Image by Gabriel Garcia

Researchers at SFI are teaming up with Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history, to construct a new field that seeks to transform the study of historical events and trends into a formal and (largely) quantifiable science. They call the field cliodynamics.

Historians ordinarily study history as a chain of idiosyncratic events, with each event a unique response to unique circumstances. Cliodynami- cists, on the other hand, seek to understand history as a science, with different circumstances being driven by common, universal forces. They search out the patterns that lie underneath the apparent chaos.

A new journal, Cliodynamics, was launched this year, edited by Peter Turchin, a former visiting professor at SFI, and professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and mathematics at Duke University.

History is a late-comer to the scientific perspective, according to Turchin. “In order to do history, you have to understand anthropology, ecology, political science, economics,” he says, “so it almost has to be the last social science to become mathematized.”

The tools of complexity science are now beginning to make the task tractable, he says. Researchers are applying mathematical and computational techniques like agent-based models, power law relations, and more classical differential-equation models to understand and predict the outcome of historical events.

The second issue of the journal published recently, a special edition titled “History, Big History and Metahistory,” was edited by SFI Professor and outgoing Faculty Chair David Krakauer, John Gaddis (Yale), and Ken Pomeranz (UC Irvine). It is rife with contributions from SFI researchers: 

  • Incoming Faculty Chair Doug Erwin explores how paleontologists deal with the vagaries of preservation and how statistical techniques developed in biology have been applied to textual evidence.

  • Distinguished Fellow Murray Gell-Mann illustrates how apparently complex histories and patterns can sometimes be organized using simple models of growth and scaling.

  • David Krakauer shows how history often uses analogs of concepts and tools expressed quantitatively in the natural sciences and introduces concepts from non-linear dynamics, statistical physics, and evolutionary biology that he believes should be useful to students of history.

  • Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West argues that historians have had trouble finding common patterns because they have focused on individuals; studying collective phenomena, such as urban systems, might lead to surprising new discoveries.

    The issue will be published as an e-book by SFI Press.

    “A historical chronicle is like a random sequence, with very high complexity,” David says. “But if there’s a pattern, you can dispense with details and give a more parsimonious description. This parsimonious description can help reveal the general principles of historical dynamics as they apply across fields.”