A critical evaluation of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, a study by Steven Pinker (4): Paradigm shift

Our limited understanding of the System’s (war) dynamics and development contributes to the dire condition of the System, and our impotence to take control over the System. It seems that humanities experience with war – our inability to take control – has caused a condition of collective learned helplessness.

A paradigm shift is urgently needed to improve the quality of historical research and policy advise.

In this chapter, I address the question “Why the war cycles and the working of the System – and the simple fact that physical laws apply to its dynamics – were not discovered at an earlier stage?”

Several reasons and factors explain why the war cycles – and laws and mechanisms that produce them – were not identified at an earlier stage, including:

(1) Unawareness – and denial – of the basic fact that physical laws also apply to social systems and their dynamics. There is a great reluctance to accept – or even consider – the basic fact that physical laws also apply to social systems and their dynamics. It seems, that this is somehow an ‘inconvenient truth’, because it (also) implies that our free will, is much more limited than we are prepared to accept.

(2) Unawareness of the functioning of complex systems and networks, and the applicability of concepts related to theoretical physics. Historians, social scientists and policy advisors are unaware of a basic understanding of the workings of complex systems and networks, and the applicability of concepts related to theoretical physics; this factor is closely related to the first factor.

(3) A narrative approach to historical events and processes. Historians and policy advisors typically use a narrative approach to explaining historical processes and to formulate policy advise, and ignore (because of unawareness, see above) physical laws and mechanisms that apply to social systems. With these narratives historians ‘construct’, they try to achieve a certain consistency, that satisfies our need for sense-making. Explanations are incomplete. Rigorous scientific methods need to be used. 

(4) Too short time horizon. Historians normally use relatively short time spans to study events and processes. To be able to identify the four accelerating war cycles (1495-1945), a long-term perspective is required, at least from the start of the first cycle in 1495.

(5) Doctrines and dogmas are confused with science. During the unfolding of the finite-time singularity dynamic (1495-1945), a number of political and military doctrines and dogmas were formulated in efforts to (1) explain and justify certain actions and decisions, (2) to make sense of developments, and to serve as (3) guidelines for the effective deployment of destructive energy in the System. I refer for example to Clausewitz’s theory ‘On War’, and the predominant school of thought in international relations theory ‘Realism’. These ‘theories’ are the products of the System, and it’s typical dynamics. These ‘theories’ do not transcend the (peculiarities) of these dynamics (and certain interests that had to / must be served), and are only valid within the restricted narrative ‘logic’ of dynamics of the System during the period 1495-1945. They do not qualify as scientific theories, only as dogmas that justify the actions and decisions of actors in the System. These doctrines and dogmas are deeply embedded in the System; they are integral components of the System and its dynamics, and hinder the introduction of new ideas.

(6) Humanities understanding of itself – and its role in the war dynamics of the System requires fundamental adjustment. My research not only shows that physical laws and mechanisms apply to the System and its dynamics, but also that humans – humanity – is unaware of its great ability for collective self-deception. What we consider to be decisions out of free will, in fact are ‘decisions’ in which we obediently follow the System’s deterministic demands. The timing of systemic wars – for example – and their duration and severity, obey deterministic and highly predictable laws. The third systemic war – for example – started at exactly the ‘right’ time (as prescribed by physical laws that apply), and its duration and severity were also highly regular and consistent. The System’s collapse (its core, Europe) in 1939 also obeys a simple deterministic logic. How can we be ‘misled’ to think that these are deliberate human decisions? How could we be not aware that we follow the System’s autonomous logic, that resulted in a war trap, we are integral parts of?

I attribute this worrying ability of humans to their ability for collective self-deception. We are able to attribute autonomous system-behavior to deliberate human decisions that are thought to be made out of free will, while in fact it is the System that determines our (re)actions. This behavior – our unawareness, and ability for collective self-deception – needs to be addressed, to be able to breach the second and potentially self-destructive finite-time singularity – a second war trap at a global scale of the System – that is now unfolding.

To achieve this, we should be aware that we – the System – ‘charges’ for war, because we ‘create’ collective psychological processes through ‘interacting self-fulfilling prophecies’. The security dilemma is a crucial mechanism in this process. The security dilemma is intrinsic to anarchistic systems. In anarchistic systems, states are responsible for their own security, but – and that is the dilemma – a state’s security (its military capabilities, and alliances) are another state’s insecurity. The security dilemma works as a self-reinforcing mechanism that (especially) dominates the System dynamics during high-connectivity regimes of relatively stable periods. The security dilemma – and the interacting self-fulfilling prophecies it produces – justifies for all states in the System that they must prepare for war.

Ideologies – like nationalism and fascism – also are products and integral parts of the System’s dynamics, especially the last war cycle (1918-1945) shows. During the unfolding of the finite-time singularity dynamic (1495-1945), tension production continuously accelerated, and constituted a self-reinforcing dynamic that increasingly became the dominant feedback structure of the System (its core, Europe). States mobilized increasing amounts of resources to be able to meet demands for destructive energy: War – especially systemic wars – ‘totalized’. Societies were – and needed to be – mobilized to produce and deploy increasing levels/amounts of destructive energy, and consequently became ‘legitimate’ targets. Ideologies – like fascisms -served (and serve) several purposes: They were used to justify the levels of destruction that were considered necessary, helped mobilize societies, and helped to channel high levels of fears by identifying ‘enemies’ (that had to be destroyed).

From a system’s perspective, the ideology of ‘America First’ that is now ‘evolving’ in the United States serves similar purposes as the ideologies I just referred to: ‘America First’ is used to identify and create threats and enemies (to the United States’ security, culture and economy), that can be used to channel and further ‘mobilize’ fear for political purposes, it is used to justify the deployment of destructive energy (its armed forces), and to mobilize resources (additional defense spending) to be prepared for the worst. These dynamics work as a self-fulfilling prophecy: The (aggressive) actions of United States will trigger responses that confirm its assumptions and that will then be used to justify further reinforce of this destructive dynamic. Similar processes will be (and already are) triggered in other states. Each state will find sufficient justification to escalate its dubious actions: The anarchistic System will not disappoint: every state will get its enemies.

The ‘American First’ dynamic, and similar dynamics of other states (Brexit, Russia’s assertive actions, etc.) are typical for high-connectivity regimes, when the (high) connectivity of the network of issues (increasingly) hinders the release of tensions; instead of being released, tensions and unsolved issues accumulate in the System, until the increasingly connected issues percolate the System, and cause it to become critical, and produce a systemic war. The current American ‘dynamics’ and dynamics of other states charge the System for a next systemic war. During this systemic war – as was the case during its four predecessors – the accumulated tensions will be used to design and implement an upgraded international order, that allows for a lower energy-state of the System and a new period of relative stability, that enables further growth and development.

(7) Incorrect ‘starting points’. Historians typically study historic events from ‘the inside out’. Starting points are mostly specific events, and the longer-term context is mostly ignored. This study demonstrates that the context – the longer-term – is crucial to make sense of events. For example, this study shows that the stage of development of the lifecycle at the time of a war to a considerable extent determines and shapes certain properties of the war concerned.

(8) Incorrect unit of analysis. War data have been studied and analysed extensively by historians and social scientists. Typically, periods of centuries are used as units of analysis in efforts to identify patterns in war dynamics. This study demonstrates that the accelerating cycles – and their respective life-spans – that accompanied the finite-time singularity dynamic should be used as units of analysis to make sense of these dynamics.

(9) Ignorance of the fundamental difference between systemic and non-systemic wars. The distinction between systemic and non-systemic wars is fundamental: systemic wars are not ‘just’ larger non-systemic wars; rather, systemic wars fulfil very different functions and have fundamentally different properties (see also table 1). Because historians did not use cycles as unit of analysis, and did not distinguish a fundamental difference between systemic and non-systemic wars, systemic wars were considered by many historians to be ‘accidents’ or anomalies; consequently, it was not possible to understand the war dynamics of the System.

For example, historians have determined that the frequency of wars decreased over the long term; this observation is correct even when systemic wars are included in these calculations and suggests that this trend points to a decrease in war activity. However, this observation is not correct. Although the number and frequency of non-systemic wars decreased over time, at the same time, the frequency of systemic wars increased, as did their severity. The System became more robust but also increasingly instable at the same time.

When the severities of successive cycles are related to the size of the population in Europe, analysis reveals that the severities of successive cycles are more or less constant, approximately 2.4% of the European population, as already mentioned (except for the second cycle; 3.9%). However, one should remember that the same percentage of battle casualty deaths – approximately 2.4% of a growing European population – was produced during increasingly shorter periods of time because of the shortening of the lifespans of successive cycles. A cyclical perspective provides us with completely different insights into the war dynamics of the System.

(10) Unawareness of abnormal war dynamics during the period 1657-1763. Abnormal non-systemic war dynamics during the second relatively stable period (1648-1792) were not recognised as such, and for that reason, historians could not make sense of them. During the first exceptional period (1657-1763), the System produced a series of large (sometimes system-wide) wars, but they did not qualify as systemic wars: these wars were actually ‘just’ over-sized non-systemic wars that the System could produce through a lack of a third (constraining) degree of freedom. The lack of a third degree of freedom was a consequence of the intense rivalry between Great Britain and France during that period, as already explained.

(11) Unawareness of the deterministic nature of the war dynamics and the development of the System. Until now, historians and social scientists have not been aware of the deterministic nature of the war dynamics of the System and the ‘shaping effects’ deterministic laws and mechanisms have, not only on wars themselves but also on the development of the System. Therefore, historical research has been based on an incomplete and consequently biased perspective.

In their efforts to make sense of historical events and processes, historians in some cases ‘constructed’ causalities that in fact did not exist or assumed that certain events were just coincidences or abnormalities, whereas in reality they were closely related to the deterministic nature of the System.

Discussions among historians about the relationship between the First and Second World Wars (respectively, the third (1914-1918) and fourth (1939-1945) systemic wars) are a case in point. In what I call the deterministic domain of the System (see also next point), the wars constitute the third and fourth systemic wars, respectively, that mark the final stage – the collapse – of the third (1815-1918) and fourth (1918-1945) cycles, respectively. These two cycles are distinct components of the finite-time singularity dynamic the System produced during the period 1495-1945. Both wars do not constitute one war that was temporarily interrupted, as some historians suggest, but rather are two distinct critical periods. Analysis of war data demonstrates this conclusively.

However, because of their proximity in time, events and social processes that are related to these two systemic wars in the contingent domain of the System were much more intertwined than was the case for events and social processes that were unfolding in the second (the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815), for example, and third (the First World War) systemic wars. The increasing interrelationship between events and social processes in the contingent domain does not make the First and Second World Wars – the third and fourth systemic wars – a single critical period in the deterministic domain. Although the fourth international order (1918-1939) was highly dysfunctional, it was an integral part of the fourth and final cycle the finite-time singularity produced.

Another example also sheds light on the impact of the underlying deterministic domain. I now point to the network effect I discussed that resulted in increasing local stability of states in the network of issues once the tipping point of the relatively stable period was reached. This network effect offers a plausible explanation for the ‘abrupt’ – unexpected – outbreak of the third systemic war (the First World War, 1914-1918), a phenomenon that historians have remained intrigued with to date.

Because of this effect, the average size of non-systemic wars started to decline from 1856 (i.e., the tipping point of the third relatively stable period) onward to approximately ‘zero’ shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. During the period 1856-1914, tensions and unresolved issues accumulated in the System, eventually resulting in a critical condition. A network of (unresolved) issues, and accompanying tensions, percolated throughout the System in 1914; the correlation length of the System had become one.

This network was then triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne) on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This relatively minor incident triggered a systemic response that then resulted in an ‘upgrade’ of the international order.

A third systemic war, as this perspective reveals, was not an ‘accident’ that could have been prevented, as certain historians suggest. The third systemic war was already in the making through the self-organised finite-time singularity dynamic the System had begun producing at its inception in 1495, which was accompanied by four accelerating cycles. The First World War, as we experienced and know it, was a ‘contingent’ version of an unavoidable third systemic war – a third reorganisation – produced by the System.

(12) Unawareness of the interaction between two distinct ‘domains’. My research shows that it is possible to distinguish an ‘underlying’ deterministic and a contingent domain in the System that interact through the security dilemma and self-fulfilling prophecies of states. The patterns that can be identified and the underlying mechanisms that produced them suggest that the dynamics and development of the System are at least partially deterministic in nature, as I explained.

My research shows that from an analytical point of view two related and interacting ‘domains’ can be distinguished in the System: An ‘underlying’ deterministic domain and a contingent domain. To make sense of the System’s war dynamics and development, it is important to understand what these domains ‘do’ and how they interact. The deterministic domain seems – at least partially – to determine and shape the war dynamics of the System, such as the start times and severities of systemic wars. The contingent domain, for example, determines the reasons for which wars are fought. The deterministic nature of the System leaves much less room for contingency – and ‘free will’ – than we assume (and most likely hope for).

However, the dynamics in the contingent domain can also have a fundamental impact on the deterministic domain. As mentioned above, the intensities of the rivalries between Great Powers during the first and second exceptional period (1657-1763 for Britain and France and 1945-1989 for the United States and the Soviet Union) determined the number of degrees of freedom in the System and consequently the nature of the non-systemic war dynamics of the System.



Figure 5: This figure shows two domains – a deterministic and contingent domain – that can be distinguished in the System. Both domains interact and synchronise their dynamics through the security dilemma and interacting self-fulfilling prophecies that this mechanism results in.


The distinction between a deterministic and contingent domain in the System raises the questions of how – through what mechanism – these two domains interact and how they synchronise.

I assume that the security dilemma of states in anarchistic systems is responsible not only for the production of tensions but also for the interaction between both domains. The security dilemmas of states also function as interacting self-fulfilling prophecies that shape expectations and provide justification for (war) decisions.

The impact of this mechanism – reinforcing self-fulfilling prophecies of states – dramatically increases once the tipping point is reached, and issues remain unresolved and tensions accumulate. Once the tipping point is reached, it is this feedback structure that ‘pushes’ the System towards a critical condition and to a systemic tension release (systemic war).

I assume that during the unfolding of the finite-time singularity dynamic that was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles (1495-1945), the deterministic domain increasingly locked-in on systemic war activity, and the ‘need’ to produce increasingly severe systemic wars with increasing frequencies, to ‘upgrade’ the System’s order and provide relative stability (at an accelerating pace). During the period 1495-1945, the increasing dominance of the deterministic domain increasingly constrained our ‘contingent latitude’, our ability to influence its dynamics. We made war, and war increasingly made us: The System increasingly became a war trap.

To be continued.