Cooperate To Compete: An Overview of ‘Ultrasociety’, by Peter Turchin

Turchin, P. (2016) Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books


How did we evolve from small-scale societies of foragers and hunter-gathers into large-scale industrial societies, in an evolutionary blip of 10,000 years?

In Ultrasociety, historian Peter Turchin advances a scientific approach to history to identify the causal mechanisms that enabled large-scale society- a strand of research Turchin calls Cliodynamics. Through quantitative analysis and modelling, Turchin is able to verify and discard various theories of how large-scale societies evolved.

The standard explanation of how large-scale societies evolved from small-scale egalitarian tribes is the advent of agriculture- as proposed by Jared Diamond (1998) in Guns, Germs and Steel. The premise is that agriculture created high population densities as well as production surpluses that enabled hierarchy. “On this premise, agriculture got the ball rolling and the entire history of civilisation followed from that.” (p. 20).

However, Turchin argues that this theory is incomplete. Although agriculture was a prerequisite for large-scale society, it is not a sufficient explanation. For example, why would agriculture necessarily lead to the rise of states and costly institutions being implemented, such as bureaucracy, the rule of law, and organized religion? Additionally, agriculture had a markedly negative impact on human health due to agricultural produce providing poorer nutritional value, resulting in smaller stature, more illness and the spread of pathogens through high density settlements… How did agricultural societies  succeed against small-scale hunter-gatherers despite these costs?

Turchin argues that, paradoxically, the main driver of large-scale society has been war. “It is competition and conflict between human groups that drove the transformation of small bands of hunter-gatherers into huge nation-states. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was war that first created despotic, archaic states and then destroyed them, replacing them with better, more equal societies… War is a force of destructive creation, a terrible means to a remarkable end.” (p. 22).

The following passage explains the evolutionary logic (pp. 38-39, emphasis added):

“When people first started cultivating plants and settled in permanent villages, war between tribes became more intense. Defeat now could easily result in a loss of land for growing crops, which meant starvation… Because of the consequences of losing were so grave, societies came under great evolutionary pressure to get better at surviving at war. This meant inventing better weapons and armor, building up social cohesion, and adopting better battlefield tactic. But the best thing you could do was simply become a larger group, so that you could bring more battalions to the fight.

This inexorable evolutionary logic forced villages to combine into larger-scale societies. These combinations could take the form of loose alliances, more cohesive federations, or centralized, hierarchical chiefdoms… The same evolutionary logic induced chiefdoms to combine in yet larger-scale societies- complex “chiefdoms of chiefdoms”. Those, in turn, scaled up into early states and empires, and eventually into modern nation-states. At every step, greater size was an advantage in the military competition against other societies.”

One must appreciate that although wars between empires and nation states dwarfs inter-tribal conflicts in scale, the proportion of people engaged and directly affected by warfare has declined remarkably. “There is no contradiction between larger armies and larger butcher’s bills from warfare, on the one hand, and on the other, a greater part of the population enjoying peace.” (p. 41, cf. Pinker, 2011).

Cultural Multilevel Selection

The evolutionary theory advanced by Turchin to explain why we humans are the world’s champion cooperators is cultural multilevel selection

Multilevel selection (also known as group selection) is a theory in evolutionary biology proposing that natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of at the more conventional level of the individual. There is some controversy over group selection. However, the ‘game-changer’ is applying multilevel selection to cultural evolutionas opposed to genetic evolution. As stated by Turchin; “[…][T]he most important point is that the evolution of cooperation is driven by competition between groups.  These groups can be teams, coalitions, even aggregations without any clear boundaries, or whole societies. No matter what form groups take, it is competition on the collective scale that is necessary for cooperation to evolve. We cooperate to compete.” (p. 93).

A troubling implication of cultural group selection is that in the absence of an external threat, the level of selection moves to within the group, causing cooperation to erode and inequality to rise. The spirit of ‘we are all in the same boat’ disappears and is replaced by a ‘winner takes all’ mentality, resulting in growing social dysfunction and in extreme cases, societal collapse. As stated by the historian Arnold Toynbee, ‘great civilisations are not murdered- they die by suicide’ (quoted pp. 42-43).

A thought provoking analysis of American politics is provided in Ultrasociety, arguing that rising income inequality and political polarisation since the 1970s indicates that the US has become a dysfunctional state (bear in mind Ulitrasociety was written before the rise of Donald Trump). Similarly, Turchin also links the rise of extreme individualism in the US and elsewhere to the increase in corporate scandals during the early 2000s, and to “the greatest case of corporate hubris and fraud- the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08.” (p. 51).

Let’s explore a case study provided in Ultrasociety to further our understanding: the Enron scandal.

The Enron Scandal

Jeff Skilling was widely regarded as a business genius. An executive at Enron who worked closely with Skilling called him “the smartest son of bitch I’ve ever met.” (Bryce, 2002, p. 47, cited p. 45). Skilling obtained an MBA from Harvard, graduating in the top five percent of his class. He went on to become a management consultant at McKinsey, becoming one of the youngest partners in the firm’s history. He joined Enron in 1990 and was promoted to president and Chief Financial Officer in 1997, becoming CEO in 2001.

Smart Skilling may be. However, Skilling held a warped view of evolutionary theory, which Turchin suggests sowed the seeds of disaster.

The story of the Enron scandal is well known. Enron went under in 2001, with its shareholders losing tens of billions of dollars and 20,000 employees not only losing their jobs but their entire life savings. Its top executives ended up in prison, where Skilling is still serving his sentence.



Although other Enron executives bear responsibility for Enron’s failure, Skilling was widely seen as the company’s visionary. Turchin argues that the managerial system Skilling created turned Enron into an “an epic of corporate greed, fraud, and corruption.” (p. 46).

Jeff Skilling famously claimed that Richard Dawkins’ (1976) The Selfish Gene was his favourite book (see Conniff, 2006). Although Turchin argues that The Selfish Gene was flawed and caused significant harm, Dawkins’ classic work has arguably been widely misinterpreted (for example, selfish genes don’t necessarily make selfish people).

Skilling took his variant of Social Darwinism and applied it to increase competition within Enron, enacting systems such as the Performance Review Committee- colloquially known  as ‘Rank-and-Yank’. Skilling recruited hundreds of newly minted MBAs from the leading business schools every year, and fired the bottom fifteen percent of performers whilst lavishly rewarding the top five percent of performers.

Skilling told reporters that the PRC was ‘the glue that holds the company together’. “Skilling couldn’t have been more wrong. The PRC wasn’t glue. It was poison.” (p. 46).

As one former employee said; “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stamp on the guy’s throat.” (Johnson, 2009, quoted p. 46).

Turchin summarises the Enron scandal eloquently (p. 47):

“It is cooperation that underlies the ability of human groups and whole societies to achieve their shared goals. This is true for all kinds of groups, for economic organizations, firms and corporations, as well as for political organisations, such as states. But what Skilling did at Enron was to foster within-group competition, which bred mutual distrust and back-stabbing (if not throat-stomping). In other words, Skilling completely destroyed any willingness among his employees to cooperate- not with each other, not with their bosses, not with the company itself. And after that, collapse was inevitable.”

What is the relevance to your business?

With the benefit of hindsight, corporate scandals at notorious firms may seem obvious. However, the Enron scandal took the world by surprise. Fortune Magazine named Enron ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ for six years in a row. Enron is not an isolated case. For example, Lehman Brothers was ranked #1 ‘Most Inspired Securities Firm’ in 2007–less than a year before its collapse. With the prevalence of corporate management systems encouraging intra-organizational competition, one must ask where the next corporate scandal will arise. As stated by Turchin; “It looks like Fortune doesn’t learn from its mistakes” (p. 51).

The business implications of all this should be clear: enact business policies that reduce inequality, foster an organizational culture that promotes cooperation, and suppress internal competition. As stated by Turchin (p. 93):

“As a corollary, while competition between teams create cooperation, competition among players within a team destroys it. In other words, to succeed, cooperative groups must suppress internal competition. Equality of group members is, therefore, a very important factor in promoting group cohesion and cooperation, which translates into the capacity of the group to win against other groups. This insight… should be intuitively obvious. Yet it is not. At least, it is not obvious to the majority of corporate managers, nor the owners of professional sports teams.”

I’ll wrap up this post with a couple of my own suggestions which are worth exploring–with varying degrees of appropriateness depending on the nature of your business:

1. Reduce the discrepancy in employees’ basic pay, and increase compensation from bonuses linked to company (or team) performance.

2. During difficult times, it’s wise to appreciate the adverse impact of mass redundancies have on group cohesion and consider alternative paths of action, such as organization-wide pay-cuts. Employees may be prepared to accept change if the alternative is job losses.

2. Democratise team meetings so that all members are able to have their voices heard, and enable bottom-up communication processes that feed directly to senior leaders.

3. Also, make sure your leaders are visible and approachable. Make a priority what Nigel Nicholson calls ‘Managing By Wandering Around’ (see Nicholson, 2014). If you’re a leader, take the time to walk around and speak with employees in various contexts, and make them feel “we’re all in this together”. Don’t segregate yourself.

4. Similarly, make sure the amount of physical space allocated to senior management within the company is equitable and doesn’t trigger indignation (in other words, that your offices don’t resemble Enron’s headquarters).

Written by Max Beilby

To buy a copy of Ultrasociety, click here

*This post was updated 3rd April 2016


Bryce, R. (2002) Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of EnronPublic Affairs, New York

Conniff, R. (2006) “Animal Instincts”, The Guardian. Available here

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press

Diamond, J. M. (1998). Guns, Germs, and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Random House

Johnson, E.M. (2009) “Survival of the Kindest”, Seed Magazine. Available here 

Pinker, S. (2012) “The false allure of group selection”, Edge. Available here

Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity. Penguin

Nicholson, N. (2014) The ‘I’ of LeadershipJoey-Bass



  1. And yet…. Some level of internal competition is necessary to avoid, at least, the perils of group-think (aka in-group confirmation bias). Societies evolved (developed may be a better concept) means of cooperation through argument and dispute within the society. The presence of external danger maintained a focus on the wider “us”, preventing the internalisation of the major us-them division: i.e. ensuring that “our” major enemy was outside the group rather than within it.

    I look forward to reading Turchin’s work and in hope that it is a more nuanced analysis than simply a pendulum swing away from a one-eyed reliance on competition to a one-eyed reliance on cooperation.

    Balance: it’s both-and.


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