I picked up Steven LeBlanc’s “Constant Battles” because I’d been on an anthropological kick and Robert Edgerton’s “Sick Societies”. Based on the title, I had been expecting it to be similar to fellow-archaeologist Lawrence Keeley’s “War Before Civilization” (which LeBlanc cites, along with Edgerton, and which I blogged about here and here) as well as historian Azar Gat’s “War in Human Civilization” (which I blogged here, here and here). It turned out to be surprisingly in sync with Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” in its focus on humans degrading the environment. LeBlanc’s main thesis is that basically no humans until recently have even attempted to live in equilibrium with our environment, so populations have always expanded up to Malthusian limits, ultimately being checked by group conflict over limited resources. I was skeptical of Jared Diamond’s claim that human agriculture had denuded not only the Middle East, but also the Mediterranean, since Italy seems like a normal place despite being heavily settled and even urbanized going all the way back to Roman times. LeBlanc however brings up as examples small Greek islands that once supported agriculture and are now completely barren, so perhaps there are parts of the Mediterranean where that thesis is correct.

The introductory sections of the book setting up the myth to be toppled, heavily promulgated by his own profession of archaeologists, who in the post-WW2 era insisted on “pots not peoples” even though linguists were able to correctly point out there must have been a Volkwanderung of Indo-European speakers. LeBlanc recalls how he himself misinterpreted archaeological evidence early in his career, not realizing why settlements would be built on defensible hilltops rather than places with better access to resources, believing in mythical weighted sticks to make holes for sowing seeds rather than them obviously being maces, and assuming large caches of sling missiles were for protecting sheep from wild animals rather than to defend settlements from other people. I suppose he must keep bringing up the environmental/Malthusian angle because that paradigm shift was necessary for him to accept how common war was in the past after believing the normal thing among his peers. So perhaps he really could have benefited from reading The Tragedy of Group Selection, explaining the obvious way a self-interested (in a Darwinian sense) agent would try to get around the limits of carrying capacity.

One bit of tension between LeBlanc & Joseph Henrich is that the latter emphasizes how cultural group selection over time results in human practices being appropriate for their ecological niche. LeBlanc emphasizes short-sightedness (though this also prevents less complex societies from altering their environment even MORE via public works that they wouldn’t expect to complete before getting attacked), over-exploitation of resources, and populations booms followed by busts being the norm. He even uses moralistic language to contrast hypothetical “good” “ant” (as in Aesop’s fable) type populations that voluntarily restrict their population growth, with “ecological dimwit” “grasshopper” populations that don’t and seize the former’s territory in bad times due to their larger numbers. He actually argues at one point that if humans were more like rabbits or deer, who can’t fight wars and instead just try to leave overpopulated areas, selection would favor a “balanced” taking over the territory of a “boom-and-bust” one, although I don’t think that’s true of actual animals of those species. One partial way of reconciling them is via LeBlanc’s emphasis that the remaining forager groups that anthropologists study are mostly relegated to the most marginal environments, which don’t support lots of population expansion (although he notes that such groups still engaged in plenty of warfare in said environments before Europeans arrived).

LeBlanc divides the post-introductory material of his book up into sections which a Victorian might have recognized as progressing to their own civilization, and which Diamond/Henrich, Keeley and Gat covered with overlaps: our ape/chimpanzee ancestors, bands of early human foragers, “tribal” societies of largely egalitarian settled farmers, and finally “complex” societies ranging from hereditary chiefdoms to modern states (whose chief distinguishing characteristic is the existence of a bureaucracy). Throughout he repeatedly notes that each type doesn’t live in ecological balance by voluntarily restricting population growth (there is plenty of infanticide, but its often practiced against the offspring of defeated males by victorious males like a more sex-biased version of The Tragedy of Group Selection), and instead they grow until they fight over limited resources with neighboring groups (though more complex societies will also ally with other groups to better outnumber & overpower enemies). He notes how anthropologists studying egalitarian societies initially observed fighting but dismissed it as not “real” war due to low numbers of casualties per skirmish, but counters that with high rates of population death in war, with something like a 25% odds of a man dying that way over his lifetime and unknown probabilities for children (women of course have lower probabilities of being killed since they can be seized by victorious males, but also have a higher rate of death from war than in contemporary society). The relatively low-intensity of setpiece-free warfare that only achieves “victory” via wiping out rather than conquering the enemy is part of what makes those battles “constant”. An archaeologist like LeBlanc may not be the best to discuss the least complex societies, because they left less archaeological evidence (although that is at least better than a historian reliant on written records), although there are skeletal remains with arrowheads (at least among those possessing arrows, so not chimps or Aborigines) in them and other telltale signs of violence. One odd bit is that he sided more with Marvin Harris than Napoleon Chagnon on the motivations for warfare, saying that interviewees only initially claimed it was over women while later admitting resource constraints were behind it, and even saying the former motivation is just the result of female infanticide caused by food shortages (despite earlier acknowledging abductions of females among chimpanzee raiders, who lack a sex bias in infanticide). He also unfortunately makes the same mistake as Diamond on Easter Island.

Implicitly, LeBlanc portrays the issue as a coordination failure. Everyone would be better off if they all voluntarily restrained from overpopulating and also refrained from warfare, but anyone who tried to “cooperate” in this prisoner’s dilemma would lose out to those who “defect” in the absence of any authority. The more complex societies could theoretically provide such authority (and he notes that his fieldwork in Turkey took place in relative peace since the Turkish state can suppress violence in those areas more than the ancients who lived there could), although the myth that war is more common among states does at least reflect the empirical reality that states war have warred with each other a whole hell of a lot over the course of recorded history. Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons” was relatively optimistic about bottom-up management & conservation of resources, but my recollection is that her examples were all from within complex societies not eternally riven by small-scale warfare, even if they didn’t require hierarchy & bureaucracy for their specific resources. He views more complex societies as theoretically able to “law down the law” to manage resources, sometimes passing laws to restrict marriage (and thereby reproduction), and often using their control over repressive forces to make a portion of their population starve rather than being obligated to go to war (which also kills less of the population when the soldiers are conscripts who can be taken prisoner rather than personal enemies to be killed). He rather sarcastically summarizes a contrary view as:

We tend to be confident in the ability of bands and tribes to work out these challenging issues of population control and environmental renewability yet have no faith in the abilities of complex societies to tackle the same issues. After all, we live in complex societies and we know better

One of those people who “knows better” is James Scott (not cited by LeBlanc, nor is Ostrom, although the late Henry Harpending is) whose “Seeing Like a State” documented multiple instances of “authoritarian high-modernism” embodied in said states completely screwing up the environment far worse than their subjects had previously been doing based on traditional “metis”. The strange thing is that LeBlanc cites the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as being like American settlers warring with Plains Indians, in a section that claims that to avoid such wars states need to address the resource constraints of tribal peoples as “ultimately the real answer […] because underlying all the other reasons for warfare is almost always this fundamental imbalance of resource stress and population growth”. To someone like Steve Pinker or Richard Hanania wars as recent as the invasion of Afghanistan (and now Ukraine) are just unforced errors made by political leaders who didn’t realize how economically pointless wars are now (although in the last chapter acknowledges that earlier Malthusian cultural adaptations can cause war to continue “senselessly” for several generations before populations adapt to the affluent industrial environment). Another oddity is when he says “it is clear that state- and chiefdom-level societies tried to impose rules slowing growth. They […] had large cities that functioned as population sinks” as if that (prior to modern medicine/sanitation) was intentional rather than happenstance.

His view is somewhat more pessimistic than a neo-Rousseauian like Brian Ferguson who thinks that war is just a meme that arose by accident (as LeBlanc thinks even peaceful societies could plausibly become warlike again if Malthusian conditions returned), but more optimistic than someone like Hans Morgenthau who (in the wake of WW2) thought war was inevitable for completely modern states as well. His multiple examples of previously violent societies that became pacified (quickly for some of the more primitive subject peoples, more gradually for some like the Vikings) do indeed provide grounds for relative optimism. He sounded especially optimistic when he said of the Middle East “[T]hese are societies noted for their business acumen and willingness to work hard. If peace prevailed, in today’s global economy the entire Middle East could become an economic powerhouse.” Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthier Middle Eastern countries, but its wealth comes from oil rather than the work of its populace, whose productivity in other sectors is extremely low and their make-work jobs subsidized by said oil. Someone like David Rundell can be very impressed by their leadership maintaining relatively peaceable control over the country, but that peace hasn’t made the people productive. As Greg Cochran would note, there’s something both he & Timur Kuran must be overlooking. At the same time, he doesn’t seem to realize how pessimistic he is when describing problems in Mexico or South America to a long history of agriculture enabling the inhabitants to “foul their nest”, despite the much longer history of it in politically united & relatively peaceful (yes, I know there are COVID protests now) China. He does realize something like the dirt theory of warfare holds and that land is no longer the biggest economic factor, but he attributes Japan’s invasion of southeast Asia in WW2 to “land” like Hitler’s drive to the east, as if it were not specific non-food resources necessary for their military they were seeking. The book comes across as especially dated (it was published in 2003) when he dismisses that Taliban as irrational for hosting Bin Laden and thinking if they could beat the Soviets they could beat the US, which was true on a long enough time scale.