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.