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Warlike and Peaceful Societies

Agner Fog

1. Introduction

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1All through recorded history we have seen extreme differences between different human societies. Some societies in some periods have been warlike and cruel beyond comprehension, while other societies in other times and places have been remarkably peaceful and tolerant.

2Societies that are warlike, hierarchical, and intolerant with strict discipline are called regal. Societies that are peaceful, egalitarian, and tolerant are called kungic. Many societies are something in between these two extremes. The present book offers a new, groundbreaking theory that explains this extreme variability in social organization and culture based on evolutionary theory.

  • 1 Bateson and Gluckman (2011, p. 31)

3It has often been discussed whether such dramatic differences in human behavior are due to genetic differences or cultural norms. One aspect that is often missing in the genes-versus-culture debate is that genes may code for flexibility. Our genes enable us to behave differently under different conditions. This is called phenotypic plasticity.1

4The theory presented here demonstrates that humans have a plasticity that enables us to adapt to different conditions of war or peace. Warlike or regal behavior has been adaptive under conditions of collective danger that were sometimes present in our evolutionary past, while conditions of collective security that were present at other times and places made peaceful or kungic behavior optimal from an evolutionary point of view. In other words, the potentials for both warlike and peaceful behavior are present in our genetic makeup.

5Nobody is born a devil or a saint. Depending on our living conditions, we may become authoritarian and belligerent or peace-loving and tolerant. The theory presented here explains a likely evolutionary mechanism behind this flexible psychology and analyzes the conditions that make us either strident or docile.

6This theory, which will be called regality theory, can answer many burning questions about both individual and collective behavior: Why have so many tyrants fought cruel and unnecessary wars? Why do many people support their tyrants? Why do some people hate foreigners while other people readily embrace them? Why have people used their apparently peaceful religion to justify some of the worst atrocities in history? And why have other people dedicated their lives to the most unselfish charitable causes based on the very same religions? Why do some militants commit acts of terrorism against innocent people? And why can a few acts of terrorism that cause a limited amount of harm lead to dramatic changes in the political climate, while other events that cause much more harm have no noticeable political effect?

7The remarkable differences between warlike and peaceful societies are reflected in many characteristics of culture, including aspects that have no obvious relationship with war and peace, such as art preferences and sexual morals. This book explores such side effects as well and presents statistical evidence in support of the theory.

1.1. A different kind of social science

  • 2 Simonton (2013)
  • 3 Kuhn (1962, chapter 12)
  • 4 Becher and Trowler (2001), Lucas (2006), van Arensbergen, van der Weijden and van den Besselaar (2 (...)

8‘Scientific genius is extinct’, wrote Dean Simonton in Nature a few years ago. In his view, the only kind of scientific progress we see today is marginal improvements within old paradigms that have already been thoroughly explored. Revolutionary new ideas either do not occur or fail to be acknowledged.2 Scientists who are trained in one particular paradigm are unlikely to understand and accept a new, radically different paradigm.3 While everybody hails interdisciplinary research, the reality today is that many scientists guard their own scientific territory. Scientists today have little freedom to choose their own subjects of research. The highly competitive funding system is more likely to support old research areas than radically new ones because it is controlled by established scientists through the peer review system.4

9Most scientists start by specializing in one particular scientific paradigm and then search for problems that this paradigm can be applied to. The present book reflects the opposite approach. It starts with a problem and then searches for paradigms that can contribute to solving the problem. This includes paradigms from the natural sciences, such as evolutionary biology and ecology, as well as from the social sciences, such as anthropology, history, political science, economics, and cultural studies.

  • 5 Hayek (1967)
  • 6 Horowitz, Yaworsky and Kickham (2014), O’Malley (2007)
  • 7 Beed and Beed (2000)
  • 8 Kincaid (1996, chapter 3)
  • 9 Mahoney and Thelen (2015)
  • 10 Richardson, G. (1991)

10Unfortunately, there is much animosity and little mutual understanding between the natural and the social sciences. Many regard it as impossible to establish something similar to the laws of the natural sciences for social phenomena.5 Evolutionary theories of human behavior are rejected by many sociologists on those grounds,6 and some particularly fashionable branches of social studies are aversive to any search for causal regularities in social and cultural systems.7 This is not a good starting point for bridging the gap between the social and the natural sciences. Fortunately, authors in other branches of the social sciences have strongly defended the study of social phenomena based on solid scientific principles.8 We have to rely in particular on those social science traditions that explicitly search for regularities; for example, comparative historical analysis9 and social systems theory.10

11Too many studies of social phenomena have focused on an isolated phenomenon, using a single theoretical framework that allows only a single type of explanation. Such studies cannot account for the rich complexity of human culture and social developments. We need a social science that combines the insights of many different scientific disciplines to better understand the interactions between individual and collective action, between planned and unintended developments, between human action and structural causes, between endogenous and exogenous factors, and so on. The present book strives towards this goal of multicausal explanations.

12The large number of different scientific disciplines involved in this book makes it impossible to go into deep details for each discipline. For example, the text does not go into details with historical examples, but instead discusses the specific aspects of historical events that are relevant to the theoretical discussion. Readers who want to go deeper into a particular subject are referred to the literature references (chapter 10).

13In sciences like physics and mathematics, a theory is called ‘beautiful’ if it can solve a broad range of problems using one simple formula and if it can be applied to problems other than the one that prompted the development of the theory. Regality theory is a beautiful theory in this sense. What started as an attempt to explain morals by cultural selection ends up as an evolutionary psychology theory of collective action that can explain a broad range of phenomena: individual characteristics such as authoritarianism, xenophobia, or tolerance; social phenomena such as political hierarchy, bellicosity, discipline, or egalitarianism; and even cultural phenomena such as religiosity, music genres, and architectural style. Regality theory is not a ‘grand theory’, though. It can contribute to the explanation of many interesting phenomena, but it needs to be combined with other theories in order to fully explain these phenomena.

14Some branches of social studies readily mix science and ideology. That is a dangerous course. Regality theory is useful for explaining many different political phenomena, and the theory may be useful for guiding political decisions, but this must be a one-way interaction. The present book is based on the principle that science may influence politics but politics should not influence science. The fundamental science should be immune to political and ideological influences even if the research should reveal politically inconvenient truths.

1.2. Overview of the book

15This book relies on many different scientific disciplines from both the natural sciences and the social sciences. Many concepts are briefly explained because one cannot expect the reader to be competent in such a broad range of different disciplines, but you should still be prepared to look up unfamiliar words and concepts. The good news is that it is not necessary to read and understand all the chapters in order to get a basic understanding of the theory.

16Chapter 2.1 gives a short introduction to regality theory. It is necessary to read this chapter first in order to understand the rest of the book. You may read the remaining chapters in any way you like. You may focus on the chapters that are most relevant to your field of interest and skip other chapters or read them later. There are cross-references throughout the book where one chapter relates to another.

17Chapter 2.2 explains the evolutionary mechanism that regality theory is based on. This is the theoretical justification for the theory. Chapters 2.3, 2.4, and 2.5 contain further discussion of evolutionary aspects of the theory. Chapter 2.6 relates the theory to common cultural phenomena.

18Chapter 3 and its subsections discuss how regality theory can benefit from contributions from other scientific disciplines. Regality theory cannot stand alone. We are dealing with social, cultural, and psychological phenomena that are influenced by a complex interplay of many different causes and mechanisms. Such a complex system cannot be described adequately by a single theory. We need to look into such diverse disciplines as ecology, demography, anthropology, history, political science, economics, social psychology, cultural studies, media studies, and many others in order to get a full understanding of the complex social phenomena of warlike and peaceful behavior. The subsections of chapter 3 discuss relevant findings from a number of disciplines that can be combined with regality theory to provide a more complete understanding of the social, cultural, and psychological phenomena we want to study.

19Many different academic traditions have made observations about different kinds of societies and cultures or different kinds of personalities and psychological reactions that have important similarities with regality theory. However, they have done so without the same degree of theoretical understanding of fundamental causes and mechanisms. Chapter 3 also discusses how such findings from other areas of study can be integrated with regality theory.

20Chapter 4 looks at different theories about the causes of war and peace as well as the dynamic processes behind different kinds of violent conflicts.

21Chapter 5 and 6 analyze various aspects of contemporary cultures. Chapter 5 looks at a number of economic factors that produce regal cultures, perhaps unintentionally, through fear and collective danger. The commercial mass media profit from fear. Economic instability causes insecurity and conflicts. Changing economic conditions have changed the patterns of war and violent conflicts so that proxy war, insurgency, and terrorism have mainly replaced conventional interstate war.

22Chapter 6 looks at cases where fear and conflict are used intentionally as strategic weapons by powerful nations as well as by smaller insurgent groups.

23The psychological plasticity that regality theory describes has its origins in a distant evolutionary past, and we cannot be certain that it is still adaptive (in the evolutionary sense) in a modern setting. We may gain more insight by looking at non-modern cultures that are more similar to our evolutionary past. Chapter 7 describes a number of ancient cultures, ranging from the most peaceful to the most warlike, and living under very different ecological environments. In connection with each culture is a discussion of how it relates to the predictions of regality theory.

24While examples are useful for illustrating a theory, we cannot rule out the possibility that the agreement between a theory and a few examples is just a coincidence. Chapter 8 contains a number of statistical tests to distinguish between random coincidence and significant correlations. Various methods are used for testing the predictions of regality theory at both the individual level and the level of whole societies in both modern and ancient non-industrial societies.

25Chapter 9 concludes the book with a discussion and summary of the findings and possible applications of regality theory.


1 Bateson and Gluckman (2011, p. 31)

2 Simonton (2013)

3 Kuhn (1962, chapter 12)

4 Becher and Trowler (2001), Lucas (2006), van Arensbergen, van der Weijden and van den Besselaar (2014)

5 Hayek (1967)

6 Horowitz, Yaworsky and Kickham (2014), O’Malley (2007)

7 Beed and Beed (2000)

8 Kincaid (1996, chapter 3)

9 Mahoney and Thelen (2015)

10 Richardson, G. (1991)


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