CSH President Stefan Thurner’s talk is part of “The Interplay of Large-Scale Impersonal Trends, Big Ideas, and Great Leaders in History” Meeting , which will take place on January 21 & 22, 2020 at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, USA
One of the deepest questions about the dynamics of human civilizations is the relative roles that have been played by big, impersonal trends (e.g., population growth, plagues), great leaders (e.g., Alexander the Great, Napoleon) and big ideas (e.g., the birth of various religions, or the invention of writing). It is clear that all three have had some effects throughout history, but which has been most important, and when? Or phrasing the question in a more nuanced way, how has the interplay of these three sociological phenomena jointly determined the dynamics of human societies?
Traditionally, historians have been forced to debate these questions using purely qualitative arguments. However, in the past decade, with the construction of fine-grained datasets of socio-dynamic variables concerning different polities at different times we can start to quantify “big, impersonal trends”. Similarly, with the rise of the digital humanities, we can start to quantify the emergence of “big ideas”. Finally, by using timeseries analysis of the dynamics of a society before, during, and after the leadership of a particular person, and comparing that dynamics to the dynamics of societies that are similar but have a different leader, we can start to quantify the effects of “great leaders”. Accordingly, we feel the time is ripe to bring together these disparate datasets and associated analytical tools, to start to understand what are some of the most profound questions in the entire field of historical analysis.