Book Review: Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe

I’d like to introduce my guest blogger, Tian You Liang. A  graduate of Stony Brook University with a bachelor’s in Health Science, Mr. Liang now works as instructional support to refine innovative approaches to teaching quality science courses. His passion is providing students with the proper learning assets and critical thinking skills so that they identify good science and make better informed decisions in their future endeavors. Today, he shares his thoughts on a wonderful book Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe (Paul M. Bingham and Joanne Souza, 2009).

This manuscript puts forth a new theory on the tantalizing question of how humans evolved to be so profoundly different from other animals. I’ve read many books on the evolution of man, spent a good bit of time trying to uncover the roots of our warlike nature (is it attributable to simple survival or something else?) and how that balances with our almost naive empathy for others and fundamental need to cooperate with others.

Here’s Tian’s take on Bingham and Souza’s book:

Stony Brook University professors Bingham and Souza present a single root cause for human origins and uniqueness. From this one cause springs forth the answers to how all of our human properties came to be, such as:

  • Our sexual psychology and behaviors
  • Uniquely human brain expansion
  • Human speech
  • Our human ethical sense
  • Our modern anatomies and life history.

What is the root cause? According to Bingham and Souza, humans are the only animal on Earth to manage the conflicts of interest between conspecifics through inexpensive decisive coercive threat resulting in kinship-independent social cooperation. If I had to put it in my own words it would be: Early humans threw rocks with elite skill (originally as a hunting strategy) and then redeployed that skill for social coercion in pursuit of their own self-interests giving rise to the first form of law enforcement, allowing the very first cooperative human coalitions to form.

I doubted that notion heavily at first. As a matter of fact, in the introduction, Bingham and Souza encouraged healthy skepticism and doubt when confronting new ideas and theories and to only keep what survives continuous falsification attempts.

Death from a Distance does not stop at just explaining how we got our primitive start to becoming human. Bingham and Souza give us a new critical lens with which to view our historical revolutions up to the modern state. They argue the cause for each and every one of these adaptive revolutions is clear: A new weapon system that allows for larger human coalitions to manage conflicts of interest at a larger scale. Case after case is presented from history and point to the immediate coercive technology that precedes the growth of human sophistication. Here are some examples:

  • It is the bow and arrow that causes Neolithic (agricultural) revolutions multiple times around world.
  • Body armor and melee weapons (swords and axes) gave rise to the ancient empires of Rome, China, Aztecs and many other ancient civilizations we learned about in high school.
  • Gunpowder rifles and handguns catalyzing the birth of the modern democratic state (i.e. American Revolution)
  • Aircraft, nuclear missiles and precision “smart” bombs allow management of conflicts of interest on a global scale.

 While it is neat to know how we got to the present day, Bingham and Souza’s theory predicts the future of humanity will depend on one question. Who holds decisive coercive power? If it is in the hands of the public, we will see a democracy and if it is in the hands of a few, we will see an authoritarian state.

 I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Towards the end of the book I had to put the book down every dozen pages or so and not just let the content soak in; but, also see how well all of this information maps onto the real world I have been living in. Death from a Distance is not just for anthropologists or archeologists. It draws upon the natural sciences and social sciences in a unifying nature to explain the human condition in a profound way.

For those who prefer visual, check out this YouTube:

I must say, I’ve never tied the latter into our ability to throw before reading this book.


4 Responses to “Book Review: Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe”

  1. 1 BioScientific
    September 28, 2011 at 5:57 am

    What an interesting read this book seems to be. Amazing to follow how we evolved from rock throwers to cooperative groups. Talk about connecting the dots! I also love how in theory it’ll be up to who holds coercive power to decide on the future of humanity. Clearly brilliant stuff. Thanks for sharing this!

    • 2 Tian you Liang
      September 28, 2011 at 7:03 pm

      Since finishing the book, I have a more optimistic outlook on the future of humanity. Some people and myself included are initially shocked that it is our projection of inexpensive violence that allowed non-kin human coalitions to form. However, I came to the realization that when conflicts of interest are managed cost effectively, we can strongly insist and enforce cooperative and humane behavior from the level of individuals all the way up to entire nation states.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

  2. September 28, 2011 at 7:44 am

    That’s what drew me to the book–the reasoned conclusions drawn from the evidence. Since my time machine is broken, I have to draw on my big brain’s ability to make connections. These two scientists have done a good job of it.

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