A critical evaluation of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, a study by Steven Pinker (3): A Consistent framework for analysis

CV, lost

The United States Navy carrier Carl Vinson is recently deployed to  Korea in response to North Korea’s  provocations. Typically, during high-connectivity regimes of relatively stable periods, tensions can not be adequately released and issues not be resolved, and instead accumulate in the System. The System is charging for a systemic war that will be instrumental in upgrading the international order of the System. 

The problem is that Pinker – as well as other historians and social scientists – failed to identify a number of very persistent and consistent patterns – regularities – in the war dynamics of the System, that started – ‘emerged’ – around 1495, when circa 300 communities in Europe (predecessors of state-structures) became sufficiently connected, and interacted sufficiently to produce system behaviour. In 1495, Europe (the System) acquired sufficient critical mass to produce a self-sustaining finite-time singularity dynamic that was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles; the singularity dynamic constituted an emergent mechanism that regulated the energy-state of the System, and eventually produced a next level of social integration and expansion (1945).

The System consists of interacting communities (that evolved into states), and of international orders these communities ‘interactively’ implement and on which they collectively depend for their survival. The function of international orders is to regulate interactions between communities, in efforts to maintain the status quo.

From that point in time (1495), the process of social integration and expansion – that was already unfolding for some time in Europe – accelerated dramatically, and a self-reinforcing feedback structure started dominating the war dynamics of the System: The war dynamics of the System were instrumental in integrating the growing communities in Europe, and expanding Europe – the core of the System – to the non-core (‘the rest of the world). The core of the System (Europe) grew in several respects: The population size of the respective communities, but also their size: the number of communities/states decreased from circa 300 in 1495 to circa 25 in 1939.

During the period 1495-1945, the System – of which Europe constituted the core – produced four accelerating war cycles; each war cycle consisting of a relatively stable period, followed by a systemic war (see below figure).


Figure 1: This figure shows a schematic representation of a single war cycle: a relatively stable period, during which an international order is in place, is followed by a systemic war, when an ‘upgraded’ order is implemented. During relatively stable periods, the System is in a subcritical condition and produces non-systemic wars, whereas during systemic wars, the System is in a critical condition.

During relatively stable periods an ‘international order’ is in place – initially only consisting of a simple rule-set – that ensures that interactions between communities (eventually states) are regulated. During relatively stable periods, the System produces non-systemic wars, to release tensions and solve issues between communities/states. Non-systemic wars ensure the status quo (the international order that was in place).

However, at a certain point – the tipping point of the relatively stable period (international order) – the connectivity of the network of issues and tensions – of which communities/states are integral parts – becomes too connected to allow for (sufficient) release of tensions, and instead of being released and issues being resolved, tensions and unsolved issues increasingly accumulate in the System.

At a certain point, the accumulating issues ‘percolate’ the System and the System becomes critical, until now (1495 – present) this has happened four times. The critical condition results in a systemic war; a war in which all Great Powers in the System participate, and that typically results in the design and implementation of an upgraded order. The upgraded international order, enables a new relatively stable period. Whereas non-systemic wars are about maintaining the status quo, systemic wars are about change, upgrading the international order.

My research shows that wars can be considered tension releases, that are instrumental in regulating the energy-state (tension levels) in the System.

These tensions are the product of population growth and rivalries between communities in System that is anarchistic in nature: Increasing connectivity – a function of population growth – and anarchy are intrinsically incompatible. The urge to survive is the most fundamental ‘driver’ of human behavior, and also explains their ‘need’ to group in communities to be able to develop and exploit economies of scale and scope to better fulfill basic requirements, including security.

The four accelerating war cycles constitute a finite-time singularity dynamic. This self-organized – emergent – phenomenon, reached the singularity in finite-time in 1939. At that point, the anarchistic System – Europe – reached the critical connectivity threshold, the point when the core of the anarchistic System (Europe) produced ‘infinite’ amounts of tensions, the System could no longer regulate.

The finite-time singularity that was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles constitutes an emergent property of the System; a self-reinforcing and self-regulating dynamic. The growing production of tensions – energy – in the System, a result of population growth and intensifying rivalries between communities, powered the unfolding of the finite-time singularity and the four accelerating war cycles. The war cycles regulated the energy-state of the System. By means of systemic wars, the System upgraded its organization (international orders); upgrades were implemented – and necessary – at an increasing rate. These upgrades enabled – facilitated – further population growth and development, and ensured charging of the System for a next systemic war and upgrade.

In short: Population growth resulted in tensions, that were then used to upgrade the organization of the System (the international order), to enable further population growth and development; a pattern that repeated itself four times during the period 1495-1945.

The finite-time singularity dynamic – the four accelerating war cycles – were instrumental in a process of social integration and expansion: At the start of the finite-time singularity dynamic in 1495, Europe consisted of circa 300 diverse and loosely connected communities with a total population of 83 million; when the singularity dynamic reached the critical connectivity threshold in 1939, and the System (Europe) produced ‘infinite’ amounts of tensions, and consequently collapsed, Europe consisted of circa 25 standardized and highly connected states structures with a total population of 544 million.

During the unfolding of the finite-time singularity, the process of the development of 300 diverse communities into 25 highly standardized state-structures, and the simultaneous upgrading of successive international orders into increasingly ‘intrusive’ – far reaching – rule-sets, constitute a coevolutionary process.

Community structures (eventually states) and the international order developed together; one is the product of the other, and vice versa. This coevolutionary process also qualifies as a path-dependent dynamic, that (increasingly) locked-in on integration. The increasing integration of states was ‘shaped’ through successive increasingly ‘intrusive’ international orders. However, at the same time as this process of integration ‘crystallized’, states became increasingly powerful war machines, that were at the same time increasingly dependent on each other for their mutual survival. Increasing interdependency went together with increasing intense rivalries, an incompatibility that is intrinsic to anarchistic systems: (increasing) connectivity and anarchy results in the production of increasing amounts of tensions.

In 1939, the System (its core, Europe) reached the critical connectivity threshold, a level of connectivity that resulted in the production of ‘infinite’ amounts of tensions that could no longer be regulated by the anarchistic System. The amounts of tensions that were produced at an accelerating rate forced the anarchistic System to implement upgraded orders with a frequency that was no longer sustainable: the destructive energy that had to be deployed (to upgrade international order) had reached levels that could no longer be produced, and caused levels of destruction that would result in collective self-destruction.

I will explain this important point also from a somewhat different perspective: During the period 1495-1939, Europe – the core of the System – developed from a ‘fluid’loosely connected – condition in 1495, into a ‘solid’ – tightly connected – condition in 1939. The decreasing Great Power status dynamics and the increasing solidification of borders between communities during the period 1495-1939 are indicative for this process: The System – its core – became increasingly ‘permanent’, but also brittle.

During the four relatively stable periods of the four war cycles, the core of the System (Europe) lost its ability to release tensions by means of non-systemic wars, while at the same time the rate of production of tensions, and their ‘amount’ accelerated. The increasing inability to ‘produce’ non-systemic tensions releases – non-systemic wars – can be attributed to the increase of the overall connectivity of the System, a function of population size. This ‘inability’ increasingly stripped the System of the possibility to regulate tensions during relatively stable periods, in other words to maintain the status quo of the System. Consequently, increasing amounts of tensions had to be released with an increasing frequency by means of systemic wars: Relatively stable periods became increasingly shorter, while simultaneously, the frequency and amplitudes (severity) of systemic wars accelerated.

By means of the fourth systemic war (the Second World War (1939-1945) that followed the collapse of the core of the System in 1939, the System experienced a phase transition that had two closely related effects: (1) in Europe two non-anarchistic structures were implemented in Western and Eastern Europe, respectively controlled by the United States and the Soviet Union, and (2) a first international order was simultaneously implemented at a global scale of the System (the United Nations). The United States and the Soviet Union functioned as lynchpins between the new European order, and the first global order.

The phase transition resulted in the implementation of dedicated hierarchies – integrative structures that transcended state structures – in Western and Eastern Europe, respectively controlled by the United States and the Soviet Union.

At that point, emergent regulation of the energy state within these non-anarchistic structures was replaced by deliberate regulation through integrative structures (dedicate hierarchies); these structures could ensure regulation without the deployment of destructive energy. Because of the implementation of these dedicated hierarchies, the intrinsic incompatibility between connectivity and anarchy (the security dilemma) was abolished and tension levels were significantly lower (at least within these non-anarchistic structures). Furthermore, there was agreement that the remaining tensions would be resolved /regulated through consultation.

During the period 1495-1939, Europe not only integrated step-by-step, but Europe – the core of the System – also increasingly expanded to the non-core of the System; shortly after the third systemic war (the First World War, 1914-1918), European states controlled about 80-90 percent of non-core territories by means of their colonies.

During the fourth systemic war (the Second World War, 1939-1945) not only the core of the System (Europe) collapsed because of the unsustainable tensions it produced, but the System also globalized. Globalization was accomplished through the coupling of the European and Asian war clusters (during the Second World War, 1939-1945), in which the United States played a crucial role. The moment – 11 December 1941 – Germany declared war on the United States in support of its ally Japan that had attacked the United States on 7 December 1941 in Pearl Harbor, the fourth systemic war became a global war.

Through the phase transition – the fourth systemic war – with its two closely related effects, the core and the non-core of the System merged.

Through the two integrative structures (dedicated hierarchies) that were implemented in Europe – and controlled by the United States and the Soviet Union – tension production in Europe was again manageable. The rivalries between European Great Powers were now replaced by (increasingly) intense rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which European states became subordinate ‘players’ in support of their respective controllers.

This development resulted in a stand-off in Europe, that was ‘contained’ by a (mutual) deadlock, a result of ‘mutual assured destruction’ that could be accomplished with the respective nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, war as an instrument of (rational) policy had no utility: It would result in collective self-destruction, while the urge to survival was (and still is) at the basis of the war dynamics of the System.

The stand-off lasted until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The period 1945-1991, was used by Western European states, to further integrate, and exploit economies of scale and scope. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, (1) Russia – the Soviet-Union’s core – was initially preoccupied with its consolidation, (2) the United States considered its mission accomplished (its interests to be secure) and focused on the economic exploitation of the global System, and (3) Europe further developed its integrative structures (the European Union), and absorbed Eastern European states in the process, that chose to join the European Union.

Pinker has not identified the finite-time singularity dynamic, and the four accelerating war cycles that accompanied it. Nor is Pinker aware that data-analysis shows that the now global System produces a fifth –  a first global – war cycle. For the period 1495-1945, the finite-time singularity dynamic and the four accelerating war cycles are the ‘framework’ to analyse the war dynamics of the System, and their relationship with – impact on – the shaping of the direction of development of the System. The accelerating life-spans of successive cycles should be used as the unit of analysis of the war dynamics of the System, not periods of 25 year, as Pinker does.

Pinker – and Richardson – continuously wrestle with the ‘inconvenient’ observation that the war frequency of wars decreased while, the System at the same time produced a number of ‘extreme’ wars, the First and Second World Wars (the third and fourth systemic wars). The observation that the war frequency decreased during the period 1495-1945, is correct, but their conclusions are not: The fundamental difference between systemic and non-systemic wars cannot be ignored.Table compare systemic and non-systemic wars

Table 1: In this table, the most fundamental differences between systemic and non-systemic wars are shown.

Pinker is not aware of the fundamentally different function of both types of wars: Systemic wars are manifestations of criticality of the System, and during systemic wars accumulated tensions are used to design and implement upgraded international orders, that ensure new periods of relatively stability. Non-systemic wars on the other hand are ‘just’ local wars that do (normally) not involve all Great Powers in the System, and their function is to regulate interactions and tensions between states, within an international order that is ‘in place’. Non-systemic wars are not about changing, but maintaining the status quo.

Pinker’s as well as observations and conclusions of other historians, are also distorted by the phenomenon that during the period 1657-1763 (during the relatively stable period of the second cycle 1618-1792) the System produced a number of non-systemic wars, that involved all Great Powers in the System, but were not manifestations of criticality of the System and did not result in the implementation of upgraded international orders.

Due to the intense rivalry between Great Britain and France during the period 1657-1763, the number of degrees of freedom of the System – the number of other states that determine war decisions – was temporarily reduced to only two. Consequently, during the period 1657-1763, the System produced a series of periodic – very regular – but also unrestrained (‘extreme’) non-systemic wars: Tensions were produced at a high rate, and did – and could not – accumulate, but were immediately released. The issues in the System – in fact there was only one (dominant) issue, the intense rivalry between Great Britain and France, – did not form an issue-network, that would at a certain point (the tipping point of the relatively stable period) start hindering the release of tensions by means of non-systemic wars.

In case the System has three or more degrees of freedom, the System produces chaotic non-systemic war dynamics; states take at least two states (and their ‘position’) in consideration in their decisions to go to war or join a war. A third degree of freedom, has a balancing effect, and the war dynamics of the System are consequently more restrained. This restraint allows for the forming of an issue-network, that eventually becomes sufficiently connected to produce a network effect, which is a prerequisite for the accumulation of tensions, and for the System to become critical and produce a systemic war.

The moment the intense rivalry between Great Britain and France was resolved (in favor of Great Britain), the System resumed its ‘default’ chaotic non-systemic war dynamics, and reached the tipping point in 1774; it was now only a matter of time before the System became critical (1792) and produced a second systemic war (the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars).


Figure 2: The data indicate that during the first exceptional period (1657-1763), non-systemic war dynamics were more extreme but also much more regular; during the second exceptional period (1945/1953-1991), in contrast, non-systemic war dynamics were highly subdued. During the period 1657-1763, two highly regular sub-cycles can be identified in the war dynamics of the System, with each sub-cycle defined by four non-systemic wars. The correlation coefficient of the severities of these two sets of wars is 1.00. The war frequencies of both sub-cycles were rather similar, 0.082 and 0.085 wars/year, respectively. Data from Levy.Periodic dynamics, PNG

Figure 3: This figure shows the non-circular trajectories in phase space of the abnormal non-chaotic – periodic – non-systemic wars during the first exceptional period (1657-1763). The two subcycles shown in above figure (figure 2) are ‘enclosed’ in these trajectories. Data from Levy.

Circular trajectory 1763-1792, pdf

Figure 4: This figure shows the orbit (consisting of six non-systemic wars) the second relatively stable produced following the first exceptional period (1657-1763), once the System in 1763 regained a third degree of freedom and resumed chaotic non-systemic war dynamics. During this relatively short period the System charged itself for a second systemic war. I argue that chaotic non-systemic war dynamics, which are intrinsically more inhibited than the preceding periodic war dynamics – are a precondition for the System to be able to become critical and reorganize itself. Data from Levy.

Furthermore, Pinker is not aware that the (now global) System is producing a fifth – a first global – war cycle (1945-….), that – analysis of data suggests – has a similar life-cycle as its four predecessors, and probably is the first war cycle of a second (now global) finite-time singularity dynamic.

Two ‘factors’ potentially confuse the analysis of the present war dynamics: (1) the fact that the non-systemic war dynamics were distorted during the period 1945-1991 because of the intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, resulting in highly-suppressed war dynamics, and (2) the fact that the four war cycles the System produced during the period 1495-1945, concern the System when it was dominated by European Great Powers; it was above all a European System. During the fourth systemic war (the Second World War, 1939-1945) however, the core (Europe) and non-core merged, and the System globalized. Following the fourth systemic war (of the European System), the now global System is starting a second – a global – finite-time singularity dynamic, that is an emergent property of the System to regulate the energy-state of the global System.

Increasing rivalries and tensions between communities, an increasing number of (unsolved) issues, and increasing obsolescence and dysfunctionality of the international order are typical signs that the System requires an upgrade, which – until now – was typically accomplished through periodic system-wide release of tensions – energy – which was used to design and implement upgraded orders.

The current – now global – System, as I mentioned, is producing a fifth – a first global – war cycle. In fact, the now global System – like its ‘predecessor’ the European System (1495-1939) – is producing a second (now global) finite-time singularity dynamic it seems; this is a self-organized dynamic, that is instrumental in regulating the energy-state of the globalized System, in efforts to optimize the collective survival changes of communities and humans which are the building blocks of the System, which interact from a selfish perspective in efforts to ensure the fulfilment of their basic requirements to survive.

The conditions that enabled the inception and unfolding of the first finite-time singularity dynamic (1495-1945), also are in place in the current (globalized) System, including: Population growth, rivalries between states, and the absence of a regulatory mechanism – a dedicated hierarchy – that could replace the self-organized regulatory mechanism, the second finite-time singularity dynamic – and ensure effective regulation of the energy-state of the System, by other means than war.

A finite-time singularity dynamic generates/produces its own momentum: a series of accelerating war cycles, that will eventually be unsustainable and result in the collapse of the System, and a ‘unavoidable’ phase transition, to avoid collective self-destruction. The question is, can we – humanity – implement a deliberate man-made regulating mechanism with global reach to regulate the energy-state of the System, through a ‘short-cut’, that is without willingly obeying the potentially self-destructive finite-time singularity dynamic: Can we escape this war trap, and control our destiny?

Problematic is, that the System presently is in the high-connectivity regime of the first global war cycle: Instead of tensions being released and issues being resolved, they now accumulate in the System and reinforce each other. Consequently, politics are volatile, and distrust between states is high; rivalries intensify.

Issues in the System – that become increasingly connected, and reinforce each other – have no clear-cut solutions. The overwhelming complexity of the present situation results in inaction, or unidirectional efforts of states and oversimplification of the problems/issues. These efforts will – and can – only contribute to the already dire condition of the System. At present the dynamics of the System are dominated by self-reinforcing feedbacks/mechanisms, that result in more issues and tensions.

The solution – the implementation of non-anarchistic structures, is a logical next step in the long-term process of social integration and expansion – and was already ‘contained’ (enclosed) in the preceding upgrades of the System. The war dynamics of the System, is about regulation of tensions, and integration and cooperation, that cannot be accomplished otherwise, but is vital for the survival of increasingly interdependent communities.

The finite-time singularity dynamic was a path dependent dynamic, that increasingly locked-in on further integration, for the very simple reason that cooperation has much more to offer than war and conflict: Through cooperation economies of scale and scope can be achieved that improve our ability to fulfil basic requirements (to survive), and our well-being.

The paradox is that integration could (so far) only be accomplished through increasing destruction, to the level that our collective survival was ultimately at stake. When we became aware that collective self-destruction was a matter of time, emergent regulation of the energy-state of the System in Europe was replaced by deliberate control through two integrative hierarchies that transcended state-structures in respectively Western and Eastern Europe. These integrative structures ensured deliberate human-control over the energy-state of these non-anarchistic structures: Self-organized regulation – imposed by the System – was replaced by deliberate human control, at least in Europe.

To be continued.