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Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall (Princeton Studies in Complexity)

4.5 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691116693
ISBN-10: 0691116695
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Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

"An important, original, and timely book--richly detailed and beautifully thought out."--Jack A. Goldstone, University of California, Davis

"This book is clearly the state of the art in formal modeling and computer simulation of long-term historical changes in territorial states. Elegantly formulated and clearly written, it takes an important topic to a new level of formal sophistication."--Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania

From the Back Cover

"An important, original, and timely book--richly detailed and beautifully thought out."--Jack A. Goldstone, University of California, Davis

"This book is clearly the state of the art in formal modeling and computer simulation of long-term historical changes in territorial states. Elegantly formulated and clearly written, it takes an important topic to a new level of formal sophistication."--Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania

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Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Studies in Complexity
  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 19, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691116695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691116693
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,275,575 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I remember that some years ago when I discovered
"Looking at History through Mathematics" by Nicolas Rashevsky
(published in 1968 by the MIT Press)
I was at first enthralled by the title but then fairly
disappointed by the book itself for in fact it contains very
little history: no solid statistical data, not even
qualitative historical trends that would illustrate some
of the theoretical curves. Instead of focusing on sharply
defined questions, Rashevsky raises broad issues such as for
instance (on p. 9 and 117)
why it took 10,000 years rather than a few hundred
for humanity to develop from its cultural state at the
beginning of early urban civilization to its present state.
This former experience explains why I read Peter Turchin's book
with so much pleasure. What a contrast indeed! In
every section stimulating models are blended with quantitative
historical data drawn from the best sources. From the rise of
Islam to the growth of the Mormon Church to Chinese dynastic
cycles "Historical Dynamics" offers a fascinating sample
of sharply defined problems for which models are able to provide
unified understanding.
Finally, I would like to express a wish or a hope.
It would be really great
if this book would attract the attention of a sample
of historians willing to collect additional field data on
the issues that are raised in the book. For instance,
regarding the growth of religious communities, there are
literally hundreds of cases which could be considered, from the
spread of Lutheranism or Calvinism to the growth of the
Amish, Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses and many other
religious movements.
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Format: Hardcover
Peter Turchin is a highly respected evolutionary biologist who has specialized in the synthesis of theory and empirical data (see his book Complex Population Dynamics for his work in that area). He has now turned the skills he honed explaining animal societies to human societies, and particularly to explaining the rise and fall of empires. In broad terms I would describe his approach as Malthus meets Marx meets social constructionism meets evolutionary game theory. While his model is strictly applicable only to agrarian empires, his explanations of phenomena such rising income equality, intra-elite conflict, and even increased demand for university admissions, resonate so strongly with modern society that it is clear that a modified version of his model will go a long way towards explaining our current political and economic circumstances. There are few aspects of his work that are individually wholly new; Turchin's contribution is a rigorous synthesis of historical case-studies with evolutionary theory and quantitative empirical evidence. His work has the potential to transform our understanding of "macro" social issues in the same way that behavioral economics has transformed our understanding of decision making at the "micro" level. I'll go out on a limb and predict that Turchin will eventually win a Nobel prize in economics.

I'll provide a quick overview of Turchin's work, but this synopsis doesn't do it justice; if you find my overview implausible, please read his books for yourself.

How groups manage to escape the prisoners' dilemma and cooperate is a central question of evolutionary biology.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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