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February 16, 2010

10 questions for Peter Turchin

Filed under: 10 Q,10 questions,Cliodynamics,History,Peter Turchin — Razib @ 12:44 am

Peter Turchin has appointments in ecology & evolution and mathematics at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of five books, three of which, Historical Dynamics, Secular Cycles and War and Peace and War, outline tests of models derived from the new field of cliodynamics. I have reviewed Historical Dynamics and War Peace and War. Below are 10 questions.

1 – Your initial research program was in quantitative ecology. What prompted your switch into modeling historical dynamics?

At some point I simply realized that most of the big questions in population dynamics were solved, or about to be solved. So I wrote my book on Complex Population Dynamics, where I synthesized what I thought these answers were, and started looking for some more challenging field. It turned out that the last scientific discipline that has not yet been mathematized was history. At first, I thought that I would simply write some mathematical models for historical dynamics, as a hobby. But once I did that, I wanted to see whether their predictions could be tested with data. To my great surprise, it turned out that there is a lot of quantitative data for historical processes, so testing models and theories is eminently possible. As a result, at this point my main thrust is empirical, rather than mathematical; or, more precisely, I am primarily interested in testing theories with data.

2 – You have been at the forefront of creating the new field of “cliodynamics.” Is this necessary? It seems that economists have been at the forefront of cliometrics and they have their own theoretical framework. What’s the value-add of your specific framework?

I believe that it is necessary. Historical processes are very complex, they involve not only economic, but also demographic, social, political, ideological, climatological, and many other kinds of factors. Probably because one has to approach history with such a massively interdisciplinary approach, it is the last of social sciences to become amenable to the scientific method. I have a lot of respect for economists, but in many ways it is difficult for them to make progress with history. For example, until recently, they have been hobbled with a bankrupt model of homo economicus. The other problem is that traditional economic theory focuses too much on equilibria, so that also does not predispose economists to deal well with historical dynamics. Both of these barriers are being dismantled right now, but still economists are not in the forefront of the cliodynamic community. We have much greater representation from historical sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists.

3 – In terms of discipline, where have the reactions been most positive and most negative to your project?

Positive response came from the disciplines named above – historical sociology, social and cultural anthropology, political science, economic and social history, demogrpahy. There has not been really much of a negative reaction. The main defensive mechanism is to ignore us, which is what 95% of historians do. That’s fine with me. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive reception of these ideas among historical social scientists and the (estimated) 5% of historians. It suggests to me that the time of cliodynamics has come. Incidentally, we are launching a peer-reviewed journal this year.

4 – I have speculated that the fact that you were born in the former Soviet Union might have made you more open to the concept of a scientific study of history, seeing as how Marxist thought originated as an attempt to scientifically describe the human past and predict its future. Do you think that your current interests might have some relationship to your cultural background, or not?

Yes, I think that my Russian background was a strong contributing factor, but no, not because of Marxism. You have to realize that before I started my historical project I had completely rejected Marxism, because of my upbrining (my father was a human rights activist in the Soviet Union and was exiled abroad in late 1970s). Only recently, as a result of becoming a social scientist, I learned to appreciate certain insights of Marx and incorporate them into my theories, although I am not a Marxist by any stretch of imagination. The Russian factor, I believe, comes into play because Russians tend to be very broad thinkers. As I think Dostoyevsky once said, the Russian is very broad, I would narrow him down, or something like that. So Russians have a tendency to produce cosmic theories (there is even a philosophical current called Russian Cosmism). In my work I attempt to integrate this Russian tendency with the Anglo-Saxon practicality and empiricism.

5 – You make recourse to group selection models in your scholarship. But the work I am familiar with seems to focus on cultural group selection. What do you think of biological level group selection posited by Samuel Bowles for hunter-gatherers, and its possible relevance to agricultural populations?

I think that group selection mechanisms work at both genetic and cultural levels, and also on gene-culture interactions. The mix of factors have been changing from primarily genetic in the early human evolution to much more cultural today. However, genetic evolution continues, so even today it’s not 100% cultural. There is a preprint on my cliodynamics site, in which I focus on evolution of ultrasociality, our ability to form cooperative groups of millions of individuals, and there my main emphasis is on cultural group selection.

One thing that we should not expect is a neat separation between genes and culture. Coevolution of these two information carriers is where the action is.

6 – In your models of the rise and fall of agricultural-based polities you seem to emphasize the importance of institutional religions in generating “meta-ethnic” identities. One of the historical quirks which scholars have noted is the rise of world religions between 600 BC and 600 AD, and the relative stability in number of religions after that period. Do you have any explanation for this pattern, or is there nothing to be explained?

In fact, this is one of the most striking patterns in history, and it fits very neatly with my theories. Rather than repeat myself, let me direct your readers to my recent artcile, a reprint of which is posted here:


See p. 201 for my explanation of the Axial Age. And then check out the section on the Middle East during the Axial Age (p. 209).

7 – I believe in China: A Macro History, by Ray Huang, he notes that the interregnums between Chinese dynasties became shorter and shorter. Is this explicable through your models of historical processes?

Yes, and the same observation was made for other world regions by Victor Lieberman in his book, Strange Parallels, the second volume of which was recently published. I think that the case for cultural evolution of state capacity is quite convincing – each new state starts not from a blank page, but already equipped with techniques of political integration that were developed during previous attempts. As a result, both the scale of polities and their cohesion tend to increase with time, and interregnum periods become shorter.

8 – You observe the importance of meta-ethnic frontiers across history.
In the modern world with ease of travel and communication it seems that spatial boundaries are less relevant, as civilizations seem somewhat intercalated with each other (e.g., Western enclaves in the Third World, Muslim diasporas in the West, Chinese in Africa, etc.). Is the concept of a meta-ethnic frontier transferable to the modern context?

I think it is, although at this point this is purely speculation. The above-mentioned Victor Lieberman has another striking idea, that modern Europeans are really ‘White Inner Asians’. So after 1500 the primary locus of cultural evolution shifted from steppe frontiers to European colonial frontiers. We are probably still in the same era, so the most intense evolution occurs where Western societies impinge on other societies.

Also don’t forget that ethnic and religious diasporas were not an invention of modernity. What is more important is that information flows today are much less local. So a person in Saudi Arabia, a thousand kilometers from Iraq, can see the news about Abu Ghraib in real time, and perhaps with visual material, and decide to become a mujahedeen. So my guess is that the basic dynamic is still playing out, but it’s not as localized in space as it was prior to modern communications.

9 – Is there insight about the modern post-Malthusian world we can obtain from the secular cycles of the past?

My working hypothesis is that the two out of three mechanisms of the demographic-structural theory, elite overproduction and state fiscal fragility, continue to operate in the modern world. See the answer to the next question.

10 – What’s your next big project?

My main project on which I am currently working is a demographic-structural analysis of American history, from 1780 to the present. So we will see whether the hypothesis, to which I alluded under #9 above, will be borne out by the empirical analysis.


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