Almuzara is about to publish a Spanish translation of my book Historical Dynamics. When they asked for a foreword to the Spanish edition, I realized that it has already been 20 years since I wrote Historical Dynamics. So this foreword serves as a kind of retrospective. Here’s the English version.
Foreword to the Spanish Edition of Historical Dynamics
Historical Dynamics (HD) was my first major work in the new field of Cliodynamics. In fact, it was in the last chapter of HD that I proposed to call this new discipline after Clio (the muse of History) and dynamics (the science of change). I wrote the bulk of HD 20 years ago and this is a good time to look back at what happened since then. Thus, a request from the Spanish publisher of HD for a foreword to its upcoming translation fell on fertile soil.
As HD explains at considerable length, the overarching goal of Cliodynamics is to systematically test the many theories that thinkers of the past and social scientists of today have proposed to explain why things happened the way they did in history. Other goals flow from this key objective. Thus, we need mathematical models in order to derive predictions from theories to be compared to data. In the process of translating theories into explicit models, we often find that proposed verbal explanations are, actually, logically flawed (as is discussed in Chapter 2 of HD). Most importantly, we need lots of data to test these predictions. In the past two decades cliodynamics research addressed both of these goals. Let me say a few words about the second one, data.
Over the past 10 years I poured most of my energy into coordinating an international and interdisciplinary research consortium that has been constructing a huge compendium of knowledge about past societies. We named it Seshat: Global History Databank. Seshat is an Egyptian deity of writing (her name means “she who scribes”) and by implication of information and databases. Thus, Cliodynamics now has two heavenly advocates: Clio and Seshat.
Seshat was designed to answer Big Questions in history, such as what drives the evolution of technology, what propelled societies to become the large, centralized states we are familiar with in the modern world, and why did moralizing “world religions” spread. But aren’t we severely limited by the poor knowledge about past societies? In fact, this is a misconception—thanks to truly heroic efforts of historians and archaeologists, and aided by constantly developing new methodologies, the store of knowledge about the past has become truly enormous (and continues to grow at a seemingly accelerating pace). The trick is to translate that knowledge into data for analysis. And that’s what Seshat has done—it has brought “Big Data” to bear on Big Questions in History. Most recently (in 2021) we have completed a large analysis of Seshat data that tested all major classes of theories attempting to explain the evolution of large scale, complex societies during the past 10,000 years worldwide. We found that two classes of variables have a strong predictive effect on where and when social complexity has grown: agriculture and, especially, warfare. At the same time, other theories, including internal conflict (e.g., class struggle), functional theories (providing public goods and infrastructure), and religion (for example, the Big Gods theory) were not supported. What this means is that the theory of cultural group selection, developed in Chapters 3 and 4, has acquired a lot of additional support, because it postulated competition and warfare among states and empires as the most important driver of social evolution.
As a result of this and other “success stories” Cliodynamics has enjoyed an increasing degree of support in the scientific community, and in 2010, together with a group of like-minded colleagues, I launched an academic journal, Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution. This support has been reflected in an increasing number of publications about this new discipline in the popular media.
Cliodynamics has also been making inroads into the historical community. My initial expectation was that most historians would be resistant to the interlopers from “hard sciences” into their home turf. And many historians have been critical of Cliodynamics, although the most negative reactions are not to what the practitioners of Cliodynamics do and write, but to an often sensationalist coverage in the popular press. Other historians, when they take the trouble to actually find out what cliodynamicists do and say, become less critical. And a significant and growing minority have become supporters. Thus, the majority of contributors to Seshat are historians (alongside with archaeologists, religion scholars, and other scholars of the past). The governing board of Seshat consists of three historians, an anthropologist, and a complexity scientist (the last one is, of course, me). This support is very important, because without active help from historians the Seshat Databank would be impossible. Overall, the degree of help that this and other cliodynamic initiatives enjoyed from historians has exceeded my greatest expectations when I started on this road.
As a last thought, I am also pleased by how well HD aged. It is true that many of the theories I discuss in HD have been further refined in the past two decades. New and more sophisticated mathematical models have been published by colleagues. And the greatest advances had to do with data and empirical tests of theories, as I related above. But HD remains the best general introduction to the goals and methods of Cliodynamics, and so far it has not been superseded by any other volume.
This article was originally published on Peter Turchin’s blog “Cliodynamica” on October 23, 2021. To read the original article, click here.