Ancient Egyptian art, via Wikimedia
The thing that's so great about history is that understanding it can help us predict the future, and then hopefully not screw it up as badly as we did the past.
A team of history-loving mathematicians from University of Connecticut, University of Exeter, and National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis recently set out to do just that, only with a very unusual approach: They mathematized 3,000 years of history. In doing so, the researchers claim to have answered some of the most complex questions about human society with a single equation.
The team tackled the mysteries of mankind's "ultrasociality"—basically, how it's possible for millions of people to live together in a defined society without killing each other (for the most part). What makes societies form, and what makes them thrive? How did a group of humans in Northern Africa become Egyptians? Why did Mesopotamia develop into what we know today as the Middle East?
While historians and sociologists have been exploring those kinds of questions for centuries, the authors of the study, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, realized that no one had yet taken a quantitative approach.
They created simulation of the geography of Afro-Eurasia between 1,500 BCE and 1,500 CE. Then they developed a mathematical model to explain and predict evolutionary behavior from that time period. Next, they applied the model to what really happened—insofar that we've collected and recorded that historical data, at least. To their surprise, researchers found that their equation had a 65 percent accuracy in predicting how humans spread and formed societies over time.
What made the quantitative analysis work so was one particular, ever-reliable clue about mankind's social behavior: war. Warfare—and in particular, the spread of military "weapons" like horses and cavalry—was the number one factor in identifying patterns and accurately predicting our cultural evolution. It makes perfect logical sense. Conflict against other people defines who is "us" and who is "them." Individuals forge bonds when we unite against a common enemy.
"The emergence and spread of technologies enabled more intense forms of warfare that, in turn, created selection pressures for the cultural evolution of norms and institutions, making possible cooperating groups numbering in the millions," the authors explain in the report.
Along with war, geography, agriculture, habitat, and other natural factors helped build the mathematical model. But there's a glaring X factor that was left out of the equation (literally), and that's culture. Yes, farms and spears will go a long way in analyzing broad historical patterns. But they're never going to tell the entire, nuanced story of how millions of humans interacted with each other, grouped together, broke apart, traveled together, traveled alone, fell in love, killed each other, and created traditions for thousands of years.
Still, the researchers believe adding some math-based logic to the study of human history can't hurt. "What's so exciting about this area of research is that instead of just telling stories or describing what occurred, we can now explain general historical patterns with quantitative accuracy," study coauthor Sergey Gavrilets said in a statement. "Explaining historical events helps us better understand the present, and ultimately may help us predict the future."