Chapter 5 Chaos and Complexity

Introduction: The methods of historians have more in common with the natural sciences than the methods of the social sciences. This is because both history and science concern themselves with complex interdependent variables. The difference between science and history is that the historian can not reproduce his findings in a lab in the same way that a scientist can.

Section 1: Henry Adams was a historian who searched for a grand field theory, or a “great generalization” which would explain the past and predict the future. The French mathematician Henri Poincare showed him that there is chaos in even the most simple of mathematical formulas. When analyzed, simple formulas become complex, which again become simple, which again become complex and so forth. The result of Poincare’s work was chaos theory. When Adams was shown this he gave up on his “great generalization”.

Section 2: Causation can be understood as “if x and y then z”. For example, you will arrive at your destination faster if you drive 100 miles per hour than if you drive 70 miles per hour. This simple formula does not take into account your risk of accident, speeding ticket or traffic backups. The world is a complex place. If drivers see flashing lights

from a police car they slow down, but what rate they slow down depends on the individual drivers. There are so many drivers that it is impossible to predict each of their individual responses so we can not predict what the aggregate effect of their individual responses will have. Traffic is non-linear because we can’t predict the exact outcomes. Traffic is linear because there are relationships between input and output. Linear and non-linear aspects coexist. History is like that because we know that certain things happen because of other things but we don’t know exactly what will happen because of a certain variable.

Section 3: There was debate in history as to whether events unfold uniformly or if history progresses in stutters and leaps when individual catastrophic events happen. Adams and other academics believed that history progresses in stutters and leaps. This is reflected in the concepts of paradigm shifts, punctuated equilibrium, asteroid impacts and species annihilation.

Section 4: The phrase, “Sensitive dependence on initial conditions” means that small events can effect much larger events. For example, the butterfly effect shows that a butterfly flapping it’s wings in Bejing can cause a hurricane in Baltimore. The scientist Gould observed that science depends on narrative now, not experimentation because experimentation is too controlled. Scientists need to know how things work in the real world, outside the lab. This is similar to history because history depends on narrative.

“Sensitive dependence on initial conditions” is a call for the other disciplines to take history more seriously.

Section 5: Fractals are patterns that seem irregular but can actually be represented mathematically. Patterns are important to science, history and the social sciences. Focuault spent his entire career exploring patterns in systems of power. This is analogous to history because “behavior that emerges spontaneously at the bottom” gradually makes it’s way to the top. This can be seen in computer literacy and the reactions against authoritarianism in the second part of the 20th century.

Section 6: Self-organization means that sometimes order can spontaneously occur from chaos. History shows that his happened, for example, when the cold war turned into a long peace. Two things from natural science have influenced history. They are powerlaw relationships and criticality. Power-law relationships show that the more powerful an event is the less it will happen. Earthquakes are a good example of this. Less powerful earthquakes are common but extremely powerful earthquakes are rare. In history catastrophic events like stock market crashes are rare but less powerful events like recessions are common. This creates Criticality, which means that events create an equilibrium that is based on catastrophic events and is carried on by smaller events. When a critical event occurs, a paradigm shift happens and a new equilibrium is created

based on that critical event. We can not forecast critical events using history, but we can understand them after they happen.

Section 7: In the last section Gaddis says that economists are wrong because they use too many numbers and that confuses the physicists. He says that natural scientists and historians study similar things now because they both study chaos and both the scientific method and history are based in narrative. Social sciences are based in mathematics and dependent variables. Therefore the discipline of history should show them how to become more like the natural sciences because history is the natural bridge between the natural and social sciences.