Saturday, April 24, 2010
Peter Turchin, Cliodynamics, and Archaeology
I just read an interesting essay in Nature by Peter Turchin called "Arise Cliodynamics," and it got me wondering why more archaeologists aren't reading or citing Turchin's work. Turchin is an evolutionary biologist who has moved into "big history" with a bang. He has published two major books (Turchin 2003, 2006) and a number of articles (e.g., 2 in 2009) that apply mathematical modeling to processes of the expansion and decline of states and empires.
The essay in Nature calls for a new discpline ("Cliodynamics"), a "theoretical historical social science." This will be "the study of temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms." Well, this sounds like archaeology to me, or at least it is a vision close to what many of us think archaeology is or should be (I realize that postmodernists and other idealists and particularists will not agree). So why don't more archaeologists engage Turchin's work? I can find only one example: Kohler et al. (2009). Now maybe archaeologists ARE reading Turchin, but use of his work has just not reached publication stage yet.
I read Turchin's book, War and Peace and War (2006) a couple of years ago, and I just looked online for book reviews. All I could find was a (very interesting) review in the Times Higher Education Supplement. I would think that archaeology and anthropology journals would want to review the book, but I guess not. Perhaps people take a quick look and conclude that his work is simplistic and reductionistic and thus not worth consideration by anthropologists or archaeologists. On the contrary, I find his work more sophisticated in social terms than that of many economic historians (well, ok, you are probably thinking "that's not hard"!). He deals with cooperation, social capital, long-term demographic and political dynamics. And he thinks archaeological data are relevant and useful to his vision of "cliodynamics." He has collaborated with ancient historian Walter Scheidel in a paper using coin hoards to analyze Roman demographic patterns (Turchin and Scheidel 2009).
If this stuff sounds at all interesting to you, check out Turchin's Cliodynamics web site, or some of his works listed below.
Kohler, Timothy A., Sarah Cole, and Stanka Ciupe
2009 Population and Warfare: A Test of the Turchin Model in Pueblo Societies. In Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution, edited by Stephen Shennan, pp. 277-295. University of California Press, Berkeley.
2003 Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
2006 War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Empires. Plume.
2009 Long-Term Population Cycles in Human Societies. In The Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology, pp. 1-17. Annals, vol. 1162. New York Academy of Sciences, New York.
2009 A Theory for Formation of Large Empires. Journal of Global History 4:191-217. http://repositories.cdlib.org/imbs/socdyn/sdeas/vol1/iss1/art3/.
Turchin, Peter and Walter Scheidel
2009 Coin Hoards Speak of Population Declines in Ancient Rome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:17276-17279.