A Uniformitarian Perspective on Explanations of Historical Change

Foreshortening in Time: Seeing History in Perspective

There are times when, in retrospect, things seemed to have changed very rapidly. One might think of this as the equivalent of catastrophism in human history. This apparent rapidity of historical change is sometimes due to the “foreshortening” effect of viewing events in the past from the perspective of the present, such that their scale is altered as the objects in a painting must be foreshortened in order to present the correct perspective to the viewer.

The apparent rapidity of some historical change, however, cannot all be explained away by foreshortening. Sometimes historians take it upon themselves to try to describe and explain the forces that drive rapid historical change. These explanations are not always entirely satisfying. For example, one way to explain rapid historical change is to assert that something “special” happened, but this is a violation of what I call Copernican historiography. Given such dissatisfaction as can be experienced in regard to explanations of historical change, I am going to try to explain a source of apparent rapid historical change that partially accounts for dissatisfactions with more conventional explanations of change.

The Present is Key to the Past

In order to discuss the aspect of historical change I would like to address, I need to first discuss uniformitarianism, which is an idea more familiar in the natural sciences, and especially in geology, than in the social sciences. Uniformitarianism has been expressed in the aphorism, “The present is key to the past.” This means that, in order to understand the past, we should try to understand events and processes in the present, assuming that the processes occurring and the natural laws by which these processes occur that we find in the present, will also have been operative in the past.

For example, if we notice erosion at the edge of a stream, where the water runs along the bank, we can assume that this erosion has occurred in the past as well. We can further determine that the flow of water along the longer, outside curve is faster and causes more erosion than the slower water along the shorter, inside curve, and by this means we can begin to explain riparian meanders and oxbow lakes.

Unformitarianism and the Oklo Bound

Of course, if we get into the details of uniformitarianism it gets a bit more complex, as we can distinguish many different forms of uniformitarianism, including uniformity of (natural) law, of methodology, of kind, of degree, of state, and so forth. Uniformitarianism is not one, but many. Today we have largely abandoned uniformity of state because we have puzzled out the nature histories of things and know that they have differed in state over time, but we continue to employ uniformity of law.

Uniformity of law — that the same natural laws that shape the world today also shaped the world in the past — has been pushed back at least to what Freeman Dyson has called the “Oklo bound,” named after the naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactor that operated about two billion years ago in what is now Gabon (cf. The Oklo bound on the time variation of the fine-structure constant by Thibault Damour and Freeman Dyson). If the same natural laws can be shown to have operated over a period of two billion years, that is a high degree of stability and a reasonable basis for uniformity of law.

The Present is also Key to the Future

Uniformitarianism is almost exclusively discussed in terms of the applicability of present laws to conditions in the past, but I would like to suggest that uniformitarianism is equally valid when projected into the future, so that we can say that the present is key to the future. There are all kinds of deep philosophical problems involved in this claim — students of the riddle of induction will immediately cite Hume — but I am going to sidestep these problems for the moment, and assume that these problems can be contained in the future as they have been (reasonably well) contained in regard to the past.

We need not speak in terms of absolutes — the Oklo bound isn’t an absolute, but a two billion year parameter — in order to be able to apply laws presently understood about the universe to the far future. It is in this respect that we assert that our sun will eventually expand into a red giant star, go nova, and then settle down into a white dwarf, and it is on this basis that we predict that the gravitationally bound Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies will collide in some billions of years and form a single larger galaxy from these two predecessor galaxies. This is as much as to say that the application of uniformitarianism to the future is already familiar to us, even if we do not call it by this name.

Extrapolating Social Science

When we come to the processes of social history we are not as certain in extrapolating our scientific knowledge, as the social sciences do not seem to be on quite the same scientific basis as the natural sciences. This is partly a result of the greater difficulties presented by the social sciences — the emergent complexities of mind and social relationships are quite simply far more complex than the underlying complexities of particles, atoms, molecules, elements, stars, and planets — and we may expect that as the social sciences reach a higher degree of precision and formalization that they will, in the future, more closely approximate the natural sciences.

Nevertheless, if we consult our personal experience I think that we can come up with numerous examples of how life today must be like life in the past, and is likely to be like life in the future. For example, we might not be able to reduce it to an equation (yet), but we all know how rumors spread, that when rumors spread it can have social consequences, and that these consequences can be difficult to mitigate, despite any amount of verifiable empirical evidence to the contrary of the rumor.

Formal and Informal Communication

The argument I would like to make in relation to rapid social change relies, in part, something much like rumor. Rumor is a species of the genera of informal communication. An official communication passed by the ambassador of one nation-state to the ambassador of another nation-state is a species of formal communication. But when an ambassador whispers into the ear of his staff, this is unofficial communication, which I would prefer to call informal communication.

I will posit, without arguing, that formal communication is like the tip on an iceberg that juts up out of the sea, and it rests upon a far larger bulk of informal communication. Rumor and diplomatic whispers are informal communication, and there is much more informal communication than formal communication such as diplomatic pouches, newspaper headlines, and letters sent by certified mail.

Effacement of the Informal Record

Often when we look at history, what we see is the explicit, official, and formal proclamations, and we do not see the informal communication that underlies the formal communication. Often this effacement of the informal is intentional. People sometimes purposefully hide their secrets so that these secrets never make it into the historical record, but only the events of their life that they wish to make public eventually find their way into the formal record of civilization. The explanation of apparently rapid change, then, which is not actually as rapid as it appears to be, is that existing social institutions continue to engage in formal communication that supports the narrative of institutions that are nearly defunct, but which continue to pass along official communication.

We know that his happens all the time. Old and established institutions have social capital and actual financial capital and social inertia behind them, so they just keep doing what they are doing as long as they are capable of doing so. This modus operandi often continues long after the institution has lost touch with the actual day-to-day lives of people in a society that the institution nominally represents.

The “Double Down” Response

We can see this process today in many ways, and the internet has made it visible today in ways that were not previously available. Institutions of civil society like newspapers once controlled the narrative of democratic nation-states, by exercising a limited (not absolute) control over public opinion. Newspapers have been the gatekeepers of public opinion. But now the newspapers are dying. There are flagship enterprises like the New York Times and the Washington Post that will almost certainly continue publishing, but the advent of the internet has change all this. These flagship institutions of an age that is passing before our very eyes have a lot of money and social credibility and institutional inertia, but they have lost control of the narrative of civil society.

How have flagship institutions responded to their declining social role? By doubling down on a failed narrative. I suspect that this happened often in the past: a failing institution doubled down on its narrative in hopes of nipping social change in the bud. Sometimes this was (partially) successful. After the Protestant Reformation was well under way, the Catholic church doubled down on its narrative at the Council of Trent, and this was largely successful in containing the spread of Protestantism. But the Catholic church has not since regained the stature and the power that it possessed during the European Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation. (This could still change, but I do not think it likely.)

Formal and Informal Idea Diffusion

In retrospect, we can see in late medieval history that the Catholic church was already losing its preeminent place in society. The rise of a wealthy merchant class, the opening of the Americas to emigration and trade, the use of the printing press to disseminate new ideas, as well as dozens of other developments were already compromising the unilateral power of the Catholic church to dictate the conditions of society, but the Protestant Reformation seems to have emerged suddenly and to have advanced rapidly.

What I am saying here is that the formal proclamations of Protestantism, like Luther’s 95 Theses, rested on a much large body of discontent expressed by informal communication, and that this process began much earlier than Luther nailing his theses of the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

Internet Samizdat

These kinds of historical processes can be projected into the future as well, and we can see the beginnings of this kind of change already. The social contract among elite members of our society (a social contract that has largely excluded the people in whose name it is propounded) — the wealthy, the owners and editors of newspapers, elected representatives, and the captains of industry — which maintained more-or-less the same social narrative across newspapers, magazines, books, political speeches, sermons, and workplace policies, is breaking down under the influence of internet-enabled communication, much as the Soviet system was accelerated in its breakdown by typewriters, mimeograph machines, photocopiers, and faxes.

In the unbridled comments sections of internet articles and videos, we get the unfiltered informal communication that was once lost because no means were possessed that could record it. And when the large media companies delete comments that are unfavorable to the dominant social narrative, others have often saved them and have made them available through some other means.

Can any social narrative survive the internet?

We know from social science research that it is often sufficient for a single person to interrupt some ritualistic proceeding in order to disrupt the narrative being communicated by that ritual and to make others question their participation in ritualistic formal communication. This, too, has often occurred in the past, but its influence was contained by those immediately present. Now this process is taking place on a social scale, and it remains to be seen if any social narrative can be maintained under these conditions.

What can be said, at very least, is that this process will continue into the future. The slow erosion of contemporary social institutions, formed prior to the advent of the internet, may at some point overflow in an apparently sudden abandonment of the existing social paradigm, but this time we will have a better record of the informal social communication that preceded the awareness of change on the part of “normies.”

Originally published at geopolicraticus.tumblr.com.