2006, Books, Non-Fiction

War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (2006) by Peter Truchin

This is a provocative and ambitious (and lay) summary of an attempt to create a science of history by an evolutionary biologist. It is compelling and well-written. (Though my copy isn’t so well edited…) It is also flawed, which it basically must be given what he is trying to achieve. It’s absolutely worth your time, but it’s also likely to drive you a little crazy, if you are skeptical of attempts like this.

For me, the biggest flaw in the entire argument – and, so, with the book – is Part I. I find Part II quite compelling and Part III fairly compelling but I think the biggest issue with the theory is the claim that metaethnic frontiers cause empires. I think he does a good job of showing that metaethnic frontiers cause asabiyyah and that high asabiyyah correlates with empires but the problem is in the sample. In Part II he discusses how empires degrade. It’s relatively easy to find commonalities between the various empires which have existed throughout history because of how few there were. Though Turchin doesn’t discuss all of them, he discusses enough of them to suggest that his theory might be roughly correct: elite over-production and asabiyyah decline (and over-population and a few other factors) lead to eventual collapse (over many, many generations). But the sample of societies with high asabiyyah is so much higher than successful empires I remain skeptical that he has actually looked at all of them (or even a majority) and can conclude that this is the way that empires form. Basically, when he tackles the decline, it seems like he’s on to something, but when he’s tackling the rise, it’s much less easier to believe.

That’s a problem for the book because he starts with the rise first. Though he is a pretty compelling writer, and he covers some unfamiliar history (to me), I still spent Part I feeling like I had picked up the wrong book. So, stick with it, the evidence for his theory gets better as the book goes on.

Like any attempt to apply the hard sciences to the humanities, this theory is easily criticized. The same criticisms once leveled at, for example, Robert Putnam (someone who Turchin sites) can be leveled at Turchin: the human world is not reducible to calculations in the same way physics is.

But I admire the ambition. I am skeptical about attempts like this because, deep down, I am skeptical of the quant over qual worldview. In my education I saw how quantitative analysis routinely oversimplified debates and arguments and didn’t actually lead us to any better answers. And, in real life, time and again,I’ve seen quantitative analysis and predictions fail because of the inputs were bad. But I’m still interested in the idea and I find Turchin more humble than I supposed he would be. (Not to say he’s humble, just to say he seems very sure that his initial stab at this theory will not be entirely correct, which is the correct view.) There seems like there is a lot of possibility if only more and more people take up the call to look at history this way.

Especially given the state of technology, we should be more and more able to analyze massive historical datasets and detect patterns. Turchin’s particular idea of how empires cycle might not be correct, but his idea that we can discover how empires cycle may indeed eventually prove correct.
That, for me, is perhaps the real importance of the book: that we can possibly find nonlinear, dynamic patterns in history in the hopes of not repeating the mistakes of the past.

And on that last note: if Turchin is remotely right about how empires fall we here in North America are in for a rough ride in the coming centuries. Whether or not Turchin is right about the “how”, he’s probably not wrong in that things are not going to get better. (I should point out that this scenario can always be averted by technological improvements.) That’s something I’ve known for some time, at least in regards to the US, but it’s still not a fun experience reading a book about historical cycles that says the country south of you is on the downswing.

This is far from perfect, but it’s thought-provoking and a fairly easy read given the material. (It is the popular version of his theories he’s written academic books on.) It’s worth checking out even if you dispute the premise, as I did.

7/10

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