Recently there has been a lot of interest in translating my books into non-English languages, a development that I heartily welcome (I touched upon it in my previous post and in this one). Earlier this month, Warsaw Enterprise Institute published a Polish translation of War and Peace and War (WPW). They asked me for something to prime a debate about my book that they are planning to hold on Tuesday. So I thought I would offer a retrospective on WPW, looking back to when I initially wrote it. So here it goes.
The original cover of the hard-book edition (2005)
Greetings, my Polish readers!
War and Peace and War (WPW) is my first trade—popular science—book, published in 2005. When I started working on a science of history (which later got a name, Cliodynamics) in the late 1990s, I decided right away that I need to combine science writing (articles in scientific journals and academic books) with popular books. Scientific rigor—details of mathematical models and statistical analyses of data—would be relegated to the academic publications, which would free me to focus on the insights from this science unencumbered by the nitty-gritty. I also wanted to indulge my passion for history (which was one of the main reasons I decided to go into Cliodynamics). Of course, writing historical narratives has no place in an academic article.
Thus, when Stephen Morrow, who at the time started an imprint called Pi Press (which later was folded into Penguin Random House), asked me whether I would be interested in writing a trade book, I immediately agreed. Incidentally, Stephen’s offer was either foolishly brave, or showed an amazing degree of judgment (you choose), because at the time Cliodynamics was a two-year old baby, and I never before wrote a popular book. I literally had to retrain myself as a writer to be able to switch between academic writing and what is needed for a popular book. But I enjoyed the experience, and WPW was followed by my second popular book, Ultrasociety, and now I am working on a third one.
WPW has a somewhat unusual structure. It follows in the footsteps of Historical Dynamics, which was my first academic book introducing Cliodynamics. The questions it asks are familiar to any thinking person. Where did our large scale complex societies come from? Why do they periodically break down? Thinkers from Aristotle, Polybius, Ibn Khaldun (to whom I devote a lot of space in WPW) to Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee—all were fascinated by these questions. And so are contemporary historians and social scientists (there is now a whole new scientific discipline called Collapsology!). So what distinguished my approach?
My goal, from the very beginning, was to help start a scientific field, because a scientific discipline, combining formal models with analysis of big data, and advanced by a community of researchers, will always beat in the long run any individual, no matter how brilliant they are. Back in the early 2000s, of course, we were just at the beginnings of such a new field. Nevertheless, my colleagues and I had already proposed a number of plausibly sounding theories and even tested some of them with data. So my job, as I saw it, was to explain these new insights in non-technical language, and illustrate how the processes we identified worked in concrete historical examples.
As a result, WPW is a kind of a necklace. The string is the leitmotif, the theoretical backbone. The beads are historical narratives of how specific societies, which faced various kinds of challenges, surmounted them (or not). Each narrative illustrated a theoretical idea. Thus, there is a lot of historical detail, but it is needed to flesh out the general understanding of how history works.
Although the theoretical skeleton at the time of writing was still in flux, as my colleagues and I continually developed new models, collected new data, and confronted model predictions with data, overall the main explanations aged surprisingly well. New data, such as the ones now published in Seshat: Global History Databank, and in CrisisDB, currently in development, may have shifted the accents and added additional depth here and there. But overall the theories explained in WPW have stood the test of time.
I hope that you will enjoy the book!