They say history always repeats itself – empires rise and fall, economies boom and bust – but is there a way to map and predict the dynamical processes of history? The new and highly controversial discipline cliodynamics is the most recent attempt to transform history into science.

When the French Assembly of Notables frustrated attempts by the royal government to fix the state fiscal crisis in 1788, because they did not want to pay taxes, these aristocrats did not intend to trigger the French Revolution, during which many of them ended up guillotined or exiled. Yet this is precisely what happened.

When the slave-owning elites of South Carolina declared their secession from the Federal Union in December 1860, they did not intend to trigger a bloody civil war that caused more than 600,000 deaths, killed one quarter of military-aged white Southerners, and resulted in the loss of most of their own wealth, when their slaves were freed. Yet this is precisely what happened.

Read more at The Conversation.

Note from the author:
Cliodynamics is a transdisciplinary area of research that combines insights from historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, and social evolution. One of the central questions in this discipline is, what are the social forces that hold together large-scale human societies? And why do such societies sometimes disintegrate? Basically, how can we understand the conditions that favor social cooperation, and conditions that result in its unraveling? Such questions can be productively addressed within the framework of social and cultural evolution (more specifically, cultural multilevel selection).

Published On: August 19, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

One Comment

  • Helga Vieirch says:

    Our durability as a species may be grounded equally in having elders surviving their reproductive years to help with baby sitting and provisioning, as in their ability to supply of the kind of wisdom that permits even bitter resentments to eventually crumble before compassion and humor. If living to see one’s own offspring reproduce has gained humans more than an enlarged inventory of stored skills and information with which to survive rarer ecological crises, then wisdom in getting along with other people despite these provocations might fit the bill. If anyone invented the classic morality tale, the coming of age adventure, or the original parable of the prodigal son, it was probably a person trying to pass on such wisdom.

    This brings us to another aspect of social turmoil and resulting high mobility: it can raise the stakes involved in formation and maintenance of marital ties and of friendships. Friendships and marriage among non-relatives can actually tag people as if they are relatives. This is a recurrent theme in many cultures, even today: people speak of blood-brotherhood, of fraternities, and of being bound to others by means of joint ideals and by sacred oaths. It is implicit in the vows of marriage, which are said to unite lovers in one flesh, and to transform each other’s kinship relationships “in-law”.

    Vows and promises are not minor matters to human beings, they are the stuff of cognitive niches, of the cognitive shape-shifting, that arrives with inter-subjective symbolic language. A true brother can be anyone, if the two of you vow it is so. And so, human create groups – not necessarily based on geographic separation, or degrees of kinship, but based on boundaries of a symbolic kind. Ideological boundaries, interestingly enough, are often artifacts of the preferred causal explanations, or the identity markers people tag themselves with, or tag others with.

    Culturally, we can expand and contract our boundaries. Human groups can certainly be more inclusive and open to even more distant known connections than your average troop of chimps or bonobos. As with the added rationality that opts for maintaining peace to facilitate information flow, this extends opportunities for genetic exchange.

    Cultural evolution imposes constraints on the kind of selection that can happen when founder effects and other kinds of bottlenecks prune the genome. What no population can afford to lose is the capacity for basic cognitive support of cultural learning, sharing and creativity. For over a million years, culture constituted an environment that was instrumental in selecting for certain specific cognitive functions, starting with the ability to assimilate languages, to learn to use, and improve, complex technological systems.

    Finally, and just as significantly, cultural environments exerted positive selection for any and all mutations that enhanced the ability to be rational, to reflect, and to weigh consequences, as well as other aspects of typically human cortical functions. Not all of these functions are necessarily conscious ones. Constantly running semi-conscious calculations of kinship, energy budgets, ecological resources, political alliance, advancement of personal rank, group rank, and long term investments in the future wellbeing of one’s descendants are all examples of such cognitive functions. We know this because such calculations are perfectly normal within even the “simplest” of human cultural ecologies. They are a large element of what motivates adult behavior in every cultural system. Fixing, at a consistently high level, all the genetic underpinnings for such intelligence, probably involved fairly brutal selection pressure at some point in our common human evolutionary past.

    No other ape keeps track of the kind of kinship and scale of networks normal within all human societies. We evolved these abilities so human children are born with the innate drive and neurological capacity to assimilate a language and a cultural system. In fact, we evolved beyond that – for we have the innate capacity to assimilate many languages and cultural systems; although we still do not know just how many languages any one human being can learn.
    These biological capabilities were under positive selection for a long time, reflecting the overwhelming role of human cultural systems in our survival. It is our interface with our physical environment. We make shelters everywhere, but we really learn to insulate and block air exchange when we live in a cold climate. We cook using some form of combustion everywhere, but in cold climates, we bring the fireplaces and furnaces indoors to heat our sheltering micro-climate.

    Now we come to the biggest issue of all: do human beings within a cultural system exercise any conscious control of the evolution of that cultural system? This issue defeated – and continues to defeat – most social scientists. Like Boas, like Mead, like Alan Greenspan, like Adam Smith, … and virtually every feminist and post-modernist in every field, including in anthropology. It did not defeat Karl Polanyi, or at least, he gave as good as he got. It did not defeat William Catton, although it roughed him up some.

    Can we plan a culture ahead of time? How many times has real human behavior taken unexpected directions and upset the predictions and planners of the past? Has any “planned” social system ever not escaped the “control” of the “leaders” and evolved off in some unexpected direction? How many cultural systems even ever got “planned” by anyone at all and actually stuck to the blueprint? Do any feminists seriously think a bunch of guys sat down together sometime in the last few thousand years and “planned” to “keep women in their place”?

    If this interests you, not just idly but seriously and scientifically, then you could do worse than read the work of people who remain scientifically committed to understanding not just biological but also cultural evolution – especially to understanding why and how these sometimes pull together in harness, and at other times pull at cross purposes.

    We can say with some confidence that we humans did not evolve to be biologically and behaviorally adapted to the African savanna. Nor are we specifically adapted to hunting and gathering. We are cognitively adapted to this thing we label “Culture” – this cognitive niche that regenerates itself constantly through the inter-subjective networking of human beings. Because we are cultural, it is within our power to adapt and flourish no matter what natural ecosystem we encounter. Because we are cultural, we can adapt and flourish no matter what kind of economic system our culture develops. Modern urban collectives are made possible by culture, but are a new phenomenon only in terms of the degree of compression of population densities, and are more efficient only as long as food and other energy and material supplies can be imported sustainably.

    This suggests that our potentials and limitations are orchestrated by more than the requirements of flesh and blood organisms, they also dance to another drummer. Culture, for its replication and adaptability, needs to preserve and exhibit a range of cognitive phenotypes, as well as extreme sensitivity to the social environment, especially stress levels and parenting, which is productive of high variability and flex within every cultural system. Thus each culture will be productive of radicals, rebels, adventurers, innovators, hustlers, conservationists, fuddy-duddies, diplomats, connoisseurs, pragmatists, eccentrics, story-tellers, comedians, spoilsports, and optimists.

    In every biological population, then, in support of a culture area, each local population will be more successful if it maximizes (or at least optimizes) the cognitive diversity that produces a wide range of temperament and personality. In order for cultures to succeed over the long term, the mechanisms for information exchange – the networks of relationship and friendship – tend to work best at maximal settings. It is not incidental that the same applies to the mechanism for genetic exchange, whereby any and all useful polymorphisms are created, circulated, and conserved, even if these might be detrimental in homozygous form.

    We may have billions on the planet today, but throughout our evolutionary history, numbers were usually rather small, and population density low. Keeping options open, for gene flow and exchange of information, was not merely a better option than belligerence, in interactions between neighboring populations, it were essential. The survival of each local group depended on wider networks for the variability that permitted cognitive phenotypes to keep meeting the minimum requirements, in terms of both memory and creativity, sufficient for cultural evolution.

    Thus did natural selection refine human brains to be individual nodes within vast inter-communicating networks, to channel Culture, or rather, streams of cultures, forward, across time, and into every known terrestrial ecosystem.

    This interpretation of culture, as an environment always generating selection pressures of its own, illuminates the origin of certain human quirks. In any given population, there are always a variety of interests and activities. Some people are constantly generating conversation, dance, ceremonial feasts, or music – all the rituals that integrate the collective, other people appear driven to more solitude and exploration, or adventure and innovation. So the human mind can resonate with nostalgia for golden oldies and also thrill to the latest song on the hit parade. This helps to explain the relaxation and delight people take in “hobbies”. Some people collect things, others preserve old skills and technologies, others enjoy learning old poetry, plays, stories and music.

    Human nature makes us curious about the neighbors, nosy and excited to hear the newest gossip, newest fad, and latest song. When I asked a Kua woman once, as we decamped to get closer to the borehole that was the remaining water source, why she was excited, she instantly replied “Because we will get all the news!”.

    The evolutionary role of natural selection, and even the related idea that sexual selection alter the frequency of various genetic variants, is well accepted in evolutionary science today. The discovery of DNA as the replication mechanism solidified the role of selection in directing biological evolution. Insofar as the typical behaviors of a species could be related to genes for specific molecules effecting behavior could be identified, there exists scope for behavioral genetics. Hatching reptiles and birds instinctively break the eggshells. Newborn mammals instinctually seek out the nipples of the mammary glands and suckle, they also make alarm cries if hungry and out of touch with their mother. This, like the imprinting of baby birds on the first large caretaker they see, is classic instinctual behavior, under the influence of genes. Other kinds of behavior are not as obligatory as these, and require a triggering stimulus: For example young beavers will respond to the sound of running water by assembling material that can be used to stop the noise.

    This is interesting because it could suggest a feedback with the biological realm, the essential flex point where human biological evolution and cultural evolution might intersect and act upon each other: human nature.

    This tells us something about the limitations that human nature imposes on our cultural systems. This brings to mind recent research showing that in young children, there is some cognitive bias in favor of identifying animals (and probably people) on the basis of their heads (faces?) rather than their body shape . There is clearly a cognitive connection that attracts these children to name other beings based primarily on facial recognition. There is an enormous literature on facial recognition in children, and in many species of other social animals, such as chimpanzees, horses, dolphins, sheep, and chickens.

    This then, appears to be a cognitive aspect that was under positive selection pressure during the evolution of most social species. Certain things are more easily learned, and thus they might therefore have some “instinctive” aspects. I like what Haidt (University of Virginia) suggests about how the “moral sense” begins with natural receptors – just as our taste buds are sensitive to salt, sugar, and bitterness, we have “natural receptors” that help us recognize fairness and cruelty. Out of the sensitivities of the human mind to variations in human intention and behavior, thousands of different moral codes arise, just as thousands of cuisines do, but they all value the same basic flavors.

    Paul Bloom and his colleagues at the Yale Baby Center showed infants, only a few months old, scenes where there were helpers and hinderers for some poor bloke struggling with some task – guess which these babies were happy to see punished? Guess which guy they liked more, the guy punished or the punisher? Bloom thus suggests that humans come into the world equipped with sensitivity to injustice. A willingness to punish those who did not help and to reward those who did, and to reject the unfair and the selfish, appears to be one of the flavors favored by human nature, and has roots deep in our evolutionary past, and is perhaps sensitive to priming during infancy.

    Across many different taxa, variation among individuals, often identified in the psychology and ethology literature as temperament or personality, are stable over time and in various contexts, and appear to have a genetic basis but also a developmental aspect, and appear to have some effect on individual reproductive success. The sexes also differ in the way personality traits are expressed, which might explain why some traits are influenced by imprinting as this indicates selective forces due to their different roles during reproduction.

    Boldness and shyness, which cause differences in exploration and retiring behavior, are traits extensively investigated in a variety of species, as these have strong fitness implications, with males tending to have more offspring than those who are more retiring. In some contexts, as when predation rates are high, bolder individuals tend to have higher mortality, however. Since there appears to be a strong genetic component in these traits, some kind of balancing selection, through predation and/or sexual selection, has often been suggested. In humans, personality and temperament have sometimes found to be assortative and other times complementary.

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