A Talebian theory of history

It occurs to me that the roulette-wheel world posited by Nassim Nicholas Taleb can help interpret a number of historical puzzles.

In Taleb’s vision, alternative outcomes are equally probable, yet the winning bet will be considered logical and inevitable because of hindsight bias.  We will invent reasons to explain the past and, with these inventions in mind, foolishly imagine we can outguess the future.

In fact, Taleb argues, the “problem of induction” guarantees we will never know anything with certainty.  Past, present, and future are skewed by randomness:  the power law rules, and rare or “black swan” events will sweep away most plans and predictions.

From this perspective, the grand rationalist theories of history appear to be elaborate delusions, the product of hindsight bias.  Such theories assume that the social equivalent of mechanical forces are at work in human events.  Once the forces in play are understood, any event can be explained as easily as adding up two numbers.  Individual actions count for nothing.  Innovation and genius are epiphenomena.  The vast machinery of history grinds on inexorably, predictably, objectively, beyond the reach of love or hate.

The most influential theory of this type was that of Karl Marx, who believed ownership of the means of production was the great lever pushing history toward a proletarian revolution — an event he spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to bring about.

A more recent version was propounded by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Diamond considered geography to be destiny — in effect, the cause of every means of production.  On this account, a culture must develop like clockwork to the maximum allowed by its environment — if Europeans and aborigines had traded ancestral homes, the former would be hunter gatherers, the latter conquerors of America.  Every conflict between cultures, like professional wrestling, is decided before the first blow lands — the Spaniards, being more highly developed, must inevitably trounce the Incas.

Since impersonal forces control human events, the role of persons — of character and genius — falls to zero.  Diamond understood the tremendous variation in the way cultures have dealt with change.  Yet he attached no importance to these factors, which “make the historian’s task paradoxically easier, by converting social variation in innovativeness into essentially a random variable.”  By “random variable,” Diamond meant that “over a large enough area (such as a whole continent) at any particular time, some proportion of societies is likely to be innovative.”

In rationalist theories of history, human events are ruled by Newtonian mechanics and described by a bell curve.  The explicit hope of the theory-makers has been to convert history into a predictive science.  Marx called his system “scientific materialism.”  Diamond ended Guns, Germs, and Steel with a chapter titled “The Future of Human History as a Science.”  Both men, in different ways, wanted to change the future, and appealed to the prestige of science to persuade their audience.

The problem is that these theories deliver very poor stories when it comes to explaining the past.  Even if we forgive the details — the actual failure to predict anything accurately — the principles feel wrong-headed.  Intuitively, human events behave differently than the orbits of planets.  History bears no resemblance to mechanics.  Another approach to causation is required, which accounts for the indeterminacy of even a single human life, and the massive complexity in the interactions among billions of such lives.

Every person is a cause as well as an effect.  Alicia Juarrero has written the most interesting description of how this might be possible.  Yet the effects of individual actions in a complex society become progressively more random and unknowable.  Enter Taleb, and his roulette-wheel outlook on human events.

Certain propositions, Taleb holds, can be affirmed about this probabilistic state of affairs.

First, complex outcomes are best described by a highly skewed power law distribution, rather than a bell curve.  In whatever domain is under description, the very few at the head of the power law chart far outshine the very many in the long tail.  Innovative genius is thus concentrated among few peoples, times, and places.  Variation in genius becomes determinative of the fate of cultures, and of human development as a progressive enterprise.  That is why today we use so many concepts and practices inherited from ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, and practically none from ancient Afghanistan or Nigeria.

Second, historical outcomes, like winning bets in a roulette wheel, are inevitable only in hindsight.  Alternative paths were possible, and — unlike roulette bets — some might have been more highly probable.  Probabilistic thinking assumes a small number of improbable events:  the spike in the power law chart.  The Spaniards who trounced the Incas had themselves been conquered by a technologically superior Arab culture 700 years before.  What were the odds that the Spaniards — unlike, say, the Syrians and North Africans — would cling to Christianity and expel their conquerors?  Were the odds higher against the Incas throwing out the Spaniards?

Third, individuals must live with radical uncertainty about the knowledge on which they must act.  The same applies to small cliques and aristocracies.  The more complex the environment, the deeper the uncertainty, until pure roulette-wheel randomness takes over.  The Soviet Union collapsed because too few people were managing a too complex set of activities.  The U.S. government survived the Great Depression because the government was weak and decision-making diffused — in many fields down to the individual citizen.  (Aggregated individual processes damp down randomness in the long term:  this is not a contradiction, though it deserves elaboration in a future post.)

Fourth, “black swan” events will descend on every culture, often to devastating effect.  These low probability, high impact events are by definition both unpredictable and unavoidable.  They can take the form of a plague, a monetary collapse, or a barbarian invasion, but their arrival, given enough time, is guaranteed by the problem of induction.  We will never know enough to forestall them.  Thus the fall of Rome may, in part at least, be blamed on a shrinking clique of decision-makers faced with a succession of black swan events.  The survival of the weak, cliquish Byzantine Empire for 1,000 years after the fall of Rome may be, in iself, the rarest of black swan events.

Like every solution, my Talebian theory of history creates problems of its own.  The most significant, to me, is that it appears to set a very low ceiling for the accumulation of knowledge.  It accounts for the rare triumph or catastrophe, but has more difficulty explaining the steady progress in wealth, science, and so many other fields, which the human race has enjoyed for centuries.  The persistence of cultures in the face of defeat and oppression — the Israelites by the waters of Babylon, the gypsies in the Balkans today — seems particularly difficult to explain probabilistically.  Knowledge being so fragile, one would expect the Athenian or Roman or Egyptian way of life to have lasted a few generations at most, and then, in Taleb’s phrase, “blow up.”  Yet clearly that was not the case.

These are not unanswerable questions:  but they are grist for another post.

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