Are there laws of history?

Amanda Rees at AEON: “…If big data could enable us to turn big history into mathematics rather than narratives, would that make it easier to operationalise our past? Some scientists certainly think so.

In February 2010, Peter Turchin, an ecologist from the University of Connecticut, predicted that 2020 would see a sharp increase in political volatility for Western democracies. Turchin was responding critically to the optimistic speculations of scientific progress in the journal Nature: the United States, he said, was coming to the peak of another instability spike (regularly occurring every 50 years or so), while the world economy was reaching the point of a ‘Kondratiev wave’ dip, that is, a steep downturn in a growth-driven supercycle. Along with a number of ‘seemingly disparate’ social pointers, all indications were that serious problems were looming. In the decade since that prediction, the entrenched, often vicious, social, economic and political divisions that have increasingly characterised North American and European society, have made Turchin’s ‘quantitative historical analysis’ seem remarkably prophetic.

A couple of years earlier, in July 2008, Turchin had made a series of trenchant claims about the nature and future of history. Totting up in excess of ‘200 explanations’ proposed to account for the fall of the Roman empire, he was appalled that historians were unable to agree ‘which explanations are plausible and which should be rejected’. The situation, he maintained, was ‘as risible as if, in physics, phlogiston theory and thermodynamics coexisted on equal terms’. Why, Turchin wanted to know, were the efforts in medicine and environmental science to produce healthy bodies and ecologies not mirrored by interventions to create stable societies? Surely it was time ‘for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science’. Knowing that historians were themselves unlikely to adopt such analytical approaches to the past, he proposed a new discipline: ‘theoretical historical social science’ or ‘cliodynamics’ – the science of history.

Like C P Snow 60 years before him, Turchin wanted to challenge the boundary between the sciences and humanities – even as periodic attempts to apply the theories of natural science to human behaviour (sociobiology, for example) or to subject natural sciences to the methodological scrutiny of the social sciences (science wars, anyone?) have frequently resulted in hostile turf wars. So what are the prospects for Turchin’s efforts to create a more desirable future society by developing a science of history?…

In 2010, Cliodynamics, the flagship journal for this new discipline, appeared, with its very first article (by the American sociologist Randall Collins) focusing on modelling victory and defeat in battle in relation to material resources and organisational morale. In a move that paralleled Comte’s earlier argument regarding the successive stages of scientific complexity (from physics, through chemistry and biology, to sociology), Turchin passionately rejected the idea that complexity made human societies unsuitable for quantitative analysis, arguing that it was precisely that complexity which made mathematics essential. Weather predictions were once considered unreliable because of the sheer complexity of managing the necessary data. But improvements in technology (satellites, computers) mean that it’s now possible to describe mathematically, and therefore to model, interactions between the system’s various parts – and therefore to know when it’s wise to carry an umbrella. With equal force, Turchin insisted that the cliodynamic approach was not deterministic. It would not predict the future, but instead lay out for governments and political leaders the likely consequences of competing policy choices.

Crucially, and again on the back of the abundantly available and cheap computer power, cliodynamics benefited from the surge in interest in the digital humanities. Existing archives were being digitised, uploaded and made searchable: every day, it seemed, more data were being presented in a format that encouraged quantification and enabled mathematical analysis – including the Old Bailey’s online database, of which Wolf had fallen foul. At the same time, cliodynamicists were repositioning themselves. Four years after its initial launch, the subtitle of their flagship journal was renamed, from The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History to The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution. As Turchin’s editorial stated, this move was intended to position cliodynamics within a broader evolutionary analysis; paraphrasing the Russian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, he claimed that ‘nothing in human history makes sense except in the light of cultural evolution’. Given Turchin’s ecological background, this evolutionary approach to history is unsurprising. But given the historical outcomes of making politics biological, it is potentially worrying….

Mathematical, data-driven, quantitative models of human experience that aim at detachment, objectivity and the capacity to develop and test hypotheses need to be balanced by explicitly fictional, qualitative and imaginary efforts to create and project a lived future that enable their audiences to empathically ground themselves in the hopes and fears of what might be to come. Both, after all, are unequivocally doing the same thing: using history and historical experience to anticipate the global future so that we might – should we so wish – avoid civilisation’s collapse. That said, the question of who ‘we’ are does, always, remain open….(More)”.