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.

Turchin, Peter
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.

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.


Shawn said...

I've read some of his work, and I find it useful in my own stuff, sometimes. I'm currently doing a lot of work in terms of agent based modeling, and I'm also surprised that this approach hasn't gained more traction amongst archaeologists.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Cliodynamics is a stalking horse for Asimov's "Psychohistory" without the disciplinary breadth and point of view to justify its existence as a full fledged discipline. A few interesting quantitative theories does not an academic discipline make.

It turns out to be much easier to turn common sense notions into math without adding value than most people recognize.

Anonymous said...

I wonder about the same thing, too. However, I think the reason is that most of his models are analogical, and borrowed mostly from population dynamics with no first principle derivations. Using analogy is not enough for disciplinary existence and any other models could as well be used for the same application/purpose without justification.

Michael E. Smith said...

I don't really care whether Turchin's grand claim for a new discipline makes sense or not, or whether his models are based on analogy or first principles. If his work illuminates aspects of cultural evolution, then it has value. If it suggests methods or concepts that others of us might follow up usefully, then it has value. On these latter points, my assessment is a cautious positive judgment.

Evan said...

I was just browsing WSU's Evolutionary Modeling program's seminars and found this:

I suppose this means Turchin's getting out there more, though it could just be because of Kohler.