Book review: Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall by Peter Turchin.
Turchin uses the tools and perspective of population biology to model some important aspects of the growth and collapse of empires. The relatively dry and mathematical style of the book makes it slow reading, but it leaves less ambiguity than most books about history. He has no obvious political biases – it often seems that his main bias is a preference for the tools of biologists over the tools of historians.
One important aspect of his approach is that it models the dynamics of a feature that is roughly described by terms such as solidarity, trust, and cooperation. He convinced me that he has described some of the influences that cause that feature to increase and decrease (the section title “Frontiers as incubators of group solidarity” says a good deal about his model).
Some aspects of the book left me wondering whether his eccentric worldview added anything to my understanding of history, but occasionally he comes up with ideas that have implications that are clearly new to me, such as his suggestion that monogamy can help an empire continue it’s expansion for a longer time.
He makes some serious attempts to test his models against the available data. It’s hard to tell whether enough data is available to adequately test such ambitious claims.
The biggest limitation of the book is that he assumes Malthusian conditions. While it is likely that some of his analysis applies to the industrial world, he thinks it’s premature to ask how much of it applies today. That means it ought to be of interest mainly to historians for now.