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Today is one hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. The armed uprising against the provisional government, led by the Bolsheviks, began on the night of November 6/7, 1917 (October 24/25 according to the Old Style) and culminated in the storm of the Winter Palace the following night.
The October Revolution was an event of truly planetary significance, “ten days that shook the world.” Its immediate, and catastrophic, impact was on Russia. The two Revolutions of 1917 (February and October), the bloody civil war, and the establishment of the Stalin dictatorship imposed enormous costs on the Russian society, both demographic (tens of millions of people were killed, died of starvation and disease, were imprisoned in labor camps, or emigrated) and cultural (for example, resulting from the suppression of Russian Orthodox Christianity).
The Revolution also had long-term impacts, and not all of them negative. It transformed the ramshackle Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, which became one of two world superpowers after 1945. Most importantly, pre-revolutionary Russia was one of the losers in World War I, but the Soviet Union won World War II. This victory was exceedingly costly for the generation of my parents and grandparents, but my generation was the beneficiary of it. Certainly, had Germany won, I would have never become a scientist – my generation, at best, would supply illiterate serfs to the German overlords (this is not an exaggeration, check this article in Wikipedia). Instead, the generation that grew up in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s was, on balance, the happiest (and the healthiest) one in the last century. This assessment may sound strange coming from a son of a dissident, who was exiled from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. However, it is confirmed not only by subjective memories, but also by objective data on population well-being.
The impact of October 1917 ramified far beyond Russia. The Russian Revolution was an inspiration to China’s communists, so it also transformed that most consequential nation in Asia (and probably in the world later on in the 21st century). The Chinese Revolution eventually ended the hundred years-long disintegrative period and propelled China back to the rank of world powers. Today, of course, CPC might as well stand for the Capitalist Party of China. Nevertheless, it was the Chinese Revolution that brought to power the currently reigning “Red Dynasty”, which succeeded the Qing Dynasty in the China’s dynastic cycle.
The 1917 Revolution has an important, although indirect and little appreciated effect on the United States. I make this argument in Ages of Discord, but briefly, the threat of the first workers’ state played a key role in forcing the American ruling class to adopt a series of reforms during the New Deal, which ensured that the fruits of economic growth would be divided equitably between the capitalists and workers. The American post-World War II Prosperity, thus, is indirectly but powerfully a result of the Russian Revolution.
Finally, The 1917 Revolution had transformed post-World War II Europe. It divided Europe (and Germany) between the West and the East. But it also unified the West. It’s doubtful that the European integration project would get as far as it did, if it weren’t for a looming presence of the Soviet Empire on its eastern marches. And when the Soviet Empire disappeared, the European integration also started unraveling. As I’ve written at length in this blog, there are multiple reasons for the current disintegration trend in Europe, but the Soviet Union, and the Revolution that gave rise to it, are an important factor in the mix.
Over the past few years many people, including readers of this blog, asked me to comment on the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory (SHGT). The “notoriety” of this theory has been recently given a boost by reports that it inspired the worldview of Steve Bannon, who was until recently Donald Trump’s chief strategist.
Beyond this point, SHGT and SDT part ways. To put this difference in one sentence, SHGT is a prophecy (in fact, the main work of SHGT was titled The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy), while SDT is a scientific theory. I explain the difference in my post Scientific Prediction ≠ Prophecy. Let’s see how this general distinction works out in the specific case of SHGT versus SDT.
The SDT is a scientific theory because (1) it presents a logically cohesive explanation of why change occurs and (2) it then tests critical assumptions and predictions of the theory with independently gathered data.
Let me quickly deal with the second point. SHGT is not a scientific theory because it uses what I call the “Procrustean” approach. Like the mythical Procrustes, one forces the historical record to fit a postulated cycle by stretching in some places and cutting off a bit here and there in others.
Here’s how the famous “Procrustean bed” works Source
In the scientific approach, one tests dynamical theories by collecting quantitative data and feeding the data to statistical analysis. For example, to collect data on political violence in the United States I did systematic searches of newspapers and other databases, and included in the resulting database all instances of political violence in which at least one individual lost life.
Let’s now deal with the first point at some length.
Unlike SDT, SHGT simply postulates that there is a recurring cycle of four generation-length stages in Anglo-American history from 1584 (later pushed back to 1433) to the present. These four stages, or “turnings” are: “The High”, “The Awakening”, “The Unraveling”, and “The Crisis”. Why do we see this specific sequence? It’s just because it is.
That’s not how it works in science. When we see a recurring pattern (why does winter come every twelve months?), we want to understand the mechanisms giving rise to it (in this case, rotation of the planet Earth around the Sun).
While doing research on the SDT, I observed that disintegrative periods of secular cycles tend to be “lumpy”: it’s not a continuous internal war dragging on for a century. Instead, there are typically peaks of political violence, recurring roughly every 50 years or so. I proposed that such cycles could arise as shifts of social mood between generations (“fathers-and-sons cycles”). Next, I built a mathematical model to see whether this mechanism could actually result in 50-year cycles, and whether such dynamics would be possible for realistic assumptions about model parameters.
Let me give you a bit more detail, so that you can appreciate the flavor of such modeling (full details are in Chapter 2 of Ages of Discord, in section Wheels within Wheels: Modeling Complex Dynamics of Sociopolitical Instability).
The model makes no assumptions about generations. Individuals enter the population when they become adult (at age 20) and leave it upon “retiring” (at age 55). Initially they all are “naives”, who are neither for, nor against violence. But naives can become radicalized after encountering a “radical” and converting to their ideology (by a process akin to “social contagion”, which is why I called it a social contagion model). When there are many radicals, social instability and political violence become so high that many radicals become disenchanted with their radicalism and turn into “moderates” who value peace and order above all, and who work actively to bring about an end to violence. In this way high levels of political radicalization, by breeding moderates, create a backlash against violence and yearning for peace.
This is it. It’s a very simple model that makes no assumption about discrete generations. Yet, for a broad spectrum of plausible parameters, it predicts that the proportion of population that is radicalized (and therefore political violence) would peak every 50 years. In other words, we will see an alternation of violent and peaceful “generations” (remember, generations are not built in, they arise as a result of interactions in the model). Here’s what model predictions look like:
Source: Figure 2.3 in Ages of Discord.
This is, of course, a very simple model. But in science this is a virtue. The model shows that it’s not so difficult to get a pattern of alternating peaceful/violent generations. Incidentally, it’s much more difficult to get a pattern of four different generations – in fact, my modeling experience says that it would take truly “heroic” assumptions to get the pattern assumed by SHGT, if it is even possible.
In SDT social contagion is just one of the social mechanisms explaining political violence outbreaks. This mechanism interacts with structural-demographic cycles, producing a complex dynamical pattern, like this one:
Source: Figure 2.4 in Ages of Discord.
This is why this section of Ages of Discord is called Wheels within Wheels—because the two cycles superimpose on each other, and the longer structural-demographic cycle can suppress an outbreak driven by social contagion (simply because most everybody is feeling good and doesn’t want to radicalize and fight a civil war).
I realize that my critique of SHGT will strike many readers as overly academic. But the scientific method is the best way we have to understand how the world operates, so that we can nudge it to better outcomes. Science requires a lot of “slogging”. It takes a lot of work to build and analyze models, and to collect and analyze data. Prophesies are much easier. They are also much more likely to persuade people, than careful science. The reason is that prophesies are vague. People who listen to them are free to supply their own content, in a kind of internalization of a prophesy, which makes it more convincing. This is why, I think, many prophesies enjoy a good run for a while. But in the long run science wins.
A colleague of mine recently asked me to speculate about the various paths the European Union might follow over the next decade and which one(s) I think are more-or-less likely. I think this makes for a good post topic, especially in light of the very troubling developments in the Catalonian/Spanish conflict over the past week.
First, however, I wanted to remind my readers that I already wrote about the European Union prospects 12 years ago, in the last chapter of War and Peace and War. At the end of this post I include the complete fragment dealing with the EU for your info. As you will see, I argue that we can think of the EU as an empire, of a new kind, but still an empire. This means that I can use the insights from my and my colleagues analysis of historical empires to make inferences about the EU. The key question I asked then, but didn’t answer was this: is the core ethnie of the EU, the Germans, willing to sacrifice for the sake of the unified Europe?
I believe that this question has been answered by the Greek crisis, and the answer is, “not any more”. I’ve written in several recent posts about the disintegrative trend that has set in Europe. Parochial interests and narrowing identities, whether they are national or subnational (as in Catalonia’s case), have come to the fore, while the common European interest and identity are losing ground. And that sets the background for my attempt to imagine possible futures for the EU.
Scenario 1. The disintegrative trends that I and others have written about are just a “blip”, a temporary set-back that will be soon overcome. The grand project of European integration will soon recover and by 2027 everybody will look back and have fun at the expense of “doomsayers”. I think that this trajectory is extremely unlikely. First, because of the shift in the social mood of the Germans, to which I referred above. Second, because all across Europe the well-being of large segments of the population is declining. To give just two examples, think of the extraordinary high unemployment rates for the young workers in countries like Spain, and of declining real wages of UK workers over the past decade.
Scenario 2. The EU continues to muddle through. Neither integrative, nor disintegrative trend dominates over the next decade, and in 2027 we are pretty much where we are now. In my opinion, this inertial scenario is more likely than the optimistic Scenario 1, but still not too likely. An equilibrium is a dynamic process, it can maintain itself only when two opposite forces cancel each other out. I don’t see any compelling signs of an integrative force that would cancel the disintegrative forces. Empirically, history doesn’t stand still. So things will either improve, or get worse. For reasons that I stated in this and other posts, my money is on the disintegrative trend prevailing (although personally I wish it was otherwise).
Incidentally, the governing elites of the EU behave as though they all believe in Scenario 1 (or, at worst, Scenario 2).
Scenario 3. The next 10 years will see an increasingly fragmented European landscape. The EU will not be formally abolished, but it will increasingly lose its capacity to influence constituent countries. Led by Hungary and Poland, other small and medium-sized countries will increasingly set their national policies without much regard for Brussels. This fragmentation will be accomplished largely in a nonviolent way. Perhaps not in ten years, as it may take longer, but eventually the EU will look much like the Holy Roman Empire. This “HRE” scenario is probably the most likely, at least in my opinion.
Central Europe in 1618. Source
Scenario 4. Like in the previous scenarios, the disintegrative trend will dominate, but dissolution of the EU will not be peaceful. I think (I hope) that the violent disintegration scenario is much less likely than the Scenario 3. And I know that almost nobody believes that a violent break-up is possible. Very few people remain who fought in World War II. And this is the danger. The government of Mariano Rajoy apparently can’t imagine that one result of their push to suppress the Catalonian independence movement could be a bloody civil war.
Unfortunately, there is no law of history that prohibits an armed conflict within Europe that could carry away thousands of lives. Our parents and grandparents fought in World War II. We are not better than them. The reasons there was no major war between core European states since 1945 is not because we are better than the previous generations, but because Europe had an integrative institutional framework. If that framework goes, all kinds of nasty outcomes become possible.
Let me close this post by stressing that I am projecting forward for only ten years. If I was asked, where will Europe be in 40 years, then I would speculate that there is a good chance that the disintegrative trend will, by then, be reversed. But that speculation is for another post.
An excerpt from the last chapter of War and Peace and War, published in 2005.
On March 25, 1957, in a spectacular Renaissance palazzo in Rome six European nations—France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the treaty establishing the European Economic Community, the precursor of the European Union. A glance at maps of Europe in 1957 and 800 shows that the combined territory of the six founding members traces almost precisely the empire of Charlemagne. The symbolism is heavy. It was in Rome, on Christmas day of A.D. 800 that the pope crowned Charlemagne as emperor. Is the European Union a new kind of empire?
In terms of its size, multiethnic population, and complex power structure the E.U. fits my definition. Furthermore, during the half century of its existence the E.U. has been aggressively expanding, adding most recently six central European and two Mediterranean countries during the writing of this book. The core state of the E.U., Germany, meanwhile gobbled up former East Germany in 1990. However, all expansion to date was accomplished entirely by peaceful and consensual means. Historical empires don’t always need to conquer new territories. I have pointed out above that there were voluntary admissions to the Roman and Russian empires. Many medieval European states grew by dynastic unions. Still, the entirely peaceful expansion of the E.U. is unprecedented in world history—ultimately, all historical empires had to counter external or internal threats with force. Member states have used armed force, as the United Kingdom in its 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, but the European Union as a whole has not done it—so far? The Europeans are moving in the direction of creating a unified military force, but we will have to wait and see whether the E.U. will prove capable of using the force when threatened. More importantly, how strong is the European asabiya? Will it motivate people to sacrifice their comforts, treasure, or blood for the sake of the unified Europe? So far, the main financial burden of empire has been born largely by the Germans. It is customary for core nations of empires to bear the main brunt of its costs, but how long will the Germans consent to this state of affairs? Will the years of slow economic growth and high unemployment, which as of the time of this writing show no signs of ending—will such economic hardship eventually sap the willingness of the Germans to sacrifice for the sake of the dream of a powerful united Europe?
One hardly ever sees news from Austria or Czechia* in the American press. Yet recent developments in these two small European countries have big implications for the continuing viability of the European integration process.
The Austrian People’s Party poster: Kurz: Now. Or never! Source
In Austrian elections a week ago the greatest gainers were the Austrian People’s Party and the Freedom Party of Austria. Both parties can be described as right-wing, populist, and anti-immigration, and the Freedom Party is, in addition, Eurosceptic (which means that want to reverse European integration). If they form a governing coalition, as seems likely, this would result in a significant rebellion against the EU governing elites.
Czechs had their own elections last weekend, and the resulting ruling coalition is also likely to be right-wing, populist, anti-immigration, and Eurosceptic (Euroscepticism is particularly strong in Czechia). Now keep in mind that the current governments of Poland and Hungary are already governed by similarly Eurosceptic leaders. In other words, there is a rebellion in the middle of the European Union, and it’s growing.
I’ve written extensively about the disintegrative processes gaining momentum in the EU over the past few years:
The surge of right-wing populism, which resulted in a formation of a group of European countries whose political trajectory increasingly diverges from that prescribed from Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, thus, is only the latest sign of how far disintegration of the EU has gone. In fact, it’s remarkable how many various fault lines there are, which increasingly divide Europe.
One of the most important is, obviously, Brexit, which should end with the UK leaving the EU. Then we have the Greek crisis that could end in Greece leaving the Eurozone. Although this seems to be off the table at this moment, the fundamental problems that resulted in the crisis haven’t been addressed.
In addition to fault lines between the EU center and constituent nation-states, there are a number of problems within the states. Catalonia is number one, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ham-fisted tactics of Madrid eventually lead to a violent conflict between the Catalonian secessionists and the Spanish unionists.
The independence movement is also very strong in Scotland. In Belgium secessionists essentially won, because the Flemish and the Walloons cannot any longer agree on living in a common state. The only thing that keeps them from declaring two newly independent states is the question of how to divide up Brussels. It’s rather ironic that Brussels is both the capital of the EU, and of Belgium, a failed state.
Last weekend also saw “nonbinding” referenda in which over 90 percent voted for greater autonomy in Veneto and Lombardia. In short, wherever you look in Europe, the signs of impending fragmentation abound. And I have probably missed some in this sad list.
*Czechia is how the Czechs now want their country to be referred to. See ‘Nobody calls it Czechia’: Czech Republic’s new name fails to catch on
Forty years ago this day my family (and I with them) left the Soviet Union on our way to America. Our first stop was in Vienna, where, by a curious coincidence, I am today (visiting at the Complexity Science Hub).
From the cliodynamic point of view, four decades is not a lot of time. Still, these particular decades saw quite a dramatic change of the world’s geopolitical landscape. In this post I take a quick look back at how the world changed since 1977. I focus on the two superpowers of 1977.
USSR – Russia
I left Russia because my father was one of the dissidents calling for reforms that would make the Soviet Union more democratic and market-oriented. In the mid-1970s the Brezhnev regime had consolidated its power over the USSR and decided to do away with the last remnants of dissidents, even though they had zero influence on what was happening in the country. Some dissidents were forced to immigrate, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and my father. Others ended up in prisons. By 1980 the Soviet Union looked like a monolith that was immune to both external and internal challenges.
Now, in retrospect, we know that this appearance was deceptive – the disintegrative trend had already set in. When the new generation of leaders replaced the Brezhnev cohort in 1985, they rapidly drove the Soviet empire into collapse and disintegration. The first time I went back to Moscow after emigrating was in winter 1992. I saw what a social collapse looks like. Massive immiseration of the population, passed-out drunks everywhere, collapsing infrastructure, collapsing law and order. For example, we saw several charred car wrecks that were left after some businessman or a mafia lord (actually, there was no difference between the two) was assassinated. In the produce market, ethnic Mafiosi were collecting protection money in the broad daylight. Shouldering aside the buyers, they walked down the stalls with thick wads of cash, the vendors handing them bills with shaking hands.
However, the reversal of the disintegrative trend occurred quite rapidly, by historical standards. The onset of the new integrative trend coincided with the shift from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Putin is, of course, currently demonized in the Western press, but the Russians have a different view, because his rule was associated with rapid growth of personal incomes (mainly between 1999 and 2007), and return of Russia to the circle of Great Powers. Of course Russia today is nothing like a superpower that the USSR was—rather it’s a weak and shambolic great power (sort of like Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century).
The integrative trend has faltered somewhat in the last few years, and it’s difficult to predict whether it will be sustained into the next four decades. In any case, the history of the past 40 years has seen two dramatic trend reversals. Predictions based on linear extrapolation, whether made in 1980 or 1995, turned out to be completely wrong. History is dynamic and nonlinear.
The United States
It’s hard to remember now, but back in 1977 it was the US that looked like an ailing superpower. The defeat in the Vietnam War was only two years in the past. Across the world, insurrections aided by the Soviet Union were seemed to be in ascendance. Within the country, the social turbulence of the late 1960s and the 1970s was just coming to an end. In fact, the Black Liberation Army was still active in the US until the Brinks truck robbery in 1981. The 1970s economy was in disarray, with one recession after another, and the Bear Market contributing to (or reflecting) the feeling of social pessimism.
But the subsequent four decades, again, showed that linear trend extrapolation is a really bad way of making geopolitical predictions. When the USSR collapsed in early 1990s, the US became the only standing superpower in the world, the status that it retains today. There was a lot of giddy prophesizing concerning how the 21st Century would be the American Century. That looks increasingly unlikely, especially given the outcome of the presidential elections of 2016. We have clearly just entered our own Age of Discord.
When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978 (this is described in detail in Part IV Ages of Discord, see in particular, the significance of Douglas Fraser’s resignation letter from the Labor Management Group written in 1978, p. 195).
In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.
What follows is my report on the workshop Evolution of Social Complexity that I organized at Complexity Science Hub-Vienna, October 2–3, 2017.
An Agenda for Research on the Evolution (and Devolution) of Social Complexity
Over the past 10,000 years human societies evolved from “simple” – small egalitarian groups, integrated by face-to-face interactions – to “complex” – huge anonymous societies of millions, characterized by great differentials in wealth and power, extensive division of labor, elaborate governance structures, and sophisticated information systems. What were the evolutionary processes that brought about such an enormous increase in social scale and complexity?
We also need to understand why social forces that hold huge human societies together sometimes fail to do so. Complex societies collapsed on numerous occasions in the past, and may be at risk today. There are clear signs that even industrialized, wealthy, and democratic Western societies, that seemed to be immune to collapse until recently, are becoming less stable. Research on social complexity will bring understanding that is of direct value to our societies and human well-being.
On October 2-3, 2017, Complexity Science Hub (CSH) in Vienna conducted a workshop on the evolution of social complexity organized by the CSH external faculty Peter Turchin. A diverse group of scholars, which included historians, archaeologists, evolutionary and computer scientists, and physicists, who considered the following questions: Can we measure Social Complexity? How many dimensions does it have? What were the evolutionary forces that explain the dramatic increase in Social Complexity over the past 10,000 years? And why do complex societies sometimes become unstable, and even collapse?
One important point that several participants stressed is the need to study the deep human past. Social forces that bring about societal disintegration build up slowly, over many decades. A short-term view that focuses on only where we currently are, rather than on also where we came from, will not yield effective policies that will allow us to avoid the looming crisis. Furthermore, the tension between collective, more cooperative forms of governance, on one hand, and more autocratic, even despotic forms, on the other, is not new—it has been with us ever since the first centralized societies arose some 7.5 thousand years ago. We need to learn these lessons from the past. Similarly, evidence is accumulating that increasing inequality undermines social cooperation and societal stability, both in the past and today.
More generally, much research is currently addressing questions of environmental sustainability and of sustainable economic growth. But what about social sustainability? Social instability has a direct impact on human well-being, and collapse of complex societies can be catastrophic. In Europe, specifically, we see a number of worrying trends—the rise of populism, authoritarianism, and separatism—all suggesting that social cooperation is gradually unraveling and a disintegrative trend is setting in. The participants of the workshop think that a research program combining the quantitative methods of complexity science (including computational social science, nonlinear dynamical systems, and social network analysis) with “Big Data” methodologies that probe deep human past will generate new and exciting insights that will allow us to understand how these negative trends can be reversed.
There are two particular challenges to social sustainability that have become very important recently. One is the communication revolution that has dramatically changed how information is processed and disseminated. On one hand, this revolution has had many positive effects. For example, it has democratized social influence, since any individual or group can now reach large numbers of other individuals online. On the other hand, it enabled malevolent actors, including individuals, organizations, and states, to conduct “informational warfare” to nefarious ends.
The second challenge is also driven by technological evolution. As automation and robotization of production expand, the demand for human labor will begin falling below its supply (in fact, this may already be happening). This technological transition is not necessarily bad, unless it is mismanaged. Unfortunately, the triumph of neoliberal ideology in the United States, and deep inroads this ideology recently made into European elites, means that the chance this transition will be mismanaged is quite high. If it is left to free markets, then businesses are likely to continue replacing workers with machines, unemployment will grow, collective demand that drives economic growth will decline, and inequality will spike, followed by social instability and growing political violence.
These (and other trends that we did not mention here) are serious challenges to the sustainability of complex societies. As history shows, drastic social simplification nearly always imposes huge costs on societies in terms of human well-being. Research into the mechanisms and causes of evolution—and devolution—of complex societies is not only intellectually exciting, but also has direct benefits for our societies and human well-being.
Today Catalonians vote (or not) in an independence referendum. As a result of moves by the regional government in Barcelona and national government in Madrid, Catalonia became one of the potentially most dangerous flash points in Europe. The potential for violence has been greatly elevated as a result of a reckless decision by Madrid to send Guardia Civil to suppress the referendum by force. I have no idea whether there are enough Catalonians who feel strongly enough about independence to respond to force by force, but I also doubt Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy really knows what will be the consequences of his move. As I write this post on Sunday morning, most violence is not particularly serious, but violent confrontations have the potential of escalating far beyond what either side wishes.
The Madrid government has declared the referendum illegal according to the Spanish Constitution. But that constitution is not a divine law, or law of nature. Laws are made by men, and Spain had many constitutions prior to the current one, which was adopted in 1978. In any case, human societies evolve, and laws must evolve with them. And this leads me to why the Catalonian referendum is interesting from the point of view of Cultural Evolution.
The theoretically interesting question is what is the optimal size of a politically independent unit (“polity”) in today’s world. Clearly, optimal size changes with time and social environment. We know empirically that the optimal size of a European state took a step up following 1500. As a result, the number of independent polities in Europe decreased from many hundreds in 1500 to just over 30 in 1900. The reason was the introduction of gunpowder that greatly elevated war intensity. The new evolutionary regime eliminated almost all of the small states, apart from a few special cases (like the Papacy or Monaco).
In today’s Europe, however, war has ceased to be an evolutionary force. It may change, but since 1945 the success or failure of European polities has been largely determined by their ability to deliver high levels of living standards to their citizens. Economics is not the only aspect of well-being, but let’s focus on it here because it is clearly the main driver behind Catalonian independence (since culturally and linguistically Catalonia has been given a free rein within Spain).
So the question becomes: will Catalonia be better off as an independent state, or an autonomous province with Spain (as it is now)? (Same question can be asked about Scotland, which recently also ran an independence referendum.)
About half of Catalonians think yes, because they know that the region pays much more in taxes to Madrid, then gets back from the central government. There are, of course, significant costs associated with independence. Some are transitory, and others (like the need to maintain a diplomatic service and embassies in many countries) are permanent. There are a lot of other unknowns, for example, whether Catalonia would be able to remain within the European Union, should the referendum succeed.
My conclusion: nobody really knows whether independence will make the life of most Catalonians better, or worse. Thus, I say: if the majority of Catalonians vote for secession, let them have it. If they are willing to run an experiment using themselves as subjects, they certainly have the right to do so, and their experience will be useful to other regions (e.g. Scotland) that currently contemplate independence.
This is applied cultural evolution. We can have lots of theories and models about the optimal polity size, but they are worthless without data.
And it’s much more than a scientific issue. The only way for our societies to become better in all kinds of ways (wealthier, more just, more efficient) is to allow cultural evolution a free rein. More specifically, we need cultural group selection at the level of polities. A major problem for the humanity is finding ways to have such cultural group selection to take place without violence. Which is why I find the current moves by Madrid to suppress the Catalonian independence vote by force criminally reckless. It seems that Madrid still wants to go back to the world as it was in the nineteenth century (or more accurately, Europe between 1500 and 1900).
Notes on the margin: You can read more about cultural group selection and success or failure of societies in Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth.
This evening I am meeting with a group of historians, mostly specializing in the study of Byzantium. The topic of discussion is “Evolution of Large-Scale Societies”. The participants were sent a couple of my papers on the topic, and so the plan is for me to give a short (15 minute) introduction to the discussion to follow, rather than present any specific results.
As I was thinking this morning about what I should say in this introduction, I saw an article from American Scientist sent by a colleague in my department.
Although I am now really a social scientist, my main appointment is in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The article that my colleague shared was about why Ecology needs Natural History. And it’s directly relevant to my discussion with the historians of Byzantium tonight.
There is clearly a tension between traditional historians and scientists in such new fields as Cliodynamics and Cultural Evolution. Scientists are interested in discovering general principles that govern the dynamics and evolution of human societies, while most historians are passionately interested in the inner workings of a particular society that they study. Historians typically are not interested in general laws, and in fact most of them don’t believe that there are such things in History.
What historians don’t realize is that similar tensions, between an emphasis on general principles and the in-depth study of particular cases, are also found in Natural Sciences. In particular, in Ecology. In his Scientific American article, John Anderson explains how Ecology started as Natural History. Without naturalists, like Alexander von Humboldt, there could be no theory of evolution, because any general theory needs empirical content. In fact, the fathers of evolutionary theory in biology, Darwin and Wallace, were also keen naturalists.
The relationship between traditional History and new scientific fields, like Cultural Evolution, in my opinion, is very similar to that between Natural History and Biological Evolution (note that “history” and “evolution” show up in both pairs). Both fields need each other.
It’s obvious that Cultural Evolution needs History. This need was made especially clear in our Seshat project, because building a Global History Databank without specialists on past societies (historians and archaeologists) is clearly impossible. Yes, some social scientists have put together databases by hiring student research assistants to code historical data, but such databases suffer from numerous problems, for example, frequently relying on obsolete results that more recent historical scholarship has shown to be erroneous. In contrast, the number of specialist historians and archaeologists who have contributed to the Seshat Databank is already approaching one hundred.
Furthermore, where do general theories come from? In my experience, they arise as a result of reading detailed histories of particular societies. Over the past 20 years, I read an awful lot of history, and it certainly makes me a much better theorist than I would be otherwise.
What is less obvious is that History equally needs Cultural Evolution. Without a scientific component (which means formulating theories very clearly and testing them empirically against each other), History is doomed to be a heterogeneous collection of facts and particular explanations. My favorite example is the collapse of the Roman Empire. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about it, and each author has her own pet theory of why the collapse occurred.
Moreover, the sad truth is that scholarly disciplines that don’t yield clear practical benefits tend to be neglected. This is why History and other Humanities are severely under-funded. There is little appetite in our societies to fund pure research unencumbered by practical benefits (even if in some distant future).
Interestingly, John Anderson follows the same tack in justifying why Natural History should be funded:
The failure to train a new generation of natural historians goes beyond academic interests and has practical and legal implications. Several years ago, I participated in a workshop on the importance of natural history in modern science. After the presentations, a representative from a federal agency stood up and said essentially, “Look, you environmentalists have managed to get all these laws passed that require us to do environmental-impact statements. Then you betrayed us. You went into the lab and focused on theory and genetics. You stopped teaching herpetology, mammalogy, and ornithology. When I am trying to do a consultation on the Endangered Species Act, I don’t need someone who can talk theory or run gels; I need to know whether that is a clouded salamander, because if it is, a whole new regulatory procedure has to be instituted. You people in universities just aren’t turning out students with the training I need anymore.”
The reason Ecology is much better funded than History is because Ecology has shown itself as not only a theoretical discipline, but also because it (via its connection to Environmental Science) yields practical benefits. Just as personal health matters (which is why biomedical sciences are the best funded of them all), the health of ecosystems in which we live matters, as does the health of our planetary biosphere.
The health of societies we live in also matters. What most people don’t realize is that Cultural Evolution allied to History has the potential of yielding immense practical benefits, by helping us to evolve more cooperative, better-organized, more productive, and more just societies that deliver high levels of well-being for us all.
Why is Cultural Evolution a particularly good fit for History? To address first the two common tropes, Cultural Evolution is not Social Darwinism; it also doesn’t say that societies must pass through fixed stages of development.
Cultural Evolution is interested in both general principles and in variation between societies. In fact, variation is an incredibly important part of evolution. Furthermore, historians love contingency, but so do evolutionists. History and Cultural Evolution are natural allies, and practitioners of these two disciplines should work together.
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