Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 21, 2017

The general social complexity factor is a thing

Filed under: Cliodynamics,History,Seshat — Razib Khan @ 11:35 pm

The above is the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world, derived from responses to the World Values Survey which are subject to principal component analysis. Basically, you take all the variation and pull out the biggest independent dimensions which can explain the variation. You’ve seen this with genetic data, but the method is pretty common in the social sciences.

When you do this with genetic data and human populations and use adequate sample representation PC1 is almost always African vs. non-African and PC2 is West Eurasia/North Africa vs. the rest of the world that’s not Africa. Though one can quibble with the details the reality is that these patterns are easy to reconcile with evolutionary history. Humans first split between Africans and non-Africans, and the west vs. east division in Eurasia is arguably the next major bifurcation (and gene flow barrier).

For the above map, the first two principal components explain 70 percent of the variance in the data. So what are they? You can see above that they labeled the x-axis as survival to self-expression, and the y-axis tradition to secular-rational. I’m not hung up on what this means and am not going to explore that. Rather, notice the geographic clustering.  These dimensions pass the smell test in terms of their clustering.

If you look at the distributions pretty much none of them should be surprising to you historically.  Protestant Northern Europe was very different in 1700 from today, but it was already a coherent socio-cultural phenomenon. Similarly, Russia has been historically distinct from Western Europe culturally for nearly the whole of its existence as a coherent polity (from ~1000 AD on). In fact, the marriage of Ann of Kiev into the French royal family in the 11th century may be indicative of the closest relationship of what became Russia to the West before the early modern period.* On this map, Russia and other Eastern European nations are quite distant from Northern Europe, and to some extent from Catholic Europe.

But this map isn’t just a reflection of geography. You see that Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia occupy positions in relationship to Russia and Western Europe exactly where you would predict from their history. Serbia has a much stronger affinity with Russia, Croatia is in Catholic Europe, while Slovenia seems more like Northern European nations than Croatia. Bosnia occupies a position between Croatia and Serbia. These variations are important because ethno-linguistically the divisions between Serbians, Croatians and Bosnians (and lesser extent Slovenians) are minor. They originate from groups of Slavs who settled among the native Pannonians, whether Latin or Illyrian speaking, only in the centuries before 1000 AD.

What you are seeing here quantitatively are the historical fissures that occurred during to division between Western and Eastern Europe through theological conflict, and later the shock of the Tatar Yoke for the Russians, and Ottoman domination in the Balkans. If you know some history the reality that Croatia is Catholic, and oriented toward the West, and long been under Austrian and Hungarian hegemony, explains why it is where it is culturally. Similarly, Serbia is Orthodox, was oriented toward Byzantium, and later subjugated for centuries under the Ottomans.

But most people don’t know much history. This is why visual representations of quantitative social science data are quite useful. It’s almost impossible to convince the ignorant of historical truths when they don’t know any history because they can’t tell if you are making things up. Usually they trust you if you are part of their in-group, and distrust you if you are of an out-group.

For example, over the years a few times I’ve had really strange conversations about whether Russia is a Western nation or not on Twitter. There are roughly two groups that assert Russia is a Western nation: 1) white nationalists, for whom whiteness is necessary and sufficient for being Western 2) historically naive public intellectuals who can’t evaluate competing hypotheses, and implicitly impute Western identity to Russia because Russians are white and Christian (at least culturally). With white nationalists obviously there isn’t going to be a major argument. Their framework is just so different.

But historically naive public intellectuals are a different case. They simply don’t know enough facts to make even the weakest judgement, and so default back to the heuristic of racial and cultural categorization at the coarsest levels (this also explains their need to transform white-skinned and often blue-eyed Turkish and Balkan Muslims into “people of color”). At this point one can point out a lot of facts, including the reality that for centuries Russian intellectuals themselves debated about whether to become Western or retain their own distinctive identity as separate. And yet at the end of it all how would someone who doesn’t know much history know whether to give credibility to my contentions? If I stated that much of late medieval Russian statecraft owed much to experience of princes who grew up under the Tatar Yoke as well as the creation of a frontier culture which assimilated aspects of the Tatar lifestyle (as well as some Tatar nobility, who converted to Christianity and became part of the boyar class), how would they easily figure out if I’m bullshitting them? (yes, they could go read-up, but by the fact they don’t know relatively introductory history well into adulthood indicates no deep interest in doing this).

Quantitative and formal measures give us a simple language that even the naive can navigate. One can define Russia as within the West, or without, but one can not deny that socio-culturally it is quite distinct from Western and Northern European cultures. The data say it is so!

This brings me to a new paper in PNAS (OA), Quantitative historical analysis uncovers a single dimension of complexity that structures global variation in human social organization. It’s one of the first results from the Seshat: Global History Databank. Peter Turchin is heavily involved in this, but I notice the above paper also includes Harvey Whitehouse on the author list. I’ve long admired his work on the cognitive dimension of cultural production and variation.

Here’s the abstract:

Do human societies from around the world exhibit similarities in the way that they are structured, and show commonalities in the ways that they have evolved? These are long-standing questions that have proven difficult to answer. To test between competing hypotheses, we constructed a massive repository of historical and archaeological information known as “Seshat: Global History Databank.” We systematically coded data on 414 societies from 30 regions around the world spanning the last 10,000 years. We were able to capture information on 51 variables reflecting nine characteristics of human societies, such as social scale, economy, features of governance, and information systems. Our analyses revealed that these different characteristics show strong relationships with each other and that a single principal component captures around three-quarters of the observed variation. Furthermore, we found that different characteristics of social complexity are highly predictable across different world regions. These results suggest that key aspects of social organization are functionally related and do indeed coevolve in predictable ways. Our findings highlight the power of the sciences and humanities working together to rigorously test hypotheses about general rules that may have shaped human history.

Intuitively most people would have guessed this. Social complexity is a thing. Human cultural evolution has exhibited some directionality or at least a general secular trend. If you have read a lot of history and thought about these things you’d come to these conclusions intuitively.

I could also assert that northern France in the 12th century AD was a more socially complex society than the one the Romans conquered in the 1st century BC. Why? I could give plenty of reasons. But it is at this point that a fashionable viewpoint in some academic circles would problematize this assertion, and argue that characterizing High Medieval France as more complex than pre-Roman Gaul exposes one’s own assumptions and beliefs, as opposed to facts about the world.

You know the type. One problem one often encounters with this line of argument is that the individuals making the argument really don’t know enough in terms of facts to know what they’re refuting. Rather, they’ve been caught along on a current academic fashion.

This is why figures like the one to the left are important. It shows values on the social complexity factor, PC1, for Latium (red), the Paris basin (blue) and Iceland (green). What you see is that the Paris basin lags Latium up until around 0 AD. At this point there is catch-up. Though Gallic social complexity was already increasing in the centuries up to the Roman conquest (one reason the Romans found conquest of Gaul useful was that it was wealthy enough to steal from), it was only around the time of assimilation into the Roman state that it caught up to Latium.

Latium and the Paris basin both decrease in social complexity after the fall of the Roman Empire. But after 1000 AD the Paris basin outstrips Latium. In the 12th century it does seem that the Paris basin was more socially complex than it was in the pre-Roman period.

It is much easier to point an ignorant person to a chart than go through a laundry list of facts. Facts without context and background knowledge are not useful. But visualizations of data are much more easily digestible.

The authors show that the nine complexity characteristics are highly correlated with each other. Some of these make sense (those related to polity scale). But others are not as straightforward, though the verbal arguments present themselves (e.g., polities with lots of people are more likely to need written scripts for bureaucratic record keeping; the data show this to be true). Additionally, the models that are general can predict patterns in individual regions. That implies that the same dynamics are occurring cross-culturally. Each society is not sui generis for the purposes of analysis.

Of course a standard retort will be that the selection and coding of criteria of complexity itself is biased. That’s fine. But with formal methods we can actually hash out disagreements and points of interpretation in a much simple and clear manner than before. Ultimately I think those who object to this sort of analysis actually object to analysis driven by data and formal methods, as opposed to their own intuitions and personal preference. After all, it’s not a great discovery to find that there is a common cross-cultural dynamic which underpins social complexity.

But in the future Seshat and the researchers who utilize it will smoke out counter-intuitive or surprising results. The data and methods are there.

* Ann herself seems to have been mostly of Scandinavian ancestry as was the norm for the early Kievan nobility. Her mother was a Swedish-born princess, while her father was a Slavicized Rurikid.

August 3, 2011

The fall of empires as an exponential distribution

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Cliodynamics,geography,History — Razib Khan @ 11:57 pm

I was alerted to Samuel’s Arbesman’s new paper, The Life-Spans of Empires, by the fact that he pointed to his research on his weblog. Interestingly I’m not the only one who was interested, as after I pointed to it on my link round up a few people asked if they could get a copy of the paper (yes, I almost always send papers if I have access). Luckily it’s a nicely elegant piece of work, basically quantifying what we’ve already probably known qualitatively. There isn’t that great of a value-add to quantification as such, but with a mathematical understanding of a topic one can engage in an algebra of mental manipulations so as to construct models with which one can project other facts. Quantitative information is often an excellent way to generate “free information” from theoretical models. The figure above is the primary result of the paper. Basically Arbesman took a data set which was laying around which measured the lengths of various empires (N = 41), and showed that the rise and fall of these political entities tends to follow an exponential distribution: e−λt . ...

January 20, 2011

The rise and fall of great powers is stochastic

Filed under: Cliodynamics,Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 12:47 pm

ResearchBlogging.orgLong time readers know well my fascination with quantitative history. In particular, cliometrics and cliodynamics. These are fields which attempt to measure and model human historical phenomena and processes. Cliometrics is a well established field, insofar as it is a subset of economic history. But cliodynamics is new on the scene. At the heart of cliodynamics is the quantitative ecologist Peter Turchin. I highly recommend his readable series of books, Historical Dynamics, War and Peace and War, and Secular Cycles. Also, see my reviews of the first two books.

With that, I am rather excited by the debut of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. Here’s the description of the brief of the field and the journal:

‘Cliodynamics’ is a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History is an international peer-reviewed web-based/free-access journal that will publish original articles advancing the state of theoretical knowledge in this discipline. ‘Theory’ in the broadest sense includes general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of historical societies ...

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.


November 12, 2009

A quantitative ecologist looks at world history (again)

Doing a literature search on the Price Equation for some weblog posts I found that Peter Turchin had written a new paper on world history using Price’s formalism explicitly. A quantitative ecologist by training, Turchin has already written a series of books attempting to model human history in a more formal fashion than is usually the case. Though his work has a tendency to overlap with economic history, in particular cliometrics, Turchin brings a more robust theoretical toolkit from the natural sciences to the table. An ecologist once told me that the ultimate aim of his career was to “count stuff,” and that professional expertise is handy when it comes mapping the distribution & abundance of the human species over time. What David Sloan Wilson is to multilevel selection theory, Peter Turchin is to “cliodynamics”, his attempt to grapple with the general dynamics which characterize the cycles of human history.

Specifically, Turchin focuses the agricultural societies which mark the span between the age of the hunter-gatherers, and the industrial revolution. What I term the “traditionalist transient.” Traditionalist because from our “modern” viewpoint we perceive many of the customs, institutions and values of this age as timeless and traditional. This despite the fact that they emerged in a specific and relatively brief historical transient after the Ice Age & before the Great Divergence. But this period is still important in our modern age, because the basic building blocks of contemporary identities draw from the traditionalist transient. Higher religions invariably date back to this period (Salafi Muslims and some ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholics look back to particular periods during the traditionalist transient as golden ages to be emulated), as do modern lingua francas, and the basic terms of political organization (democracy, republic, etc.). Early modern thinkers of the Enlightenment may have rejected or superseded the orthodoxies of the traditionalist transient as the Quarrel of the Ancients & Moderns was finally resolved to the satisfaction of the latter, but the context of the refutation was still to a large extent on the basis of traditionalist transient assumptions. For example, contemporary secularism, laicism and disestablishmentarianism are intelligible only in light of the fusion of the sacred and temporal which played out in the agricultural societies after the rise of Sumer. Turchin always notes that his conclusions may not, likely do not, apply to the dynamics extant in the present. But I suspect that much of what does go on in the present is intelligible only in light of the phenomena of the past. So his models are not purely abstract intellectual exercises.

Whether you think the project as a whole is worthwhile or not (see Massimo Pigliucci‘s skepticism), I am intrigued by the fact that Turchin focuses on Inner Asia because this is one region of the world which has long been “at the center of it all,” both literally as well as more metaphorically. Some of the inferences from Turchin’s framework illuminate rather well the broad observations and hints presented in Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road. Since Beckwith is a philologist he lacks Turchin’s more robust theoretical toolkit, but he naturally exhibits both more depth and granularity when it comes to the details of the history and ethnography. Setting both against each other is fascinating as one can make out binocular intellectual vision with more subtly than if just one narrative is considered.

As I said, in the paper, Warfare and the Evolution of Social Complexity: A Multilevel-Selection Approach, Peter Turchin uses the Price Equation as a theoretical framework. The reason for this is that Turchin believes that human societies within the past 10,000 years can be viewed as functional units subject to selection; in other words, they’re adapting entities, organisms. The Price Equation allows one to partition variation between and within groups, variation being necessary for selection to operate upon collections of entities. Though the economist Samuel Bowles has suggested that between group genetic variance (FST) and selection (through warfare) may have values high enough in “small-scale societies” to allow for non-trivial biological group level selection, most seem to accept the contention of those who suggest that between group variance only makes cultural group selection plausibly common. Turchin is in the latter camp, in particular because his focus is not on small-scale societies, but larger polities which characterize what we would term “civilization.” In the world of civilization it is clear that between group variance can be much greater culturally than biologically. Consider the example the case of Transylvanian Hungarian Protestants who could get by in late 16th century Oxford by virtue of their common fluency in Latin, combined with shared Calvinist religious precepts with many English Protestants (example from The Reformation: A History). Yet genetically Hungarians are closer to their neighbors, the Orthodox Romanians, than to the British. By intuition and impression it is clear that in relation to gene frequencies religious and linguistic identity tend to exhibit a less clinal pattern of variation. Though genes are discrete units, genetic variation approaches blending dynamics more easily than religious and linguistic variation, where pidgins and syncretisms are often marginalized or absorbed into one of the “parent” traditions.* Because languages and religions vary less gradually, it is easier for one to conceive of a clear and distinct group coherency in a selective framework. Where one entity ends and another begins is not arbitrary, the genes of France blend in to the genes of Germany more gently than do the dialects of French to those of German. It seems that selection between group genetic differences (not reducible to individual level selection) runs up against the problem of “gene flow” overwhelming divergences in frequency (I imagine in pre-modern times this gene flow consisted predominantly of the assimilation of the breeding-age women of conquered tribes). Here’s an example from a primitive people:

31:9 And the children of Israel took [all] the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.

31:13 And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
31:14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, [with] the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

In fact, it seems likely that between group genetic differences have been driven by cultural differences. The Jews are a famous case, but this dynamic also crops up in surprising places, such as among Christian & Muslim Arabs in Lebanon. It seems likely that high FST values in small-scale societies tracks their cultural and linguistic diversity; as conventional gene flow through movement of mates between populations which can not communicate or worship different gods is likely to be dampened due to mutual unintelligibility and suspicion. By contrast, the expansive spread of the possible Y chromosomal lineage of Genghis Khan within the last 1,000 years is a testament to the power of cultural prestige and conquest over large areas to generate rapid gene flow.

The ethnogenesis of the Hazara in Afghanistan illustrate the complex interplay between religion, language and lineage. The Hazaras show clear evidence on Structure-based analyses of being an East Eurasian and West Eurasian hybrid population. Y chromosomal lineages tied to Genghis Khan the Mongols are common among them, and there are historical legends that they arose from exactly this group. Their practice of Islam & usage of a Persian dialect likely dates to the time that the Mongol Khans of the Ilkhanate accepted the religion of the local majority in the 13th century. The Mongols who refused to accept Islam emigrated to Inner Asia, while those who remained assimilated, accepting the religion and dominant language of the local populations whom they ruled. Today as a physically distinct Shia Muslim Persian speaking group in Afghanistan the Hazara are now endogamous, their biological distinctiveness a function of broader cultural-historical forces.

Of course that is just a specific concrete illustration of historical dynamics, and an atypical one at that. The general processes which Peter Turchin discusses have an extreme specific case scenario in the form of the Mongols, who left an outsized impact on the World Island. A big shift from small-scale societies to those of agricultural civilizations is the need for complex hierarchies to mediate decision making from the apex of the political pyramid. Like Archimede’s lever with which he could move the world, the functional integrity of these units allowed the decisions of Genghis Khan to affect tens of millions. It is presumed that for small-scale societies primary face-to-face interaction sufficed to coordinate decision making. Interestingly, there is also compelling data which points to relative egalitarianism of material wealth to complement the flat authority structures. By the time history arises to supplement archaeology, meaning that we have records in the form of cuneiform tablets, societies are clearly already quite hierarchical (literacy probably emerged as a more sophisticated form of accounting, so rather complex economies are already necessary conditions). A reliance on rules, heuristics and institutions which coordinate and channel power tracked the crystallization of a powerful and wealthy rentier class (as well as a possible reallocation of power between the sexes). The idea that the poor will always be with us, and that true status and nobility accrue to those who can consume at leisure, as opposed to those who increase productivity, was the norm in the traditionalist transient.** Whereas in small-scale societies alien tribes were subhuman, in civilization the elites would often dehumanize their own subjects as lower orders of a different nature.

It is this last tendency which Turchin examines in this paper, to contrast it with conflicts which emerge on the “meta-ethnic frontiers.” If you have read his earlier work you are familiar with the idea, which basically describes civilizational marchlands. The Muslim Ottomans, Orthodox Cossaks and Buddhist Oirats were all forged in the fires of meta-ethnic frontiers. In opposition to this is the “narcissism of small differences”, whereby societies exhibit cleavage along what may otherwise seem to be marginal differences. Civil wars within polities can often by traced back to these issues, or sides aligned based on internal factions. Consider the divisions between Protestants which resulted in the English Civil War. Turchin wishes to assess the extent of ethnocide and genocide in the former vs. latter cases. Why? Because he believes that it is the former cases which are responsible for the rise of large empires and re-ordering of civilization and historical shifts. Evolutionary theory tells us that selection needs extant variation to operate, and it seems that along meta-ethnic frontiers such variation would would be extant in more copious quantities than in civilizational heartlands. In particular, along the boundaries of civilizations. Within individual societies there should be less variation, so selective forces should have less traction. To assess this he reviews the literature to evaluate the magnitude of depopulation wrought upon cities by victorious armies. This is a classic form of “hard selection”.

Table 1 shows that conflict on meta-ethnic frontiers does have a stronger effect than civil wars. Why? Turchin posits a simple psychological explanation: those of different civilizational character are dehumanized, so empathy is modulated downward (it is notable that during and before the Albigensian Crusade the Cathars were subject to many conventional demonizing tropes, and effectively de-Christianized in the eyes of the rest of Christendom) .This is clear from the history of Christianity and Islam, in the medieval period the religious norms in both civilizations accepted the enslavement and maltreatment of unbelievers to an extent not acceptable for believers. This is the explanation for why some of the Christian military orders in the Baltic, whose original raison d’etre was to Christianize the native peoples, actually were among the last to allow and encourage baptism of their subjects. Baptism imposed constraints on efficient extraction of marginal product. The analogy to New World chattel slavery here is clear, as some plantation owners viewed proselytization among blacks dimly lest economics be modulated by morality. When the crossbow was invented the Roman Catholic Church attempted to ban its usage between Christian powers, though declared it acceptable as a weapon against Muslims. This sort of behavior, constraining and/or ritualizing high stakes competition and conflict within groups, while accepting a more “no holds barred” attitude toward between group conflicts is known from small-scale societies (though perhaps the contrast would manifest more in the extent of extreme barbarism with which outgroups were treated, rather than any particular norm of humanity for ingroups). Civilization simply operationalized this on a grander scale, and scaffolded human nature and channeled it through particular institutions and identities.

Peter Turchin argues, and presents data, that these frontier regions where primitive, and frankly savage, passions are channeled toward outgroups serve as the loci for new empires and mega-polities. In particular, being an ecologist, he focuses on particular ecologies as the exceptional cauldrons for state-formation: the semi-arid steppe. It is here that Turchin aligns with some of Christopher Beckwith’s insights in Empires of the Silk Road. This should not be totally surprising, though we look through the glass darkly nature is fundamentally one, and history is a phenomenon rooted in nature. Beckwith attempts to generate a revisionist history of the world where the rise and fall of nomadic empires are just as salient as the ebb and flow of peasant-based civilizations, where the eruptions from the heartland echo down the centuries. And Turchin, like Beckwith, seems to hold that it is less important or relevant that the movers of history are unlettered nomads, but that they are derived from the marchlands where nomads or part-nomads are prominent on both sides of the frontier, civilized and barbarian. Consider the Cossacks who pushed the frontier of the Russian Empire back against the Tatars from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Loyal to the Russian state, Orthodox Christians, and trailblazers for Slavic culture and society, they certainly were the civilizational antithesis of the Muslim Turks descended from the Golden Horde of the Mongols. But upon closer inspection there were similarities between the Cossacks and Tatars as rough frontiersmen which exposed affinities when set against the lives of Russian peasants, or the more cultured nobility of the Russian heartland. It is known that many Tatars “went Cossack,” abandoning the Muslim religion and eventually shifting toward a Slavic self-identity in the wake of defeats (though this is most notable for elite Tatars who converted to Christianity and were assimilated into the Russian noble class). This is what Turchin would label “ethnocide,” cultural extermination if not physical. The men who expanded the domain of Russian civilization in the early modern era were useful barbarians (this seems especially evident to the more sophisticated and European-oriented Russian rulers of the 18th century, who relied upon and disdained & feared, the Cossack). The Turks who had crushed the first efflorescence of Slavic civilization which ran from Kiev to Novgorod were less useful barbarians. But to Turchin this distinction is not particularly important, as civilization-destroying barbarians such as the Arabs after Muhammad and the Mongols can set the stage for the emergence of a new civilizational-system (in the case of the Mongols there was of course the brief world-system of the Pax Mongolica).

So what do the data say?

If these data & the result, repackaged in a statistically significant form are any surprise to you, I recommend you read some books. The importance of the semi-arid steppe, the rise of the mounted cavalry and utility of the reflex bow are plain in the record of civilized societies. Macedonia, the Zhou & Chin, Persia the Turks are just a few examples of peoples who are barbarian or semi-barbarian, and came blazing out of the marchlands to establish a new order over civilized peoples. Naturally the horse looms large here. It is a truism that the average peasant was never more than 10 miles from where they were born. Even if the exact value on this expectation is off, the general thrust is surely correct, in the Malthusian world the average sedentarist was quite sedentary. In contrast the mounted nomads were highly mobile, with whole peoples such as the Avars migrating en masse from Mongolia to the Hungarian plain on the order of a decade! More mobile units of males operated on the scale of years, as was shown by the Turks and the Mongols whose zone of control spanned the margins of the Pacific to the Black Sea. The Mongols were simply the apotheosis of the terror and savagery which mobile calvary could inflict upon settled populations. In the classical period the Scythians and their fellow travelers ranged widely in their depredations, causing havoc in their wake. It is often forgotten that the Huns who were menacing Gaul in the 450s were strafing Syria ~400, sweeping down through the Caucasus from the plains to the north of the Black Sea. Just as the institutions of the traditionalist transient allowed for individuals at the apex of power to control and affect massive change at a distance, so the rise of the horse and bow gave the nomad a combination of mobility and lethality which was only neutralized with the spread of firearms.

Turchin dates the emergence of the nomadic warrior toolkit, and therefore the potential to wreak havoc on civilized polities, to the period between 1000-500 BCE. This sounds about right. Though the records are sparse because literate civilization was thin on the ground, this is the period when the Scythians battered the Assyrian Empire, and the Medes and Persians finally sacked Nineveh. In China the rise of this sort of nomadic lifestyle and warfare seems to have taken a bit longer, with the Xiongnu making permanent the archetype of the raw nomad beyond the frontiers of Han civilization in the 3rd century BCE. But a more critical point is that there is the suggestion that the Axial Age is a deterministic reaction on the part of civilized peoples to the hammer-blow which nomad polities dealt them (in the case of Persia you have the barbarians overwhelm, assimilate and re-order the civilizations of the Near East in totality). To Turchin this is an evolutionary process, as selection operates upon cultures and polities to give rise to adaptations to a new fitness landscape. In this case, the mounted archer, a combination of lethality and mobility which the more primitive modalities of the Bronze Age were helpless. The choice was clear, adapt or be swallowed.

To me it is notable that the Assyrians are reputed to have been particularly savage, while the Persians who were their eventual successors were depicted as relatively benevolent. Some of this is selection bias, as the Persians treated the Jews with less brutality than the Assyrians, and much of our character/narrative history of this place and period come from the Hebrew Bible. But there are other independent records of the nature of Assyrian rule, which seemed to be rather coarse and overly generous in its application of intimidation and cruelty to the conquered. From what I can tell it is as if the Assyrians were Yanomami in chariots, exhibiting a brutal inchoate savagery more the norm in small-scale societies. In contrast, the Persian system of rule were imperial, but often indirect. Local traditions were respected, but it was under the Achaemedids that the Zoroastrian religion began to develop, which later developed into a state-religion for the Persians in the manner that Christianity was for Rome and State Confucianism in China. It is likely that the ethical aspect of Judaism as an ethical monotheism came to the fore during the period of influence under the Persian Zoroastrians, whose primary deity is, Ahura Mazda, is an explicit force for good, not an angry and jealous god. In Empires of the Silk Road Christopher Beckwith suggests that the synchronous efflorescence of religio-philosophical systems across the ecumene during the Axial Age was promoted by the expansion of nomads, their ideas, and the facilitating role of their trade networks. Turchin’s model would seem to suggest that nomads played a role as well, but more as antagonists for civilized polities (and in some cases the progenitors of new polities and empires), who had to increase in scale and develop institutional and ideological adaptations. The two models are not mutually exclusive. In terms of religion there are many cases of barbarians beyond the limes being influenced and innovating. Most famously with Islam, but in both Scandinavia and the Baltic before the conversion to Christianity the extant records and preserved mythologies are clear enough to show an influence and institutional mimicking of the “Roman religion.” In the latter cases the cult of Baldr and the temple at Arkona were dead-ends, as Christianization eliminated those cultural experiments. A more successful universal religious model is the worship of Tengri, the sky god of the Turks and Mongols who was the focus of worship their “shamanistic” phase. The similarities of Tengri to El, one of the ancestors of the Abrahamic God, can not be a coincidence. Sky gods are portable and plainly omnipresent, looking down from on high, in a way that makes them ideal candidates for the God.

It seems that the model presented here is that from savagery comes civilization. This is basically an evolutionary model of human history, an “arms race” of ideas and institutions between polities and civilizations. Sometimes, as in the case of the mounted warrior with bow, the race was triggered by a technological change. The civilizations of the Near East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, did not change or adapt fast enough. They became fiefs in a Persian world. It can be argued that the Classical Greeks, descendants of the barbaric city-states which sacrificed humans to placate savage gods as they were falling to the Sea Peoples, did formulate appropriate institutional (the cohesive polis and national identity) and technological (the accoutrements and organization of the hoplite phalanx) responses to the threat. In China the two dynasties which set the tone for Imperial China down to 1900, the Zhou and the Chin, emerged out of the borderlands as semi-barbarian polities. The Zhou introduced the peculiar elite Chinese variant of supernaturalism whereby worship centered around the impersonal “Heaven.” The Chin state was organized around an efficient and utilitarian plan which may have been repudiated in name, but not totally in practice, by subsequent dynasties. Reorganized from within by useful barbarians China was ready to meet the nomad threat in the form of the Xiongnu.

In The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History John and William McNeill point out that history seems to have a direction in terms of human complexity. Between 1200 and 800 BCE the Greeks “forgot” how to write in totality, so that the Linear B system of the Mycenaeans has no connection to the Phoenician derived alphabet of the later period. As the ages progressed these sorts of “Dark Ages” when the clock was reset, the slate wiped clean, became less and less frequent. The world of settled humanity, dominated by rentier elites, purporting to justify their domination through transcendent truth, covered the face of the earth. Ray Haung, in China: A Macro History, observes that the interregnums between dynasties exhibits a persistent decline in length. Why? One hypothesis is that the “Chinese system,” as embodied in norms and values passed down through its bureaucratic class, became more robust to the “exogenous shocks” of political chaos. Some, such as Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, would explain this in generally “microeconomic” terms. Game theory applied through the lens of rational actors. Turchin rejects this view insofar as he seems to be suggest that cultural units are being driven to success because of a process of expansion through the elimination of rivals. Again, there is no need to assume these are exclusive alternative choices. Religions such as Christianity and Buddhism clearly spread through individual action and choice (both seem to have been popular first among cosmopolitan urbanites, and counter-elites). But, they also clearly spread by being adopted as ideological cement for polities, the choice made on high at the apex of the political pyramid and extended down by fiat to the population as a whole. This choice may have conferred upon the polity the benefits which accrue from being members of a meta-ethnic civilizational coalition. The benefits to being members of Christendom for the pagan elites to the north of the post-Roman world were clear. James I of England asserted “No bishop, no King,” to indicate the necessary connection between ruler and the priests. And so it was the arrival of Christianity seems curiously concomitant with the emergence of kings on pagan Europe, one God, one ruler. Pagan peoples who remained relatively disinclined toward joining the Christian Commonwealth were liable to be subject to ethnocide, as occurred with the Wends and the Old Prussians.

A focus on elites is evident in Turchin’s model, and I think in some ways that is a critical piece of information. Group level selection on the scale that he focuses upon, large polities and such, may be a feature of only a small slice of a given polity. The elites, or particularly important military groups, such as the Cossacks. History is written by and for the elites. The gods and languages of the elites, their norms, often percolate down to the masses (though not always, my example above about a Latin speaking Transylvanian in Oxford is obviously extremely elitist, but in terms of international politics they are all who counted!). Greg Clark documented high mortality rates for the military nobility of England in Farewell to Alms, as opposed to the relative fertility of the pacific gentry. This shows how high the stakes for intergroup conflict for elites may have been, as opposed to commoners. Benjamin Franklin reputedly stated that “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Kevin Phllips reports in The Cousins’ Wars that much of the Virginia planter aristocracy, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were in severe debt to English financial houses. Their individual material stakes illustrate how victory or loss in war can have huge negative or positive outcomes to those at the apex of the power pyramid in agricultural societies. This is where I think the civilizational values which unite and engender a degree of cosmopolitanism among elites within the bounds of that broader meta-ethnic framework serve to dampen the savagery of loss and the gluttony of gain. The world of a defeated king may seem to collapse upon him, but if the foe shares the same civilizational presuppositions the institutions and values remain intact, and some honor and status may be retained by the rules of the game which are enforced by third parties (e.g., in medieval Europe, the Church). By contrast, it is no surprise that when the kingdom of the Visigoths fell to the armies of the Arabs and Berbers the elites either fled, or, more likely converted to Islam to preserve their positions. This was ethnocide. A process which was inverted in 1492, as Granada fell to the armies of Castile and Aragon, and the Muslim elites either had to flee to North Africa, or convert to Christianity. In the former case they lost their wealth and power. In the latter case they lost their identity. These are of course the less savage cases, on occasion elites are simply exterminated by the conquerors so that the snake’s head is removed.

If Peter Turchin turns this most recent paper into a book, I have a catchy title in mind: Civilization: a tale of regicide. It has been said that science can not progress until old ideas die with old scientists, and so it may be that civilization can not proceed until old elites die prematurely thanks to the efforts of new ones. The argument is too broad to be sure, but the history of the evolution of power is a biography of the lives of those in power, so this captures much to a first approximation if it is correct.

* English has a strong influence from the Romance languages via French, but it is still recognizably a Germanic language. Similarly, Sikhism emerged as a new world religion or sect which navigated between the disjoint idea spaces which defined Hinduism and Islam, but it is notable that many Hindus claim Sikhism to be a variant of Hinduism, while no Muslims seem inclined to make this assertion.

** The poor were always with the hunter-gatherers as well, because they were all poor, but a wealthy leisured class who could comment on the plight of the poor did not exist so the observation would have been ludicrous.

Related: Historical Dynamics and contingent conditions of religion, Cliodynamics, the rise & fall of empires and asabiya.

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