Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You are one of the founders of cliodynamics. Could you explain us this concept?
Prof. Peter Turchin: Cliodynamics (from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of why things change with time) is the new transdisciplinary area of research at the intersection of historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Mathematical approaches – modeling historical processes with differential equations or agent-based simulations; sophisticated statistical approaches to data analysis – are a key ingredient in the cliodynamic research program (Why do we need mathematical history?). But ultimately the aim is to discover general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of actual historical societies.
The community of researchers working on mathematical history and cliodynamics has been rapidly growing in recent years. We now have our own journal, Cliodynamics: the Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution. Although this web page is primarily devoted to my personal research, I also use my blog Cliodynamica to reflect the most significant developments in the field as a whole.
For you, populations and warfare are dynamic variables. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
I was trained in the science of nonlinear dynamics and it is natural for me to think so. Also, history is dynamics.
In your very interesting book « Secular Cycles », there are many references to Ibn Khaldun. Is this book a continuation of the thought of Ibn Khaldun?
Not a continuation, but Ibn Khaldun is one of the most important inspirations for my research, and I discuss his theories extensively, especially in War and Peace and War, Chapter 4.
You’re a mathematician and you become a sociologist in the analysis of the process of class domination. Did Ibn Khaldun open you some prospects?
I was actually trained as a quantitative biologist and for the first 20 years worked in the field of population ecology and dynamics. I switched to studying history because it seemed to me that this was the last area in which quantitative approaches – mathematical models and data analysis – have not yet been fruitfully applied.
« War and Peace and War » and « Historical Dynamics »: I find that these two books are complementary and refer to your thesis « population/warfare ». Is war a fate for human race?
Historical Dynamics is an academic book; War and Peace and War is a popular book on similar themes, but developing them further.
I am very interested in your hypothesis concerning a possible revolution in the USA. Is not it simply a Marxist cycle?
No, our theory combines ideas of Marx, Malthus, and Weber.
You mention the three triggers of this revolution in the USA: increase in the elite population, a lowering in the standard of living of the masses and an enormous level of the State debt (besides, other voices begin to speak about a civil war). All these elements are gathered in the United States but also exist, for example, in Great Britain, Germany and France. Why does your analysis refer exclusively to the United States?
Because it takes of time to develop a proper analysis of one country – literally years in my case. I have plans to apply the analysis to other countries, but it will depend on securing funding for this research.
I advise my readers to read all your very important books in the development of a scientific research, as well as your very rich and fascinating website. Is Peter Turchin the junction of the exact sciences and the human sciences, the crossroads that leads on the highway of thought?
Thank you. Peter Turchin is just a person. But I hope that by founding Cliodynamics I will help advance scientific approaches to studying human history.
You coordinate the Seshat Databank, a giant database. Can you tell us about this Pharaonic project?
Our collective knowledge about past societies is almost entirely in a form inaccessible to scientific analysis, stored in historians’ brains or scattered over heterogeneous notes and publications. The huge potential of this knowledge for testing theories about political and economic development has been largely untapped. Founded in 2011, Seshat: Global History Databank brings together the most current and comprehensive body of knowledge about human history in one place. Our unique Databank systematically collects what is currently known about the social and political organization of human societies and how civilizations have evolved over time.
This massive collection of historical information allows us and others to rigorously test different hypotheses about the rise and fall of large-scale societies across the globe and human history. Working with a large international and interdisciplinary team, our database offers the means to study the past through well-established scientific techniques.
We believe that our approach is the best way to provide meaningful answers to some of the most important questions about the human experience – how and under what circumstances does prosocial behavior evolve in large societies? What roles do religion and ritual activities play in group cohesion and cultural development? What is the impact of climatic and the environmental factors in societal advance? What mechanisms translate economic growth into quality of life improvements for the average person?
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is the Professor Peter Turchin?
Peter Turchin is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut; Research Associate in the School of Anthropology, University of Oxford; and Vice-President of the Evolution Institute. He conducts research on the cultural evolution and historical dynamics of past and present societies. He is the author of seven books, including War and Peace and War (2005), Secular Cycles (2009), and most recently Ultrasociety (2016) and Ages of Discord (2016).
His academic positions are: Professor at the University of Connecticut in the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Anthropology, and Mathematics; Research Associate in the School of Anthropology, University of Oxford; Vice-President of the Evolution Institute Editor-in-Chief of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution; Founding Editor and Coordinator of Seshat: Global History Databank
Peter Turchin was trained as a theoretical biologist, but during the last fifteen years he has been working in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of sociocultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Over the past decade Turchin has been investigating two broad and interrelated questions: what general mechanisms explain the collapse of historical empires? And how did large-scale states and empires evolve in the first place? What are the social forces that hold together huge human conglomerates, and under what conditions they fail? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating Seshat: Global History Databank—a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will be used in empirical tests of theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.
Peter Turchin’s blog: Cliodynamica: a Blog about the Evolution of Civilizations.
Published in American Herald Tribune, December 17, 2016: http://ahtribune.com/history/1393-peter-turchin.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.221216.htm