A few years ago, as I was writing an article about what it would take to transform history into science, I wanted to get a sample of what influential historians think about this idea. So I went through ten years of issues of Perspectives on History, a monthly bulletin of the American Historical Association. Every issue starts with a ‘President’s Column,’ in which a prominent historian, who happens to be the president of the association for that year expresses his or her opinion on the state of historical profession. A number of these columns were quite relevant to my interests.
Reading them, I learned that history is fundamentally different from natural sciences. In fact it is not science, but humanity. Furthermore, the great majority of historians don’t care about general laws in history. Here’s a quote from a 1999 column by Robert Darnton, which is quite representative of other AHA presidents’ views:
After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and Social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws. We no longer search for grand designs and dialectics. Instead, we concentrate on the particular and sometimes even the microscopic (microstoria, as it is known in Italy)—not because we think we can see the universe in a grain of sand but because we have developed an increased sensitivity to the complexities that differentiate one society or one subculture from another. Kosovo is very different from the rest of Yugoslavia, to say nothing of Vietnam.Sign up for our newsletters
I find myself in agreement with the (implied) negative assessment of the ‘grand theories’ Darnton mentions (the ‘isms’). However, we now have better ones. And, of course, Kosovo is different from Vietnam! All human societies are unique. And apples are different from oranges. But both are fruit, and when they fall, they obey the general law of gravity.
But they also share certain general characteristics. When Hernán Cortés and his conquistadores arrived in Tenochtitlan, they had no trouble recognizing kings, nobles, priests, temples, and other trappings of complex societies. Although the Aztec and Spanish empires developed in complete isolation from each other, they hit upon quite a number of the same ways of organizing themselves, economically, socially, and politically. As a science-fiction exercise, imagine that you are a Cortés who arrived in a colony of human-sized ants. You would be completely at loss trying to make sense of how it functions.
So historians delight in the particular and even microscopic, but there are nevertheless general principles operating at macrosocial scales. While most historians are not interested in them, a few are. One such exceptional historian is Ian Morris.
Some of you may have read his book, Why the West Rules – For Now. If you haven’t, read it. Ian is not afraid of generalizing, and with a very broad brush at that.
Currently he is working on the next book that examines the role of war in human history. I just finished reading a big chunk of the first draft, and I can see it will be another ‘big book,’ the kind of history book that I like the most – those that offer both deep insights and detailed historical narrative to buttress the general theory. If you want to see a preview of his ideas, check out this article in Cliodynamics.
The most important idea in the book is that war, despite causing destruction, death, and huge amounts of human misery (Morris doesn’t glorify war), also played a creative role. Or, as Ian argues, there are both unproductive and productive wars. The unproductive wars just cause a lot of suffering. Productive wars, on the other hand,
produced larger societies, which pacified themselves internally, increasing wealth and population and simultaneously reducing the overall rate of violent death. These wars tended to be even crueler and deadlier than the forms of warfare practiced in prehistory, but despite their short-term costs, in the long term the violence made people safer and richer.
The late historical sociologist Charles Tilly coined the phrase, “war made the state, and the state made war.”
Ian Morris prefers a different variant: “war made the state, and the state made peace.”
It should come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that I think Ian is fundamentally right. While I prefer to think of war as ‘creative’ (evocative of ‘creative destruction’) rather than ‘productive,’ my own research also lead me to the idea that warfare has been the major selective force for the evolution of larger, more cohesive, and internally cooperative societies (see my previous blog).
However, I am afraid that Ian (and I) will have a very tough job convincing the general public that we are right. In the public debate in Knoxville, about which I wrote in my previous blog, during the time devoted to the questions from the audience, a visibly angry gentleman upbraided me for excusing war. He said something like, “what is war good for, except for making the rich richer and giving the powerful more power?” I am afraid that my response did not mollify him. Ian has a better response in his upcoming book, appropriately titled, War! What is it Good For? But I am afraid it’s still going to be an uphill battle. Most people will probably simply brand him as a war-monger. In fact, that’s what essentially happened in the comments to my previous blog.
Now I don’t want to imply that I agree with everything Ian says in his book. It would be out of character if I didn’t have something critical to say. But I’ll save that for the next blog.