History by the Numbers

Asking “What if?” doesn’t appear to be worth our while, at least as it pertains to the development of civilizations over thousands of years.

That’s the finding of a study by the University of Connecticut, the University of Exeter in England, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. In short, math shows that we pretty much have gotten history right so far.

The study details a series of data-driven simulations of a 3,000-year-period (1500 BCE to 1500 CE) on a landmass resembling Eurasia. The model was designed to take geography (specifically, elevation and the availability of agriculture) into account, as well as the adoption of military innovation, to predict where and when empires would rise.

The model tested to see the extent to which societies that develop military technology would ultimately lead to the spread of that area’s culture, and how the simulations reflected history. (If you want the details of the mathematics and model and simulation and stuff, go read this lovely bit of academia. Have fun. It says stuff like this: Psuccess < 0 (that is, Patt < Pdef). For now, let’s just say it’s a large-scale computerized a game of Risk with no human players.)

What they found mirrored what we know to be true of history, as areas meant to represent Egypt and parts of Asia — the places most likely to be influenced by horse-riding nomads — grew strong for a while before Western European cultures grew imperial. War and military technology, the authors say, are the single most important part toward the growth of civilization. With the spread of the civilization comes the spread of things like agricultural practices and political/economic stability, which in turn lead to the further growth of the society in question. The harder a given culture beats up on everybody else, the stronger that state will be long-term. Math, it seems, is a neoconservative.

The authors channel Nate Silver or Bill James in explaining what their model means for history. “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,” co-author Sergey Gavrilets said in a press release.

The study is expected to be followed up with research using a model that includes America and focuses on history since 1500. We’ll see how Vietnam and Afghanistan hold up against the mighty math machine. (Yes, that’s a vast oversimplification. Whatever.)

photo credit: flickr user Kinchan1, Creative Commons