Robert Morris's Reviews > War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots

War! What Is It Good For? by Ian Morris
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Sep 19, 2015

did not like it

Be careful what you wish for. In a lot of ways Ian Morris is my kind of historian. He is unafraid to use what he has learned to teach big important lessons, which I admire. I have always thought that too many historians are overly cautious, and spend their time focusing on the minutiae of an era, rather than trying to apply the lessons of that era to our own. This book provides a pretty compelling illustration of why those historians might have the right idea.

Morris has done a number of unconventional things, and written a number of unconventional books. I very much enjoyed his "Why the West Rules for Now". In that book he attempted to present metrics for the relative performance of civilizations in different geographies across millennia. It's an essentially impossible task, but I took it as a useful and fun thought experiment. If his metrics are used in that capacity then they're harmless and fun, in this book he makes it clear that he thinks that they are a serious basis for policy recommendations, which is kind of frightening. As he partially admits, his data is patchy, impossible to verify, and at some points essentially made up. As a tool of science or policy it's significantly less valuable than a computer game.

Most of this book is an amusing and thought-provoking tour through human history. His thesis, that war has been a tremendously useful tool of development is, I think, largely correct. His analysis gets less persuasive as he gets closer to the modern era however. I don't think anybody reckons well with just how significant the industrial revolution was in terms of what we really want and need from war, and this book is no exception.

It's the final chapter of the book that took this from a four-star review to a one-star review, and illustrates the perils of being a "maverick" Silicon Valley historian. He takes the aforementioned fantastical data as proof that the singularity is near. The Singularity, known as "the rapture for nerds" is the idea that in the next 50 years or so we'll be replaced by super-rational artificial intelligence that will give us paradise on earth or something. For some reason I can't follow, he believes this means that we should indulge all of the Pentagon's most belligerent fantasies of containment against China and Russia, so that the US can maintain world dominance until the singularity arrives.

There's no basis for this in what he has written. It comes off as a profoundly troubling non sequitur. The ending of this book is unfortunate, but I suppose it provides a good cautionary tale.
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September 5, 2015 – Finished Reading
September 19, 2015 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Christy (new) - added it

Christy This is older but I use it to teach students differences in ethics and worldviews between Conservatives, Liberals, and Socialist/Radicals on the nature of war. Why War? Ideology, Theory, and History


message 2: by Christy (new) - added it

Christy Why War? Ideology, Theory, and History is an "oldie but goldie" that I've long used with students for how Conservative/Liberal/Socialist political philosophies hold worldviews including views of human nature that give different ethical justifications for warfare.


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