Math explains history: Simulation accurately captures the evolution of ancient complex societies

Sep 23, 2013
Math explains history: Simulation accurately captures the evolution of ancient complex societies
These are Mongol horsemen. Intense warfare is the evolutionary driver of large complex societies, according to a new mathematical model whose findings accurately match those of the historical record in the ancient world.

The question of how human societies evolve from small groups to the huge, anonymous and complex societies of today has been answered mathematically, accurately matching the historical record on the emergence of complex states in the ancient world.

Intense warfare is the evolutionary driver of large complex societies, according to new research from a trans-disciplinary team at the University of Connecticut, the University of Exeter in England, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS). The study appears this week as an open-access article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study's cultural predicts where and when the largest-scale complex societies arose in human history.

Simulated within a realistic landscape of the Afro-Eurasian during 1,500 BCE to 1,500 CE, the mathematical model was tested against the historical record. During the time period, horse-related military innovations, such as chariots and cavalry, dominated warfare within Afro-Eurasia. Geography also mattered, as nomads living in the Eurasian Steppe influenced nearby agrarian societies, thereby spreading intense forms of offensive warfare out from the steppe belt.

The study focuses on the interaction of ecology and geography as well as the spread of military innovations and predicts that selection for ultra- that allow for cooperation in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals and large-scale complex states, is greater where warfare is more intense.

While existing theories on why there is so much variation in the ability of different to construct viable states are usually formulated verbally, by contrast, the authors' work leads to sharply defined quantitative predictions, which can be tested empirically.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
The animation shows how the distributions of large-scale polities in the mathematical simulation are remarkably similar to the historical record for each time slice over the period 1,500 BCE to 1,500 CE. Credit: Turchin P, Currie T, Turner E, Gavrilets S

The model-predicted spread of large-scale societies was very similar to the observed one; the model was able to explain two-thirds of the variation in determining the rise of large-scale societies.

"What's so exciting about this area of research is that instead of just telling stories or describing what occurred, we can now explain general historical patterns with quantitative accuracy. Explaining historical events helps us better understand the present, and ultimately may help us predict the future," said the study's co-author Sergey Gavrilets, NIMBioS director for scientific activities.

Explore further: Scientific societies face 'modern challenges'

More information: Turchin P, Currie T, Turner E, Gavrilets S. 2013. War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies. PNAS. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1308825110

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User comments : 13

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Neinsense99
2.8 / 5 (20) Sep 23, 2013
That's no Mongol attack! That's an actual photo of a denialist horde descending upon a climate science article spotted by their scouts.
210
1 / 5 (12) Sep 23, 2013
Hummm, we grew from simple family based groups, to larger extended families, got into fights with other 'relatives' who had moved away a generation ago...remerged gene pools (relatives we enslaved after all the killing was done) with modest differences(new infections from the slave biosphere-mostly) at tribal speeds. The human race was tribal for the vast majority of the last 4 million years.

Tis MAY have been seen as a 'complex' undertaking but a desktop PC, at best a souped-up gamer box, should have been able to crunch these numbers in a five day period.

The big question is, do we make it to the end of the 1500AD to 3000AD time frame??
Any prediction there?

Word to ya muthas-
Dunbar
2.2 / 5 (14) Sep 23, 2013
This kind of stupidity gives mathematics a bad name.
ubavontuba
2.3 / 5 (16) Sep 23, 2013
This would be cool, if it holds up. It reminds me of Isaac Asimov's "Psychohistory" in the "Foundation" series (a then fictional science concerning the mathematical interpretation of history, and social prediction).

http://en.wikiped...ctional)

Isaac Asimov would be giddy with delight.

Shabs42
4 / 5 (4) Sep 23, 2013
This would be cool, if it holds up. It reminds me of Isaac Asimov's "Psychohistory" in the "Foundation" series (a then fictional science concerning the mathematical interpretation of history, and social prediction).

http://en.wikiped...ctional)

Isaac Asimov would be giddy with delight.



I was just about to say this sounds like the beginnings of psychohistory...
Veneficus
2.5 / 5 (13) Sep 24, 2013
Did I miss something? The simulation almost exclusively shows expansion, where the real world also experienced (large) declines in empires. The simulation only seems to take into account a starting point and consequent expansion over inhabitable land over time. That's not a simulation of complex society...
Captain Stumpy
1.7 / 5 (11) Sep 24, 2013
"Foundation" reference... one of the few fiction books I own...

seems to me that even if the math model was 100% accurate about the past, wouldn't its real test be in its ability for prediction?

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2013
if the math model was 100% accurate about the past, wouldn't its real test be in its ability for prediction?

If it were 100% accurate: yes.

The problem with quantitative history* is that it's not 100% accurate and also that there are unique events that cannot be foreseen (e.g. natural disasters). Additionally we do have climate data for the past, which plays into how societies spread (or are forced to move). For the future we have models. But those aren't as reliable as past data.

Then there's the "psychology" aspect. If you know how you're being analyzed/predicted then that will change your behavior (something that Asimov got correct in his novels, BTW.).

Isaac Asimov would be giddy with delight.

The idea of quantitative history isn't new (and Asimov didn't invent it). It's been known (and even applied) since Marx. (and known probably way before that).

*Let's leave the term 'psychohistory' for the novels.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3 / 5 (2) Sep 24, 2013
They are no Hari Seldons: since the main factor incorporated in the model is warfare, the only supported factor will be warfare.

Browsing their model, it is obvious they didn't include archaeological factors like outbreeding by migrated, more productive cultures, diseases/immune factors of migrations, et cetera.

It is a start of research akin to climate research. But they wanted to find warfare important and therefore they skewed their model so it was.
hemitite
1 / 5 (7) Sep 24, 2013
How about doing away with the silly "BCE - CE" thing and just going to "BPC - PC". Year 1 in this new reference would be the current 1975, so we are now living in the year 38 PC.
210
1 / 5 (11) Sep 25, 2013
Did I miss something? The simulation almost exclusively shows expansion, where the real world also experienced (large) declines in empires. The simulation only seems to take into account a starting point and consequent expansion over inhabitable land over time. That's not a simulation of complex society...

It should have shown, in my humble opinion, very gradual increase, like interest on money while the principal is small. Then almost exponential growth in a region. Followed by large plateaus that have very modest increase, explosive growth, plateau again, growth, etc. If they had continued, they should have even been able to show the effect of the Chinese 'one child' policy as well as China's sex-selective destruction of female unborn. This would have then shown us the effect(predictive) of over 110 Million men who have no female mates at a time when the Chinese wish to be consumers (The next 30 years) War, based on the price of rice? They needed to have kept going!
word
210
1 / 5 (11) Sep 25, 2013
They are no Hari Seldons: since the main factor incorporated in the model is warfare, the only supported factor will be warfare.

Browsing their model, it is obvious they didn't include archaeological factors like outbreeding by migrated, more productive cultures, diseases/immune factors of migrations, et cetera.

It is a start of research akin to climate research. But they wanted to find warfare important and therefore they skewed their model so it was.

They may have noticed that disease, drought and famine are NO MATCH for humanity's ability to kill large numbers in a geological-time equivalent of a millisecond.Even the Black Death nor the differing Flu Pandemics killed as many as the most immediately following warfare in any region over the same time-period as the last epidemic, whatever it was. They also did not account for twins and triplets, for example.Unless a population ALWAYS makes twins when mating occurs, mortality more than balances it out; Hence more baby boys
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (8) Sep 25, 2013
Psycho-history was a fraud in The Foundation.

"intense competition between societies"
The abstract state 'societies', not the govts that the wars.
Govts emerged from societies by violence. A gang and its leader discovered it was easier to plunder than to work for a living.
Alexander demanded tribute from minor gangs or they were destroyed. No different than an organized crime boss demanding protection money or he will destroy your business.
Instead of 'societies', the authors should use govts lead by monopolistic force.
" state-building and suggest a possible explanation why a long history of statehood is positively correlated with political stability, institutional quality, and income per capita. "
A better phrase would be a govt with the force to protect the society from violence from other plunders had a better opportunity to grow.
And when such a govt recognized its power should be limited and derived from society, prosperity exploded.