Earlier this year, renowned historian Niall Ferguson authored a piece in Foreign Affairs which presented human civilisations as complex adaptive systems, in contrast with the traditional view of civilisations as moving through a gradual cyclical of growth and decline.
As Ferguson argues, the cyclical model of civilisations has been long shared by historians, political theorists, anthropologists, and the public at large. Writers as diverse as Vico, Hegel, Marx and Toynbee shared a common belief and assumption that the history of humanity had some kind of natural rhythm to it. There is a rather standard theory underlying all of this – that all societies will inevitably move through a number of stages, a kind of grand narrative of rise and fall.
Different disciplines have their own distinctive take on this rise and fall, but with some strong underlying resonances. So, for example, economic historians such as Paul Kennedy suggest that great powers rise and fall “according to the growth rates of their industrial bases and the costs of their imperial commitments relative to their GDPs.” By contrast, ecological historians such as Jared Diamond argue something like this: “population[s] grew larger than their fragile and inefficient agricultural system could support. More people meant more cultivation, but more cultivation meant deforestation, erosion, drought, and soil exhaustion. The result was civil war over dwindling resources and, finally, collapse.”
Easter Island, one of the civilisations described by Jared Diamond in Collapse
However, alternatives theories are available, which are based on a more realistic understanding of how change actually happens. As Ferguson asks:
What if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic — at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?”
Ferguson argues that great powers and empires can be characterised as complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components, that “more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid.” As such, they operate between order and disorder, on “the edge of chaos”, and while they may appear to be stable and in equilibrium for long stretches, they are in fact constantly adapting to maintain the overall sense of stability.
But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.” A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis.”
Bond Trader, London, 2008
This so-called sandpile effect is, according to Ferguson, all too often misunderstood and misrepresented by those who seek to explain past events. The fundamental problem is that analysts who analyse such crises tend to explain low-frequency, high-impact moments – wars, crashes, collapses – by misunderstanding complexity and how it works.
Instead of looking at the interconnectedness of the events and the prevailing context, most analysts try to explain crises in terms of linear, long-term causes. This is the ‘narrative fallacy’ identified in popular works such as the Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and this gives rise to a much more cyclical, and perhaps more comprehensible, model of change.
As Ferguson suggests:
Drawing casual inferences about causation is an age-old habit. Take World War I. A huge war breaks out in the summer of 1914, to the great surprise of nearly everyone. Before long, historians have devised a story line commensurate with the disaster: a treaty governing the neutrality of Belgium that was signed in 1839, the waning of Ottoman power in the Balkans dating back to the 1870s, and malevolent Germans and the navy they began building in 1897. A contemporary version of this fallacy traces the 9/11 attacks back to the Egyptian government’s 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist writer who inspired the Muslim Brotherhood.
In reality, according to Ferguson, the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess. So, from his perspective:
World War I was actually caused by a series of diplomatic miscalculations in the summer of 1914, the real origins of 9/11 lie in the politics of US and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s… Most of the fat-tail phenomena that historians study are not the climaxes of prolonged and deterministic story lines; instead, they represent perturbations, and sometimes the complete breakdowns, of complex systems.
Ferguson concludes that “an understanding of how complex systems function is an essential part of any strategy to anticipate and delay their failure…” On the other hand, according to Taleb, the profound misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions – what he terms ‘aggressive ignorance’ – can lead to triggering a multitude of Black Swans: “like a child playing with a chemistry kit”.
There is a lot of uncertainty in the application of ideas in complexity to social, economic and political problems (see for example the debates kicked off by Bill Easterly using fractals to describe inequality last week on Aid Watch). What is clear, however, is that establishing the kind of understanding Ferguson and Taleb call for is far from straightforward:
causal relationships are often nonlinear, which means that traditional methods of generalizing through observation (such as trend analysis and sampling) are of little use… Some theorists of complexity would go so far as to say that complex systems are wholly nondeterministic, meaning that it is impossible to make predictions about their future behavior based on existing data.”
As argued in a previous aid on the edge of chaos post, the biggest challenges to the wider take-up of such complexity-inspired suggestions is that, if they stay both sensible and true to the principles of complexity, they tend not to provide recipes which can be followed. Rather, complex adaptive systems theory:
- provides a set of lenses with which to look at the world,
- helps pose questions which can help better understand the dynamics of real world systems, and
- helps generate insights as to how these dynamics can be ‘sensed’ and ‘navigated’
There is much of relevance here for thinking about development and humanitarian work. As a recent interviewee suggested to me, complexity theory helps us understand processes of development as continuous, emergent and full of surprises.
But aid efforts – sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes because of contractual necessity, sometimes through sheer incompetence – tend to misrepresent these evolutionary processes of change in the complex systems that are developing countries.
And so at its simplest, the lesson to draw from Ferguson’s essay is that in order to….
…first we have to understand better exactly how history is made.
(Thanks to Rick Davies for bringing the original article to my attention)