Modeling 3,000 Years of Human History

It’s rare to find an interesting paper on history in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, so it was interesting to stumble upon Peter Turchin et al.’s “War, Space, and the Evolution of Old World Complex Societies” who developed a model that uses cultural evolution mechanisms to predict where and when the largest-scale complex societies should have arisen in human history.

From their abstract:

How did human societies evolve from small groups, integrated by face-to-face cooperation, to huge anonymous societies of today, typically organized as states? Why is there so much variation in the ability of different human populations to construct viable states? Existing theories are usually formulated as verbal models and, as a result, do not yield sharply defined, quantitative predictions that could be unambiguously tested with data. Here we develop a cultural evolutionary model that predicts where and when the largest-scale complex societies arose in human history. The central premise of the model, which we test, is that costly institutions that enabled large human groups to function without splitting up evolved as a result of intense competition between societies—primarily warfare. Warfare intensity, in turn, depended on the spread of historically attested military technologies (e.g., chariots and cavalry) and on geographic factors (e.g., rugged landscape). The model was simulated within a realistic landscape of the Afroeurasian landmass and its predictions were tested against a large dataset documenting the spatiotemporal distribution of historical large-scale societies in Afroeurasia between 1,500 BCE and 1,500 CE. The model-predicted pattern of spread of large-scale societies was very similar to the observed one. Overall, the model explained 65% of variance in the data. An alternative model, omitting the effect of diffusing military technologies, explained only 16% of variance. Our results support theories that emphasize the role of institutions in state-building and suggest a possible explanation why a long history of statehood is positively correlated with political stability, institutional quality, and income per capita.

The model simulation runs from 1500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E.—so it encompasses the growth of societies like Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and the like—and replicates historical trends with 65 percent accuracy.

Smithsonian Magazine summarizes:

Turchin began thinking about applying math to history in general about 15 years ago. “I always enjoyed history, but I realized then that it was the last major discipline which was not mathematized,” he explains. “But mathematical approaches—modeling, statistics, etc.—are an inherent part of any real science.”

In bringing these sorts of tools into the arena of world history and developing a mathematical model, his team was inspired by a theory called cultural multilevel selection, which predicts that competition between different groups is the main driver of the evolution of large-scale, complex societies. To build that into the model, they divided all of Africa and Eurasia into gridded squares which were each categorized by a few environmental variables (the type of habitat, elevation, and whether it had agriculture in 1500 B.C.E.). They then “seeded” military technology in squares adjacent to the grasslands of central Asia, because the domestication of horses—the dominant military technology of the age—likely arose there initially.

Over time, the model allowed for domesticated horses to spread between adjacent squares. It also simulated conflict between various entities, allowing squares to take over nearby squares, determining victory based on the area each entity controlled, and thus growing the sizes of empires. After plugging in these variables, they let the model simulate 3,000 years of human history, then compared its results to actual data, gleaned from a variety of historical atlases.

Click here to see a movie of the model in action.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion of the limitations of the model (100-year sampling and exclusion of city-states of Greece):

Due to the nature of the question addressed in our study, there are inevitably several sources of error in historical and geographical data we have used. Our decision to collect historical data only at 100-year time-slices means that the model ‘misses’ peaks of some substantial polities such as the Empire of Alexander the Great, or Attila’s Hunnic Empire. This could be seen as a limitation for traditional historical analyses because we have not included a few polities known to be historically influential. However, for the purposes of our analyses this is actually strength. Using a regular sampling strategy allows us to collect data in a systematic way independent of the hypothesis being tested rather than cherry-picking examples that support our ideas.

We have also only focused on the largest polities, i.e those that were approximately greater than 100,000 km2. This means that some complex societies, such as the Ancient Greek city states, are not included in our database. The focus on territorial extent is also a result of our attempt to be systematic and minimize bias, and this large threshold was chosen for practical considerations. Historical information about the world varies partly in the degree to which modern societies can invest in uncovering it. Our information about the history of western civilization, thus, is disproportionately good compared to some other parts of the world. Employing a relatively large cut-off minimizes the risk of “missing” polities with large  populations in less well-documented regions and time-frames, because the larger the polity the more likely it is to have left some trace in the historical record. At a smaller threshold there are simply too many polities about which we have very little information, including their territories, and the effects of a bias in our access to the historical record is increased.

Overall, I think the supporting information for the model is actually a lot more interesting read than the paper itself.

David Block, the Baseball Archaeologist

This is a fascinating story in Grantland about David Block and his quest to find the origins of baseball:

Block was coming to the subject of baseball’s paternity not as a historian but as a book collector. “Historians are driven by story and issue,” said Thorn. “David was driven by artifact.” As he scoured eBay in the late ’90s — back before anyone knew what their junk was worth — it was Block’s brainstorm to bypass books about baseball. He was looking for books that mentioned baseball, books historians might have missed. “I always liked to go where no one else was looking,” Block said. His collection grew big enough that he decided to write a bibliography of early texts. The bibliography became a proper book.

In 2001, Block got ahold of a copy of a 1796 German book with the ungainly title of Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden. His copy has green and white marbled boards and brown binder’s tape on the spine. An inside page carries the stamp “D. Schaller,” a previous owner. Block ran his finger down the table of contents when he saw a reference:

                    3. Ball mit Freystäten, das engl. Base-ball

A translation confirmed what Block suspected. Here was a reference to baseball 32 years before the first literary reference to rounders. And the German book, by J.C.F. Gutsmuths, wasn’t the only example. The 1744 A Little Pretty Pocket-Book mentioned baseball. So did a letter of one Lady Hervey of England, from 1748. Even Jane Austen included the word “baseball” in her novel Northanger Abbey, which was published in 1818. If baseball had descended from rounders, Block wondered, then why did baseball keep popping up in the historical record before rounders?

Block began to get a little nervous. The historian Thomas Altherr, who talked to Block during this period, said Block was worried he was imposing on the work of others. For Block had confirmed that both the Doubleday theory was bunk. But he had also discovered that the rounders theory was bunk. Everything we knew about baseball’s parentage was wrong.

A reference to baseball, according to Block, can be traced as early as 1755:

In 2007, Block was on a computer terminal in the British Library in London. He came across a comic novel called The Card, by John Kidgell, which was published in 1755. He found this passage:

… the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the Matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis.)

On English baseball: 

Block offered an alternative proposal for baseball’s paternity. It was both simpler and more complex than any previous theory. First, Block said that baseball had descended from … baseball. What the authors of the BA’SEBALL dictionary entry and John Kidgell and William Bray and Jane Austen were describing was a primitive version of the game played in English fields. Block calls this English baseball.

And how was this English baseball played? Block offers that there were no bats (players used their hands), and that the game was social rather than competitive/athletic:

There were bases of some unknown counting. The pitcher threw to the batter underhanded. The fielders tried to catch the ball on the fly or retrieve the ball and throw it and strike the runner when he was off base.”

Fascinating throughout.


Note: If this topic piques your interest, Block wrote a book called Baseball Before we Knew It that has stellar reviews on Amazon.

When They Can’t Lay You Off, Employers in Japan Send You to Boredom Rooms

What happens if you’re working in Japan and a company wants to lay you off, and offers you a lucrative early retirement or severance deal? Well, if you choose not to accept the terms, the company has no right to fire you. So what they’ll do instead is send you to work in a so-called “Boredom Room.”

In Japan, lifetime employment has long been the norm and where large-scale layoffs remain a social taboo, at least at Japan’s largest corporations like Sony. The New York Times profiles one man who’s chosen to go into the Boredom Room and spend his workday there: reading college textbooks, surfing the Internet, and who knows what else.

Sony said it was not doing anything wrong in placing employees in what it calls Career Design Rooms. Employees are given counseling to find new jobs in the Sony group, or at another company, it said. Sony also said that it offered workers early retirement packages that are generous by American standards: in 2010, it promised severance payments equivalent to as much as 54 months of pay. But the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually so bored and shamed that they just quit, critics say.

Labor practices in Japan contrast sharply with those in the United States, where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It is cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility. 

However, and this is a point worth emphasizing: critics say the real point of the boredoom rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually get so bored and shamed that they just quit.

Read the entire story here.

Linguists Identify 15,000-year-old Ultraconserved Words

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

According to this Washington Post piece summarizing this study, many of the words in the above sentence would have been understood by someone living 15,000 years ago:

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.

The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.

A new study, however, suggests that’s not always true.

A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”



Full paper from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesultraconserved_words.

A Brief History of the Mass-Market Paperback

Smithsonian Magazine has a short post on the origin of the paperback book in the United States:

Robert Fair de Graff realized he could change the way people read by making books radically smaller. Back then, it was surprisingly hard for ordinary Americans to get good novels and nonfiction. The country only had about 500 bookstores, all clustered in the biggest 12 cities, and hardcovers cost $2.50 (about $40 in today’s currency).

De Graff revolutionized that market when he got backing from Simon & Schuster to launch Pocket Books in May 1939. A petite 4 by 6 inches and priced at a mere 25 cents, the Pocket Book changed everything about who could read and where.

Per Wikipedia, the first ten numbered Pocket Book titles were:

  1. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
  2. Wake Up and Live by Dorothea Brande
  3. Five Great Tragedies by William Shakespeare
  4. Topper by Thorne Smith
  5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  6. Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker
  7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  8. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
  9. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
  10. Bambi by Felix Salten

An important note: the Pocket Books were the first paperback books in the U.S.  But it was Albatross Booksa German publishing house based in Hamburg. that produced the first modern mass market paperback books.

Albatross was founded in 1932 by John Holroyd-Reece, Max Wegner and Kurt Enoch. The name was chosen because “Albatross’ is the same word in many European languages. Based on the example of Tauchnitz, a Leipzig publishing firm that had been producing inexpensive and paperbound English-language reprints for a continental market, Albatross set about to streamline and modernize the paperback format.


: How the paperback novel changed popular literature (also from Smithsonian Magazine)

The Single Most Valuable Document in the History of the World Wide Web

Subject to debate, but according to this article in the BBC, the claim of the “most valuable document in the history of the World Wide Web” belongs to a legal document that made the web publicly available in such a way that no one could claim ownership of it and that would ensure it was a free and open standard for everyone to use.

A team at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) has launched a project to re-create the first web page.

The aim is to preserve the original hardware and software associated with the birth of the web.


The Origin of the “Plus” and “Minus” Symbols

A very interesting post by Mario Livio, searching for the origin of the “+” and “-” symbols we find ubiquitous today:

The ancient Greeks expressed addition mostly by juxtaposition, but sporadically used the slash symbol “/” for addition and a semi-elliptical curve for subtraction.  In the famous Egyptian Ahmes papyrus, a pair of legs walking forward marked addition, and walking away subtraction.  The Hindus, like the Greeks, usually had no mark for addition, except that “yu” was used in the Bakhshali manuscript Arithmetic (which probably dates to the third or fourth century).  Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the French mathematician Chuquet (in 1484) and the Italian Pacioli (in 1494) used “\boldmath{\bar{\bf p}}” or “p” (indicating plus) for addition and “\boldmath{\widetilde{\bf m}}” or “m” (indicating minus) for subtraction.

There is little doubt that our + sign has its roots in one of the forms of the word “et,” meaning “and” in Latin.  The first person who may have used the + sign as an abbreviation for et was the astronomer Nicole d’Oresme (author of The Book of the Sky and the World) at the middle of the fourteenth century.  A manuscript from 1417 also has the + symbol (although the downward stroke is not quite vertical) as a descendent of one of the forms of et.

I thought this was an interesting sidenote for “+”:

As a historical curiosity, I should note that even once adopted, not everybody used precisely the same symbol for +.  Widman himself introduced it as a Greek cross + (the sign we use today), with the horizontal stroke sometimes a bit longer than the vertical one.  Mathematicians such as Recorde, Harriot and Descartes used this form.  Others (e.g., Hume, Huygens, and Fermat) used the Latin cross “†,” sometimes placed horizontally, with the crossbar at one end or the other.  Finally, a few (e.g., De Hortega, Halley) used the more ornamental form “\maltese.”

Speaking of crosses, and doing a bit more research, Wikipedia notes that:

A Jewish tradition that dates from at least the 19th century is to write plus using a symbol like an inverted T. This practice was adopted into Israeli schools (this practice goes back to at least the 1940s) and is still commonplace today in elementary schools (including secular schools) but in fewer secondary schools. It is also used occasionally in books by religious authors, but most books for adults use the international symbol “+”. The usual explanation for this practice is that it avoids the writing of a symbol “+” that looks like a Christian cross.

+1 for learning more, right?