Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War
Turchin begins by noting the notion of ‘psychohistory’ from Asimov. He notes Asimov’s idea that the predictions of psychohistory must be concealed from the players lest such knowledge distort their behavior. I think that one refutation of the possibility of psychohistory comes from the possibility, indeed the inevitability of the development of psychohistory within the civilization whose behavior is being predicted. This leads to a sort of Gödelian contradiction to the whole notion. There is some sort of computer science theorem to the effect that in general there is no faster way to learn the outcome of a computation than actually doing it.
I await Turchin’s explanation of why new cohesive groups are most likely to appear at interfaces between civilizations.
Now, into chapter 4, some of his logic emerges. I have the same misgivings that has always discouraged me from reading history in the past. It sounds like selecting anecdotes from the past to prove your point. Perhaps there is enough time for a professional historian to study all of the historical record but still we confront the obstacle that history is written, mainly, by the winners of conflicts. I am left with observing, but perhaps not believing, the historian’s ideas.
I am also on the lookout for arguments against Braudel’s focus on everyday life. Truly politics can wipe out populations.
I enjoy Turchin’s respectful treatment of Ibn Khaldub’s concept of asabyia. This seems to amount to a visceral, as distinct from a logical, cohesion between individuals. Yet another relation between people is trust, as elaborated by Fukuyama. Trust supports quid-pro-quo and iterated transactions, whereas asabyia supports self sacrifice. (Turchin gets to trust on page 113.) Contract law is yet another institution.
The ‘public goods game’ described on page 117 is quite interesting. I had not heard of that variation. It is a useful variation on the ultimatum game with which I am familiar. I think that one can ascribe asabiya to cooperating players of the public goods game whereas only trust by each party is necessary for succeeding at the iterated prisoner’s dilemma.
On page 123 Turchin says that ‘Machiavelli was wrong’. I would say merely that Machiavelli overreached. This is a typical case of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Machiavelli’s contemporaries were wrong in the opposite direction. Actually, it depends.
People sometimes take some action which costs them a little, and which benefits a stranger by a much larger amount. I often see this in traffic behavior; some cities more than others. This is usually called politeness. I don’t know whether this is covered by the theories that Turchin mentions.
Turchin’s gedankenexperiment on page 130 suffers, I think, from a flaw that strikes many kin theories. There seems to be a presumption that an individual innately knows who his kin are. While the identity of your kin is a fact, your knowledge thereof is mostly a cultural thing! It takes no mutation to mistake a friend as kin, just crossed signals. We probably have an evolved sense of kin, but it is imperfect—probably little better than that of many animals.
I have finished chapter 5. It is very good. This is the first book I know that thoroughly mixes history and evolution and this is done well. I quibble with the chapter title, “The Myth of Self-Interest”, but with little of the chapter content. He connects evolution notions to his historical ideas both in the sense of human evolution as it produces human nature, and evolution of culture and its bearing on history. I expect others to pursue this combination of disciplines.
I am into chapter 8. I am struck that all of the reported interactions between major groupings are hostile. Does Turchin suggest that these are the only important ones, or the only ones.
I am impressed with Turchin’s integration of evolutionary theory and historical scholarship. I am less impressed with his math and physics connections. I can’t see that it leads him astray however, until perhaps his characterization about parsimony of ‘good scientific theories’. Rome may have fallen for some combination of reasons and a ‘historical theory’ that bends to parsimony may end up being just wrong. Einstein said: A theory must not be too simple. Parsimony is good when held in check by observations.
I think that Turchin’s appeal to Chaos theory is valid but I would modify his argument a bit. Newton’s simple laws lead to chaotic behavior in systems vastly simpler than human systems. One must therefore not argue that chaos is nonsense.