It’s amazing how the landscape of book publishing has been transformed in the last ten (or even five) years. Not only it’s now possible for authors to reach readers directly, as I did with Ultrasociety, without the intermediaries of literary agents, publishers, and printers, but the reverse communication channel is also wide open. And fast—I started getting feedback from readers within a week of publication.
The Cliodynamica blog is the main route for readers to communicate with me. The posts following Branko Milanovic’s letter are one example of that, but I have also been getting comments on my other posts. I’d like to encourage more comments, so I will probably start the practice of posting an invitation to comment (an open post).
I also see comments on the Amazon (both the US and European subsidiaries) and GoodReads (many thanks for those who posted them!). And some critique appears in other people’s blogs. The last category I often don’t see, unless somebody attracts my attention to it (so drop me an e-mail, if you write critique on your blog).
On the positive side of things, everybody says that the book is well-written. This is very gratifying, because I invested a lot of time and money into making it so. The best decision I made during the publication process was to collaborate with two awesome editors, one for the macro-structure of the book and another for getting the paragraphs, sentences, and words right. In fact, I forget whether I mentioned it before, but publishing the book was a completely cooperative venture, in which I worked with half a dozen of other people. Without their expertise the book would be much, much worse (take a look at the Acknowledgments section of Ultrasociety for details). This is how indie publishing differs from self-publishing—self-published authors do everything themselves, often with substandard results.
On the less positive side of things, some of the reactions to the book have been unhelpful, to say the least. Unhelpful not in the sense “critical”—I really welcome critique and debate, and unlike many academics I mean it. (However, no ad hominem attacks on me or others will be tolerated. Strike at ideas, not people!)
Some of these unhelpful comments are clearly knee-jerk reactions. For example, in a comment on Amazon.com ‘Marvin’ accuses me of being ignorant of biology. The offending phrase was this one: “in evolutionary terms 10,000 years is a blink” (which shows up in the first chapter that you can read without buying the book, which is what he clearly did). And then Marvin tells us that I am wrong to think that genetic evolution of humans stopped in the last 10,000. What’s particularly amusing is that this is precisely what I say in my class on human evolution (that genetic evolution has not stopped at all), and I give some of the same examples that Marvin brings up (e.g., lactose intolerance).
A different kind of unthinking reaction is when readers espousing conservative or libertarian positions accuse me of promoting typical progressive liberal views. This is a complete misreading of Ultrasociety. The conclusions I draw in it are driven not by ideology, but by science (although our science—Cultural Evolution—is still a very new discipline, so conclusions will change as the science matures). My personal views have changed dramatically, and even flipped on some issues since I started working in Cliodynamics and Cultural Evolution.
When I grew up in the Soviet Union I was force-fed Soviet-type socialism to the point where I completely rejected it. Arriving in the United State at the age of 20 I became a dyed-in-the-wool right-winger (quite typical of recent emigrants from beyond the Iron Curtain). I believed in untrammeled free markets, minimal role of the state, limited aid, if any, for the poor and so on. At the same time I was a big supporter of muscular foreign policy (somehow the basic contradiction of minimal state and interventionist foreign policy escaped me at the time). I voted for Reagan!
So what changed my mind? Science did. More precisely, switching from evolutionary biology to evolutionary social science. My critics shooting arrows at Ultrasociety from their own ideological bastions don’t give me enough credit. The views expressed there really stem from science, at least as I understand it currently (and, again, I am likely to continue changing my views as our science gets better).
Furthermore, my current understanding of cultural evolution does not really lead to endorsing either of the ends of the ideological spectrum. As another reviewer on Amazon.com says, “If you’ve got a fervent commitment to either conservative or progressive ideology, this might not be an easy read, as Turchin brings up plenty of uncomfortable facts for both world views.” This is right, once you start rigorously applying science, it may take you in unexpected, and even personally troubling ways.