Can history be used to predict the future? Some experts say it can
Is the war in Ukraine evidence of history repeating itself?
Countless commentators have drawn comparisons to World War II, the Red Army and even Hitler.
The comparisons increased when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invoked the spirit of Churchill and the Blitz when addressing the British House of Commons in March, while Vladimir Putin has spoken of the “denazification” of Ukraine as a kind of historic Russian mission.
Yet the Ukrainian conflict could just as easily be read as a stark reminder that historical comparisons aren’t always useful when looking to the future.
Despite his brutish nature, Putin isn’t Stalin, Ukraine isn’t run by Nazis and Russia today isn’t the Soviet Union.
Arguments between scholars over the predictive capacity of history are as cyclical as the so-called circles of history they debate.
But what do these debates tell us about the role and nature of the historical record?
A new theory of the past and the future
Russian-American scholar Peter Turchin is the modern face of the circular history debate.
He has spent the past two decades arguing that history can have a predictive quality and should be reinvented as a science, not just a discipline.
He calls his approach Cliodynamics, and a core premise is that violent events can be anticipated. They occur when the structural conditions within a society mirror those of previous violent times.
“Think of a forest in which deadwood has been accumulating for many years,” Dr Turchin wrote in an explainer piece for The Conversation.
“We don’t know what will start the fire – it could be a lightning strike during a storm, or a careless match thrown away — but sooner or later such a precipitating spark will arrive, and there will be a massive conflagration.”
Turchin’s theories are influenced by 18th century economist Thomas Malthus and his idea of the “cycle of misery”, which argued that humanity was “condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery”.
What’s new about Turchin’s approach is that he uses advanced mathematical tools and extensive data analysis to make his projections.
His work is based on US data and he claims to have tracked a cyclical pattern of political violence in that country dating back to the 1800s.
Such cycles, he argues, are the result of recurring “structural demographic” conditions, including the long term stagnation of wages and the concentration of wealth.
Added to this is what he terms “elite over-production”. That’s essentially where a highly educated class within society becomes disillusioned and rebels against the establishment.
Professor Turchin points to the rise of the Trumpian anti-establishment movement in the US as evidence of his theory. He also predicted in 2010 that the latest cycle of violence in the US would peak in and around 2020.
“We are now in the second Age of Discord,” he said in an interview with Vice.
“Such periods of turbulence continue until the structural trends driving them are reversed.
Seductive but selective
Stanford University research fellow Ben Chugg believes Cliodynamics, though based on age-old theories, appeals to the sensibilities of the modern world.
“A lot of Cliodynamics is just taking modern mathematical tools and trying to gain insights into history and historical events,” he tells ABC RN’s Future Tense.
In that way, he says, it can provide “novel” insights. But he’s cautious about the idea of history as predictive science.
“It’s very easy to look at a historical dataset and pick out trends. But, of course, these are not universal laws, they are not physical laws.
There’s also the problem of confirmation bias – inadvertently looking for trends that confirm pre-existing beliefs.
“One of the ironies here is that the very people who are most interested in predicting the future from history discount the fact that everyone who has tried that previously has ultimately failed,” Mr Chugg says.
Living at the turning point
Like Cliodynamics, another popular concept — referred to as “the hinge of history” — also attempts to reframe our understanding of the historical process and the primacy of humans in the world.
The central idea is that we currently live in a time like no other: one where human beings now have ultimate control over the Earth’s destiny.
The term “hinge of history” was coined by British philosopher Derek Parfit in his 2011 book On What Matters.
He wrote: “Given the scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries, the world has never changed as fast.
“We shall soon have even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings, but ourselves and our successors.”
Google the term “hinge of history” and you’ll find that it’s fast becoming a popular discussion and debating point for everyone from the United Nations to the online student magazine GENEWS.
Former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison even employed it in a recent speech to the Lowy Institute about rising Chinese militarism.
A matter of perspective
For Luke Kemp, from the Centre of Existential Risk at Oxford University, the ideas behind the hinge of history are seductive, given heightened fears around climate change, nuclear weapons and advanced AI.
But, he says, it’s a theory that’s almost impossible to prove.
“There are some good scientific grounds for us in trying to estimate existential risk, but it’s somewhat hubristic and arrogant to believe that we can know that the risks this century are going to be higher than the risks next century or the century after that.”
Dr Kemp says the hypothesis also fails to take full account of past developments when assessing today’s threats.
“So, one could say that this century is disproportionately influential, but the reason it’s so important is in large part due to the history that preceded it.”
He worries that the theory has a dark side that could lead to greater political intolerance.
That fear was echoed by bioethicist Peter Singer in an opinion piece for Project Syndicate.
In late 2021 he wrote: “Viewing current problems through the lens of existential risk to our species can shrink those problems to almost nothing, while justifying almost anything that increases our odds of surviving long enough to spread beyond Earth.
“Marx’s vision of communism as the goal of all human history provided Lenin and Stalin with a justification for their crimes.
“I am not suggesting that any present exponents of the hinge of history idea would countenance atrocities,” he added.
“But then, Marx, too, never contemplated that a regime governing in his name would terrorise its people.”
The value of historical debate
One sceptic about the essential value of history as a tool for future knowledge and decision-making was the German philosopher, Georg Hegel.
In his well-known Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he wrote: “What experience and history teach is that nations and governments have never learned anything from history or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
In his newly released book The Ever-Changing Past: All History is Revisionist History, US historian James Banner argues in favour of ongoing debate about history and its purpose.
He rejects the conservative notion that there is some form of objective history, arguing that the historical record is fluid and rightly shaped over time by new evidence, new understanding and new theories.
He believes history plays an important function for our society, but that it has its limits.
“It helps us to gain knowledge and, if we are lucky, to gain some wisdom about human life, of ourselves and others. But it has no predictive quality.”
That said, the one prediction he’s willing to make as a historian is that contention among and about his profession will have a long future.
Disputes about historical fact and practice are as ancient, he says, as history itself.
“People argue about the present — we differ about the present — what would make anybody think that people in the past didn’t argue with each other in the same way and that you can keep people from arguing about it today?”