Secular Cycles of the human animal

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Quantitative ecologist Peter Turchin’s Secular Cycles is not available for purchase, but you can get a final draft copy online. His previous books, War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations & Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall, prefigure many of the arguments that are fleshed out in Secular Cycles. Turchin’s aim is audacious. The last paragraph of Secular Cycles lays out the vision:

Our concluding thoughts are these. We believe that we showed that it is possible to obtain quantitative empirical estimates for many variables that are needed to test theories of historical dynamics. Furthermore, our models, and the demographic-structural theory in particular, have matured to the point where they can make quantitative and testable predictions. Many of these predictions are supported by the data; others failed, but often in interesting ways that suggest further development of the theory. The historical process is very complex, we have to live with severe data limitations, but nevertheless it is possible to apply the standard scientific approach to the study of history. We are optimistic about the future prospects of History as Science.

If history is any guide Turchin’s optimism is misplaced, and a general theory of historical dynamics will elude us. But the nature of science is that it is exhibits a strong ahistorical* bent and the past can be a weak guide to the future.  If cliodynamics emerges as a respectable field we would expect it to overturn precedent. As someone trained in the former Soviet Union it should be  no surprise I suppose that Turchin would be the one making an attempt to resurrect theoretical history in the English speaking world. An intellectual who was shaped by a Marxist Zeitgeist would be more easily inclined to consider the possibility that history could be formalized so as to produce systems of non-trivial inferential power.

So what makes this latest effort different from the speculations of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler? First, as a biological scientist Turchin comes the table with a methodological toolkit which is far superior in precision to that available to historians of the early 20th century. From game theory to systems ecology there are many new formal frameworks which can be brought to bear upon human historical dynamics which were not extant in earlier epochs. Secondly, the data sets are far more extensive than they once were due to the prominence of cliometrics, as well as the greater power of traditional fields such as archaeology due to improvements in method. Finally, Turchin’s ambition is constrained to the pre-modern era when Malthusian parameters were ascendant. This is not to say that I do not think that some of his inferences and conjectures have no contemporary salience, but there is no overarching lesson or ideological implication to be derived from his models (in contrast to Marxism).

Nevertheless, I am obviously somewhat intrigued by Turchin’s attempt to add some quant juice to qual questions & observations. I recently read Niall Ferguson’s The House of Rothschild: Volume 1: Money’s Prophets: 1798-1848. Because of the fact that the House of Rothschild was incomprehensibly wealthy at its peak via its involvement in public bond markets there was naturally a whole genre which emerged exposing their power and malice as conspirators at the center of a vast web of influence (see the Age of Metternich). Ferguson does emphasize that the financial interests of the Rothschild’s, public debt, compelled them to attempt to block conflicts between major European powers. But another reality which has nothing to do with the Rothschild’s is that Europe during the early years of the family’s rise was recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, and nations and elites which have experienced sustained and strenuous conflict tend to be wary of future conflicts. In Turchin’s data sets he present evidence that these qualitative cycles are evident in clear generational terms throughout the historical record for regions where we have good records. He also presents a causal motive force behind the explosions of violence which tend to prune military aristocracies. Ultimately one would also want to explore the neurological basis of memory and its effect on how humans make decisions and weight risks, and how long traumatic events can effect behavior, but the gross patterns and the expected period of the recession of violence are also of interest. The point being that despite their wealth even the House of Rothschild might have been accidental players in broader macrosocial dynamics.

* Though operationally it is historical because of the weakness of human cognitive powers.

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  1. I liked Turchin’s first two books. I’m pretty persuaded by some of his qualitative concepts (strong states tend to arise near ethnic borders, like Prussia and Austria rather than Saxony), but I’ll be quite impressed if he comes up with ways to quantify things that seem pretty relativistic.

  2. That’s interesting, but I don’t completely buy it.  
    I try to keep a critical distance from the tendency in historiography to view historical subjects as a process of grand social and economic movements, and which treat its agents almost as clones of an ideal type – nearly immutable and monolithic “everymen.” I absolutely think there?s an argument for the importance of the qualitative and the limits of the empirical, when applied to history. 
    Friendships, personal relationships, intellectual rapports, and even activities as seemingly innocuous as reading circles can interact on robust levels with other inter- or intra-group factors to bear some really rich and substantive influences on larger cultural and political society. Causes of the Byzantine ?crisis? of the eleventh century, and sources facilitating the subsequent ?Komnenid restoration? display much of this multi-way interaction between individual factors and larger group trends. 
    That being said, the role of the ?unquantifiable?, such as individual inspiration, can definitely be overemphasized, as it was in the ?Great Man? school of Thomas Carlyle. But the appreciation and infusion of the personal in history remains an essential corrective enterprise. Historical phenomena can be more than just the sum of what their causes seem to be (as the shortcomings of ?bottom-up? reductionist theories to Byzantine social reforms of the seventh century, like those of Warren Treadglold, have proved). Historical periods, trends, etc., cannot only be approached via abstraction of art and social history, but must also be humanized. 
    Excellent example: Hans Delbrueck, commissariat in the German Imperial army turned historian. Delbrueck used his exceptional theoretical and empirical military knowledge to evaluate pre-Industrial historical military accounts. Based on the assumption that the maximum capacity of the Prussian army was the realistic maximum capacity for any previous army (which in all reality isn?t that far from the truth), Delbrueck applied this framework to determine that (X) number of men could move (X) number of kilometers over (X) terrain with (X) supplies, etc. Thus he could determine Herodotus? assertion of (X) was implausible, and we could reasonably infer (Y) was the limit in (Z) situation. Yet a lot of recent scholarship, particularly new work in archaeology and numismatics, has produced some pretty damning evidence against Delbrueck?s assertions, even though they were based on sound scientific/mathematical assumptions. 
    The interactions that produce historical phenomena are so multifaceted and richly layered that even the most methodologically sound quantitative approaches are essentially reductionist (in the same way that solely qualitative schema like those of Carlyle are); game theory doesn?t make this any less true than it was for Toynbee in 1883. 
    There?s definitely something to ?cliodynamics?, but still, I think ?history as science? is only one of the many dimensions that must be evaluated to accurately understand why a nation rises and falls, or for that matter why anything dealing with human interactions occurred, is occurring, or may occur again.