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John Kemp. Where Are We Now? On Gauguin, His Questions, and Models of History

In his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson repeated three questions originally posed by Paul Gauguin: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? A question Gauguin did not ask, but which is implied by the other three, is in the title of this post.

Where are we now? Given all that we know about history, it seems a fair question to ask. And at first the answer seems straightforward. From a geopolitical perspective, the current global situation is a consequence of the Rise of the West and is clearly characterized by the existence of a single dominant superpower. But what does that really mean? Is the world organized around an American Empire? If so, then it is an empire whose structure and function is unlike any that has ever preceded it. Does that mean that the path of history has somehow been altered? Does it also mean that the answer to Gauguin’s last question needs an update? If so, then we really do need to know where we are now.

Not to be concerned, some would say. The current situation may have some peculiar features, but it is really just another variation on a model of history which predicts a repetitive cycle of the rise and fall of great powers. The Rise of the West, which by sheer chance came to its zenith with the rise of American power, will come to an end. American power will collapse and another great power will rise to fill the gap, perhaps China. The cyclical model of history will be confirmed and we will all be reminded that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Others favor a different model. They say that the peculiar features of the current global situation are really a striking demonstration of historical particularism. The US is powerful, but not in control, because other cultures and nations are succeeding in following their own distinctive pathways of evolutionary development. The proponents of this model of history would predict that cultures will become increasingly differentiated and heterogeneous as the 21st century progresses.

Suppose, however, that both of these models of history have flaws. Suppose they both break down if the rate of social change accelerates and if patterns of social interactions actually do not remain the same. Suppose that the rapidly modernizing world is in fact generating a more interdependent global geopolitical structure, a structure in which power is more dispersed, and in which the imperial impulse is becoming progressively inhibited. If that is true, then the cyclical model may fail. Suppose further that a rapidly changing, increasingly interdependent and highly competitive global structure also acts as a strong selective force which drives cultural evolution toward the development of a limited set of more highly adaptive institutional structures. If that is true, then the model of historical particularism may fail.

Finally, suppose that, at the beginning of the 22nd century, historians look back and conclude that both models failed and that something entirely new occurred in the 21st century, something that might end up being perceived as a sort of social singularity. If that happens, then those same historians will be looking for evidence that we understood something about what was happening around us. The creation and evaluation of new models of history would provide that evidence. Moreover, no matter what happens, the exercise would be worth the effort. If a new model does a better job of linking the past to the present and of making predictions about the future, then we may be better equipped to solve the challenges we face. If all new models fail, and if either the cyclical or particularistic models turn out to have the highest predictive value, then we still will have achieved a better understanding of why things are the way they are. In any case, we will certainly have made some progress toward answering Gauguin’s original questions.

So where are we now? It would appear that we are at a point where we need to be energetically creating and evaluating new models of history. Jared Diamond and James Robinson have framed the challenge. Peter Turchin and his colleagues have defined new quantitative methodologies, and John Kemp has provided a novel evolutionary interpretation of the Modern Era.

John D. Kemp  is a Professor of Pathology at the University  of Iowa. His  web page and blog are here.

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  1. Well, a few things seem pretty obvious…. The US is very close to collapse from outright fascism; Tea Party presidency would probably result in dictatorship and genocide, and even without it the US will be brought down. China is facing an ecological crisis of completely unprecedented proportions. The whole world seems locked into an economy of oil that will be awfully hard to change. A lock-in, in fact. It certainly does seem that a singularity is at hand–Diamond’s few islands that collapsed from overuse may be the future. It will take not only a lot of effort but a lot of solidarity to change things.

    • John Kemp says:

      In raising these concerns, I think Gene has further strengthened the case for the creation and evaluation of new models of history. The key point is that such models should explicitly address the possibility that, at some level, ecological and political crises could lead to generalized socioeconomic collapse. That sort of modeling might help to promote the solidarity to which Gene refers.

  2. I think that Ian Morris, in his alternative futures set forth in Why the West Rules–For Now, captures the stark scenarios (the singularity vs. ecological & social collapse) that could come to pass. Can we model that? Is our society, which is immensely more complex than the agricultural societies that Peter Turchin has so persuasively modeled, amenable to such modeling? As a society becomes more complex, isn’t the butterfly effect–the random, unexpected event–more likely to play a key role? I think that we have to act as if we can predict the future based on our current actions, but I do so with a sense of skepticism.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      We are not there yet, but I think we will eventually get to the point where our theories and models will be able to tell us what to do (and most importantly, what to avoid to do), even if we will never be able to predict the future.

  3. Igor Demić says:

    What worries me about things we shouldn’t do is that they might be inherent to our systems and norms, maybe our “nature”. In a sense free market and neo-feudalism are a step away from each other, the only thing that can raise a dam between them seems to be a strong state. No humanist could wish a strong state today… The logic is self-defeating.
    What I would like to be able to predict is whether there is a possibility of a new “major evolutionary transition” in social life, something to overcome this nation state &/vs multinational corporation stalemate.
    I don’t think anybody has ever succeeded to predict an actual major transition. Marx tried, but he failed (for now 🙂 ). I do see how this question might be paradoxical, no actual transition could be noticed during the period of 2-3 generations, probably more. Is there a chance to “calculate”* some new states (no matter if they are unrealistic today), let them compete in a simulation, and then use the results to inform … whoever needs to be informed?
    I know all this sounds like ravings of somebody who’s just woke up and haven’t yet drank his dose of strong green tea…. but still … I’m sure the results would cause a huge storm … in a teacup… 🙂

    P.S. If something like this has already been done I’d be grateful if somebody informed me about the results.
    * I’m not sure what that should mean either, probably to describe new sets of institutions and social norms. Maybe invent new ones if possible (World Committee for Free Energy or something like it?)

    • John Kemp says:

      I think Gene and Steve and Igor have all posed questions that underscore the complexity and rapidity of social change in the 21st century. Our old images and vocabulary are not up to the task. As Peter notes, “we are not there yet”. We do need new models and new simulations. If they are to be good evolutionary models however, they should definitely be able to link the past to the present at the same time that that they help us envision novel potential future states. Perhaps the most immediate practical question is how to facilitate the process of building and testing innovative new models. The need is real and growing.