History Book Club: War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
May 10, 2017
The history book club will be discussing War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris (2014).
7 PM at the Museum, free
*Starred Review* This erudite yet compulsively readable history of war (and actually much more) by archaeologist-historian Morris (Why the West Rules—For Now, 2010) takes the provocative position that, over time, the value of war, despite its horrors, has been to make humanity both safer and richer. He covers a vast span, from primitive (Morris enlists anthropological studies of chimpanzees and early “protohumans” to explain aggression) and ancient civilizations to the “American Empire.” War’s impact in terms of lives lost (as a percentage of national population) has lessened, Morris demonstrates, and its long-term effects have been, as he puts it, “productive.“ The thesis is elegantly advanced (there is something to marvel over or even chuckle about on almost every page). Morris is as comfortable referencing Edwin Starr, who sang the song from which the title derives, as he is Thomas Hobbes. Only large centralized states, Hobbes’ Leviathans, forged by war, can secure stability. Simply put, “War made the state, and the state made peace.” Throughout this rare mixture of scholarship, stunning insight, and wit, Morris cites the widely divergent opinions of past philosophers and scholars, and, though he makes his case convincingly, future (and, oh yes, the future is projected) students, readers, and critics of this book are likely to continue the fascinating argument Morris raises here. War! What Is it Good For? appeals to (indeed, may broaden) the large audience that has made Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), much quoted in it, a modern classic and should join it on personal and library bookshelves. --Mark Levine