War May Be the Biggest Driver of Social Complexity, Study Argues

War May Be the Biggest Driver of Social Complexity, Study Argues

War! (Huh!) What is its purpose? Empire growth and the emergence of several intricate institutions are both possible outcomes! The fascinating new study in the journal Science Advances argues that combat may have been a greater contributor to societal complexity than agriculture. While it may not make for a particularly catchy song, it does encapsulate the study. Around 10,000 years ago, the Holocene began. Since then, steady global temperatures have produced regular crop harvests, allowing humanity to give up the nomadic drifter lifestyle and establish long-term agricultural communities. As a result, we have evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers to space travel sniffer humans thanks to the division of labor and the creation of increasingly sophisticated communities.

Unfortunately, war has also impacted the course of human history; it is a dismal reality that human history is not simply limited to watermelons and sunflowers. The Seshat: Global History Databank, which is composed of historians, archaeologists, and other specialists on ancient civilizations throughout the world during the past ten millennia, was consulted by the study’s authors in order to examine the impact of combat on the creation of sophisticated societies.

The researchers developed an algorithm to identify which of the 17 variables that affect sociopolitical complexity is the primary driver of this process after conferring with these academics. The authors conclude by saying that their research “found an astonishingly straightforward chain of causality, in which agriculture and warfare are the main drivers of growing societal complexity and scale.”

According to a more detailed analysis of the data, they claim that the development of two military technologies, specifically iron weaponry and cavalries, appears to be the primary driver of societal complexity. For instance, they describe how the growth of bronze metallurgy led to the emergence of the first macrostates in Mesopotamia and Egypt, which are defined as polities governing an area larger than 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles). 

For the first time, “extremely big empires” encompassing more than 3 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles) were made possible with the utilization of soldiers mounted on horses and bronze weaponry. Significantly, the authors point out that “these megaempires formed three or four centuries after the introduction of cavalry in each of the main Eurasian subregions.”

The researchers contend that “innovations in military technology resulted in more rapid evolutionary change, compared to the adoption of agriculture,” despite what may seem to be a significant delay. To be clear, this study does not imply that conflict has aided in the growth of cultural complexity in human cultures and instead depends on a specific definition of social complexity. Instead, the authors discover that the development of military technology has sparked the growth of three distinct facets of civilization: the size of the area a society occupies, the complexity of the governing hierarchy, and the establishment of specialized bureaucratic and legal organizations.

Returning to the data, it seems that after the “IronCav revolution,” the maximum territory possessed by significant empires remained essentially unchanged for two millennia. This social complexity barrier wouldn’t be crossed until the “Gunpowder Revolution,” another important military turning point. The authors of the study make the telling observation that “the time lag between the appearance of effective gunpowder weapons and the rise of European colonial empires was also 300 to 400 years,” underscoring a recurring pattern in which military advancement appears to be the cause of the advancement of civilization.

The researchers conclude their paper by emphasizing that this analysis is far from complete and that further research into many facets of social complexity is necessary in order to ascertain the actual significance of combat. But if these first results are any indication, it appears that the dagger may have greater influence over the course of human history than the cabbage.