Yes, history can really become a science

Illustration for article titled Yes, history can really become a science

It's one of those debates that returns every few years: Can we break down the wall between science and other areas of research? Historian Peter Turchin has been saying a very emphatic "yes" for years — and his proposal is that we create a scientific form of history called Cliodynamics.


What's fascinating is that Turchin and his colleagues have done a lot of work on broad historical trends and have found some startling results that suggest there are centuries-long social cycles that can be predicted. It's like Isaac Asimov's idea of psychohistory from the Foundation novels.

Writing several years ago in Nature, Turchin outlined his idea:

Perhaps we need an entirely new discipline: theoretical historical social science. We could call this ‘cliodynamics’, from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms.

Let history continue to focus on the particular. Cliodynamics, meanwhile, will develop unifying theories and test them with data generated by history, archaeology and specialized disciplines such as numismatics (the study of ancient coins).

Is this proposal feasible? The most compelling argument against the possibility of scientific history goes like this. Human societies are extremely complex. They consist of many different kinds of individuals and groups that interact in complex ways. People have free will and are therefore unpredictable. Moreover, the mechanisms that underlie social dynamics vary with historical period and geographical region. Medieval France clearly differed in significant ways from Roman Gaul, and both were very different to ancient China. It is all too messy, argue the naysayers, for there to be a unifying theory.

If this argument were correct, there would be no empirical regularities. Any relationships between important variables would be contingent on time, space and culture.

In fact, several patterns cut across periods and regions. For example, agrarian, preindustrial states have seen recurrent waves of political instability — not interstate warfare, but lethal collective violence occurring within states, ranging from small-scale urban riots, in which just a few people are killed, to a full-blown civil war. This is just the sort of violence we need to understand: many more people are killed today in terrorist campaigns, civil wars and genocides than in wars between nations.

Recent comparative research shows that agrarian societies experience periods of instability about a century long every two or three centuries. These waves of instability follow periods of sustained population growth.

Read the rest of Turchin's article to find out how those waves of instability work, or just visit the Cliodynamics website.



This sounds a lot like macroeconomics....