Cortés, Pizarro, and Afonso as Precedents for Takeover

Crossposted from the AI Alignment Forum. May contain more technical jargon than usual.

Crossposted from AI Impacts.

Epistemic status: I am not a historian, nor have I investigated these case studies in detail. I admit I am still uncertain about how the conquistadors were able to colonize so much of the world so quickly. I think my ignorance is excusable because this is just a blog post; I welcome corrections from people who know more. If it generates sufficient interest I might do a deeper investigation. Even if I’m right, this is just one set of historical case-studies; it doesn’t prove anything about AI, even if it is suggestive. Finally, in describing these conquistadors as “successful,” I simply mean that they achieved their goals, not that what they achieved was good.


In the span of a few years, some minor European explorers (later known as the conquistadors) encountered, conquered, and enslaved several huge regions of the world. That they were able to do this is surprising; their technological advantage was not huge. (This was before the scientific and industrial revolutions.) From these cases, I think we learn that it is occasionally possible for a small force to quickly conquer large parts of the world, despite:

  1. Having only a minuscule fraction of the world's resources and power
  2. Having technology + diplomatic and strategic cunning that is better but not that much better
  3. Having very little data about the world when the conquest begins
  4. Being disunited

Which all suggests that it isn’t as implausible that a small AI takes over the world in mildly favorable circumstances as is sometimes thought.

EDIT: In light of good pushback from people (e.g. Lucy.ea8 and e.g. Matthew Barnett) about the importance of disease, I think one should probably add a caveat to the above: "In times of chaos & disruption, at least."

NEW EDIT: After reading three giant history books on the subject, I take back my previous edit. My original claims were correct.

Three shocking true stories

I highly recommend you read the wiki pages yourself; otherwise, here are my summaries:

Cortés: [wiki] [wiki]

  • April 1519: Hernán Cortés lands in Yucatan with ~500 men, 13 horses, and a few cannons. He destroys his ships so his men won't be able to retreat. His goal is to conquer the Aztec empire of several million people.
  • He makes his way towards the imperial capital, Tenochtitlán. Along the way he encounters various local groups, fighting some and allying with some. He is constantly outnumbered but his technology gives him an advantage in fights. His force grows in size, because even though he loses Spaniards he gains local allies who resent Aztec rule.
  • Tenochtitlán is an island fortress (like Venice) with a population of over 200,000, making it one of the largest and richest cities in the world at the time. Cortés arrives in the city asking for an audience with the Emperor, who receives him warily.
  • Cortés takes the emperor hostage within his own palace, indirectly ruling Tenochtitlán through him.
  • Cortés learns that the Spanish governor has landed in Mexico with a force twice his size, intent on arresting him. (Cortés' expedition was illegal!) Cortés leaves 200 men guarding the Emperor, marches to the coast with the rest, surprises and defeats the new Spaniards in battle, and incorporates the survivors into his army.
  • July 1520: Back at the capital, the locals are starting to rebel against his men. Cortés marches back to the capital, uniting his forces just in time to be besieged in the imperial palace. They murder the emperor and fight their way out of the city overnight, taking heavy losses.
  • They shelter in another city (Tlaxcala) that was thinking about rebelling against the Aztecs. Cortés allies with the Tlaxcalans and launches a general uprising against the Aztecs. Not everyone sides with him; many city-states remain loyal to Tenochtitlan. Some try to stay neutral. Some join him at first, and then abandon him later. Smallpox sweeps through the land, killing many on all sides and causing general chaos.
  • May 1521: The final assault on Tenochtitlán. By this point, Cortés has about 1,000 Spanish troops and 80,000 - 200,000 allied native warriors. He had 16 cannons and 13 boats. The Aztecs have 80,000 - 300,000 warriors and 400 boats. Cortés and his allies win.
  • Later, the Spanish would betray their native allies and assert hegemony over the entire region, in violation of the treaties they had signed.

Pizarro [wiki] [wiki]

  • 1532: Francisco Pizarro arrives in Inca territory with 168 Spanish soldiers. His goal is to conquer the Inca empire, which was much bigger than the Aztec empire.
  • The Inca empire is in the middle of a civil war and a devastating plague.
  • Pizarro makes it to the Emperor right after the Emperor defeats his brother. Pizarro is allowed to approach because he promises that he comes in peace and will be able to provide useful information and gifts.
  • At the meeting, Pizarro ambushes the Emperor, killing his retinue with a volley of gunfire and taking him hostage. The remainder of the Emperor's forces in the area back away, probably confused and scared by the novel weapons and hesitant to keep fighting for fear of risking the Emperor's life.
  • Over the next months, Pizarro is able to leverage his control over the Emperor to stay alive and order the Incans around; eventually he murders the Emperor and makes an alliance with local forces (some of the Inca generals) to take over the capital city of Cuzco.
  • The Spanish continue to rule via puppets, primarily Manco Inca, who is their puppet ruler while they crush various rebellions and consolidate their control over the empire. Manco Inca escapes and launches a rebellion of his own, which is partly successful: He utterly wipes out four columns of Spanish reinforcements, but is unable to retake the capital. With the morale and loyalty of his followers dwindling, Manco Inca eventually gives up and retreats, leaving the Spanish still in control.
  • Then the Spanish ended up fighting each other for a while, while also putting down more local rebellions. After a few decades Spanish dominance of the region is complete. (1572).

Afonso [wiki] [wiki] [wiki]

  • 1506: Afonso helps the Portuguese king come up with a shockingly ambitious plan. Eight years prior, the first Europeans had rounded the coast of Africa and made it to the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean contained most of the world's trade at the time, since it linked up the world's biggest and wealthiest regions. See this map of world population (timestamp 3:45). Remember, this is prior to the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions; Europe is just coming out of the Middle Ages and does not have an obvious technological advantage over India or China or the Middle East, and has an obvious economic disadvantage. And Portugal is a just tiny state on the edge of the Iberian peninsula.
  • The plan is: Not only will we go into the Indian Ocean and participate in the trading there -- cutting out all the middlemen who are currently involved in the trade between that region and Europe -- we will conquer strategic ports around the region so that no one else can trade there!
  • Long story short, Afonso goes on to complete this plan by 1513. (!!!)

Some comparisons and contrasts:

  • Afonso had more European soldiers at his disposal than Cortes or Pizarro, but not many more -- usually he had about a thousand or so. He did have more reinforcements and support from home.
  • Like them, he was usually significantly outnumbered in battles. Like them, the empires he warred against were vastly wealthier and more populous than his forces.
  • Like them, Afonso was often able to exploit local conflicts to gain local allies, which were crucial to his success.
  • Unlike them, his goal wasn't to conquer the empires entirely, just to get and hold strategic ports.
  • Unlike them, he was fighting empires that were technologically advanced; for example, in several battles his enemies had more cannons and gunpowder than he did.
  • That said, it does seem that Portuguese technology was qualitatively better in some respects (ships, armor, and cannons, I'd say.) Not dramatically better, though.
  • While Afonso's was a naval campaign, he did fight many land battles, usually marine assaults on port cities, or defenses of said cities against counterattacks. So superior European naval technology is not by itself enough to explain his victory, though it certainly was important.
  • Plague and civil war were not involved in Afonso's success.

What explains these devastating conquests?

Wrong answer: I cherry-picked my case studies.

History is full of incredibly successful conquerors: Alexander the Great, Ghenghis Khan, etc. Perhaps some people are just really good at it, or really lucky, or both.

However: Three incredibly successful conquerors from the same tiny region and time period, conquering three separate empires? Followed up by dozens of less successful but still very successful conquerors from the same region and time period? Surely this is not a coincidence. Moreover, it’s not like the conquistadors had many failed attempts and a few successes. The Aztec and Inca empires were the two biggest empires in the Americas, and there weren’t any other Indian Oceans for the Portuguese to fail at conquering.

Fun fact: I had not heard of Afonso before I started writing this post this morning. Following the Rule of Three, I needed a third example and I predicted on the basis of Cortes and Pizarro that there would be other, similar stories happening in the world at around that time. That’s how I found Afonso.

Right answer: Technology

However, I don't think this is the whole explanation. The technological advantage of the conquistadors was not overwhelming.

Whatever technological advantage the conquistadors had over the existing empires, it was the sort of technological advantage that one could acquire before the Scientific and Industrial revolutions. Technology didn't change very fast back then, yet Portugal managed to get a lead over the Ottomans, Egyptians, Mughals, etc. that was sufficient to bring them victory. On paper, the Aztecs and Spanish were pretty similar: Both were medieval, feudal civilizations. I don't know for sure, but I'd bet there were at least a few techniques and technologies the Aztecs had that the Spanish didn't. And of course the technological similarities between the Portuguese and their enemies were much stronger; the Ottomans even had access to European mercenaries! Even in cases in which the conquistadors had technology that was completely novel -- like steel armor, horses, and gunpowder were to the Aztecs and Incas -- it wasn't god-like. The armored soldiers were still killable; the gunpowder was more effective than arrows but limited in supply, etc.

(Contrary to popular legend, neither Cortés nor Pizarro were regarded as gods by the people they conquered. The Incas concluded pretty early on that the Spanish were mere men, and while the idea did float around the Aztecs for a bit the modern historical consensus is that most of them didn't take it seriously.)

Ask yourself: Suppose Cortés had found 500 local warriors, gave them all his equipment, trained them to use it expertly, and left. Would those local men have taken over all of Mexico? I doubt it. And this is despite the fact that they would have had much better local knowledge than Cortés did! Same goes for Pizarro and Afonso. Perhaps if he had found 500 local warriors led by an exceptional commander it would work. But the explanation for the conquistador’s success can’t just be that they were all exceptional commanders; that would be positing too much innate talent to occur in one small region of the globe at one time.

Right answer: Strategic and diplomatic cunning

This is my non-expert guess about the missing factor that joins with technology to explain this pattern of conquistador success.

They didn't just have technology; they had effective strategy and they had effective diplomacy. They made long-term plans that worked despite being breathtakingly ambitious. (And their short-term plans were usually pretty effective too, read the stories in detail to see this.) Despite not knowing the local culture or history, these conquistadors made surprisingly savvy diplomatic decisions. They knew when they could get away with breaking their word and when they couldn't; they knew which outrages the locals would tolerate and which they wouldn’t; they knew how to convince locals to ally with them; they knew how to use words to escape militarily impossible situations… The locals, by contrast, often badly misjudged the conquistadors, e.g. not thinking Pizarro had the will (or the ability?) to kidnap the emperor, and thinking the emperor would be safe as long as they played along.

This raises the question, how did they get that advantage? My answer: they had experience with this sort of thing, whereas locals didn't. Presumably Pizarro learned from Cortés' experience; his strategy was pretty similar. (See also: the prior conquest of the Canary Islands by the Spanish). In Afonso's case, well, the Portuguese had been sailing around Africa, conquering ports and building forts for more than a hundred years.

Lessons I think we learn

I think we learn that:

It is occasionally possible for a small force to quickly conquer large parts of the world, despite:

  1. Having only a minuscule fraction of the world's resources and power
  2. Having technology + diplomatic and strategic cunning that is better but not that much better
  3. Having very little data about the world when the conquest begins
  4. Being disunited

Which all suggests that it isn’t as implausible that a small AI takes over the world in mildly favorable circumstances as is sometimes thought.

EDIT: In light of good pushback from people (e.g. Lucy.ea8 and e.g. Matthew Barnett) about the importance of disease, I think one should probably add a caveat to the above: "In times of chaos & disruption, at least."

Having only a minuscule fraction of the world's resources and power

In all three examples, the conquest was more or less completed without support from home; while Spain/Portugal did send reinforcements, it wasn't even close to the entire nation of Spain/Portugal fighting the war. So these conquests are examples of non-state entities conquering states, so to speak. (That said, their claim to represent a large state may have been crucial for Cortes and Pizarro getting audiences and respect initially.) Cortés landed with about a thousandth the troops of Tenochtitlan, which controlled a still larger empire of vassal states. Of course, his troops were better equipped, but on the other hand they were also cut off from resupply, whereas the Aztecs were in their home territory, able to draw on a large civilian population for new recruits and resupply.

The conquests succeeded in large part due to diplomacy. This has implications for AI takeover scenarios; rather than imagining a conflict of humans vs. robots, we could imagine humans vs. humans-with-AI-advisers, with the latter faction winning and somehow by the end of the conflict the AI advisers have managed to become de facto rulers, using the humans who obey them to put down rebellions by the humans who don't.

Having technology + diplomatic and strategic skill that is better but not that much better

As previously mentioned, the conquistadors didn’t enjoy god-like technological superiority. In the case of Afonso the technology was pretty similar. Technology played an important role in their success, but it wasn’t enough on its own. Meanwhile, the conquistadors may have had more diplomatic and strategic cunning (or experience) than the enemies they conquered. But not that much more--they are only human, after all. And their enemies were pretty smart.

In the AI context, we don't need to imagine god-like technology (e.g. swarms of self-replicating nanobots) to get an AI takeover. It might even be possible without any new physical technologies at all! Just superior software, e.g. piloting software for military drones, targeting software for anti-missile defenses, cyberwarfare capabilities, data analysis for military intelligence, and of course excellent propaganda and persuasion.

Nor do we need to imagine an AI so savvy and persuasive that it can persuade anyone of anything. We just need to imagine it about as cunning and experienced relative to its enemies as Cortés, Pizarro, and Afonso were relative to theirs. (Presumably no AI would be experienced with world takeover, but perhaps an intelligence advantage would give it the same benefits as an experience advantage.) And if I’m wrong about this explanation for the conquistador’s success--if they had no such advantage in cunning/experience--then the conclusion is even stronger.

Additionally, in a rapidly-changing world that is undergoing slow takeoff, where there are lesser AIs and AI-created technologies all over the place, most of which are successfully controlled by humans, AI takeover might still happen if one AI is better, but not that much better, than the others.

Having very little data about the world when the conquest begins

Cortés invaded Mexico knowing very little about it. After all, the Spanish had only realized the Americas existed two decades prior. He heard rumors of a big wealthy empire and he set out to conquer it, knowing little of the technology and tactics he would face. Two years later, he ruled the place.

Pizarro and Afonzo were in better epistemic positions, but still, they had to learn a lot of important details (like what the local power centers, norms, and conflicts were, and exactly what technology the locals had) on the fly. But they were good at learning these things and making it up as they went along, apparently.

We can expect superhuman AI to be good at learning. Even if it starts off knowing very little about the world -- say, it figured out it was in a training environment and hacked its way out, having inferred a few general facts about its creators but not much else -- if it is good at learning and reasoning, it might still be pretty dangerous.

Being disunited

Cortés invaded Mexico in defiance of his superiors and had to defeat the army they sent to arrest him. Pizarro ended up fighting a civil war against his fellow conquistadors in the middle of his conquest of Peru. Afonzo fought Greek mercenaries and some traitor Portuguese, conquered Malacca against the orders of a rival conquistador in the area, and was ultimately demoted due to political maneuvers by rivals back home.

This astonishes me. Somehow these conquests were completed by people who were at the same time busy infighting and backstabbing each other!

Why was it that the conquistadors were able to split the locals into factions, ally with some to defeat the others, and end up on top? Why didn't it happen the other way around: some ambitious local ruler talks to the conquistadors, exploits their internal divisions, allies with some to defeat the others, and ends up on top?

I think the answer is partly the "diplomatic and strategic cunning” mentioned earlier, but mostly other things. (The conquistadors were disunited, but presumably were united in the ways that mattered.) At any rate, I expect AIs to be pretty good at coordinating too; they should be able to conquer the world just fine even while competing fiercely with each other. For more on this idea, see this comment.

By Daniel Kokotajlo


Thanks to Katja Grace for feedback on a draft. All mistakes are my own, and should be pointed out in the comments. Edit: Also, when I wrote this post I had forgotten that the basic idea for it probably came from this comment by JoshuaFox.

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Very interesting post! However, I have a big disagreement with your interpretation of why the European conquerors succeeded in America, and I think that it undermines much of your conclusion.

In your section titled "What explains these devastating takeovers?" you cite technology and strategic ability, but Old World diseases destroyed the communities in America before the European invaders arrived, most notably smallpox, but also measles, influenza, typhus and the bubonic plague. My reading of historians (from Charles Mann's book 1493, to Alfred W. Crosby's The Columbian Exchange and Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel) leads me to conclude that the historical consensus is that the reason for all of these takeovers was due to Old World diseases, and had relatively little to do with technology or strategy per se.

In Chapter 11 of Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond analyzes the European takeovers in America you cite from the perspective of old World diseases (Here's a video from a Youtuber named CGP Grey who made a video on the same topic). The basic thesis is that Europeans had acquired immunity from these diseases, whereas people in America hadn't.... (read more)

This is a good critique; thank you.

I have two responses, and then a few nitpicks.

First response: Disease wasn't a part of Afonso's success. It helped the Europeans take over the Americas but did not help them take over Africa or Asia or the middle east; this suggests to me that it may have been a contributing factor but was not the primary explanation / was not strictly necessary.

Second response: Even if we decide that Cortes and Pizarro wouldn't have been able to succeed without the disease, my overall conclusion still stands. This is because disease isn't directly the cause of conquistador success, but rather indirectly, via the intermediate steps of "Chaos and disruption" and "Reduced political and economic strength." (I claim.) And the reduced strength can't have been more than, say, a 90% reduction in strength. (I claim) Suppose we think of the original conclusion as "A force with a small tech and cunning/experience advantage can take over a region 10,000 times its size." Then the modified conclusion in light of your claim about disease would be "In times of chaos and disruption, a force with a small tech and cunning... (read more)

7Matthew Barnett
[ETA: Another way of framing my disagreement is that if you are trying to argue that small groups can take over the world, it seems almost completely irrelevant to focus on relative strategic or technological advantages in light of these historical examples. For instance, it could have theoretically been that some small technologically primitive tribe took over the world if they had some sort of immunity to disease. This would seem to imply that relative strategic advantages in Europeans vs. Americans was not that important. Instead we should focus on what ways AIs could create eg. artificial pandemics, and we could use the smallpox epidemic in America as an example of how devastating pandemics can be.] That makes sense. I'm much less familiar with Afonso de Albuquerque, though my understanding is that he didn't really conquer civilizations, mostly just trading ports. I think it's safe to say that successful military campaigns are common in history, and therefore I don't find his success very unique or indicative of a future AI takeover. Well, it depends. If your conclusion is that "small groups with relatively little military or strategic advantages can still take over large areas of the world" then I completely agree. If your conclusion is that, "small military or strategic advantages are by themselves often sufficient for small groups to take over large areas of the world" then I disagree. I worry your post gave the impression that the second conclusion was true. A big part of my critique here is that you need to focus way more on getting the true the causal factors that lead to these historical success, because otherwise you can't use them to argue why AI is going to be anything like it. Since disease is, in my opinion, the primary causal factor at play here, I think we should instead explore the potential for AI to engineer pandemics that kill everyone -- but that seems way different than what you were arguing. I don't think making the thesis "in times of
5Daniel Kokotajlo
I agree that it would be good to think about how AI might create devastating pandemics. I suspect it wouldn't be that hard to do, for an AI that is generally smarter than us. However, I think my original point still stands. I don't get why you think a small technologically primitive tribe could take over the world if they were immune to disease. Seems very implausible to me. What difference does it make whether he conquered civilizations or ports? He did a lot of conquering despite being vastly outnumbered. This shows that "on paper" stats like army size are not super useful for determining who is likely to win a fight, at least when one side has a tech+strategic advantage. (Also, Malacca at least was a civilization in its own right; it was a city-state with a much bigger population and military than Afonso had.) I agree that successful military campaigns are common in history. I think sometimes they can be attributed to luck, or else to genius. I chose these three case studies because they are so close to each other in time and space that they didn't seem like they could be luck or genius. I admit, however, that as lucy.ea8 said in their comment, perhaps cortes+pizarro won due to disease and then we can say Afonso was lucky or genius without stretching credibility. But I don't want to do this yet, because it seems to me that even with disease factored in, "most" of the "credit" for Cortes and Pizarro's success goes to the factors I mentioned. After all, suppose the disease reduced the on-paper strength of the Americans by 90%. They were still several orders of magnitude stronger than Cortes and Pizarro. So it's still surprising that Cortes/Pizarro won... until we factor in the technological and strategic advantages I mentioned. But the civilizations wouldn't have been destroyed without the Spaniards. (I might be wrong about this, but... hadn't the disease mostly swept through Inca territory by the time Pizarro arrived? So clearly their civilization had surviv
4Matthew Barnett
It's worth clarifying exactly what "original point" stands because I'm currently unsure. Sorry, I meant to say, "Were immune to diseases that were currently killing everyone else." If everyone is dying around you, then your level of technology doesn't really matter that much. You just wait for your enemy to die and then settle the land after they are gone. This is arguably what Europeans did in America. My point is that by focusing on technology, you are missing the main reason for the successful conquest. I feel like you don't actually have a civilization if 90% of your people died. I think it's more fair to say that when 90% of your people die, your civilization basically stops existing rather than just being weakened. For example, I can totally imagine an Incan voyage to Spain conquering Madrid if 90% of the Spanish died. Their chain of command would be in complete shambles. It wouldn't just be like some clean 90% reduction in GDP with everything else held constant. Look, if 90% of a country dies of a disease, and then the surviving 10% become engulfed in a civil war, and then some military group who is immune to the disease comes in and takes the capital city during this all, don't you think it's very misleading to conclude "A small group of people with a slight military advantage can take over a large civilization" without heavily emphasizing the whole 90% of people dying of a disease part? This is the heart of my critique.
2Daniel Kokotajlo
My original point was that sometimes, a small group can reliably take over a large region despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, having only slightly better tech and cunning, knowing very little about the region to be conquered, and being disunited. This is in the context of arguments about how much of a lead in AI tech one needs to have to take over the world, and how big of an entity one needs to be to do it (e.g. can a rogue AI do it? What about a corporation? A nation-state?) Even with your point about disease, it still seems I'm right about this, for reasons I've mentioned (the 90% argument) I really don't think the disease thing is important enough to undermine my conclusion. For the two reasons I gave: One, Afonso didn't benefit from disease, and two, the 90% argument: Suppose there was no disease but instead the Aztecs and Incas were 90% smaller in population and also in the middle of civil war. Same result would have happened, and it still would have proved my point. I don't think a group of Incans in Spain could have taken it over if 90% of the Spaniards were dying of disease. I think they wouldn't have had the technology or experience necessary to succeed.

Is this a fair description of your disagreement re the 90% argument?

Daniel thinks that a 90% reduction in the population of a civilization corresponds to a ~90% reduction in their power/influentialness. Because the Americans so greatly outnumbered the Spanish, this ten-fold reduction in power/influentialness doesn’t much alter the conclusion.

Matthew thinks that a 90% reduction in the population of a civilization means that “you don’t really have a civilization”, which I interpret to mean something like a ~99.9%+ reduction in the power/influentialness of a civilization, which occurs mainly through a reduction in their ability to coordinate (e.g. “chain of command in ruins”). This is significant enough to undermine the main conclusion.

If this is accurate, would a historical survey of the power/influentialness of civilisations after they lose 90% of the population (inasmuch as these cases exist) resolve the disagreement?

6Matthew Barnett
For my part, I think you summarized my position fairly well. However, after thinking about this argument for another few days, I have more points to add. * Disease seems especially likely to cause coordination failures since it's an internal threat rather than an external threat (which unlike internal threats, tend to unite empires). We can compare the effects of the smallpox epidemic in the Aztec and Inca empires alongside other historical diseases during wartime, such as the Plauge of Athens which arguably is what caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War. * Along these same lines, the Aztec/Inca didn't have any germ theory of disease, and therefore didn't understand what was going on. They may have thought that the gods were punishing them for some reason, and therefore they probably spent a lot of time blaming random groups for the catastrophe. We can contrast these circumstances to eg. the Paraguayan War which killed up to 90% of the male population, but people probably had a much better idea what was going on and who was to blame, so I expect that the surviving population had an easier time coordinating. * A large chunk of the remaining population likely had some sort of disability. Think of what would happen if you got measles and smallpox in the same two year window: even if you survived it probably wouldn't look good. This means that the pure death rate is an underestimate of the impact of a disease. The Aztecs, for whom "only" 40 percent died of disease, were still greatly affected
3Daniel Kokotajlo
I accept that these points are evidence in your favor. Here are some more of my own: --Smallpox didn't hit the Aztecs until Cortes had already killed the Emperor and allied with the Tlaxcalans, if I'm reading these summaries correctly. (I really should go read the actual books...) So it seems that Cortes did get really far on the path towards victory without the help of disease. More importantly, there doesn't seem to be any important difference in how people treated Cortes before or after the disease. They took him very seriously, underestimated him, put too much trust in him, allied with him, etc. before the disease was a factor. --When Pizarro arrived in Inca lands, the disease had already swept through, if I'm reading these stories right. So the period of most chaos and uncertainty was over; people were rebuilding and re-organizing. --Also, it wasn't actually a 90% reduction in population. It was more like a 50% reduction at the time, if I am remembering right. (Later epidemics would cause further damage, so collectively they were worse than any other plague in history.) This is comparable to e.g. the Black Death in Europe, no? But the Black Death didn't result in the collapse of most civilizations who went through it, nor did it result in random small groups of adventurers taking over governments, I predict. (I haven't actually read up on the history of it)
3Joshua Ehrlich
The Plague of Justinian is possibly responsible for the failure of the Roman Empire to reunite (Justinian had reconquered Italy and if he was able to secure those holdings European history might look more like Chinese history). Later iterations of the plague might have been responsible for the rise of the Muslim empires.
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Interesting, thanks! Still though, it's not like the Roman Empire got taken over by some wandering band of 1,000 men during the plague. My position is not that plagues aren't important, but rather that they aren't so overwhelmingly important that the factors I mentioned (tech, cunning/experience) aren't also very important.
5Daniel Kokotajlo
Thanks Alexis, this seems like an accurate description to me. Strong-upvoted, partly because I want to reward people for doing these sorts of summary-and-distillation stuff. As for your question, hmm, I'm not sure. I tentatively say yes, but my hesitations are (1) cases where 90% of the population dies are probably very rare, and (2) how would we measure power anyway? Presumably most civilizations that lose 90% of their population do end up conquered by someone else pretty quickly, since most civilizations aren't 10x more powerful than all their neighbors. I think the crux is this business about the chain of command. Cortez and Pizarro succeeded by getting Americans to ally with them and/or obey them. The crux is, would they have been able to do this as well or mostly as well without the disease? I think that reading a bunch of books on what happened might more or less answer this question. For example, maybe the books will say that the general disarray caused by the disease created a sense of desperation and confusion in the people which led them to be open to the conquistador's proposals when otherwise they would have dismissed them. In which case, I concede defeat in this disagreement. Or maybe the books will say that if only the conquistadors had been outnumbered even more, they would have lost. But what I predict is that the books will say that, for the most part, the reasons why people allied with Cortes and Pizarro had more to do with non-disease considerations: "Here is this obviously powerful representative of an obviously powerful faraway empire, wielding intriguing technology that we could benefit from. There is our hated enemy, Tenochtitlan, who has been oppressing us for decades. Now is our chance to turn the tables on our oppressors!" Similarly, I predict that the reason why the emperors allowed the conquistadors to get close enough to ambush them have little to do with disease and more to do with, well, just not predicting that the conquistadors w
3Daniel Kokotajlo
Update: I do think it would be good to look at the Black Death in Europe and see whether there were similar political "upsets" where a small group of outsiders took over a large region in the turmoil. I predict that there mostly weren't; if it turns out this did happen a fair amount, then I agree that is good evidence that disease was really important.
2Matthew Barnett
This makes sense, but I think the case of Afonso is sufficiently different from the others that it's a bit of a stretch to use it to imply much about AI takeovers. I think if you want to make a more general point about how AI can be militarily successful, then a better point of evidence is a broad survey of historical military campaigns. Of course, it's still a historically interesting case to consider! Yeah but why are we assuming that they are still in the civil war? Call me out if I'm wrong here, but your thesis now seems to be: if some civilization is in complete disarray, then a well coordinated group of slightly more advanced people/AI can take control of the civilization. This would be a reasonable thesis, but it doesn't shed too much light on AI takeovers. The important part lies in the "if some civilization is in complete disarray" conditional, and I think it's far from obvious that AI will emerge in such a world, unless some other more important causal factor already occurred that gave rise to the massive disarray in the first place. But even in that case, don't you think we should focus on that thing that caused the disarray instead?
4Daniel Kokotajlo
Again, I certainly agree that it would be good to think about things that could cause disarray as well. Like you said, maybe an AI could easily arrange for there to be a convenient pandemic at about the time it makes its move... And yeah, in light of your pushback I'm thinking of moderating my thesis to add the "disarray background condition" caveat. (I already edited the OP)This does weaken the claim, but not much, I think, because the sort of disarray needed is relatively common, I think. For purposes of Cortes and Pizarro takeover, what mattered was that they were able to find local factions willing to ally with them to overthrow the main power structures. The population count wasn't super relevant because, disease or no, it was several orders of magnitude more than Cortez & Pizarro had. And while it's true that without the disease they may have had a harder time finding local factions willing to ally with them, it's not obviously true, and moreover there are plenty of ordinary circumstances (ordinary civil wars, ordinary periods of unrest and rebellion, ordinary wars between great powers) that lead to the same result: Local factions being willing to ally with an outsider to overthrow the main power structure. This conversation has definitely made me less confident in my conclusion. I now think it would be worth it for me (or someone) to go do a bunch of history reading, to evaluate these debates with more information.
3Basil Marte
Regarding Africa, late 19th century technology solved at least *two* crucial problems that prevented European takeover before. One was that Europeans themselves would die to tropical diseases, solved by quinine. The other was that Europeans' *horses* died to nagana (known as sleeping sickness in humans), solved by steam riverine ships.
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Makes sense. I'd heard this about quinine before, but didn't know about nagana.

Another example in this vein is Robert Clive's takeover of the Bengal Sultanate. As Nick Robins documents in The Corporation that Changed the World, Robert Clive was sent to Bengal by the British East India Company with the instruction to set up a modest trading outpost and specifically not engage in local politics or intrigue. So, of course, he intrigues with Mir Jafar, the commander in chief of the Nawab's army and gets him to change sides (along with a large portion of the Nawab's army) during the Battle of Plassey.

The East India Company's victory at the battle of Plassey resulted in immediate financial gain of £2,500,000 (now valued at over £250,000,000) for the Company, plus another £234,000 (now valued at £23,000,000) for Clive himself. Even more importantly, the EIC gained the right of diwani -- the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughals in Bengal. This allowed them to establish themselves as a commercial monopoly over the Bengal textile industry (considered the best in the world at that time) and further entrench themselves as a commercial and military power in India. For good reason, the Battle of Plassey is seen as a key moment in the consolidation of the British Empire in India, even though it was fought by a private individual on behalf of a private corporation.

4Daniel Kokotajlo
Wow, I hadn't even heard of that. Thanks!

Some more thoughts that came to me after I posted this:

1. I should have mentioned who I take myself to be responding to. I'm responding to claims I've heard made by various people (Katja Grace and Paul Christiano, to name two very smart examples) that I summarize as follows: "For one entity to take over the world, it needs more power than the rest of the world combined. That means it must either start out with a lot of power -- e.g. a major nation-state like China or USA -- or grow in power much faster than the rest of the world for a while. The latter possibility could happen if an intelligence explosion occurred in one local area, but this is unlikely; the intelligence explosion is more likely to be distributed fairly broadly."

2. I think these case studies are also historical precedents for "Treacherous Turns." Cortes and Pizarro were certainly very treacherous. (I don't think Afonso was, but I'd have to reread the stories.)

3. I have vague, conspiracy-theory-esque worries that actually the conquistadors really did just all get lucky, and that the explanation for this is some sort of anthropic selection effect. I don't think this is pl... (read more)

I like history and military history in general. I think I have easily read detailed accounts of hundreds and hundreds of battles, sieges, empires collapsing and there are plenty of examples where one side has won out by finding colluders from the other side just like the conquistadors. Sometimes you need luck but often not - there almost always is some disunity among groups that just begs to be exploited. Imagine a rogue AI sending an email to every person on earth. Tailoring the content to fit every person. Telling you that he sees your children in school, telling you where you get your morning coffee. Telling you what is the colour of your bedroom curtains and then asking you to do this one small thing for it or something bad will happen to you. Or promising you money so you can help your sick child/parent/pet. This is all information that already exists freely on social media. Doesnt take a superintelligence to exploit that. In my mind there is no doubt that a misaligned AI, even one limited to human level thinking and reasoning abilities, could easily wreak havoc once it is able to roam free online. How many millions or hundreds of millions would immediately support it on just a promise of something good or threat of something bad? I have never thought about it like this but now after reading your post it really does look like that the human race is indeed the Aztecs and Cortes is a misaligned barely competent AI just waiting to be unleashed.
5Daniel Kokotajlo
I agree. However, it can't just be that groups are often disunited and therefore exploitable -- because why was it that the conquistadors were able to exploit the locals and not the other way around? The conquistadors were disunited also. And why weren't the conquistadors able to do to e.g. France what they did to Mexico? I think technology is clearly part of the answer here... but not just technology, also cunning/experience. In general I am excited about looking for more parallels/comparisons between the AI case and these historical cases. And looking for more historical cases, for that matter.
I wonder if language was a factor here. Cortés had La Malinche to translate. If most or all communication had to go through her, that would make it hard to divide the conquistadors. I don't know about the other cases.
The smaller and more similar your group the easier it is to keep up unity and guard for any attempts of outside meddling. How could the natives even approach separate conquistadors to find anyone to be swayed? Aztecs had a big empire over a wide area with a lot of vassals. Cortes could easily approach them and make his sales pitch. And sure technology played a role. Conquistadors were different, unknown and that made the sales pitch easier to make as they looked more powerful than they actually were. Plus they were a small outsider group. The natives that sided with them likely didnt fear them long term. Conquistadors were not that alluring to French. They could never hope to do the same thing to a neighbouring country that is both powerful and hates your guts even if they found people willing. Plus a failed attempt like that would have meant retaliation against your own country which would not have been desirable. If their gambit had failed in Mexico there would have been no larger consequences. But it was still seen a lot in medieval europe. 100 year war was full of nobles switching sides like this. Almost a daily occurence in Holy Roman Empire throughout its existence. It was a slow day when one set of Princes didnt betray another set to join a third set to be betrayed and conquered by a fourth set.
2Daniel Kokotajlo
I agree. I think what's coming out in this discussion is that novelty played a role somehow; if only the Aztecs knew more about the Spanish (even if the Spanish also knew more about the Aztecs) things would have turned out differently. This maybe suggests that the Spanish were better at learning about the Aztecs than vice versa -- and perhaps this was because they were fewer in number? I think a better explanation is that they had experience doing this sort of thing. They were explorer-conquerors, after all. Edit: Oh, and there were plenty of opportunities to pit the conquistadors against each other -- situations in which some were cut off from the others, situations in which some had been taken prisoner, situations in which they were actively fighting each other! I agree that their sales pitch was easier because they could make themselves seem more fearsome than they were... but notice that this is in tension with the idea that their local allies didn't fear eventual betrayal due to their small numbers. The same fearsomeness that makes them good allies should also make them scary enemies, no? So why didn't the Tlaxcalans fear that they would be overthrown next after Tenochtitlan? I think the Spain vs. France hypothetical has more to do with technological and knowledge parity than with threat of retaliation.
Have you considered the possibility that it was a case of mutual exploitation? The Aztec allies of the conquistadors weren't there out of the goodness of their hearts; they had found a new angle that would help them defeat Tenochtitlan. They lost the post-victory power struggle, but it was always going to be someone.

(I am the author)

I still like & endorse this post. When I wrote it, I hadn't read more than the wiki articles on the subject. But then afterwards I went and read 3 books (written by historians) about it, and I think the original post held up very well to all this new info. In particular, the main critique the post got -- that disease was more important than I made it sound, in a way that undermined my conclusion -- seems to have been pretty wrong. (See e.g. this comment thread, these follow up posts)

So, why does it matter? What contribution did this post make? Well, at the time -- and still now, though I think I've made a dent in the discourse -- quite a lot of people I respect (such as people at OpenPhil) seemed to think unaligned AGI would need god-like powers to be able to take over the world -- it would need to be stronger than the rest of the world combined! I think this is based on a flawed model of how takeover/conquest works, and history contains plenty of counterexamples to the model. The conquistadors are my favorite counterexample from my limited knowledge of history. (The flawed model goes by the name of "The China Argument," at least in my mind. You may have heard ... (read more)

I think technological advantage - specifically sailing technology - probably played a much larger role in Afonso's takeover than it would seem from a quick read. Key pieces:

  • Monsoons
  • Lateen sail

Monsoons: wind around India blows consistently Southwest for half the year, and Northeast for the other half. IIRC from Braudel, this made trade in the Indian ocean highly predictable: everyone sailed with the wind at their back and ran consistent one-year circuits. As you mention:

The Indian Ocean contained most of the world's trade at the time, since it linked up the world's biggest and wealthiest regions.

I'd guess that the monsoons were probably a bigger factor here than vicinity to wealthy regions. In particular:

Europe is just coming out of the Middle Ages and does not have an obvious technological advantage over India or China or the Middle East, and has an obvious economic disadvantage.

Europe had less total wealth (because it had a smaller population) and was behind technologically in some ways (e.g. metallurgy), but even in the 15th-16th century Europe was considered "wealthy" on a per-capita basis. In particular, Europe had much more per-capita capital good... (read more)

9Daniel Kokotajlo
Update: According to the wiki article on lateen sails, they existed for several hundred years in the Mediterranean before spreading to the Atlantic, and the Nile, and then finally they arrived in the Indian ocean with the Portuguese, at which point the locals quickly adopted it on their vessels also. (Within 20 years!) What the hell? Why did it take so long? If it was so good that it gave a huge advantage, such that everyone copied the design within two decades of the Portuguese arrival... why did no one notice this for almost a thousand years? Surely there were travelers who sailed on both the Med. and Red seas, for example. Surely the Ottomans and Mamelukes, who maintained fleets in both the Med. and the Indian Ocean, should have been able to realize that the lateen sail was a thing and would be useful? (Especially since being able to sail against the wind seems super useful precisely when the wind doesn't change direction very much, e.g. in monsoon-regions like the Indian Ocean) Also apparently the pacific islanders independently invented the lateen sail, yet it didn't spread from there to the Indian Ocean either. I am very confused.
3Daniel Kokotajlo
Thanks for this, I didn't know about that stuff. Perhaps I should read Braudel. This makes me more confident that technology was a necessary factor. If I were motivated to do so, I'd read through the stories of Afonso's success in more detail and try to see whether open-sea sailing and/or sailing against the wind played a factor.
Braudel is both long and dense, and I wouldn't recommend the second two volumes at all, but the first volume is probably the single best history book I've read. Beware that his understanding of economics is pretty poor - trust his facts, but be wary of his interpretations.

Nice post. Were there any sources besides Wikipedia that you found especially helpful when researching this post?

2Daniel Kokotajlo
This post was based on very little research; all I did was read the wiki pages. So it's possible that a real historian (or a real history book) would yield different conclusions. However, I am fairly confident this won't happen for the main conclusion of my post: that you don't need a god-like technological advantage for a tiny group to have a good shot at quickly taking over a large region.
9Daniel Kokotajlo
I forgot to give an update: Now I have read a handful of real history books on the subject, and I think the original post still stands strong.

However, I don't think this is the whole explanation. The technological advantage of the conquistadors was not overwhelming.

With regard to the Americas at least, I just happened to read this article by a professional military historian, who characterizes the Native American military technology as being "thousands of years behind their Old World agrarian counterparts", which sounds like the advantage was actually rather overwhelming.

There is a massive amount of literature to explain what is sometimes called ‘the Great Divergence‘ (a term I am going to use h

... (read more)
2Daniel Kokotajlo
I don't really see this as in strong conflict with what I said. I agree that technology is the main factor; I said it was also "strategic and diplomatic cunning;" are you suggesting that it wasn't really that at all and that if Cortez had gifted his equipment to 500 locals they would have been just as successful at taking over as he was? I could be convinced of this I suppose.

I just listened to a podcast on the fall of the Inca. Two points stood out that seem relevant.

One is that the Inca themselves conquered the area through a combination of force and diplomacy. Not, I think, as thoroughly? Not sure how I'd operationalize that, and I'm not entirely sure why I think it deserves emphasis. Perhaps... this makes it clearer to me that in one more sense, the Spanish weren't "playing on easy mode"; the Inca rose to the top of the local power game, and then the Spanish beat them.

Another is that the Incan emperor wasn't entirely helple... (read more)

8Daniel Kokotajlo
Yeah, Inca and Aztec were both apex predators, so to speak, in their respective worlds. Both were still on the rise too, showing no signs IMO of decay. The thing about internal strife though is that it's the default condition. The situation after the cold war, where the USA was the global hegemon, was notable precisely because of how unusual it was for there to be only one power -- and even then, it's not like the whole world was united behind the USA; instead, there were big parts of the world (China, for example) that were technically at peace and militarily inferior but would have been happy to see the USA taken down a peg. So yeah, the Incas had just finished up a civil war and the emperor had scores to settle with various rivals and insubordinates, and there were people willing to betray him, etc. but this seems like the standard state of human affairs to me. The Aztecs were as unified as they ever were when Cortez attacked.
I did get the sense that the Inca were more internal-strifey than normal at the time, but yeah. Even if true in their case, it's not much consolation.
4Daniel Kokotajlo
Fair enough. But if Pizarro had arrived just a bit earlier, the civil war would have been still ongoing, and had he arrived a bit earlier than that, the Inca would be still trying to pacify the Quito empire and integrate it into their empire, and before that the situation would have been even more multipolar...

Based on what I recall reading about Pizzaro's conquest, I feel you might be underestimating the importance of horses. It took centuries for European powers to figure out how to break a heavy cavalry charge with infantry; the amerindians didn't have the time to figure it out (see various battles where small cavalry forces routed thousands of troops). Once they had got more used to horses, later Inca forces (though much diminished) were more able to win open battles against the Spanish.

Maybe this was the problem for these empires: they were used to winning

... (read more)
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Mmm, interesting. I'm now reading a 1400-page history book on the subject (after all the attention my post got, I figured I should read more than just a bunch of wiki pages!) so we'll know one way or another soon enough. Thanks for the tip.
Thanks for your research, especially the Afonso stuff. One question for that: were these empires used to gaining/losing small pieces of territory? ie did they really dedicate all their might to getting these ports back, or did they eventually write them off as minor losses not worth the cost of fighting (given Portuguese naval advantages)?
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Good question; I'll find out. Malacca at least was a city-state, so the Portuguese attack was an existential threat.
...which also means that they didn't have an empire to back them up?
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Yes. Distinguishing between not having an empire and not being willing to fight all-out, they suffered from the first problem, whereas (perhaps, we shall see) the other port cities suffered from the second.
(this is, obviously, very speculative ^_^ )

Here's what I'll be putting in the Alignment Newsletter about this piece. Let me know if you spot inaccuracies or lingering disagreement regarding the opinion section.


This post lists three historical examples of how small human groups conquered large parts of the world, and shows how they are arguably precedents for AI takeover scenarios. The first two historical examples are the conquests of American civilizations by Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro in the early 16th century. The third example is the Portugese capture of key
... (read more)
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Thanks! Well, I still disagree with your opinion on it, for reasons mentioned above. To the point about "only" conquering ports, well, I think my explanations fit fine with that too -- the technological and experience advantages that (I claim) enabled Afonso to win were primarily naval in nature. Later, other Europeans would come along with other advantages, and they would conquer India, Persia, Vietnam, etc., evidence that while disease was a contributing factor (I certainly am not denying it helped!) it wasn't so important a factor as to render my conclusion invalid (my conclusion, again, is that a moderate technological and strategic advantage can enable a small group to take over a large region.)
2Matthew Barnett
Europeans conquered places such as India, but that was centuries later, after they had a large technological advantage, and they also didn't come with just a few warships either: they came with vast armadas. I don't see why that supports the point that a small group can take over a large region?
2Daniel Kokotajlo
The vast armadas were the result of successful colonization, not the cause of it. For example, a key battle that the British EIC won (enabling them to take over their first major territory) was the battle of Plassey, and they were significantly outnumbered during it. Fair point about the large technological advantage, but... actually it still wasn't that large? I don't know, I'd have to look into it more, but my guess is that the tech advantage of the EIC over the Nawab at Plassey, to use the same example, was smaller than the tech advantage of Cortes and Pizarro over the Americans. I should go find out how many men the EIC had when it conquered India. I'm betting that the answer is "Far fewer than India had." And also, yeah, didn't the British steal rocket technology from India? (Mysore, I think?) That's one military important technology that they were actually behind in.

Promoted to curated: I really like this post. I already linked to it two times, and it clearly grounds some examples that I've seen people use informally in AI Alignment discussions in a way that will hopefully create a common reference, and allow us to analyze this kind of argument in much more detail. 

2Matthew Barnett
Do you have any thoughts on the critique I just posted?

There is a sci-fi sourcebook called 'GURPS Ogre' about an AI dominated future that follows a similar line of reasoning, I think OP might enjoy it, and pdfs can be found online.

I also think that the story of Napoleon's conquest and the reasons for its' success might also be informative to your thesis, as disease is not (at least as far as I know) nearly as much of a factor.

Another thought:

Japan was in a similar predicament in the mid-1850s, but successfully managed not only to survive but to thrive, modernizing their economy and military to Western levels without suffering regime change in the process.

What explains their success? It's not that the technological gap between them and Western powers was smaller than the technological gap between the conquistadors and their victims. (I think.) Rather, it's that there was no "diplomatic and strategic cunning" gap, and that was because there was no experience g... (read more)

3Timothy Underwood
Japan was not unified particularly at all, there was a low intensity civil war within ten years that created the government which drove the modernization effort.
2Daniel Kokotajlo
OK, interesting! I'd love to hear more about what explains the difference. My "experience" theory is looking good so far.

How significant do you think it was that the conquistadors had access to a deep historical archive? The Aztecs and Incas arguably had writing, but it wasn't used to preserve a large library of historical and fictional stories. The Portuguese presumably were reasonably educated, and knew many stories of emperors and empires. The South Americans may have had some oral histories to go by, but I presume it was paltry in comparison.

The Indian case was far different, I would imagine, so this hypothesis doesn't touch that case at all.

Pizarro was illiterate.
5Matthew Barnett
I don't think that specific fact really disputes that they "had access to a deep historical archive." From Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel,
That quote seems to provide no evidence that the 'literate tradition' mattered. Cortes' conquest was only 14 years before; Pizarro had arrived in the New World 10 years before that; Cortes' conquest involved many people and was a big/important deal; even if the Spanish had no writing at all, Pizarro would likely have known the general outline of Cortes' actions. It's strictly speaking impossible to rule out Pizarro indirectly being influenced by writing; but I don't think it would be possible for stronger evidence against the importance of writing in this specific case to exist.
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Agreed. I think literacy or "literate tradition" had nothing to do with it, but learning from Cortes' experience (and earlier Spanish experiences in the canary islands, etc.) was crucial.
4Daniel Kokotajlo
I take this passage to be evidence in favor of my "experience --> cunningness advantage" claim.
2Matthew Barnett
I agree it's evidence. Though, I would estimate that the Spanish conquest of the Inca civilization was something like 80% due to disease, 20% due to other factors.
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Interesting. I don't know enough to say. Most of world history isn't that relevant to what the conquistadors did, I think -- it was pretty unprecedented. The few precedents were the things I already mentioned (the canary islands, the african coast forts, Cortes was precedent to Pizarro) And at any rate this wouldn't touch the Afonso case, as you say. So I doubt it.

NEW EDIT: After reading three giant history books on the subject, I take back my previous edit. My original claims were correct.

Could you edit this comment to add which three books you're referring to?

2Daniel Kokotajlo
"The Conquest of Mexico and the Conquest of Peru" "1493" and... the one about Afonso I forget the title... it might have been this History of Portugal : Marques, Antonio Henrique R. de Oliveira : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive or this I also ended up reading "1491" and "1492."  

In 1492, Iberian Christians had finally defeated the last remnant of the Moorish Empire that had subjugated most of their peninsula. The Reconquista. It was an enormous achievement against a powerful and advanced foe. [It also occasioned the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews, an act both odious and self-wounding.] Anyway, in the process of defeating the Moors, the Iberian Christian armed forces had become really really good at fighting. Brave unto reckless, for one thing. For another, they were able to count on a deep bench of sub-commanders and captains who... (read more)

3Daniel Kokotajlo
Nobody in Europe could stand up to them either? Then how come they didn't conquer Europe? I agree that the factors you list were contributing factors, but I feel like they aren't the main part of the story. I'd imagine technology + experience were more important.
The Spanish infantry were widely considered the best in Europe for some centuries; the Spanish themselves developed the tercio towards the end of the Reconquista (I presume deriving from the model of Swiss mercenaries) and thereby pioneered the style of warfare (pike and shot) that would displace and dominate throughout European militaries for the next few centuries. It was the capacity for effective combined arms formation warfare (as opposed to fighting as individuals or relying on cavalry) that paved the way for European successes in Asia (as with the decisive Austrian conquest of Hungary from the Ottomans in the late 17th century). The primary advantage that the European developed (in part by endlessly honing it against one another; bearing in mind that advantages of this sort dissipate more quickly when your foes are at near-parity in underlying social or physical infrastructure and can legibly dissect and copy what you are doing) and which persisted throughout their imperial operations was in logistical and tactical technology. In India, the British attained consistent battlefield success against local armies even when the latter had extensively purchased European technology and had the advantage of some mercenary European officers in addition to numerical parity or superiority. The tide of battle hinges heavily on morale and organization; low casualty numbers and minor setbacks can compound and escalate cooperatively as a result of mass psychology. The great innovation of Europe at the time was in developing and mastering techniques for coordinated formation warfare (not that this had not previously been discovered and lost in varying forms over the course of history). Spanish supremacy in arms is generally agreed to have been finally and symbolically eclipsed at Rocroi in 1643; in the meantime, the Spanish had to contend with frequent, expensive conflict on multiple fronts against enemies who were not in remotely as much of a disadvantage in weapons and ta
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Thanks for these careful comments! I think I agree with most of the things you say here, and regret that my post made it seem otherwise. A few disagreements: I should have clarified what I meant by "their tech was not that much better." Obviously if we judge by the results, it was indeed much much better. My point was that if we judge by "on paper" / "In theory" advantages, we'd sorely underestimate the difference. For context, I'm thinking about the argument "Sure, if AI made awesome nanobot swarms while everyone else had only modern tech then it could take over the world. But it wouldn't be able to do that quickly; AI would be able to make better drones, better rockets, and of course better cyberweapons and sensors, but at least for a few years an AI-designed army wouldn't look fundamentally different from ordinary human armies. So e.g. if an AI took over North Korea and used it as a power base from which to conquer the world... yeah, it would just be crushed by the combined forces of the USA and China." My reply to this argument is: "You underestimate how much more powerful 'better drones, rockets, etc.' would make an AI-infused North Korean army. On paper, the Spanish army wasn't substantially different from the Aztec and Inca army; they both were primarily masses of men on foot carrying shields and shooting bows. Yeah, the Spanish had some fancy cannons and horses, but still, it's not like they had Maxim guns, much less helicopters! Yet this seemingly minor tech advantage of the Spanish turned out to have a huge effect on the battlefield. Similarly I think that the seemingly minor tech advantages AI might bring to its human allies and pawns would probably be, on the battlefield, quite major." Also, even if we judge the power of Cortes' tech by results, such that his advantage was huge, the advantage by itself was not nearly enough to bring him victory. I'm still in the early parts of the book I'm reading now, but it's clear that Cortes' entire force would ha
" I think this is a big open question; currently I still disagree. For one thing, the initial plagues weren't 90% death rate, but more like 50% IIRC. For another... well, when I get to this part in the book I'll have a better sense of how disorganized they became. My guess is that you are way overestimating it. Remember, I'm not saying the effect was negligible--I'm saying the effect wasn't so big as to undermine the conclusions I drew about tech and diplomacy advantages. (Or the conclusions I list in the "lessons" section). You are the one making the extreme claim here, as far as I understand you currently." " I have seen military historians cite that 25% casualty rates are generally enough for the total collapse of the viability of a military force. Near-indiscriminate loss of personnel randomly distributed across a social or military hierarchy- imagine a if a quarter of everyone you knew disappeared tomorrow- in a both direct functional and psychological sense would be utterly devastating. 50% is well over the threshold for total societal collapse; the Black Death killed "merely" 33-50% of the population across affected areas and very much brought contemporary society to its knees. When you have superiors, family, and comrades dropping left and right and others disabled by symptoms I really don't think your fighting readiness is going to be in a great place. Bear in mind that premodern warfare swung on morale collapse coincident with vastly lower absolute casualty rates, with most casualties inflicted during the rout. My claim is not in the slightest extreme; the calculus of life and death and any semblance of social cohesion being thrown out the window by plague is going to fundamentally wrack the afflicted society at every level. In any case, the differentials between top rate and mediocre militaries at any given point except where extreme technological disparities apply is often more about discipline and coordination than it is about anything else; friend
2Daniel Kokotajlo
Once again, I agree with pretty much everything you say here. I still think you are making the extreme claim -- to see this, consider that as far as I can tell my conclusions are justified already by what happened before disease showed up in the Americas. Heck, a lot of the things you are saying here are also support for my conclusions--e.g. the point about coordinated and/or fearless forces being super effective even with inferior tech. Basically, it seems totally true to me that the sort of "small" technological advantage advanced AI might provide, combined with "small" leadership/strategy/diplomacy/coordination advantages, could be super potent. Perhaps we are talking past each other. On the narrow question of how bad the disease was and how wrecked Aztec (and Inca) society became as a result, I agree that I don't know much about that and look forward to learning more. Perhaps it was worse than I thought.
Tercios were very strong during the era Conn Nugent is pointing at; "nobody in Europe could stand up to them" is probably an exaggeration but not by much. They had a pretty good record under Ferdinand II, and then for various dynastic reasons, Spain was inherited by a Habsburg who became Holy Roman Emperor, and then immediately faced coalitions against him as the 'most powerful man in Christendom.' So we don't really get to see what would have happened had they tried to fight their way to continental prominence, since they inherited to it. It's also not obvious that, if you have spare military capacity in 1550 (or whenever), you would want to use it conquering bits of Europe instead of conquering bits elsewhere, if the difficulty for the latter is sufficiently lower and the benefits not sufficiently higher.
4Daniel Kokotajlo
I agree Tercios were strong; I agree that spare military capacity might be directed towards easier targets. Still though, the tech advantage of the spanish over the Aztecs was significantly greater than the advantage they enjoyed over the rest of Europe.

Related reading -


The "experience" and literacy ideas can draw a straight line to Hardcore History podcaster Dan Carlin's ideas on "intellectual contagion." In particular, how the working classes that comprised all armies in WWI began to throw off the idea that the aims of their monarchs or empires superseded their own well-being ... and how that affected the latter stages of the war.

Going further, 9/11 immediately ushered in an era of TSA, reinforced cockpit doors and air marshals that, one can argue, were already superfluous. Before the day's... (read more)