This week, Laura Spinney covers recent developments in the use of big data in history, the potential it has for illuminating the present, and for helping us prepare for the future. The online reaction from at least some of the history, archaeology, and social science community, has been visceral. Spinney simply ran headlong into the wall of the human exceptionalist and historical particularist ideological complex of the Western social sciences and humanities.

Historian Mateusz Fafinski encapsulates the critique: “Humans, contrary to what some may think, are not beetles. That’s all that needs to be said about this piece”. Still, allow me to say a bit more, and please see the counterpoint by Iza Romanovska.

Overall, the article does a good job of articulating the difficult idea of complexity in history. Events that seem unexceptional can be triggers for massive change. Similar system states generate similar and comparable patterns of change. Like ecological predator-prey dynamics, human history moves in cycles.

The first two statements, while likely to occasion discomfort in polite society, probably would merely have called for a muted, if dismissive response. The third, even if Spinney hadn’t hitched her wagon to Peter Turchin’s peculiarly combative form of demagogic scholarship, was sure to cause a public riot. It duly did.

Human exceptionalism

Despite the weakening influence of theist accounts of history in western science over the past couple of centuries, much of the humanities and social sciences, and much of western society I would say, still live with a very deeply embedded assumption that humans are fundamentally and qualitatively different from the rest of nature. Humans are separate and absolutely unlike animals, plants, rocks, air, and anything else that is defined as making up the natural world. The enlightenment replaced an exceptionalism based on divine will with an exceptionalism rooted in freedom and indeterminacy, but it didn’t subject us to the processes that rule the rest of the world.

It follows that the tools and approaches we use to study beetles, rocks, and the rest of nature, according to this view, are utterly unsuited to the study of humans. Humans, are an external force in an ecological model. They aren’t supposed to be its subject.

Historical particularism

A closely associated view is that social and historical phenomena are unique and incommensurable. The rise of nation states in Europe and the spread of agriculture in the Americas, for example, are both interesting and worth studying in their own right, but studying one cannot help us understand the other.

On the one hand, we have this combination of human exceptionalism with historical particularism. On the other, there is the opposite combination of the view that humans and their societies are natural phenomena, along with the view that cases are comparable and can inform each other.

There is nothing necessary about these combinations, but they dominate a very bimodal Western intellectual landscape. Very few people, I think, ever argue that humans can’t be studied like beetles and that individual historical phenomena are comparable, or that humans can be studied like beetles and that historical phenomena are not comparable. They could make those arguments. They just don’t.

Echoes of an old critique

These intellectual complexes run very deep. Back in 1920, Franz Boas, the founder of modern cultural anthropology and patron saint of particularism, responding to social evolutionist accounts of historical phenomena, wrote that “…the ultimate questions are as near to our hearts as they are to those of other scholars, only we do not hope to be able to solve an intricate historical problem by a formula”.

In other words, he was saying, we shouldn’t confuse human exceptionalism for a lack of interest in explanation, and we shouldn’t assume that particularism rules out understanding. But, to put it in modern terms, he also argued that natural systems modeling was not the way to understand humans and their societies.  The elements of the debate were already old to Boas and his contemporaries (not to mention the saga of the poor, abused verstehen), and the positions have not shifted since.

His is a more nuanced, less visceral critique than that raging on Twitter over the past few hours, but still one with which I disagree. At the very least, I wonder whether we and our societies might not be part of the world in the same way that ants and quartz crystals are. It is the humble thing to do, and the uniformitarian thing as well. It needs testing.

While I very much want to believe that our history, individual and collective, is the result of our actions and decisions, I am hesitant to completely dismiss the possibility that our intentions fuel, but do not direct outcomes, and that systemic forces dominate historical process. I am willing to imagine that we can be analyzed and understood, perhaps even by ourselves.

9 thoughts on “Understanding the visceral reaction to Laura’s Spinney’s History as a giant data set

  1. Did you get the negations confused when you said, “Very few people, I think, ever argue that humans can be studied like beetles and that individual historical phenomena are comparable, or that humans can’t be studied like beetles and that historical phenomena are not comparable”?

    In any case, as an amateur in these matters, I think about them under the guidance of R.G. Collingwood, whom you may know at least as an archeologist.

    We can take a zoologist’s or biologist’s approach to humanity; it may tell us something, but not about being, say, a mathematician such as myself, or any kind of scientist, in the sense of a systemic seeker of truth. The scientist does not observe the truth (as if it were a flock of birds or a chemical reaction), but produces it; it is detected only by thinking.

    I take up such matters in my own blog, Polytropy, as recently (October 13, 2019) in the post “Anthropology of Mathematics.”


    1. Thank you for the link to your blog. Very interesting.

      I think I do have the negations in the right sequence. The two complexes I can see are:

      Humans can be studied like beetles, and historical cases are comparable.

      Humans can’t be studied like beetles, and historical cases are unique and not comparable.

      I don’t generally see the other two, which are:

      Humans can be studied like beetles, and historical cases are unique and not comparable.

      Humans can’t be studied like beetles, and historical cases are comparable.


  2. This seems to happen on birdsite which is a place I can’t see. But why not place it in the context of other recent papers on humanities and language science in Science and Nature like Bouckaert et al. “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family” or Whitehouse et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History”?

    Historians and linguists have a lot of experience with papers on historical topics being published in Science or Nature, getting a lot of media attention, then falling apart as soon as historians or linguists give them a careful read.


      1. Thank you! I am a historian who cited sources from Sumerian proverb lists and early 20th century excavation reports to Kipling’s Kim in his Doktorarbeit. There are historians, archaeologists, and linguists who do careful, ambitious comparative work. There are some who are quantitative thinkers. But many of us are concerned with the particular approaches championed in Spinney’s Guardian article, and many are gunshy about any big theories which appear first in Nature, Science, or trade publishers then get a lot of gushing media coverage. Ibn Khaldun, Queletet, Marx, Spengler, and Kondratiev were all hard working and clever but few of their laws of history convince many historians today.


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