Darwin and War in Ancient China, Sengoku Japan, and Early Modern Europe

What does Darwin have to do with terracotta warriors, samurai armies, or Napoleon’s conquests? Quite a lot.

Or at least this is what I argue in a paper I finished back in April. I anticipated refining it with extra research in the months since then. This hope was not realized. Other projects have consumed my time and I have had to lay aside this paper until I can give it proper attention. But I think the ideas contained in it are interesting, so I will publish it here in working paper form:

For those disinclined to read all 36 pages of it, the paper can be briefly summarized in two statements. The first is an observation, the second an argument. 

The observation is this: the military, political, and social histories of Warring States China (471-221 BC), Sengoku Japan (1467-1603), and Early Modern Europe (1453-1816) were all incredibly similar. The origins of all three “warring state” periods are found in the ruins of large empires whose collapse forced hundreds of smaller political units to take control of their own affairs.  This was a time of “feudalism” or “fragmented sovereignty,” where politics was personalized, rulers did not exercise a monopoly on violence, and individuals had to navigate conflicting political loyalties. This situation did not last. Governments that once struggled to control the population they ruled and exercised power through the relatives or aristocratic peers of the ruling house soon commanded large and impersonal bureaucracies that directly extracted taxes from and conscripted the service of millions of people. Small aristocratic forces dominated by noble cavalry detachments were eclipsed by gigantic forces of massed infantry. Trade intensified, living standards increased, governments centralized, and most importantly, the number of states dwindled.  

I am not the first to note these similarities. The political scientists and historical sociologists Richard Walker, Victoria Tin-bor Hui, Bau Tzong-Ho, Edward Kaiser, and Yong Cai all wrote detailed studies comparing ancient Chinese and Early Modern European politics, while analogies to European social and military history are made often by Hsu Cho-yun and Mark Edward Lewis in their histories of ancient China. Historians Stephen Morillo, George Parker, and Matthew Stavros have described the many parallels between Sengoku and Early Modern European military history in books and journal articles, while John Ferejohn and Philip Striech have detailed the parallels in the institutional development and diplomatic relations of Sengoku domains and Early Modern European states.[1] The comparison between the Senogku era and the Chinese Warring States era is older still; “Sengoku” is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese characters “zhan guo (战国)” or “warring states.” The name was given to the period by Japanese thinkers who wanted to parallel their own country’s history with the famous stories of ancient China. 

Despite all of this, I haven’t found a study that directly compares and contrasts all three eras together. [2]  Doing so myself meant reading dozens of books on each region and synthesizing what data I could gather. I feel most confident in my summary of the Chinese experience. While a few important books are missing from that section of the bibliography, I have read most of the relevant English-language secondary literature and a great deal of the primary sources this literature is based upon (though following standard practice with political scientists, I did not cite this primary material). The weakest section is that on Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Much of my work there rests on Thomas Ertman’s 1997 study, Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. This work’s conclusions are now disputed, and I ought to revise my argument to reflect this.

What is my argument? To briefly summarize: the parallel changes seen in the Warring States, Sengoku, and Early Modern European state systems (bureaucratic consolidation, territorialization, the rise of mass infantry armies, etc.) should be understood as the results of a Darwinian process. There has been a great deal written over the last three decades on the relationship between warfare and “state formation” or “state building.” Most of this literature suggests that it is the pressure of war that creates stronger states and governments–take away the demands of war and we would all be living in feudal baronies today. I believe this general idea is correct, but the causal relationship it suggests is not. If you delve deep into the historical records you often find that the supposed connection between war and government innovation just isn’t there. Political consolidation, bureaucratic reforms, and so forth, are often pushed through in times of peace. Many have economic or legal rationales entirely unrelated to external geopolitics. On the flip side, it is not hard to find states in the modern world subject to terrible wars that remain weak and underdeveloped. 

My answer to this conundrum is that war does not cause stronger government. It selects for it. The process is not too different from the evolution of a phenotypic trait like camouflage in organisms like the Artic hare. The white snow of the tundra did not cause any individual hare to become white. Rather, hares are far more likely to survive in a snowy environment if they are white. The tundra does not turn the population of hares a different color, but selects for hares whose color better fits the tundra environment until they constitute the entire population. I believe a very similar dynamic was happening over the centuries of warfare in Sengoku Japan, Warring States China, and Early Modern Europe. The parallel institutional developments of these eras look all the world like the process biologists call convergent evolution. If states today (or in other eras of world history) do not converge to the same features that developed in those eras, it is because they face a different set of selection pressures. Instead of searching for a universal causal relationship between warfare and state making, we should be looking to see what constitutes “optimal fitness” in a given state system and whether there are mechanisms which select for these traits.

This is my case in brief. For the full argument, more nuanced and detailed than the gloss above, please see the original paper. All comments will be welcome. 


[1] I am going to forgo my usual practice of providing extensive citations in the footnotes for this post, for all the references are included in the bibliography of the paper. 

[2] Though Azar Gat comes close in his discussion of ‘feudal war’ in his magisterial War in Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 320-336.

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T. Greer: The three cases you describe are special instances of a much broader theory that I have been publishing on for the last 10 years. Here are the key references:

Turchin P. 2011. Warfare and the Evolution of Social Complexity: A Multilevel-Selection Approach. Structure and Dynamics 4(3(1)):1-37. Article PDF

Turchin P, Currie TE, Turner EAL, Gavrilets S. 2013. War, Space, and the Evolution of Old World Complex Societies. PNAS 110: 16384–16389.

And how we are testing it:

Turchin, Peter, Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Edward Slingerland, and Mark Collard. 2012. A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics 3: 271–293.

See: http://peterturchin.com/academic-publications/

@Peter Turchin-

Thank you for highlighting your work. I think it is valuable, though I think this paper and your corpus are addressing fundamentally different questions.

Your model presupposes a unilineal scale of social complexity, and suggests that warfare leads societies to go up the ladder, so to speak. I accept your results without question. Of interest to me is the different in the political and institutional structures formed from one region and time to another. In essence, why does warfare lead to certain types of social complexity in some places, but not in others? Particularly when the main independent variable cited to explain these changes (warfare) is constant throughout?

I agree on the 'darwinian" process, but query how far one can apply it. What's the unit of selection? "Political unit" is too vague – the states of Australia or provinces of Canada are "political units", but were some tyrannical government in Canberra or Ottawa to re-arrange them, few would care. In similar vein, all the 300-odd "political units" of the Holy Roman Empire were in some sense members of a single political unit. They paid taxes to the Emperor, sent delegates to the Diet at Frankfurt, acknowledged imperial laws, helped defend the empire through the circles. Likewise the counts and castellans of France never disputed their membership of a kingdom of France – they just disputed what rights and obligations that entailed (and force was an accepted method of contestation up until c 1650 – we see lots of "rebellions" followed by reconciliation, agreements or arbitration). We are led astray by Max Weber's emphasis on a monopoly of legitimate force – all terms that usually applied in degrees rather than absolutes, and often determined after the fact. Hobsbawm's useful observation that identities are not like hats – you can wear more than one at a time – also applies to political allegiances.

There's an ideological underpinning which is crucial to limiting (or enhancing) the ability of "political units" to absorb one another. The elites of the warring states of China and Japan all agreed that unity was the right and proper condition – they just disagreed on whose unity it was to be. Where the kingdoms etc of Europe agreed (up to 1648) more or less on religious unity, but not on political unity. The top-level units (England, France, Christian Spain, Germany…) are remarkably resilient from about 1000 CE.

Peter T. –

Thanks for your comment. Agree on the general gist (we need to nail down a better definition of 'political unit' for a Darwinian framework to apply) but disagree on some of the particulars.

"Likewise the counts and castellans of France never disputed their membership of a kingdom of France – they just disputed what rights and obligations that entailed "

The 100 years war is very much a testament against this description. As were many Angevin power disputes earlier on. The Burgundians during the time of Charles the Bold are another sharp rebuke.

The top-level units (England, France, Christian Spain, Germany…) are remarkably resilient from about 1000 CE.

This is picking winners post hoc. In year 1000 CE there is no reason to pick England over Scotland, France over Venice, etc. 'Spain' wasn't a nominal unit until the 1400s, and not a single unit until the 1700s. Germany was even more a mess right up to its unification.

The elites of the warring states of China and Japan all agreed that unity was the right and proper condition – they just disagreed on whose unity it was to be.

True for China, less sure it was true for Japan. But willing to change my mind on this if you can point me towards sources that suggest otherwise.

"There's an ideological underpinning which is crucial to limiting (or enhancing) the ability of "political units" to absorb one another"

Possibly true. I'm greatly suspicious of arguments that China stayed together because the Chinese thought it should–it is quite obvious that those in periods of division, but especially in the WS time, were not willing to allow outsiders to rule over them in the name of unity (Zhang Yimou's propaganda withstanding). There was none of the 'bandwagon rally' seen in most civil wars between warlords (as there would be when Xiang Yu and Liu Bang fought a few decades after the WS era ended), cuz folks at that time didn't think of their wars as civil wars. That schelling point had not been established yet. The advance of the Qin was resisted with all the ferocity of those defending their homeland from foreign invasion. The ideal of unity had no more to do with their 'unification' of China than it did the Roman 'unification' of the Mediterranean.

We are led astray by Max Weber's emphasis on a monopoly of legitimate force – all terms that usually applied in degrees rather than absolutes, and often determined after the fact. Hobsbawm's useful observation that identities are not like hats – you can wear more than one at a time – also applies to political allegiances.

I touch on this in the paper–part of what makes the transition in each region so interesting is that in the beginning of each era political actors had to navigate multiple allegiances. There was no real monopoly of force possessed by anybody. But by the end of each period structures had hardened, allegiance was rarely divided, and monopoly of force was most definitely held by the ruling states. This is what 'state formation' is all about really–the process by which Weber's state came into being. What is interesting is how similar this transformation looks across the history of all three systems.

re 100 Years War – one of the central points in contention up to Henry V was the subordination of the Plantagenet domains to the King in Paris (Edward III was prepared to trade his claim to the throne of France for recognition of full sovereignty in Gascony. The French refused). Henry V took the tack that if he could not have part of France in full, then he might as well have the lot. So both sides recognised the importance of the royal rights.

Why "pick" France over Venice? France in 1100 was a full kingdom, as were England and Scotland (the Declaration of Arbroath is a good illustration of what people at the time thought this meant). German princes, cities and imperial knights acknowledged the suzerainty of the Empire. In Spain, the creation of Portugal is interesting – the founder obtained a decree from the Pope. Again ,the need to do so, and the recognition accorded, point to some frame of reference about what it was to be a kingdom. So too does the case of Poland – extinguished in 1790 to general European unease, so resurrected in subordinate form in 1815.

The Chinese warring states were all acknowledged heirs of the Zhou, which in turn had succeeded the Shang. These had put in place the framework of political thought – they weren't quite civil wars, but the political existence of the parties was at stake, which was mostly not the case in Europe.

There's a parallel with Rome, where several centuries of Empire meant that formal secession was not seen as an option, even though civil war was pretty much institutionalised as a process of succession.

You are right about modern state formation, but it would be a mistake to cast it back too far. Tokugawa Japan was not strongly centralised, Chinese rule sort of faded out slowly into Central Asia, Tibet, Indochina and minority areas and it can't be said even now that the writ of the US or Russian governments runs unchallenged. All power has to pick its fights carefully if it is to survive.

T Greer: Forgive me, but I am commenting based on your summary of your paper having not yet read it in its entirety. My comments will doubtlessly reflect that.

Like Agent Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I like the twist of the rise of centralized states being one of adaption to similar constraints rather than driven by identical forces. However, if it truly is Darwinian, where are the casualties? What polities do you have in mind as examples of those which could not adapt to "warring states" conditions?

Poland-Lithuania is the only example I can think of in Europe. Its lack of strong centralization allowed it to be dismembered by its neighbors. Venice was precociously centralized, but loss of spice trade to the Portuguese and Ottoman pressure finished the Stato de Mar off very early in the European "warring states" period.

The Indian subcontinent might be another example of a centralized state that failed to launch, though in the case of the Ganges Valley, it seems to me that foreign interference (the Mughal Empire, the British Raj) is what most stymied centralization there rather than Darwinian failure.

Southeast Asia, the Korean peninsula, Manchuria also failed to develop strong centralized states, but it would appear there to be more a fact of relative poverty: all of those regions lacked river systems that provided centralized communication and the easy accumulation of surplus capital that could support a large bureaucracy. (Not that Japan has such a river system, either, but the Seto Inland Sea fills a similar niche.)

Another book you might enjoy (or the articles that lead up to it, which I discuss at some length in the paper) is Henrk Spruyts The Sovereign State and its Competitors, which describes several failed cases in depth. Spruyt's work is interesting because he focuses on institutional competitors of the sovereign state–places such as the Hansa League, the largest of several European "city leagues" he represented an entirely different institutional model from the states that ended up dominating Europe.

Divergent institutional models (the ikko leagues and confederacies) were also found in the Japanese case, for what it is worth.

Peter T says "Tokugawa Japan was not strongly centralised"

This is true. Erik Ringmar even suggests that Tokugawa Japan should be understood as its own international system. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8479231&fileId=S0020818312000033 In many ways the state of Nobunaga was more centralized and bureaucratized than its Tokugawa successor–I credit this to the fact that Hideyoshi did not unify Japan through conquest, but through negotiation.

The Warring States were also (arguably) more centralized and domineering than any of their imperial descendants in the millenia that followed. The evolutionary pressures a united Chinese dynasty looking to the steppe faced differed from that faced by warring states fighting equals.

Also, I am afraid that a comment of Peter T's was accidentally caught in the spam folder and deleted. I am sorry! Peter T., If you are not eager to retype your thoughts I understand, but if you do so I'll make sure it doesn't fall into the garbage pile again.

Forgotten what I said (I'm sure it was brilliant!).

To pursue the theme: a state is an organisation, but it's also a habit of mind. As such, it fits in a broader view, which tends to nest states among other identities (family, clan, tribe, principality, region, ethnicity, religious community…), any or all of which may have some political salience and organisation. The ordering of these allegiances in turn builds on common notions of rulership and legitimate power, and these constrain or encourage the accumulation of power at different levels.

So a medieval German was maybe a burger of the city, Swabian, a subject of a local prince, but also a member of the Empire and a German by ethnicity (as opposed to a fellow Imperial Bohemian or Lorrainer). Over time these different strands differed in intensity, and this mattered politically. But these habits were shaped by ideologies of ruler-ship and power which said, among other things, that allegiance to the Empire was more fundamental than allegiance to a city or local prince (north of the Alps, anyway). So a prince could divide his lands, or swap territories with another, but it took a war and a formal treaty (and a few generations) to shift the Imperial borders.

So the Warring States all acknowledged their community as heirs of the Jin, Zhou and Shang (it took some time before "king", which denotes sovereign, replaced "duke" as the title for a ruler). Borders shifted a lot, some were absorbed (they started as 12, went to 7, then to 1) without too much ruckus.

Contrast the fate of Hungary under Hapsburg and Ottoman rule. Under the Ottomans, "Hungary" as a political unit vanished – it became several vilayets, and the Hungarians just another Christian group. By contrast, Habsburg Hungary preserved the trappings of a kingdom – parliament, crown, privileges and so on – separate from Austria. Which were then extended into former Hungarian lands as re-conquest proceeded. And this reflected the different ideological bases of rulership in the two. In the Ottoman view, the vanquished kingdom now had no legitimacy, so matters could be arranged as the Sultan pleased. In the Habsburg and wider west European view, a kingdom was an essential unit, not to be readily dissolved.

A book you might finding interesting to your discussion is Alberto Alesina's "The Size of Nations".

I am not an expert, but they take a cost-benefit approach to the (sort of same) problem. I think their approach is particularly interesting with reference to the issues of modern states, and would explain the countervailing tendencies toward fragmentation.