Law and History

I learned about Peter Turchin recently through his profile in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood. I had learned about the Atlantic article from historians on Twitter such as James Ryan, who does “Turkish history and other stuff,” according to his own Twitter profile, and who tweeted in response to Wood’s article,

This is really interesting research, but, uh, it is only history in the way that a particle physicist does history.

In response to that, a thread began:

Needless to say, no historian would find this “approach” acceptable. There’s a reason we spend so much time on historiography when new historians are trained; we have complex, rich debates that have continued for longer than any field except philosophy on how to approach history.

That was by Axel Çorlu, living in the US, but “Born in Izmir, Turkey, to a Levantine (Italian/Greek/French/Armenian) family” according to his Academia page.

Çorlu was once kicked out of an Istanbul taxi for telling the driver that the street food he liked was Byzantine. My fellow American immigrant to Istanbul has that story in her recent National Geographic article, “Why Istanbul’s ancient imperial legacy lies hidden in plain sight.” Writes Jennifer Hattam,

Çorlu chalks up the driver’s response to an educational system and popular culture that often gives Turkish people an “us vs. them” sense of identity. Anything predating the Ottoman era is seen as “other,” if not downright pernicious. These kinds of attitudes, Çorlu and other experts argue, have led to the neglect of Byzantine-era monuments and the erasure of this critical historical era from the predominant story of Istanbul.

I myself touched on this point in an essay that was intended, first of all, for mathematicians. I was writing about my American college, which encourages broad interests and inspired the name of this blog:

Part of the Turkish national mythology is that the Turks entered Anatolia in 1071 after the Battle of Manzikert, and they took Istanbul in 1453. Even this late date is older than 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and – according to the American mythology – discovered the land where I grew up. Still, a thousand years is not long in the history of Asia Minor. It is a shame to limit one’s feelings for this place to the last millenium. Istanbul is mine now; it was mine in 1453; it was mine when Constantine founded it as Constantinople in 330; it was mine when it was Byzantium, and Xenophon passed through with the remains of the Ten Thousand around 400 BCE. Centuries before that, somewhere down the coast, Homer composed the verses that I often read there today. As John Donne wrote in the meditation that gave Hemingway the title of For Whom the Bell Tolls, ‘I am involved in Mankinde’.

That’s from The De Morgan Journal 2 no. 2 (2012) [pdf].

As for Peter Turchin, I am in sympathy with the historians. If you are applying to human beings the same sort of scientific methods that you used in your research on beetles, this means making presuppositions about human beings that are in conflict with those that historians make and that you yourself make, at least about yourself quâ scientist.

To my mind, the issue here was worked out in 1940. There’s a blogger besides myself who has written about the key text: Stephen N. Greenleaf, “An Essay on Metaphysics by R.G. Collingwood.”

Therefore I was astonished to find out that Greenleaf was also a fan of Turchin. In a 2016 blog post, Greenleaf called Turchin a prophet. Turchin himself replied, rejecting the title.

Let me spell out my own concerns some more.

Perusing a sociology textbook once, I noted an observation that suicide rates changed little over time, but differed from country to country. You may wonder why that is. I might then ask why you wonder. What would an explanation look like, and how would its correctness be established?

One test of correctness, for an explanation of suicide rates, might be a consequent ability to lower the rates.

I don’t think Peter Turchin uses such a test for his own work. Concerning another question, he says,

I don’t really think in terms of specific policy. We need to stop the runaway process of elite overproduction, but I don’t know what will work to do that, and nobody else does. Do you increase taxation? Raise the minimum wage? Universal basic income?

Turchin here is talking to Graeme Wood. Aside from such quotations in the Atlantic article by Wood that I mentioned (and which is dated this month, December 2020), the only writing of Peter Turchin that I know (besides the comment on Stephen Greenleaf’s blog) is his blogged response to Wood’s article. Says Turchin there,

I have no argument with the factual foundations of the Graeme’s article. But Graeme is a journalist and it’s his job to present facts in ways that sell journal copy (or subscription). I am a scientist, and I can’t help but disagree with several angles through which Graeme views what I do …

Like Turchin, I was once disconcerted by what a reporter wrote about me.

I had spent eleven days bicycling from DC, through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation, and Ontario, to the Michigan shore of Lake Huron. My final destination was Harbor Beach, a day’s ride north of the Blue Water Bridge.

Somebody in Harbor Beach got a local paper to do a story on my trip. According to the angle that the reporter came up with, I had got carried away in my wish to see my mother. Back in DC, she was a two-hour ride from me; now, if she was going to be in Michigan (at the cottage that had been her grandparents’), then by golly, I was still going to go visit her.

That’s not how I would have seen the trip, which I think back on now with nostalgia. This is nostalgia for a time when you could be out of touch for days. I did telephone my family every few days. Once I tried to, from a pay phone outside a brick establishment that seemed to be deserted, somewhere in the Ontario tobacco belt. Nobody picked up, and there was no answering machine.

When the story about me came out in the Harbor Beach newspaper, I had to accept the writer’s account as being based on his actual observations, when he had stopped by the cottage in Harbor Beach.

I may be sympathetic with reporters because my mother’s father was one.

Mathematics is in my genes somehow, but they are not my family’s genes. (I am adopted, as I discussed in a post of a year ago that was provoked by the cancellation of J. K. Rowling.)

According to Graeme Wood’s article,

Turchin was born in 1957 in Obninsk, Russia, a city built by the Soviet state as a kind of nerd heaven, where scientists could collaborate and live together. His father, Valentin, was a physicist and political dissident, and his mother, Tatiana, had trained as a geologist.

One cannot help one’s family! As somebody who has never left academia, except for a few months of farm work, I feel relieved now that none of my family were academics.

I return to Turchin’s own words in his blog:

… the worst misconception that readers will get from reading Graeme’s article is about my views of History. “Terms of surrender,” really! This is entirely on Graeme’s conscience. My view of History and historians (and archaeologists, religion scholars) is appreciative and respectful …

It seems to me, if you think you are “appreciative and respectful” about A, but B thinks you are not, you may want to reconsider what you think respect is.

Here is what Turchin thinks about A:

We need academic historians to use their expertise to continue amassing the knowledge about different aspects of past societies. We rely on historians and archaeologists to interpret complex and nuanced historical evidence, before it can be translated into data for analysis …

“We rely on historians and archaeologists,” says Turchin, but not for their own analysis. They are needed, only to help turn history into numbers, for proper analysis, by real scientists.

As a mathematician, I am not flattered that my subject is named by the last letter of the acronym STEM. As far as I know, promotion of STEM subjects is not happening for the sake of learning as such; if it were, then all forms of learning would be promoted, and these include history and literature.

Neither am I impressed when Turchin tells Wood,

When I had my midlife crisis, I was looking for a subject where I could help with this transition to a mathematized science. There was only one left, and that was history.

I would say that mathematics was born as a part of physics. Geometry was originally surveying. It is no surprise that mathematics should continue to be useful to physics. There’s no reason why it should be in any other science.

Wood expresses an idea of Turchin’s as follows (and the expression should be accurate, since, as above, Turchin has “no argument with the factual foundations of the Graeme [Wood]’s article”):

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions.

That makes sense. I don’t know how it comes out of Turchin’s ten thousand years of data. As is suggested in Wood’s article, before you can count the numbers of the elite, you have to decide who counts as elite:

… Turchin masterminded a digital archive of historical and archaeological data. The coding of its records requires finesse, he told me, because (for example) the method of determining the size of the elite-aspirant class of medieval France might differ from the measure of the same class in the present-day United States. (For medieval France, a proxy is the membership in its noble class, which became glutted with second and third sons who had no castles or manors to rule over. One American proxy, Turchin says, is the number of lawyers.)

Perhaps you can make interesting comparisons between medieval France and the US today by looking at how the numbers of nobles and lawyers change over time. Probably Turchin can exhibit the changes with his data. However, according to Wood, in words that Turchin does not dispute,

In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

I think you cannot find iron laws in the data, unless you already believe they are there to be found. Natural science has made great use of such a belief. So has advertising. Humans are animals, and animal behavior can be studied.

But humans are not just animals, and I think Yuval Noah Harari describes the distinction well in Sapiens (on pages 37–8 of the Vintage paperback that I have, but I’m cutting and pasting from an epub file that I found on Library Genesis):

Female common chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives and stage a feminist revolution. Male chimps cannot gather in a constitutional assembly to abolish the office of alpha male and declare that from here on out all chimps are to be treated as equals. Such dramatic changes in behaviour would occur only if something changed in the chimpanzees’ DNA.

For similar reasons, archaic humans did not initiate any revolutions …

In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change …

… Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm II; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunified Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

You might say however that chimps can become feminists and overthrow the patriarchy, by evolving into humans.

I suppose an “iron law” would be a hard and inflexible law. I don’t think you can actually find such a law governing humanity. Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on Peter Turchin gives no examples that Turchin has found, except one about exponential growth and decay of populations of organisms in general.

Maybe you can find an iron law, nonetheless. But how then are you going to establish the validity of your law? This is the key point. It’s not enough to show that, by the data, we’ve always obeyed the law in the past. Can you give a reason why we should always continue to do so?

I think you can only assume that past experience provides any guide to the future, or any restriction on it. Such an assumption in natural science lets us do cool stuff like send space ships to Pluto. However, applied to humanity, it becomes self-fulfilling: an inspiration to do better, or an excuse not to try.


  1. Posted December 29, 2020 at 8:13 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Your post had me interested from the title, but then to see that it addressed the work of Peter Turchin & Collingwood–as well as a cite to yours truly–I can assure you that I read it straight away. And you raised an issue that I’ve thought about a good deal since I took up reading Collingwood (circa late 2014); to wit, how do I reconcile “all history as the history of thought” (and its related res gestae) and works like that of Turchin and Jack Goldstone (more on him in a bit) and others who seek and believe that they find patterns in history?

    A brief bit of personal history: as an undergrad history and political science major at the University of Iowa, I took only one course from the philosophy department: a course in the “philosophy of history” from Prof. Laird Addis & using Patrick Gardiner’s “Philosophy of History.” I must admit that my primary interest at that time was in what (in polite terms) is referred to as “speculative philosophy of history” and less as history as a form of knowledge or as a discipline. Collingwood was included among the readings, but while I’m sure that I read the Collingwood selection, it didn’t stick. We have to fast forward to 2014 before I pick up the scent again. But before getting “back to Collingwood,” I’d read Turchin’s WAR AND PEACE AND WAR (which, alas, I didn’t review) and Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, among other works.

    But in 2015 I read Turchin’s ULTRASOCIETY and reviewed it with my newly found Collingwood knowledge. I wrote;

    “Turchin can claim to be the founding father of Cliodynics, a discipline that works to discern patterns in history and prehistory based on the quantification of data through mathematical modeling. Attempts of this sort in the past have been failures. Through the lens of the philosopher R. G. Collingwood (of whom I’ve been reading a great deal lately), this endeavor doesn’t qualify as history properly understood. For Collingwood, History is the history of thought and not the history of behavior. But Turchin’s work and the work of others in Cliodynamics demonstrates the weakness of Collingwood’s position. When Collingwood emphasizes history as the history of thought, including the thoughts behind human actions and choices, he limits history to examining the tip of the iceberg. Just as humans are the result of eons of evolution layered one upon another to arrive at our current state, with most of the functions of our bodies running involuntarily and without our conscious knowledge or decision, so with many of the actions of society. Many actions seen together, aggregated over large groups, display behaviors that are not the result of a conscious decision. Often they are the aggregate of individual decisions that reveal a larger pattern. We deal with this every day when considering market “decisions.” (But note our personification of markets often leads to poor analysis. The “market” is not a conscious individual; it’s an abstraction of many individual actions aggregated for the convenience of analysis). Turchin analyzes data from the past to better understand the past. (Note: the only source of knowledge is the past!) To me, Cliodynamics is a welcome addition to the field of history. Although I retain my prejudice for history as the history of thought, with an emphasis on political and intellectual decisions, we simply cannot ignore the fact that human beings are both a part of Nature and apart from Nature. To understand the totality of the human past—the highest intellectual endeavor—we need to take advantage of all the tools available. Looking at history through different lenses provided by of social and natural sciences is a resource that we are foolish to ignore.” .

    And although I now believe that I have a much broader and deeper appreciation of Collingwood’s project, I don’t believe that I reach a different conclusion today. Thus, I think that Profs. Ryan and Corlu (and you) protest too much. And, I should add, that I believe that Turchin proposes no “iron laws”–I believe that the term is Graham Woods’s & not Turchin’s. As I stated (more or less) in the blog post of mine that you cited, I see Turchin as a “prophet” but not in the traditional sense of proclaiming a revelation from on high, but in the form of an “if-then proposition. I praise Turchin for suggesting that with this knowledge we might avoid what is otherwise our fate.

    I highly recommend that article jointed authored article from this fall by Turchin and Jack Goldstone (who was the first (I believe) to publish a book on what has become known as the “structural-demographic theory”). Their work is here: .

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is an intriguing and important topic to consider.


    • Posted December 30, 2020 at 6:28 am | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks Steve. I figured you would see this (and I would have made sure of it!). I have done some minor editing now, mainly by adding links to other posts of mine and to Wikipedia.

      I am glad you talk about your personal involvement with books and their writers. Your own blog posts suggest a dimension to Turchin’s work not shown in Wood’s Atlantic article. Neither do I think it is shown in Turchin’s blogged response to that article, and I tried to be clear that this was what I was going on.

      As I also mentioned, “Humans are animals, and animal behavior can be studied.” It seems to me that history and natural science are not objects of study, but methods of studying. The point is that there is no one true method.

      History may be a study of thought; but if you believe that the heavenly bodies are thinking, then your astronomy will be a kind of history. Perhaps astrology can be understood as a remnant of this approach.

      We humans would seem to do a lot more than think. To say that is to recognize that we can be studied by other sciences than history. I am just concerned that too many people think it doesn’t matter what they think; that too many of my students, for example, are like Robert Pirsig’s, trying only to produce what the teacher wants, as discussed in a blog post you read, “Anthropology of Mathematics.” (There are also students who don’t try to do anything at all.)

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