Exploring patterns in history

Read these extraordinary books uncovering surprising patterns in the rise and fall of civilisations throughout history

With thanks to chiro on unsplash

If you’re interested in understanding patterns in history, rather than accounts of individual historical events, I highly recommend any or all of the following authors and books.

“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” — Winston Churchill

Critical review of The Rise of Western Power

Critical review of Why The West Rules

Lecture given at at Texas Tech University on March 27, 2013

The aim of “Pattern & Repertoire in History” is to analyze clusters of similar “elementary” occurrences that serve as the building blocks of more global events. Making connections between seemingly unrelated case studies, Roehner and Syme apply scientific methodology to the analysis of history. Their book identifies the recurring patterns of behavior that shape the histories of different countries separated by vast stretches of time and space. Taking advantage of a broad wealth of historical evidence, the authors decipher what may be seen as a kind of genetic code of history.

Patterns of Culture in History by Sidney Ratner. Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association.

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist and one of the founders of the new field of historical social science, Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Turchin is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, Research Associate in the School of Anthropology at the University of Oxford, and Vice President of the Evolution Institute.

Turchin has five books developing his Cliodynamics approach. “War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations” is the popular introduction. It describes the approach without any math or equations, and applies it to a range of historical empires. This is the place to start for a general introduction, particularly if you are not mathematically inclined. However, it is not formally rigorous and will not convince you if you are sceptical.

“Secular Cycles” (with Sergey Nefedov) supports the theory with quantitative empirical data. It applies the model to two cycles in each of England, France, Rome and Russia. This is the book to read if you are comfortable with numbers and need to be convinced by empirical evidence.

“Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall” provides the theoretical framework, discussing, for example, why an explanation of cyclical dynamics requires a feedback loop. It is quite mathematical, and while you don’t have to work your way through all the equations, you should be comfortable with mathematical models generally. Turchin’s model was inspired by Jack A Goldstone, “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.” This is also an excellent book. It is written in a more traditional historical style; the model is informal, rather than formal, and the argument is supported by historical analysis of particular revolutions, rather than by quantitative data. In these respects it is similar to “War and Peace and War,” though it is substantially longer. If you are looking for an extended analysis in a more traditional style of social history, this a great book.

The thesis of “Ultrasociety” is simple: over the course of human evolution, we humans have become the most cooperative species on the planet, outpacing our nearest rivals, the more numerous and highly cooperative ants. The surprising difference is that humans go to war.

“Ages of Discord” opens and closes with the same figure: the front cover and the last page show a graph of two variables called “Well-Being Index” and “Political Stability Index”, with the x-axis showing the years from 1780 to 2020. But what seems like more of an opinion, not much more objective than a Venn Diagram joke, turns out by the end of the book to be backed up with quite a lot of data and mathematics.

Iain McGilchrist

Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and writer who works privately in London, and otherwise lives on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of North West Scotland. He is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise — the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is moulded by, our minds and brains.

He was a late entrant to medicine. He went up to Oxford to study theology and philosophy, read English literature, and after graduating in 1975 was awarded a Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford. An interest in the mind-body problem led to him training in medicine, and at Johns Hopkins in 1992 he researched in neuroimaging. He practises as a psychiatrist, formerly as a Consultant at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Trust in London, and now privately.

McGilchrist’s book has little to do with history, although he does discuss the characteristics of societies dominated by left and right-brain thinking. It was reading this book which provided the penny-dropping moment that led me to question whether left and right-brained societies could be tracked though history.

The thesis in “The Master and his Emissary” is simple: the right hemisphere of the brain (the “Master” of his title) provides our primary connection to the world — to whatever is outside ourselves; the left hemisphere is its Emissary, breaking wholes into parts, analyzing and abstracting, devising categories, names and theories, then returning the results of its investigations to the right brain to be integrated into lived experience. A deeply profound book that will convince the most ardent of sceptics about the differences between left and right-brained thinking.

C.P. Snow

Charles Percy Snow was an English physical chemist and novelist who also served in several important positions in the British Civil Service and briefly in the UK government. His life straddled “the two cultures,” the scientific and the “classical” one, and thus he was in an ideal position to expound on the subject, which he did in 1959, in the “Rede Lecture” series. His controversial lecture lamented the gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals. Reading this book, with the benefit of historical hindsight, further cemented the views formed after reading “The Master and his Emissary.”


Project 2030

You made it to the end! If you’re interested in helping us solve some of the planet’s grand challenges with our ambitious Project 2030, please check out the overview, and invite others to do the same.

Postcards from 2035

Have you come across Postcards from 2035? It’s a series of profoundly simple interlinking ideas describing life in a highly desirable society, where everything and everyone is advanced, happy, intelligent and problem-free. It’s a blueprint of the world we need to co-create. Here’s what that world could look like.