Tag Archives: Clio (ancient Greek muse of history and dynamics)

Math + data + history lead to cliodynamics and history crisis detection

This February 18, 2024 essay by Daniel Hoyer, senior researcher, historian, and complexity scientist at the University of Toronto for The Conversation, discuses history as scientific data, Note: Links have been removed,

American humorist and writer Mark Twain is believed to have once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

I’ve been working as a historian and complexity scientist for the better part of a decade, and I often think about this phrase as I follow different strands of the historical record and notice the same patterns over and over.

My background is in ancient history. As a young researcher, I tried to understand why the Roman Empire became so big and what ultimately led to its downfall. Then, during my doctoral studies, I met the evolutionary biologist turned historian Peter Turchin, and that meeting had a profound impact on my work.

I joined Turchin and a few others who were establishing a new field – a new way to investigate history. It was called cliodynamics after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history, and dynamics, the study of how complex systems change over time. Cliodynamics marshals scientific and statistical tools to better understand the past.

The aim is to treat history as a “natural” science, using statistical methods, computational simulations and other tools adapted from evolutionary theory, physics and complexity science to understand why things happened the way that they did.

By turning historical knowledge into scientific “data”, we can run analyses and test hypotheses about historical processes, just like any other science.

Hoyer’s essay is fascinating and I can’t really do it justice with a few excerpts but hopefully these will tempt you into reading more of his and his colleagues’ work, from the February 18, 2024 essay.

Since 2011, my colleagues and I have been compiling an enormous amount of information about the past and storing it in a unique collection called the Seshat: Global History Databank. Seshat involves the contribution of over 100 researchers from around the world.

We create structured, analysable information by surveying the huge amount of scholarship available about the past. For instance, we can record a society’s population as a number, or answer questions about whether something was present or absent. Like, did a society have professional bureaucrats? Or, did it maintain public irrigation works.

Our goal is to find out what drove these societies into crisis, and then what factors seem to have determined whether people could course-correct to stave off devastation.

But why? Right now, we are living in an age of polycrisis – a state where social, political, economic, environmental and other systems are not only deeply interrelated, but nearly all of them are under strain or experiencing some kind of disaster or extreme upheaval.

Pouring through the historical record, we have started noticing some very important themes rhyming through history. Even major ecological disasters and unpredictable climates are nothing new.

One of the most common patterns that has jumped out is how extreme inequality shows up in nearly every case of major crisis. When big gaps exist between the haves and have-nots, not just in material wealth but also access to positions of power, this breeds frustration, dissent and turmoil.

“Ages of discord”, as Turchin dubbed periods of great social unrest and violence, produce some of history’s most devastating events. This includes the US civil war of the 1860s, the early 20th-century Russian Revolution, and the Taiping rebellion against the Chinese Qing dynasty, often said to be the deadliest civil war in history.

All of these cases saw people become frustrated at extreme wealth inequality, along with lack of inclusion in the political process. Frustration bred anger, and eventually erupted into fighting that killed millions and affected many more.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things is that inequality seems to be just as corrosive for the elites themselves. This is because the accumulation of so much wealth and power leads to intense infighting between them, which ripples throughout society.

My colleague, political scientist Jack Goldstone, came up with a theory to explain this [“gap between the wealthy who can afford services and the growing number who cannot”] in the early 1990s, called structural demographic theory. He took an in-depth look at the French Revolution, often seen as the archetypal popular revolt. Goldstone was able to show that a lot of the fighting and grievances were driven by frustrated elites, not only by the “masses”, as is the common understanding.

These elites were finding it harder and harder to get a seat at the table with the French royal court. Goldstone noted that the reason these tensions became so inflamed and exploded is because the state had been losing its grip on the country for decades due to mismanagement of resources and from all of the entrenched privileges that the elites were fighting so hard to retain.

If the past teaches us anything, it is that trying to hold on to systems and policies that refuse to appropriately adapt and respond to changing circumstances — like climate change or growing unrest among a population – usually end in disaster. Those with the means and opportunity to enact change must do so, or at least to not stand in the way when reform is needed.

Our goal as cliodynamicists is to uncover patterns – not just to see how what we are doing today rhymes with the past – but to help find better ways forward.

If you have the time, please do read Hoyer’s February 18, 2024 essay in its entirety (h/t February 19, 2024 news item on phys.org). The Seshat Global History Databank can be found here.