjoy. As in his previous work, War and Peace and War, he has succeeded in his task by mixing accounts of historical (and pre-historical) incidents and epochs with lessons about the science of evolution. Having admired his accomplishment in War and Peace and War, I he ...more
Laurent Franckx
Nov 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
The ambition of this book is vast: using an (extremely) long-term historical perspective to explain nothing less than how humans are able to cooperate in complex societies. As such, it can be placed alongside other 'recent' books such as Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germ and Steel", Steven Pinker's "The better angels of our nature" and Paul Seabright's "The company of strangers" (for some reason, Seabright is not discussed in the book, which is a pity).
The beginning of the books is very promising. The
Aug 14, 2017 rated it liked it
I see this as an intermediary book in which the author is travelling from the basic ideas set out in Secular Cycles to some, as yet unknown, destination. In this volume, he examines a paradox of human development. On the one hand, human progress can be marked by competition between individuals and groups, whilst on the other, competition is best enhanced when individuals and groups co-operate with each other to achieve a common purpose. Which is it?

Of course, the answer is both. However, this is
Kate Lawrence
The ideas here were generally interesting, but I wonder if war is quite as central to human development as the author says it is. Wouldn't we cooperate with other members of our tribe--in growing food perhaps, in caring for orphans and the sick, in making handcrafted items like pots and baskets--without the necessity of war?
I hadn't realized that early human groups would put down upstarts and were thus more egalitarian; I thought it was a gradual progression of complexity and hierarchy. It was
Simon Lavoie
Jul 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Human evolution from the Pleistocene (2 million years - 10 000 BCE) up to present time can best be described, according to Turchin, as a zigzag.

The dominance typical of ape groups is inverted into a dominance free, egalitarian polity in hunter-gatherer groups, which is, quite later, inverted into bloody archaic states held by sacrificial god-kings, archaic states that gave way to modern states regulated by egalitarian, tolerant - even benevolent standards in laws, institutions and values.

Dec 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
A fascinating read on one of my favorite topics, cooperation. Ultra Society hints at an emerging science that looks to bring analytical rigor to historical analysis, but the book takes pains to avoid explaining the rigor in order to avoid losing potential mass appeal. Written in a relatively breezy fashion despite being dense with ideas and theories, Ultra Society feels like it contains the material for 3-4 books, though none of which are contained start to finish. Like the cover art, I was left ...more
May 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: big-history
Expands on an interesting hypothesis on how it was humans, and not other animals, that took over the planet. Found the mental model of cultural evolution particularly compelling - why it is that all over the planet we have adopted pants instead of the veshti(hint: prestige signaling). At least more persuasive than Jared Diamond. If Turchin’s thesis is right, that war has led to larger and larger societies in part because the bigger army always wins, it doesn’t seem like the modern nation state i ...more
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Finally the book I have been waiting for years to read. Explains how we got from hunter groups to empires with data and theory instead of sciency dreamy stereotypes, but remains interesting all the way.
Samuel Thomsen
Oct 20, 2017 rated it liked it
For a brief pop science book, Ultrasociety goes very deep, and it's rich in historical and theoretical insight. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, it's a good introduction to the history of civilization, and will have plenty for even an expert to chew on. But like most popularizations, Ultrasociety tends to overstate the success and generality of its theories, and to gloss over any aspects of history that fall outside its scope.

To his credit, Turchin dismantles a number of popular misconceptions about
Keith Akers
Feb 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a marvelous exploration of history from a new perspective. What is distinctively human about humans is their ability to cooperate. This cooperation has manifestly greatly increased during the past 10,000 years. Instead of hunting and gathering, we are now working together on such projects as the Great Pyramids and the International Space Station. "Ultrasociety" is similar in scope to Steven Pinker's book "The Better Angels of Our Nature"; but instead of asking (as Pinker does) why violen ...more
Turchin's Ultrasociety moves between the Left and the Right, ideologically, but appears to be coming down on the side of government and cooperation (what may be read as code for socialism). This seems to be made explicit in this quote:

"The 30 years in America since about 1985 were a giant social experiment. What would happen if ideologies extolling extreme individualism and elevating self-interest as the sole basis on which to organize society were to gain the upper hand? The results are in: a
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very good hypothesis for the trajectories of history. The book provides a brief defense of multilevel selection then proceeds to explain how inter-cultural warfare selects for cultures that allow more and more people to cooperate. This is opposed to intra-cultural violence which the author sees as counterproductive. This evolutionary process of inter-cultural competition is, in the authors eyes, the driving force behind the massive increase in cooperation we see over the last 40,000 years.

Michael Rynn
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well argued, comprehensible account of investigations into how war made states and states make war.

I read this because I wanted some clues on how our societies are going to co-operate and compete on the really difficult current challenges of exceeding our safe planetary boundaries I, and cope with the challenges of collapse of carrying capacity and mineral resource depletion and fossil fuel supply abandonment. None of those things were directly touched. But this evolution of our cooperative abil
Iury Lima
Mar 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book make your neurons works

I think this book make a great case about the role of war as a key factor to mold our society and develop the moral framework that ultimately led to a better life.
The only point that bothers me is the author strong left leaning mindset.
I think it may impose a bias that push for blindness.
His view about the egalitarianism of hunter gather societies, for instance, sound a little bit naive.
Many times it is noticeable the oppressed versus oppressed kind of argument
Andrew Tollemache
May 23, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting semi-contrarian take that details how the need for human societies to organize themselves to prevent/defend against and/or survive military conflict is the source of the immense cooperation we see among our species now days. No neo-Rousseau type, Turchin argues that mankinds predilection for war long predates the rise of agricultural civilization..he notes how all over the globe pre-ag, hunter/gather peoples show high percentages of death by violent trauma maybe homicide, but most li ...more
Aug 02, 2020 rated it liked it
There are interesting ideas in Ultrasociety, of which I wrote notes and will continue to ponder. It's also clear that Peter is an ernest and enthusiastic scientist, but... I would have really preferred to read a 20-50 page version of this book that hits the key points.

I find this to be a common problem with non-fiction, where the key ideas are expressed in the first 10%, and then the remainder is example after example, which interests me not at all.
Martin Kosík
Sep 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Turchin tries to explain how human societies evolved from small groups of hunter-gatherers to nation states with millions of people. His main thesis is that war and intergroup competition more generally created selection pressures to increase scale of the societies. Turchin also provides relatively simple explanation of multilevel selection theory in chapter 3.
Dec 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
While Peter Turchin thinks annoyingly highly of himself and his theories (and gives little detail in the opening chapters), the theory he presents is worth considering and the book became much more enjoyable after the first quarter.
Jeremy Cox
Jan 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Well written for a history book. Interesting thesis, supported reasonably well. Enough that it makes sense. Took me a few stops and starts to get all the way through.
Dec 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
I'd give it 4.5. Good read
Yanick Punter
Oct 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Alvaro de Menard
Dec 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
Doesn't live up to the epistemic standards you expect from a cliodynamics work.
Apr 03, 2020 rated it liked it
It was a good read. I enjoyed War and Peace and War by Turchin a little more since it had a broader historical background. This is still a good read to look at how society developed.
Hyzer Anhyzer
Jan 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, culture, 2017
Picked this up when I saw it on Vox Day's reading list. I enjoyed the historical aspects but his conclusions didn't make a lot of sense. He outs himself as a leftist early on, using a fictional character (Gordon Gekko) as his evidence of individuality run amok in the 80's. He never once refers to IQ when discussing the success of certain cultures, and quotes Thomas Pikketty without irony.
Feb 08, 2017 rated it liked it
The fantastical idea that anyone will be able to study human societies scientifically puts me in mind of a Tom Lehrer song. I don't care how big your data set is. Not saying that trying is worthless, but...

Not sure how much this book really adds to human thought. I mean, obviously there has been evolution of humans based upon their membership in groups, and anyone claiming otherwise is silly. The author's quibbles with Pinker and Dawkins seem to be just that -- quibbles, nothing at all to contra
Michael Odza
Jul 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Competition between groups creates cultural evolution

I did not want to believe that war made us peaceful; I preferred the bonobo hypothesis. But the author brought me around in no small part by his willingness to see his arguments shot down by data.
Dec 19, 2015 rated it liked it
Not bad, some good points overall. I found it at least challenging (just as in Secular Cycles or Historical Dynamics, better than anything by Tainter or Diamond post GSG; also I'm interested in MLS) and think the major theses discussed nail it more than not. And yet, Turchin covers too many topics any of each too rapidly and then reassembles smaller bits in a way that makes it hard to track his method (and I would have settled for just a few hints), or what kind of data he relies on. Naturally I ...more
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