Many complex systems have long histories. Whether we’re looking at the stars in the universe or the citizens in a city, one of the chief challenges for scientists who study these systems is to determine to what extent the patterns they observe result from historical accidents vs. contemporary forces.

Accidents of the past play an outsized role in what we, at SFI, regard as the historical sciences — archaeology, astronomy, geology, paleontology, and certain aspects of evolutionary biology. Unlike physics and chemistry, for example, which can be practiced in the isolation of the present, a historical science like paleontology deals with patterns contingent on past events. Sea urchins, according to SFI External Professor Doug Erwin, provide an excellent example:

“Some 270 million years ago, there were about seven different genera of sea urchins, but only one or two species survived the great end-Permain mass extinction 252 million years ago,” he writes. Though all seven species had evolved their spines, hard shells, and tube feet under the regular rules of natural selection, a calamitous event dictated which genera survived to populate the world with “this now very diverse and abundant group.”

When it comes to human history, with its empires, odysseys, and revolutions, we believe that scientists have much to offer traditional historians — and vice-versa. Though these two groups deal in different methods and lack a common language for investigation, they pursue the same objective of understanding change over time.

“The science of complexity and its many tributary fields and concepts pioneered at Santa Fe,” writes SFI President David Krakauer, “may provide new methods, or minimally metaphors, by which to capture what SFI co-founder Murray Gell-Mann has called ‘a crude look at the whole.’” More specifically, “how apparently complex histories and patterns can sometimes be organized using simple models of growth and scaling.”

Our scientists are applying quantitative techniques from non-linear dynamics, statistical physics, and evolutionary biology to find emergent patterns in historical events — from patterns of violence in wars and armed conflict to the rise of agriculture and inequality. Scientists in our Cities, Scaling, and Sustainability and Social Reactors projects are digging up universal similarities in growth and innovation within human settlements, from Neolithic villages to modern cities. Members of our program on Law, History, and Regulation, and our Humanities Analytics faculty are using legal texts as datasets for investigating the “operating systems” of societies. And, armed with large archaeological databanks from the Seshat project, we are applying quantitative and computational techniques to investigate questions such as how information influenced the rise of early states; and whether it is possible to tease apart the causal influence of great leaders, big ideas, and impersonal trends in history.

As we use techniques from the science of complex systems to probe the patterns of human history, we keep in mind Leo Tolstoy’s warning, which was relayed to us by historian John Lewis Gaddis of Yale: that those who overcommit to theory “…are like plasters assigned to plaster one side of a church wall, who, in the foreman’s absence, in a fit of zeal smear their plaster all over the windows, the icons, the scaffolding, and the as yet unreinforced walls, and rejoice at how, from their plastering point of view, everything comes out flat and smooth.”

We proceed nonetheless, and with caution, because we believe (like Gaddis and Tolstoy) that history is too important to be left exclusively to qualitative, text-based methods.


Further reading

History, Big History, & Metahistory
David C. Krakauer, John Lewis Gaddis, Kenneth Pomeranz (SFI Press, 2017)

A collection of essays about science and the study of history at different scales. Initiated during a series of working groups at the Santa Fe Institute.

Trends and fluctuations in the severity of interstate wars
Aaron Clauset
Science Advances Vol. 4, no. 2  2018

An analysis of the frequency of and size of past interstate wars, that calculates the likelihood of another world war occurring in the next 100 years.

Scaling theory of armed conflict avalanches
Edward D. Lee, Bryan C. Daniels, Christopher R. Meyers, David C. Krakauer, Jessica C. Flack
Physical Review E 102, 042312 2020

An analysis of armed conflict in Africa that describes how violent interactions grow and spread over time and space.

Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in Ancient Society
Scott G. Ortman, Andrew H.F. Cabaniss, Jennie O. Sturm, Luis M.A. Bettencourt
Science Advances Vol. 1, no. 1  2015

A study of archaeological data from ancient human settlements in Mexico showing similar urban scaling laws to modern cities.

Computational History of Knowledge: Challenges and Opportunities
Manfred D. Laubichler, Jane Maienschien, Jürgen Renn
Isis Vol. 110, no. 3  2019

A special issue of the journal for the History of Science Society, which takes stock of history's computational turn.

Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies
Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Samuel Bowles, Tom Hertz, Adrian Bell, Jan Beise, Greg Clark, Ila Fazzio, Michael Gurven, Kim Hill9, Paul L. Hooper, William Irons, Hillard Kaplan, Donna Leonetti, Bobbi Low, Frank Marlowe, Richard McElreath, Suresh Naidu, David Nolin, Patrizio Piraino, Rob Quinlan, Eric Schniter, Rebecca Sear, Mary Shenk, Eric Alden Smith, Christopher von Rueden, Polly Wiessner
Science Vol. 326 no. 5953 2009

An explanation of variation in inequality in small-scale human societies using a dynamic model based on intergenerational wealth transfer. 

Scale and information-processing thresholds in Holocene social evolution
Jaeweon Shin, Michael Holton Price, David H. Wolpert, Hajime Shimao, Brendan Tracey, Timothy A. Kohler 
Nature Communications Vol. 11 no. 2394 2020

This paper uses the Seshat database to investigate the development of hundreds of polities, from multiple continents, over thousands of years.

The civilizing process in London’s Old Bailey
Sara Klingenstein, Tim Hitchcock, and Simon DeDeo
PNAS Vol. 111 no. 26 2014

This analysis of 150 years of spoken-word testimony in the English criminal justice system provides new insight into the emergence of new bureaucratic and social mechanisms for the management and control of violence.

The cultural evolution of national constitutions
Daniel N. Rockmore, Chen Fang, Nicholas J. Foti, Tom Ginsburg, David C. Krakauer
Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology Vol. 69 no. 3 2018

An exploration of how ideas from infectious disease and genetics can be used to uncover patterns of cultural inheritance and innovation in a corpus of 591 national constitutions spanning 1789–2008.

Law as Data
Michael A. Livermore and Daniel N. Rockmore (SFI Press, 2019)

An edited multi-author volume that explores the new field of computational legal analysis, an approach marked by its use of legal texts as data.