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Brands's 1st law of history
History isn't physics, but neither is it pinball
Everyone uses history. We go to a restaurant tonight because we had a good meal there last month. Employers make hires on the basis of applicants’ experience in previous jobs. Investors study the track records of companies and markets. We elect and reelect our leaders based on what we’ve heard them say and see them do. We avoid hazards that have inflicted harm on others.
But some people use history better than others. Restaurant critics know that chefs have good days and bad. A canny boss understands that the best applicant on paper is not always the best on the job. Seasoned investors recognize that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Voters are often gulled by appealing campaign promises. The nervous can extrapolate from genuine hazards to things that aren’t risky at all.
The difficulty of applying history to the present is that the present is like the past in some ways, but unlike the past in other ways. Using history successfully requires weighing the similarities against the differences; no one gets it right all the time.
Yet people continually look for lessons from history to use in the present. A few have gone so far as to seek laws of history: broad rules that link the past to the present and the future in some determinative way.
I have long been one of those seekers. I entered the history profession in the 1980s with the ambition of figuring out how the world worked. My raw material was history, in the way that the geologist’s raw material is the planet Earth. I imagined I would discover basic principles: laws of history perhaps comparable to the laws of plate tectonics. These would satisfy my curiosity and help my fellow citizens make decisions that would benefit our collective present and future.
The challenge was greater than I had realized. Yet over the years I compiled what I came to call “Brands’s laws of history.” I named them this not out of immodesty but from the opposite: I wished to warn any who encountered them that they were merely my idiosyncratic take on history and how it worked. Other historians were welcome to formulate their own laws, and shouldn’t be held accountable for mine.
Below and in succeeding installments, I will present Brands’s laws. The reader should bear in mind that while the subject is serious, the approach is less so. For example, my first law of history declares, in essence, that there are no laws of history. Each installment will consist of a succinct statement of the law, followed by a parenthetical caveat or disclaimer, and an explanation.
Brands’s 1st law: History isn’t physics, but neither is it pinball
Humans have always looked to the past to see the future. Religion is as old as humanity, and religions typically include origin tales that give guidance on the world to come. The future world is often a restored Eden, a second golden age, when the evils and maladies of the present will vanish and the original harmony reappear.
Religion lost ground to science amid the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century and after. Yet the scientists brought their own perspective on the connection between past and future. Isaac Newton’s laws of gravitation and motion extrapolated from previous configurations of the solar system to future states, predicting conjunctions of planets, eclipses of the sun and moon, and all kinds of other heavenly behavior. Pierre-Simon Laplace went further, declaring the entire future of the universe to be implicit in its past and present. “An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom,” Laplace asserted. “For such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” Napoleon was said to have objected that Laplace’s model of the universe left no room for God. “Sire,” Laplace blithely responded, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Subsequent discoveries in thermodynamics and electromagnetism confirmed the idea that the universe was governed by laws that linked the past to the future.
The success of the scientists provoked envy and emulation among historians. The laws of physics, chemistry and electricity conferred power on the physicists, chemists and electricians; historians wanted some of that. And why not? If there was value in predicting the future of atoms and planets, how much more value would there be in forecasting the fate of peoples and civilizations?
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel gave it a try, characterizing motion in history as the result of recurrent clashes between forces, which he called thesis and antithesis, leading to a resolution, or synthesis. The new synthesis, becoming a thesis, would provoke its antithesis, and the process would repeat. Karl Marx added a materialist spin to Hegel’s dialectic, making economic classes his thesis and antithesis and subsuming the whole in the class struggle. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Marx wrote. Marx was more specific than Hegel in projecting forward; his bourgeoisie would be challenged by the proletariat and overthrown, with the result being socialism.
Herbert Spencer latched onto the evolutionary thinking that was inspiring Charles Darwin in biology. Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe competitive selection, applied the concept to struggles among societies as well as among individuals. Regarding the latter he made the mistake of thinking that acquired characteristics were inherited; for the most part they are not. But societies do bequeath acquired values and institutions, and Social Darwinism, as the approach of Spencer and his allies was called, was seen as explaining the preeminence of British values and institutions in the competitive imperial world of the nineteenth century. Spencer made no promises that Britannia would continue to rule the waves, but he believed that the mechanisms that had put Britain on top would select the best among future generations of competitors.
The heaviest hitters among the historical theorists were Europeans, but Americans joined the game as well. Frederick Jackson Turner explained American history in terms of an ever-advancing frontier. With each wave of westward movement, Turner said, American institutions reinvented themselves, summoning the same creative forces that had founded the first English colonies in North America. The process prevented classes from congealing in America as they had congealed in Europe; it kept democracy alive and vigorous. Yet Turner wasn’t sure the process would continue, for the conditions that had given rise to the frontier were disappearing. The empty spaces of the West were filling in. The American future might be very different from the American past, even though the guiding principles of historical development hadn’t changed.
Brooks Adams, of the famous Adams family of American politics, put forward his own frontier theory. But Adams didn’t confine himself to North America. The bow wave of civilization had been surging west for centuries, Adams said, reaching maximum height in America around the end of the nineteenth century. The wave kept moving. It was crossing North America and would head out into the Pacific, to make landfall in Asia sometime in the twentieth century.
The theories of history all exhibited a crucial shortcoming. They failed to make useful, reliable predictions. Where they weren’t demonstrably wrong, they were impossibly vague. Karl Marx predicted that the class struggle would climax first in one of the most industrially advanced countries: Germany, Britain or the United States. Instead the revolution arrived in Russia, one of the most backward. Herbert Spencer posited continued progress toward a higher standard of civilization, only for the First World War to wipe out decades of progress and the flower of a whole generation, while making a ghoulish joke of European claims to civilization. Brooks Adams couldn’t say, within a decade or half-century, when the vortex of modernity would exit North America and when it would arrive in Asia.
The problem, as critics of the historical theorists had said all along, was that history wasn’t a science. Humans weren’t planets or atoms. They had free will, or acted as though they did. They learned from what went before, as no inanimate object did. They could be cussedly contrary; told what some law of history decreed they do, they might do the opposite just to show they could.
The historical lawgivers didn’t surrender, but they did retreat, aided by new modes of science. The probabilistic approach of quantum mechanics gave hope to those who realized that no narrowly deterministic law would ever explain human behavior. Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, albeit often misunderstood, seemed well-suited to the uncertain mess of human behavior.
In the final decades of the twentieth century a field of research called chaos theory or complexity studies promised an even better fit. One metaphor of the new field asserted that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a typhoon in Tahiti; for historians comfortable with the concept that small influences can have large consequences—that the failure of Pickett’s charge on the third day of Gettysburg meant the difference between victory and defeat for the South in the Civil War—complexity seemed quite promising. The related concept of “emergent order” appeared apt to much of history. A common example was the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, which put food on tables and shoes on feet without any central authority telling farmers and cobblers what to do. This was history from the ground up, but with the gloss of science.
Yet here again the theories disappointed. The problem in this case was not that history wasn’t science; it was that the science was too much like history. The new sciences weren’t predictive in the clocklike manner of Newtonian physics; rather they were chiefly descriptive, like geology or evolutionary biology. What made complex systems complex was precisely that they couldn’t be reduced to any simple formulas or mathematical laws. Their practitioners didn’t despair of laws entirely; the difficulty was that the phenomena under observation were extremely sensitive to initial conditions—so sensitive that the observer couldn’t tell until after the fact which of the possible development paths the system would follow. At any given moment there were millions of butterflies in Brazil; which one would set off the typhoon was impossible to say in advance.
In other words, the new sciences were essentially historical. After Napoleon seized power in France, it was possible for historians to trace his life backward and devise explanations; but to identify the next Napoleon among the schoolboys of nineteenth century France—or Prussia or Italy—was beyond them. One interpretation of quantum mechanics—the “many worlds” version—contended that the countless possible paths of atomic particles gave rise to countless different universes, each with its own future. All the universes obeyed the laws of quantum physics, but which universe a particle or person was in couldn’t be predicted in advance. It had to be experienced—just as history had to be experienced to be explained.
This wasn’t to say that there never would be predictive laws of history. Some quantum physicists, dissatisfied with the probabilities that pervaded their work, hoped for a new model that looked more like the old theories. (Others merely grumbled, “Shut up and calculate.”) If they ever did come up with something, it might produce a predictive theory of history. Humans, after all, exist in the physical world, and any laws that govern the actions of their constituent atoms and molecules must govern them.
But as of the third decade of the twenty-first century, such laws were unknown. Whether they were unknowable was unknown, and itself perhaps unknowable. The work of Kurt Gödel in mathematical logic, showing that in any interesting system of arithmetic there would always be assertions that were neither provable nor disprovable, didn’t offer much promise for the knowability of history.
Meanwhile the historians would have to be content with patterns. History isn’t utterly random; the pinball of events doesn’t bounce about the playfield of life with complete unpredictability. Careful study of the past can provide, with reasonable assurance, plausible ranges of outcomes for wars, business cycles, family creation and any number of other human activities. Nearly everything in the present is like something in the past. Not exactly like it, but close enough for the historians to profess unsurprise at what follows. Wars eventually end, and the side with the greater combination of resources and determination usually wins. Financial bubbles burst, even if the historians can’t say, ahead of time, precisely when—otherwise they’d all be rich. National birthrates generally fall with rising average incomes, although how long this might persist after birthrates fall into the largely uncharted realm of below-replacement values is anybody’s guess.
Historians are sometimes described as people who can’t predict the events of tomorrow better than anyone else, but who on the day after tomorrow will smugly explain why whatever happened was inevitable. It was part of the pattern.
But which pattern?
(More laws coming)