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.
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.