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Pitirim Sorokin on Fitness and “War Waste” May 25, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Pitirim Sorokin

Питири́м Алекса́ндрович Соро́кин (1889-1968) was considered in many ways to be the anti-Talcott Parsons due to their notorious disagreements over the merits of Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (1937) as well as his rather tyrannical personality.  Both Sorokin and Parsons were philosophers of history (due to Parson’s late embrace, like Karl Popper, of evolutionary models of societal growth and development) and the separation of their intellectual projects is not as pronounced as is thought.  Sorokin was an evolutionist who was also an “old-school” sociologist insofar as he considered the social scientific heritage of the latter nineteenth century to be quite valuable.  His 1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories is a compendium of the mental furniture of social theory in the long nineteenth century.  Robert Merton, who was always careful to distance himself from Sorokin, betrays Sorokin’s influence in his citation methods and in his adherence to the “spirit” of the argument of his sources, rather than the letter.  Both Merton and Sorokin were lumpers (see Merton’s 1936 paper, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”), but they lumped heuristically.

Sorokin’s Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life (1946) immediately reminds one of R. A. Fisher’s work, or that of Alexander Carr-Saunders.  All three looked at rates of differential fertility and the impact of social forces (wars, revolution, migration) on the evolution of human civilization.  All considered human evolution to be determined by differing forces than those governing natural selection.  As importantly, Sorokin continued the “war and waste” debate, also referred to as the “military selection” debate, a controversy which marinated through much of the later nineteenth century, but which really had two great stimuli: the Boer War and the First World War. David Starr Jordan as well as Thorstein Veblen were two important interlocutors in this debate.

Sorokin began, “war competes with pestilence, famine, and revolution….”  He continued, “large scale wars are ordinarily followed by famine and epidemics” while the “lethal power of war has been increasing rather than decreasing with the passing centuries” (92.) Sorokin (like Emile Durkheim, among others) was concerned with how calamity (war, economic instability, poverty) affected the very basic structures of society, visible through means of vital statistics.  This was very much the point of Durkheim’s Suicide  and we can see Sorokin participating in this genre of argument.

The outbreak of war imposed a uniform pattern on the birthrate, where the dips correspond to “many a perspective bridegroom called to arms.”  Accordingly, during famines and pestilences, the birthrate also decreases, but how much so depended upon the severity of the famine or pestilence, where if the famine is severe enough, the women remain “barren” (94.)

More detailed is his incursion into the problem of whether war, famine, and the like “selects” the fit or the unfit.  He responded that fit or unfit, best or worse, were subjective terms.  The question was also difficult since the proper statistical language was lacking. However, he believed there was enough evidence to mark out some disagreements.  He noted that many considered war and revolution to be “dysgenic,” where “war and revolution promote the extermination of the best and the survival of the less fit,” leading to the “impoverishment of the hereditary stock and to eventual degeneration and decay.”  The reason for such an impoverishment was that those who took to the field were the strongest and fittest, having survived an enlistment process where the old and feeble were weeded out.  Additionally, “dishonest persons, selfish and irresponsible egoists either cannot enter the army or try to elude military service” and such was the higher causality rate among officers as opposed to infantry that the most intelligent and capable of society bore the brunt of the casualties of war (96.)

Revolutions according to this theory were even more harmful, since according to the Roman dictum, the logic of revolutions was to “spare the submissive and demolish the proud.”  Thus: “Revolutionary terror and counterterror are both intentionally directed at the superior constituents of both factions” (97.)  Moreover “war and revolution result in a host of derelicts-  the wounded and deformed…” where if a nation is subject to frequent wars and revolutions, “its vital strength is sapped, and sooner or later it decays.”  Sorokin considered this theory to be not without its merits.  It did however suffer from a number of defects.

First, it “completely disregards the female part of the population,” since if war and revolution exert negative selection on the male population than those social forces exert a positive impact on the female portion of the population.  War and revolution cause an excess in the number of marriageable women.  Consequently, men are able to choose the smartest and the most beautiful mates.

Second, the dysgenic effect of war and revolution overstated the role of heredity. “Though better endowed parents tend to beget better endowed offspring,” such as the nobility of Europe, “the heredity mental and biological differences between officers and common soldiers, between the army and  the civil population, between revolutionary leaders and the bulk of the population, is rather inconsiderable.”

Third, this theory underestimated the changing character of wars and revolutions and thus over-generalizes their general character.  He detailed, “In the past, when men fought with bows and arrows…physical strength, courage, dexterity…and experience counted for a great deal, possessing a certain survival value. ”   It was for this reason that war had in the past been positively selecting.  Although it was also true that modern warfare slaughtered indiscriminately, if wars were viewed on the level of group selection, it was clear that even modern wars and revolutions positively selected, since at this level, “victory and survival are likely to be achieved by that group which is more resourceful and intelligent, more unified, and better prepared….” Added to this fact is that “peacetime selection is not always positive,” many times favoring the selection of “cynical money-makers” and “bullies” (99-100.)

Furthermore, if wars and revolutions selected negatively, mankind would have “degenerated” long ago as wars were “endemic” to the human condition.  Given the data, limited in any case, Sorokin concluded that there was little basis for any theory which described war as having either a uniformly positive or negative effect are “fallacious.”  Wars and revolutions had both positive and negative effects.

While the effects of wars and revolutions were complex, he was able to cautiously admit that the effect of famine was “somewhat positive.”   Famines were somewhat positive since they tended to adversely effect the poor and ignorant while sparing the middle class, the wealthy,  the intelligent, and the nobility.  These groups were less afflicted by famines since they had more resources from which to draw upon in times of need and planned for future uncertainties to a greater degree than other groups, such as the poor.   Famines and pestilence, moreover,  selected against “ethically inferior elements.”  He concluded that much of the dynamics of human history was determined by the slightly negative selection of wars and revolutions and the slightly positive selection of famines and pestilence (101-2.)


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