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.
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.
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.