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How We Stopped Evolving and Learned to Love War

Francis Fukuyama argues the intensity of conflict during the Warring States period in China created incentives for people to abandon kinship-based relationships in favor of new, merit-based institutions. This led to the formation of the State as we recognize it. 

In The Origins of Political Order, scholar Francis Fukuyama traces the formation of the State back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty of China during the Warring-States period (475 BCE – 221 BCE). The intensity of wars during this period created incentives to abandon the old patriarchal, kinship-based institutions to which many people naturally clung, and to form new, merit-based institutions. Fukuyama argues that this innovation lead to the formation of the State as we recognize it.

Fukuyama notes in his book that “during the 254 years of the Warring States period, 468 wars took place, with only 89 peaceful years. Sixteen states were extinguished by the seven that survived during this period.” The decimation of soldiers from the aristocratic ranks forced states like Qin to promote leaders based on merit. The Qin were the first state to fully democratize their army and make reforms to social institutions that granted rights by birth alone. They promoted social mobility based on merits, rejecting the traditions of the people in China at that time. Moreover, people of merit were appointed to positions of governance.

From the early days of warfare which involved the aristocratic classes battling it out in small engagements on chariots, to a battle in 260 BCE where it is claimed that 450,000 people died, waging war necessitated tax-collection. From that necessity, bureaucracy sprung from early China as well. All of these reforms were done to augment the Qin’s ability to wage war. At the end of the Warring States period, the Qin dynasty emerged victorious, and they unified the whole country of China under their leadership.

What’s the Big Idea?

In an interview with Big Think, Francis Fukuyama said “I don’t think you can start talking about political order without talking about biology.” There are two biological principles that Fukuyama believes that humans need to get beyond to establish a real political order. The first is kinship selection, which is a theory that humans will naturally favor their genetic relatives. And second, reciprocal altruism, which is the “you scratch my back if I scratch yours” principle.

Many human relationships are built in part on social and biological principles such as these. In the times before the Qin dynasty, these types of interactions prevailed in the political order. Fukuyama told Big Think  “to get to real political order, we need to get beyond this kind of sociability because chimps do this, a lot of other animals favor friends and family, but you can’t have a human political order if that’s all you’re going to do. You need people you’re going to treat in an impersonal way because that’s what a modern state in society is supposed to do.”

What’s the Significance?

According to Fukuyama, the Chinese were the first peoples to get beyond the kinship paradigm and develop a real political order. In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama says that “Political institutions develop, often slowly and painfully, over time, as human societies strive to organize themselves to master their environments. Political decay occurs when when a political system fails to adjust to changing circumstances.” The innovations to political order by the Qin State were all based on the requirements of war and their survival in that brutal environment. It seems likely that humans would have adopted meritocracy at some point, but the Warring States period forced the Qin to adopt meritocracy 1,800 years before Europeans.

Further Reading
Big Think’s discussion with John Horgan, author of The End of War, provides some fascinating insights into human biological predispositions to war-like behavior. Horgan believes that war is not an innate part of the human condition and provides some interesting scientific evidence in his book to support that argument.

In How The End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, author Ron Rosenbaum questions the warring nature of humans as well. Rosenbaum points to historian and anthropologist Azar Gat who argues “that there is a dark self-destructive strain in human nature, perhaps a now-maladaptive residue of what originally was an evolutionarily valuable aggressiveness.”

Political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, famously described the struggle of man versus man in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Fukuyama has argued that the Hobbesian struggle does not exist, and that humans are and have always been cooperative, social animals. Before the state emerged, Fukuyama claims, people organized into state-like social orders but into much smaller units, on the community or family scale. Rosenbaum also alludes to power of apocalyptic narratives that are in the holy texts of many religions.

Rosenbaum writes:

“I do believe the fact that the hand of man finds itself recurrently, obsessively scripting fiery, self-immolating cataclysmic conclusions to the human saga may well be, at the very least, self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Philosopher Sam Harris believes that the Manichean nature of apocalyptic visions are dangerous considering the power humans wield in the nuclear age. Harris argues “according to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.”


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