Sunday, January 11, 2009

BB3: Peter Turchin: A Science of History

This is the 13th in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Peter Turchin came to talk about the possibility of and the importance of "social science."

Let's look at the importance of social science first.

One of the statistics that Turchin brought to his talk was the claim that, in recent years, ten times as many people have died in intranational conflict than international conflict.

Political instability is a source of massive human misery. How do we solve this problem?

It would seem, Turchin argues, that the same reasons we have for valuing medicine and the health of individuals, we have reasons for valuing social sciences and the health of societies. When societies become unhealthy, people die. To prevent death, we look at what makes societies sick, and we find ways to treat or cure those social diseases.

Solving problems such as this is why we need a science of history. Turchin laments the fact that the study of history is a study in which people propose a lot of theories (e.g., theories for the decline of the Roman Empire), but no theory ever gets rejected. There is no method for falsifying a theory in history, so history fails to provide us with data that is useful for avoiding the problems of political instability.

Then, to illustrate what he is talking about, Turchin discussed what he considers to be an actual theory to an actual historical problem. He showed a chart that looked at the size of the largest empire at any given year, He noticed that the size of the largest empire seemed to have an upper boundary until somewhere between 800 and 200 BC.

Then, the maximum size for societies suddenly grew by an orderof magnitude. From this point on, empires could be 10 times larger than empires under used to be able to get.

What happened between in that time that made larger societies possible?

Turchin credits religion and religious-like belief systems with making large societies possible. This increase in the maximum possible size of societies took place at the same time that monotheism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Stoicism came into existence.

These "unifying ideologies" play an important role in creating stable societies - according to Turchin. Their role was important enough that it would be unwise to be rid of them.

A strong and just state is possible only on the basis of a well-integrated society.

Turchin does not go into this issue in detail (given the 15-minute limitation on his speech). However, a question that I came up with at this point is the disposition that religions have to be intolerant of dissent. If a common social glue is important, then does this need for a common social glue justify being intolerant of other views?

Ultimately, Turchin does not say that the social glue is religion. He states that the social glue is cooperation.

Cooperation is the social glue. What mechanisms cause it to wax versus wane?

This says something about the atheist movement in the United States. There is very little cooperation among atheist groups in the United States. So, it may be said that atheism does not generate cooperation. As such, it cannot provide a society with the integration that it needs.

I want to stress that Turchin did not draw these implications. I am simply looking at the possibility here.

However, somebody who attempts to make this argument would have to explain how those explanations square with the fact that there are northern-European countries that are substantially secular, and very health.


Mark C. said...

"... ten times as many people have died in international conflict than international conflict."

What was that supposed to be?

Emu Sam said...

My guess is that one of them should be INTRAnational.

I'm also guessing it's the first one.

Anonymous said...

"One of the statistics that Turchin brought to his talk was the claim that, in recent years, ten times as many people have died in international conflict than international conflict."

You might want to fix this. I can guess what you intended to write but that would simply be a guess. Assuming for the moment an intention to differentiate internal versus external -- while noting I have not read beyond this point - why bother -- how might one extrapolate for statistical purpose, the multitude of deaths in say Iraq? Internal conflict or external?

Indeed, it is somewhat difficult to ascertain resultant deaths by internal conflict - depending of course on intended meaning of "conflict" - in the absence of contributing externalities. The relatively recent famine in China due poor agricultural planning which resulted in millions dead might be one example as a matter of internal conflict but that may or may not fit the intended definition.

Perhaps more succinct would be the abandoned enclaves of European rule in continental Africa. Nation States created ad-hoc and/or left to their own devices quickly falling into deadly turmoil and remaining there. It leaves us to ponder the dividing line between cause and internal versus external effect in consideration of where such lines might be drawn.

On the other hand we have the American Civil War which is probably a good example of pure (or mostly so) internal circumstance and would thereby fit that side of the definition well.

My point, if there indeed is one is that a great deal of internal conflict can be traced back to the influence of external factors and it would thereby seem difficult to extrapolate from this area of grey morass much beyond an outcome based statistical analysis beaten into abstract proofs corresponding to the authors wishful thinking.

martino said...


The best definition of conflict I have seen is "an incompatibility of interests". Of course that is very broad and violent conflict is presumably a sub-set of this with other factors (what are they I wonder)?

Your intra versus inter-national point is well put. And even the US Civil War can be incorporated. If American colonies had remained part of the British Empire, slavery might have been banned IIRC 80 years earlier. Of course the banning of slavery might then have been a reason for the war of independence. Speculative of course but, regardless of counter-factual history, this only goes to further support your argument I think?