Why History and Cultural Evolution Are Natural Allies

Peter Turchin


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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.

Source: Wikimedia

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.

Source: Wikimedia

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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Richard Illyes

I always welcome a Peter Turchin post. Reading War and Peace and War about this time last year opened an entirely new area of thought to me which has been very valuable.

Spending life as an electronic designer has made me appreciate the exploding pace of technology and its effect on human civilization. We are going to be presented with an opportunity never before available to humans, the opportunity to devise one or more models of human civilization based on a greatly expanded level of knowledge, and with the tools to see them as complete systems.

James Waddington

Very incisive and most timely, especially “Furthermore, where do general theories come from? In my experience, they arise as a result of reading detailed histories of particular societies” where for histories of particular societies one could also put the empirical data of biological evolution, or of cultural evolution, where the data is largely the extended hominin phenotype; which in turn informs much of history. Where would the Trojan War have been ithout the shield of Achilles or the topless towers of Ilium?
I trust you meant well-being

James Waddington

Um… just as I meant without

Peter Richerson

Rob Boyd and I wrote an essay along these lines. It is on my web site.

Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (1992). How microevolutionary processes give rise to history. In M. H. Nitecki & D. V. Nitecki (Eds.), History and Evolution (pp. 179-209). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ross Hartshorn

One source of tension you might encounter is that the very example you mention, Natural History and Ecology, might look ominous to Historians. We don’t have a lot of “Natural Historians” now, as we don’t have many Philologists now, as they were replaced by Linguists in most cases. I could see a concern by historians that the rise of Cliodynamics could render them (and their decades of accumulated skills) obsolete. This could make them less than welcoming of the trend of applying scientific methods to the study of history. They are all people who chose to study history instead of a scientific field, after all, so it’s a good guess that a lot of them are not eager to work in a field with a lot of math (or they would have chosen to do so when starting their careers). Just because the rise of ecology _shouldn’t_ have led to fewer natural historians, yet it did, so they might worry that the rise of cliodynamics might lead to less support for historians.

It looks as if you are already on the path to the solution to this, though, in emphasizing that tools like Seshat have the potential to make their work more visibly applicable to humanity’s problems, which could increase funding for historical research. But it might be good to keep emphasizing this point when speaking to historians, so as to allay any concerns that, if their field goes in this direction, it would be a direction that they can’t follow.

Peter Richerson

Dear Ross,

Natural historians are not that rare! I am an avid collector of natural history guidebooks and I can often turn up good ones when I travel to new places. In my former career as an ecologist I could almost always find a natural historian collaborator when things got difficult, as, for example, systematics often does. Most ecologists and evolutionary biologists are pretty fair natural historians in their own right. These sciences often trade on good life history knowledge. Your hypothesis are often suggested by natural history and designing good scientific studies, especially field studies often trades on natural history knowledge. Likewise, natural history often borrows from science. Peter Turchin’s work is a good illustration. Historians trying to account for the collapse of societies like Rome and the Maya often propose muddle mechanisms. Peter’s book Historical Dynamics shows what kinds of processes can or can’t cause collapses. Science furnishes tools that historians can use and vice versa. One is not going to put the other out of business!

Best, Pete


Since we are talking about culture….


Yikes, and it’s not even 2020 yet,

How much has Trump really accelerated things?

Steve H.

This provides little within the framework of the work Turchin has done. One could as well point the the datum that a federal judge agreed that the Democratic Party rigged their primary, but they had the right to do so.

To attribute systemic effects to particular faces is exactly what Turchin has been working against. That both major political parties fielded New York billionaire criminals as their candidates points as a confirmation of inter-elite competition and not to the individual agency of those whose jobs involve distraction as much as action.

Roy Barzilai
Steve H.

Walter Iberall wrote: “the biological system- including man- is not run by the central nervous system but by the endocrine system.”

What I like about this is that it may be a testable hypothesis.

Richard Illyes

What is being termed the Culture War is a tiny fragment of things to come. The Federal Government had become the jobs program for elites. Trump dashed those hopes. Things are going to get a lot worse for the educated and heavily indebted, and the level of upheaval will be several orders of magnitude greater than a flap over standing for the National Anthem..

Another interesting cultural reaction is developing as illustrated by this article: http://www.socialmatter.net/2017/09/26/transgenderism-is-propaganda-designed-to-humiliate-and-compel-submission/ Specific charges of bad motives are just beginning to find a widespread audience.

No major faction is yet promoting a comprehensive version of an ideal society, and Make America Great Again is very short on details, I believe that the explosion of technology and the dramatic reduction in the costs of basic human existence will promote that discussion.

The level of discussion among high school and college students on an exploding number of libertarian sites is like nothing I have ever seen. The quality of historical knowledge exhibited is very high. These young people believe they need to discuss human culture. The site linked above is not a libertarian site.


Trump’s rise imo both accelerated things in the intraelite battle + the Current Culture War/Demographic Battle in the U.S.

Billionaires trying to take more influence in U.S. Politics got more apprent since the Tea Party Rising in 2010 and their Formation into the so called “Freedom Caucus” in the Senate. (Where they are basically puppets of the Koch brothers and their buddies.)

Here and interesting quote from former labor secetary Robert Reich FB:

“Who exactly is financing the appearances of Milo Yiannopolous, Ann Coulter, Steven Bannon, and other right-wing luminaries at Berkeley next week? Yiannopoulos said in an email Monday that fees and accommodations for the speakers will cost approximately $250,000, and that his own company is picking up the tab. Which raises the obvious question: Who’s paying Yiannopoulos’s company to do this?

Here’s Joseph Bernstein’s analysis from the July 13 edition of BuzzFeed News:

“Secretive hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his family launched themselves into the top rank of American power through a series of spectacularly successful cash investments in politics: in Breitbart News, the far-right media outlet; in Cambridge Analytica, the controversial political data firm; and, of course, in Donald Trump, the president of the United States. To those ventures — and a host of others — newly uncovered evidence strongly suggests an addition: Milo Yiannopoulos, the anti–political correctness crusader and conservative provocateur.

Leaked documents, including a promissory note and emails, as well as conversations with several people familiar with the matter, strongly imply that the Mercers funded Yiannopoulos following his resignation from Breitbart News after video surfaced in which he appeared to condone pedophilia. Together, they suggest that the financiers of the new conservative politics aren’t simply interested in protecting their money, but in winning a brutal new culture war waged largely online.

More than that, the documents point to a relationship that Yiannopoulos seems to regard as a kind of personal patronage, expecting from the family not just financial but legal support, after the British citizen’s visa status became tenuous post-Breitbart. ‘Rebekah Mercer loves Milo,’ said a source familiar with both Yiannopoulos and the Mercers, of the eldest Mercer daughter, who runs the family’s foundation and served on the executive committee of the Trump transition team. ‘They always stood behind him, and their support never wavered.’ The Mercer family declined requests for comment.

Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart News in a press conference on Feb. 21. Less than a week later, in an email titled “Entity” and addressed to a handful of staffers, his lawyer, and Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow, Yiannopoulos mentioned the Mercers as funders of his new venture.” ”

These New Players are using the Culture War for their political meanings, attacking heavily the new rising demographic group, which are likely to lead the Unites States in the future.

@Clintons: While I agree about her corruption, well, this interesting scenario was posted a while ago.


Peter van den Engel

Byzantium is a very interesting cultural society period which was a leading empire during almost ten centuries AC and in general little known about, since the Roman Empire is considered to have been only one. The western, that of the capital Rome.

By the way I recently found a very interesting clue why the western Roman Empire; that of Rome; ended, which was the Egyptian monetary system. The Egyptian system was based on grain and therefore deflating/ while the Roman system payed interest, so all Egyptian money went to Rome; ending Egyptian culture; being largely invested in military, which on its own found little or none proceeds from northern European occupation, so when burned ended the western Roman political empire.

There is some interesting parallel with the US military budget, paying for 1000 bases stationed around Russia and China, eating most of its GDP budget.
Clearly human cultural evolution is not guided by testosteron/ but by its monetary system.

Because of the singularities economic evolution is creating in the system, which is not only unfruitfull military, but also outsourcing labor and new digital technology including solar, it is confronted with its own illogic.
Of course in reaction billionaire ‘criminals’ buying political elections; which is inherent to the system; will feel the obligation to prove their right/ but are helpless.

In some inverted way the system proves twice to be wrong (= evolved itself into an impossible equation).

I agree new technology at the same time offers possibilities that are unprecedented, because it reduces economic costs/ but without a totally renewed financial system this has inverted consequences for the job market and the fiscal system, and the income of billionairs as well.


//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.//

We can’t evolve a better society ourselves because we don’t control ‘evolution’ which is beyond human control.

We are all members of groups that are being selected or eliminated based a lot of the time – but not exclusively – on its members’ ability to cooperate. Evolution is something that acts on us.

As humans we cannot use the word ‘evolve’, we have to use the word ‘design’. We can try out different designs and see if they work better. The problem occurs when people try to force what they consider to be a better design on the world. No matter the rights or wrongs of it scientifically, it will become wrong and could cause societal collapse simply by being unpopular.

One of the biggest issues of the day in terms of group selection is North Korea. What does Cultural Evolution advise on how to deal with North Korea?

Cultural Evolution might suggest this totalitarian polity, left alone, will inevitably collapse due to elite infighting, and thereafter develop a more equal society like the states around it. We don’t need to intervene, we just need to be in the right place to help pick up the pieces and offer reforming elites who gain success support.

In other words, let evolution take its course. The more humans attempt to ‘design’ worlds the worse the outcome.

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