Studying the Past to Design a Better Future



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Last week I was in St. Louis, where I first participated in the Consilience Conference, then went on a day trip to Cahokia Mounds, and finally gave a talk at Washington University. This has been a very intense and productive trip, and I already see that I will need several blogs to cover various themes that came up while I was there. Today, a few words about the issues that I addressed in the two talks I gave.

In the first talk (you can see the slides posted here) I argued that we badly need to learn from history so that we can avoid past mistakes and design a better collective future. The way in which it has been done so far, however, has been completely flawed. When people look to history for lessons, they pick some historical event or situation that appears to resemble the current one, and make an argument by analogy. The worst are the ideologues who simply search through the historical record to find some event that will support their argument. Because the historical record is very rich, by looking hard enough you can always find some instance that will ‘prove’ your pet theory.

The example I used in the talk is the recent proliferation of books that compare America to the Roman Empire. So it is possible for one author to ask, “Are We Rome?” and then go on about the fall of empires. But another author publishes a book “Why America is not a New Rome,” so we can relax and not worry about ‘decline’ (whatever that means).

This is clearly a wrong approach to extracting lessons from history. Instead of looking for direct analogies, I argued in the talk, we have to approach this issue in an indirect way. We need to build general theories of social change and test them empirically on the whole historical record (or at least, on a reasonable statistical sample; no cherry-picking is allowed). Once we are reasonably certain we understand why things change the way they do, we can use our understanding of mechanisms causing the change to ‘tweak’ them in ways that would generate desirable change, or avoid undesirable outcomes. Having a dynamic theory that takes into account nonlinear feedbacks between different processes is key, because it, at least, gives us a chance to foresee unintended consequences.

This means that in addition to ‘History as Humanity’ (which I have nothing against; in fact, we need more of it), we need ‘History as Science’ or Cliodynamics.

The second talk I gave to the Math department of Wash U (but it was also attended by biologists, anthropologists, and historians). While the first talk dealt with very general issues, the second one presented a detailed case-study in cliodynamics. The question was, how did social evolution result in the rise of very large human societies. Marie Taris wrote a nice news story about it, Modeling for peace with Peter Turchin.

At the end of her piece, Marie wrote, “As for my part, I was left hoping that future generations may discover a more peaceful story about a superorganism we might call humans.” I don’t think that we can find a more peaceful story in the past – the evidence is very compelling – but nothing precludes us from writing a peaceful story for our future. And a clear-headed understanding of warfare and its role in human history is a necessary precondition for abolishing war. Paradoxically, warfare itself has accomplished part of the job, by providing a selection pressure for larger-scale complex societies that are internally cooperative and peaceful.

After all, the all-important glue that holds our wonderful complex societies together is cooperation. Cooperation evolved as a result of competition among societies, which historically took the form of warfare. But by driving the evolution of complex societies warfare also made our lives less violent and more secure. And if this trend continues, warfare may eventually put itself out of business.

This does not mean that we should simply wait for this to happen. Nothing prevents us from working in ways that will help this process along, and make it happen sooner, rather than later (as an example, see the War and Peace initiative at the Evolution Institute).

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I’ve always been very impressed by your approach to history. I’ve been thinking about how it could be used in very practical ways. For example, the current situation in Greece. Commentators range all the way from saying: “They’ll do OK, they’ll muddle through,” to others saying this could be the trigger of a civil war in Greece. Since you’ve been studying the cycles of societies, you may be able to create some kind of “crisis index” that indicates if a country is dangerously close to a major crisis. This should help in avoiding pushing countries down a cliff, like some people are worried may be happening to Greece. And it could be the first tool in a toolkit to try to keep the world as peaceful as possible.

Peter Turchin

Jack Goldstone in 1991 proposed PSI (Political Stress Indicator) as a way to quantify social pressures for state breakdown. I thin it is a fruitful approach, and I am currently working on developing it further in the context of empirical case-studies. Hopefully, I will have a manuscript on this in late summer. An interim report is here:

Rich Howard

History as Humanity and History as Science. Both, but its individuals who are the actors so isn’t our psychology what’s needed in models well? As populations we make powerful decisions that are binding on all of us and move history for good and bad. But it us as individuals who decide and our decisions are therefore ultimately reflections of our human nature.
I know we all agree on this and have heard this argument before. Thing is we need the promise of objective measurement and non bias of Cliodynamics to help clear out the view forward. I wish it weren’t so complicated, but it is its non linear, multi hierarchical and… evolutionary. Peter, work hard… and fast… please!

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