Cliodynamics is a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, cultural and social evolution, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution is an international, peer-reviewed, open-access journal that publishes original articles advancing the state of theoretical knowledge in this transdisciplinary area. In the broadest sense, this theoretical knowledge includes general principles that explain the functioning, dynamics, and evolution of historical societies and specific models, usually formulated as mathematical equations or computer algorithms. Cliodynamics also has empirical content that deals with discovering general historical patterns, determining empirical adequacy of key assumptions made by models, and testing theoretical predictions with data from actual historical societies. A mature, or ‘developed theory’ thus integrates models with data; the main goal of Cliodynamics is to facilitate progress towards such theory in history and cultural evolution.
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Volume 2, Issue 1, 2011
Volume 2 Issue 1 2011
This editorial introduces the special feature, 'History, Big History, and Metahistory'
In the middle of the twentieth century our understanding of the past underwent a quiet revolution whose full implications have yet to be integrated into modern historical scholarship. At the heart of the revolution were new chronometric techniques, new ways of dating past events. For the first time, these techniques allowed the construction of reliable chronologies extending back before the first written documents, before even the appearance of the first humans, back to the early days of our planet and even to the birth of the Universe as a whole. This expanded timeline provided the foundation for the “Single Historical Continuum” of my title. This paper describes the chronometric revolution and the creation of a single historical continuum. It then discusses some of the implications of these changes for our understanding of “history.” I am a historian by training so that, despite an enduring amateur interest in the sciences, my account of the chronometric revolution reflects the somewhat intuitive pattern-seeking methodologies of my discipline, rather than the often more rigorous, and more mathematical methods of the natural sciences. I will argue that the chronometric revolution requires a fundamental re-thinking of what we understand by “history.”
The fossil record of animal life is far more incomplete and patchy than even the most obscure historical records. Consequently, some of the approaches developed by paleobiologists over the past couple of decades to assess the reliability of the fossil record, investigate patterns and infer underlying processes may be useful in analyzing historical data as well. Here I discuss two examples where paleontologists have investigated historical questions, in one case the evolution of cornets, in the second estimating the survival rate of Medieval manuscripts. Depending on the scope of big history, there are a number of areas where history and paleontology overlap, particularly in the investigation of early human history. More rigorous analysis of the biases of the historical record may be of some use in determining which historical patterns are sufficiently reliable for further exploration.
What Clausewitz and Tolstoy were trying to do was to derive from the experiences of history the laws governing it. Although they failed, these 19th-century thinkers, each operating from a different perspective, anticipated what we’ve come to call chaos and complexity theory.
When we review the course of human history or the results of anthropological research we see a delicate interplay of regularity and randomness. This article discusses several regularities in human affairs, including approximate mathematical laws, such as the logistic equation, and semi-empirical regularities, such as a power law or a Guttman scale. The search for regularities in human history is becoming a trifle more respectable than it was formerly. That could well portend some significant improvement in our ability to discuss the human future.
“Big History” and “meta-history” are grounded in an ancient lamentation over the segmentation of human existence, the alienation from an original sense of oneness. In this paper I am doing my disciplinary duty by providing a deflating historical counterweight to the desire to overcome those last remaining obstacles on the path to a complete account. For me at least, the difficulties in reaching a complete account in a common language remain; nor am I persuaded that the difficulties are merely technical. The difficulties are deeply engrained not just in modern disciplinary thought but in cognition as such. Indeed, the very goal of a complete account in a common language seems to me to be based on a false view of disciplinary distinctions as well as a false understanding of what we ought to wish for, our real interests.
In this chapter, I have identified shared elements of historical explanations. Coming from a background in an historical, natural science, I have sought to describe a few key concepts that might prove of some value in an empirically-based historical analysis more generally. These include the concepts of regularity, complexity, criticality, coarse-graining, intensivity and extensivity, levels of selection, major transitions, and emergence. These are not in circulation in current historiography, which has tended to steer away from the analysis of large, quantitative data sets, but could provide new concepts for organizing phenomena when this tendency is overcome. In discussing these various mechanisms and principles, I have tried to establish the legitimacy of a meta-history – a field of history that encompasses elements of physics, biology, anthropology, archeology, and more recent human culture. This is distinct from the practice of Big History – seeking to explore grand narratives encompassing both naturalistic and cultural dynamics – and stresses a variety of problems, concepts and methods that might be applicable to all historical fields.
Historians are curious creatures. We believe nowadays in the uniqueness of events, so much so that notions of regularity, pattern, and system have become inherently suspect. Sometimes efforts to see these in the human past are deemed evidence of some nefarious political inclination toward domination or imperialism. Thus we ordinarily leave the very big picture to others, such as journalists, sociologists, or even biologists such as Jared Diamond . Their work offers a challenge from which historians usually shrink, although that charge cannot be leveled at David Christian  who has recently sought to find regular patterns not only in human history, but throughout the history of the Universe. In this chapter I offer two different attempts to identify big patterns, regularity, and system in human history. The first concerns a proposed pattern in the evolution of differentiation and integration in human culture, or, as I put it, using terms for the conditions rather than the processes, heterogeneity and homogeneity. The second considers analogies between animal species and human societies.
A serious obstacle to the search for a more scientific history is that humans label themselves and their actions. These labels can be extremely sticky and often obscure the categories which might be most useful for seeking regularities. Another, related, problem is a focus on dramatic events that seem to be relatively rare and are commonly recognized as landmarks, e.g. political and industrial revolutions. Having formed several of these major events into a class, scientifically-minded historians have then often searched for a very small set of discrete variables that could predict the occurrence or non-occurrence of these very special events. By contrast, I would argue that we are likely to be better off by looking at more general processes that may include but are not limited to these dramatic events, and looking for clusters of variables which interact with each other; the hoped-for result would usually be not to explain the categorical presence or absence of some process (e.g., “economic development”) but to group many cases into families, seeking to explain both within-group and between-group variation by means of systematic comparison.
Big history can also be summarized as providing an overview of the rise and demise of complexity in all its forms and manifestations ever since the beginning of the universe. If we want to pursue this approach to big history, we need a theoretical framework that facilitates us to do so. In this article I propose such a scheme based on energy flows through matter that are needed for complexity to emerge, and often also to continue to exist, within certain favorable boundaries (“Goldilocks Circumstances”).
This article responds to those who think that a science of history is in principle impossible. First, I tackle the issue of prediction and point out that it is not limited to forecasting the future. Scientific prediction is also (an much more usefully) employed in empirical tests of scientific theories. Next, I switch from conceptual to empirical issues, and review evidence for general empirical regularities. I also discuss some recent examples of using scientific prediction in testing theories about historical dynamics. I conlcude by pointing out that we now have the right quantitative tools and, even more important, a growing corpus of historical data for testing theories. An analytical, predictive history, or cliodynamics, is eminently possible.
I describe historical patterns that I believe would emerge in any system characterized by living things competing for locally scarce resources. I then consider the search for patterns and their explanation in the context of an intellectual climate dominated by anti-adaptationist rhetoric and doubts about the validity of scientific approaches to history. Notwithstanding this hostile environment, I present a summary of the economic principles that in my view not only account for historical patterns but also serve to predict future trends and postdict past ones not yet known. A positive feedback between consumers and resources – a historical conspiracy of sorts – implies the existence of inherent directions in the history of living things, including humans.
Might there be universal laws of society analogous to those of physics and of life? This question can be addressed by identifying coarse-grained, quantitative variables for human phenomena, and placing these within a proven mathematical framework. It is assumed frequently that human intention, coupled to the purposeful human modification of the environment, renders humanity immune to this kind of atemporal, scientific analysis. On the other hand, human collectives struggle with the same basic energetic and informational needs and constraints that we observe at multiple scales of physical and biological organization. These general requirement for life, give us the confidence to attempt to include elements of human history within the framework of a quantitative, natural scientific theory.