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If You Thought 2020 Was Bad, Just Wait for the Next Ten Years

A zoologist looks into his crystal ball

Graeme Wood  talks to Peter Turchin about his model of the rise and fall of civilizations:

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of ‘megahistories,’ such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: ‘At this point,’ Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, ‘I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.’

Diamond and Harari aimed to describe the history of humanity. Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the ‘maverick mathematician’ of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. ‘It’s too late,’ he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to ‘read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.’ The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo­cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: ‘If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.’ The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—­­is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

Turchin is a zoologist, but, while he still teaches in his field, he no longer studies the dynamics of bug populations: “In the late ’90s, disaster struck: Turchin realized that he knew everything he ever wanted to know about beetles. He compares himself to Thomasina Coverly, the girl genius in the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, who obsessed about the life cycles of grouse and other creatures around her Derbyshire country house. Stoppard’s character had the disadvantage of living a century and a half before the development of chaos theory. ‘She gave up because it was just too complicated,’ Turchin said. ‘I gave up because I solved the problem.’”

Yes, well. History is cyclical—not perfectly so—but like all things (music, seasons), countries rise and fall, come and go. At the same time, we can’t even predict purely natural phenomena perfectly, so a model that reduces human agency—that wild card of wild cards—to social forces is always going to have a pretty significant margin of error. Still, Turchin’s reading of the past ten years is interesting.

In other news: If you found a horde of buried Viking silver and gold, you’d think it was a stroke of good luck. It wasn’t for George Powell and Layton Davies, largely because of their own stupidity: “Scanning the environs of King’s Hall Hill, the men suddenly picked up a signal on their devices. They dug into the red-brown soil, and three feet down they started to uncover a thrilling cache of objects: a gold arm bangle in the shape of a snake consuming its own tail; a pendant made from a crystal sphere banded by delicately wrought gold; a gold ring patterned with octagonal facets; a silver ingot measuring close to three inches in length; and, stuck together in a solid clod of earth, what appeared to be hundreds of fragile silver coins . . . Under the terms of the current law, treasure still belongs legally to the Crown, but in practice it often ends up in a museum. (In the U.S., comparable laws vary from state to state, but most of them stipulate that someone who finds an object of value or a stash of money is entitled to keep it if the owner cannot be located.) The Treasure Act provides an incentive for detectorists to declare their discoveries by establishing the right to a reward for the finder, who typically receives half the market value; the other half goes to the landowner.”

Speaking of treasures, here’s one of another sort, and all legally acquired and housed at the University of California at Santa Barbara: wax cylinder recordings. “Say what you want about the millions of digital songs stored in the cloud and awaiting your Spotify spin. Strolling through the rows of shelving units, each packed with cylinder recordings, overwhelms the imagination. Writer Nick Tosches described listening to ancient minstrelsy songs on these formats as visiting a realm ‘where dead voices gather,’ and you can almost sense the ghosts inside these vessels. They’ll ferry you to a realm long gone: to Mexico City circa 1904, where the baritone voice of Rafael Herrera Robinson bellows as if born once again; to the 1908 campaign trail, where then-candidate William Howard Taft discusses the plight of Black Americans four decades after the Civil War’s end; or to 1909, when the United States Everlasting Indestructible Cylinders company dropped ‘Temptation Rag,’ a hot little number by Fred Van Eps and Albert Benzler.”

Michael Connelly, wise storyteller extraordinaire: “‘Moral complexity’ is often a euphemism for muddle or evasion, but not so in Connelly’s case.”

Freud’s teacher: “In every discipline that I’ve looked at, there is a striking generalisation that emerges, which I call the Law of Dynasties: in case after case, the movers and shakers of the fields had themselves been the students of an earlier mover and shaker. Aristotle was the student of Plato, Martin Heidegger was the student of Edmund Husserl, and Noam Chomsky was the student of Zellig Harris (the most brilliant linguist of his generation). To be sure, the Law of Dynasties results in part from self-selection. The very smartest (whatever that means!) of the rising generation are capable of identifying who the best teachers are, and the best teachers have enough smarts to know how to select the students with the greatest potential. Another sort of perfectly reasonable explanation for the Law of Dynasties is that if the teacher is one of the best of their generation, then their strong and positive support for a young scholar will be heard loud and clear in the profession. These two explanations are part of the story, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I’ve been thinking about Franz Brentano, a German philosopher and psychologist whose career stretched from the 1870s up till the early years of the 20th century. I don’t know anyone whose intellectual descendants spanned such a broad range of ages, disciplines and influence – and, for that reason, he makes for an excellent test case of the Law of Dynasties.”

Ballet dancer arrested for murder: “The founder of the short-lived Charleston-based American National Ballet was arrested last week and accused of killing her estranged husband. Ashley Benefield, 28, was charged with second-degree murder in the Sept. 27 shooting death of 58-year-old Doug Benefield.”

Photo: The Macedonian Orthodox church of Saint John at Kaneo



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