A year ago, together with Sergey Gavrilets and Laura Fortunato, we organized a conference at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville. The main theme was how we build and test theory of the evolution of social complexity. After the end of the conference we held a public debate on this question:

In the last 10,000 years, human societies have evolved from highly egalitarian bands of a few dozen people to huge societies of today with great economic and social divisions, thousands of professions, and elaborate governing structures. How this transition occurred is one of the greatest puzzles in science. To throw some light on this fascinating topic, NIMBioS will host a debate, focusing on the role of warfare in explaining the transition from simple to complex societies.

Thesis: Warfare has transformed us from living in villages to living in huge states, building cities and civilizations, and ultimately making our lives more peaceful.

Antithesis: Warfare is an unfortunate side-effect of the evolution of social complexity, but it was other evolutionary mechanisms that resulted in highly complex human societies.

For the thesis: Peter Turchin (University of Connecticut), Jeremy Sabloff (Santa Fe Institute)

For the antithesis: Sander Van Der Leeuw (Arizona State University), Tim Kohler (Washington State University)

At the end, the audience voted on who won the debate. Can you guess the outcome?

You can watch the debate to find out the answer here. However, as I am not a great public speaker, I would prefer that you read my argument, rather than listen to it. I myself hardly ever watch videos, always preferring the text for any serious argument. So here it is. Comments welcome!

Argument for the Thesis (Peter Turchin)

Here we are in this nice auditorium. Most of you are perfect strangers to me, yet I am not worried that you’d decide to kill me and cook my flesh over the fire. But if I lived 10,000 years ago, I’d be well advised to fear strangers. In fact, if I could shoot you from the bushes without risk, this would be a good idea, because it would ensure that you wouldn’t kill me.

Today we live in huge societies of millions of people, most of whom you’d never meet in your life. We often forget how much we depend on the ‘kindness of strangers.’ Strangers will help with directions when you are lost, but they are also responsible for the bread arriving in the supermarket. It is strangers that generally ensure that our lives are free of hunger and fear, that we can have fulfilling jobs – and that we can ask questions about how societies evolve. How did we make the transition from living in villages, surrounded by friends and neighbors, to huge societies of strangers, with thousands of professions and elaborate governance structures?

Read more at Social Evolution Forum.