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Like Jared Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel Peter Turchin in War and Peace and War uses his expertise in evolutionary biology to make a highly original argument about the rise and fall of empires Turchin argues that the key to the formation of an empire is a societ. Subtitle The Rise and Fall of EmpiresSo as you may have heard me say before the books I read can mostly be divided into two types Big Idea books and Many Small Ideas books This one is a Big Idea book One might say ridiculously bigThe author born in Russia moved to the US at age 20 his father a dissident was exiled and eventually got his PhD in zoology He studied population dynamics for a time the kind of ecology based biology that looks at a species role vis a vis its prey and predators and competitors in its niche This involved finding mathematical models and descriptions of the cycles of boom and bust which happen in populations in the natural world Far from the delicate balance of popular belief the natural worlds populations have cycles not uite regular usually but far from random and in the last few decades a robust field of scientific inuiry has grown up around efforts to better understand how this worksThen Turchin took an abrupt turn and moved into the study of history Well almost he actually moved into a field of mathematical sociobiology that he helped name as well as create cliodynamics Clio the muse of history combined with dynamics the study of changing systems Turchin s objective is nothing less than an updated real life Hari Seldon of Isaac Asimov s Foundation series But given what we know now of nonlinear systems the objective is to find the strange attractors of historical dynamics Given that absolute prediction of precise events far into the future is made impossible by the nonlinearity chaos of the actions of humans in large groups what CAN we say and test empiricallyThis book is Turchin s first public swipe at the task and he has gone further with it in his blog and new science journal Cliodynamics since the book was published This book is a beginning albeit an audacious one and it begins with a theory on where empires come from and why they decline and fallEssentially Turchin holds that empires rise due to asabiya the ability to take action cooperatively in a coordinated fashion As an example he cites records from the early days of the Mongols in which armies of 100000 could execute complex military manuevers just based on flag signals without the many horns drums pipes and bellowing sergeants necessary to get western Europeans to do the same at that time Facing invasion some cities Italians in the face of Hannibal for example were able to act together to repel the invaders while others Italians in the face of late Roman Empire Germanic invasions for example were not Why and how could the same genetic stock the same culture broadly speaking sometimes have asabiya and sometimes not The same issue of acting collectively in a less dramatic sense can be seen in whether or not to work together to make canals long distance roads or other public infrastructureTurchin identifies and provides copious historical examples and counter examples for several factors1 threats from the other For slavic Russians this was Turkic and central Asian nomadic peoples for colonial Americans this was Native Americans and as Tecumseh demonstrated this worked both ways for early Romans this was the barbarians of Gaul who were far alien to them than the Etruscans or other Italian or Greek civilized peoples Turchin shows evidence that empires tend to begin on the edges between peoples nomads and farmers for example who have enough differences in culture and way of life that the differences between separate villages or tribes on one side of the divide seem small by comparison2 modest levels of ineuality Whereas his stress on the importance of defining one s identity in opposition to another culture may alienate the conventional Left here Turchin alienates the conventional Right by showing copious examples ancient Rome vs Imperial Rome different centuries of medieval France wherein an accumulation of wealth at the top is corrosive to the society s asabiya The 99% in any society will know that the 1% is better off than they are How great the disparity however will impact how much they are willing to support that society In a clash between two armies one of which fights for the good of the society and the other of which fights if it cannot safely evade fighting the former will win3 the ratio of elite to non elite In any society some portion of the population is part of the most favored class this includes Communist and modern American societies no less than any other The growth rate of the elite however is not necessarily well correlated to the growth rate of the overall society If the food supply in an agricultural society is running out the elite will not starve but the general populace may well or at least may have fewer children This can make an already strained society even top heavy and eventually this will result in internal division in many historical cases resulting in intra elite civil war such as the English War of the Roses4 war begets peace begets war People who lived through war as children are less enad of it as a solution to their problems as adults especially if it was a civil war rather than a war fought on another nation s territory This leads to a freuent alternation of war and peace generations through many periods and cultures Turchin uses the term fathers and sons cycles for theseWhenever we look at attempts to find patterns in the chaos of history it is eually easy to be either easily impressed by the new theory than is warranted or to be skeptical There have been many attempts before In some sense there is a fathers and sons pattern here as well where about every half century scientists look again at whether they can bring order to the riot of human history only to throw up their hands in despair after a decade or two and abjure the attempt for another generation Perhaps this will be the latest failed attemptThere is no uestion however that we have data available to historians not only the written chronicles of old but also archaeological climatalogical etc We also have vastly computing power to see if we can find patterns amidst the data Perhaps like predicting the weather past a one or two week window we will not yet be able to find the way to wrap our minds around our own social selves But then even meteorologists have made progress in recent decades and if we are changeable as the weather perhaps we are also not wholly beyond the reach of human understanding It is good to know that minds as innovative and simultaneously disciplined as Turchin are suaring their shoulders and charging once unto the breach

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War and Peace and War The Rise and Fall of Empires

Tes But as empires grow the rich get richer and the poor get poorer conflict replaces cooperation and dissolution inevitably follows Elouently argued and rich with historical examples War and Peace and War offers a bold new theory about the course of world history. Yet another Big History book this one really pulled out in front of the pack for me and I think it s the best one I ve read so farFirst there s no better way to make me smile than with a reference to psychohistory from my favorite sci fi series of all time Turchin compares his goal of scientifying history to Asimov s famous literary conceit right there at the very beginning of the Introduction Turchin is serious about it though offering a semi mathematical framework for historical analysis he calls cliodynamics which borrows methodologically from statistical mechanics and nonlinear dynamics In English that means he models the rise and fall of empires using euations that treat people as groups and also account for chaotic behavior as well This means that there s some population genetics lurking in the background as well There is not actually any math in this book however this was a prose exposition of the euations that are all in his earlier Historical Dynamics which I haven t read There s still plenty of rigor though as he subscribes fully to Paul Krugman s sentiment that The euations and diagrams of formal economics are often than not no than the scaffolding used to help construct an intellectual edifice Once that edifice has been built to a certain point the scaffolding can be stripped away leaving only plain English behindHe starts out by asking how empires form which he calls imperiogenesis The list of empirescountriespeoples discussed extensively include Russia America Germans Arabs England France Austria Hungary and of course the good old Roman Empire He doesn t include exhaustive histories of each one just enough to make his points and tie them back to the larger argument I would have liked detail on the non European empires like Persia China the various Indian empires or anything in the Western Hemisphere but I think those would only bolster his thesis He finds that empires typically arise on what he calls a metaethnic frontier in other words a boundary between two relatively different cultures cf the us vs them struggles in Samuel Huntington s Clash of Civilizations Thus the medieval Rus ancestors of today s Russians found themselves assimilating other nearby tribes in a desperate effort to fend off endless raids from the Mongols and this gradual accretion of similar proto Russian co ethnics gradually built the kind of egalitarian tightly knit society that was capable of conuering the vast steppes of Siberia In essence the Rus as a society unconsciously learned the social traits trust intra group fairness self sacrifice for the group that it took to be a successful empire and other groups that didn t or couldn t develop those traits got swallowed up or annihilated This is similar to how the Romans fought off the Gauls Phoenicians etc by gradually assimilating similar tribes like that Samnites and so on He calls this level of collective solidarity asabiya after Ibn Khaldun s usage of the term in his Muaddimah his own attempt at a universal history and ties it into Alexis de Tocueville s and Robert Putnam s ideas of social capitalEvery good theory of how empires rise should also be able to explain how empires fall and his asabiya concept seems to do a decent job of explaining imperiopathosis as well Asabiya is the glue of peoples both a measure of general social capital and trust and the thing that makes your average dude it s mostly guys willing to die in some wasteland hundreds or thousands of miles away from home in order to promote the greater good He backs this up by bringing in some game theoreticgroup selectionist discussion of how societies need a critical mass of moralists and institutions to discourage free riders and cheaters which encourages solidarity Something that Turchin finds over and over again in history is that incredibly successful civilizations after having built their empires seem to be inherently unstable and prone to decay through loss of asabiya While this sounds as unscientific as lan vital it can actually be uantified in some ways Basically in a mature empire that no longer feels compelled to expand the number of elites starts to slowly increase both due to lower chances of dying in wars and due to the higher reproductive rate that being rich in an agricultural society allows for Slowly they shift from being leaders in society to being rent seekers and eventually they take so much of the pie that people aren t willing to trust in the civic institutions previous generations built Eventually a vigorous society on the border gets its act together in the case of the Romans the Germans for the Byzantines the Arabs and displaces the decadence that might still be numerically and technologically superior but can t muster the will to resist Paraphrasing Arnold Toynbee great empires die not by murder but by suicideSo asabiya can be generated through struggles and trials that bind people to each other and it can be lost through the lack of the same unifying pressures The differing fates of north and south Italy are discussed towards the end of the book why north Italy while fairly rich still has a social capital deficit compared to countries like France or Germany while low trust south Italy is an asabiya black hole as demonstrated by the presence of groups like the Mafia This is reflected in the very interesting fact that Italy doesn t have large public companies like other first world nations The largest Italian company Fiat is still family owned The typical successful Italian company is a family owned business with perhaps a hundred employees in Milan or Bologna They occupy a variety of niches from fashion to high precision machinery and they are extremely successful at what they do But they cannot break into certain international markets because they lack the advantage of size And they cannot grow to a large size because the Italians even northern ones can cooperate only in medium sized groups Is this why northern Italians historically could not get beyond medium sized states Religion has an interesting place in Turchin s book while religious disputes are not necessarily meaningful in and of themselves they re another way that groups of people use to mark us from them After reading Diarmaid MacCullough s Christianity The First Three Thousand Years with its endless tales of violent disputes over completely arbitrary doctrinal issues like the filioue clause or if icons are kosher or whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three this seems very true to meTurchin s ideas also interact pleasingly with a number of other Big History books I ve read semi recently In no particular orderrhymereason He s a little dismissive of Jared Diamond s Guns Germs Steel saying that while the geographical determinism line of argument can explain trans hemispherical imperial triumphs it doesn t do a good job in the vastly common cases where neighboring tribes with similar resources attack each other like the Rus vs the Tatars or the French vs the English This is true Diamond might be able to explain the ultimate outcome but how would that explain for example the asabiya induced paralysis and chaos of the Incans after Atahualpa was captured He doesn t engage much with Joseph Tainter s The Collapse of Complex Societies which is a shame because I still think that Tainter s admittedly somewhat simplistic ideas about the decreasing marginal returns on civilizational complexity are un ignorable Tainter is resource deterministic than Turchin who allows for human initiative in the way that societies can choose to lose internal cohesion by becoming inward focused but I would bet that there s still something to Tainter s idea that there s a certain optimal size for societies given the resources available to them I think Acemoglu and Robinson should have cited this book in their Why Nations Fail because there s a lot of overlap between AR s ideas about extractive vs inclusive institutions and what Turchin has to say about how institutions can shift between the two poles due to external pressures or the lack of them Republican Rome was much inclusive for the average pleb during the parts of its history where it was under threat lost inclusion for a long period during things like the Gracchi brothers reform attempts and then became inclusive again after enough elites killed each other during the Julius Caesar drama to stabilize the empire AR don t have a good account for how dynamic movement along the inclusiveextractive scale can be and Turchin s asabiya measure seems to include that Brian Fagan s The Long Summer talked about how the migrations of primitive humans and therefore possible tribal conflicts were driven in part by climate shifts that alternately opened up new lands and closed off old ones Turchin showed that climate shifts didn t have much to do with the medieval French English wars specifically but it would be neat to see uantification and if there s a climate shift threshold over which a tribe could ascend to a higher or maybe lower level of asabiya in its need to find new lands and resources Given that per Tainter the Mayans might have succumbed to environmental changes it s reasonable to think that climate might be an input into asabiya Climate change in our own day might have significant effects on political stability as well Steven Pinker s The Better Angels of Our Nature talked a lot about changes in violence I wonder if you could correlate intra society violence to asabiya shifts For example the US right after WW2 was infamously homogenous and group centered with low levels of crime This changed after the Sixties and I don t think anyone would argue that there hasn t been a relative drop in the nebulous feeling that we re one big society of Americans Is crime a good proxy for asabiya eg the Northeast is rich and low crime relative to the South does that mean anything and does the recent relative drop in violent crime rates mean the US is getting stronger asabiya wise Relatedly I ve read a lot of good books on ineuality recently like Timothy Noah s The Great Divergence The parallels between pre Revolutionary France or ancient Rome to the modern US in terms of the power of the wealthy are numerous and disturbing although of course only valid up to a point Still how would a conservative or a liberal for that matter apply the implications of this book to our current economic condition Is rising ineuality destroying Americans ability to cooperate with each otherOverall this is a really interesting book a definite Big History champion and is also full of great factoids I ll close with a fascinating uote from where he talks about how medieval societies like England tried to control elite overpopulation Lorcin found that in commoner families males outnumbered females by 13 percent This pattern is just what we expect in a pre industrial society where a substantial proportion of women died in childbirth In noble families however the pattern was reversed there were only 85 males per 100 females In other words there were 28 percent fewer noble males than we would expect if their mortality patterns were the same as commoners The wills studied by Lorcin allowed her to calculate that during the second half of the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth the proportions of noble girls becoming nuns were 40 and 30 percent respectively Only in the second half of the fifteenth century did this proportion decline to 14 percentOkay one Destruction of the great fortunes continued under the Tudors who had it in for their over rich and over mighty subjects The first two Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII employed judicial murder with great effect systematically exterminating all potential claimants to the English throne who also happened to be among the richest landowners Elizabeth I crafted a gentler method a kind of progressive taxation scheme When one of her subjects became too wealthy she invited herself to his castle along with her whole court After some weeks of dining and wining the ueen and hundreds of her followers the unfortunate host was financially ruined for many years to come and was too busy paying off his debts to contemplate rebellion

Peter Turchin ✓ 7 summary

Y’s capacity for collective action He demonstrates that high levels of cooperation are found where people have to band together to fight off a common enemy and that this kind of cooperation led to the formation of the Roman and Russian empires and the United Sta. A fascinating group selectionist take on the dynamics of the rise and fall of empires in history


10 thoughts on “War and Peace and War The Rise and Fall of Empires

  1. says:

    I'm a bit skeptical of Big History books primarily because the world we live in today is so radically different from the cyclical political orders that existed in the past Humans are the same but modern technology is a social variable that we are still desperately trying to wrap our heads around This is a book that tries to apply predictive logic to the rise and collapse of imperial systems reviving Ibn Khaldu

  2. says:

    This is a compelling read on world history with some interesting views Turchin develops his own theories on the rise and fall of empires especially in the pre modern period empires always developed in places near a border with another group or a state that was perceived as fundamentally different and threateni

  3. says:

    Subtitle The Rise and Fall of EmpiresSo as you may have heard me say before the books I read can mostly be divided into two types Big Idea books and Many Small Ideas books This one is a Big Idea book One might say ridiculously bigT

  4. says:

    Very interesting but as frustrating as it is challengingThe title of this book is a bit misleading it does indeed regularly deal with war and peace and with the rise and fall of imperia but actually Turchin covers a much larger field and presents two theories on the entire world history His first theory states that large empires or states have always developed in places that where near a border with another group or a

  5. says:

    In this book Turchin attempts a familiar task trying to discern laws of history In this particular case Turchin generaliz

  6. says:

    A fascinating group selectionist take on the dynamics of the rise and fall of empires in history

  7. says:

    Yet another Big History book this one really pulled out in front of the pack for me and I think it's the best one I've read so farFirst there's no better way to make me smile than with a reference to psychohistory from my favorite sci fi series of all time Turchin compares his goal of scientifying history to Asimov's famous literary conceit right there at the very beginning of the Introduction Turchin is seri

  8. says:

    I am the kind of person who is always seeking a set of abstract principles within which to contextualize my experience of events and information This characteristic has often dampened my enthusiasm for the study of history since my encounters with history books usually amount to poring over lists of occurrences with only the occasional idea or theme that ties everything together I’m also aware that my predilection f

  9. says:

    Turchin begins by referring to Hari Selden the mastermind of psychohistory in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy in describing his project a logical cause effect analysis of how where when why great empires are born their life cycle and finally their decline fall In a nutshell he finds it's all about social cohes

  10. says:

    History is a spiral it always repeat itself but each time the loop is a bit different from the previous