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Mark E. Hall
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The Rhythms of History by Stephen Blaha is one of the latest contributions in the filed of macrohistory. Drawing uncritically on Toynbee's A Study of History, Blaha attempts to develop a quantitative theory of civilizations. Over the course of eighteen chapters and two appendices, he reviews Toynbee's theory of civilizations, develops a series of mathematical equations to model Toynbee's theory, and subsequently applies the equations to several civilizations. Not to be limited to this planet alone, Blaha even provides a chapter on extraterrestrial civilizations.
A few words are in order concerning Toynbee's theory of civilizations. Toynbee saw civilizations developing in a rally-rout cycle of three and a half beats, with each cycle consisting of a growth, breakdown and disintegration phase. Blaha tries to model this theory with equations based on harmonic oscillators. Another facet is that Toynbee downplayed material factors in the development and decline of civilizations, and instead stressed religious and philosophical factors.
While the book claims to be a quantitative theory of civilizations (see the jacket and Chapter 4), quantities such as the societal level (S) and the rate of change (C), are relative quantities and have no way of being measured. Granted, this is admitted at several points in the book (see for example in Chapters 4 and 8). Blaha, following Toynbee, sees the societal level corresponding to the overall feeling of the civilization's inhabitants, and not necessarily their material culture, wealth or population (pgs. 124-126).
Credulity is strained though when examining the equations for the societal level and rate of change. Instead of finding variables like population size, energy use, socio-cultural development, or technological developments, one finds that the societal level and rate of change are based on calendrical time, constants, and nebulously defined forces (F). The constants in some cases are derived from the number of years between events that are seen to be important by either Toynbee or Blaha, or they are defined in an ad-hoc fashion (see for example pages 82-88).
Examining the numerous plots of societal level versus calendrical time, leads one to wonder exactly what proof the author has to support any of his results. For example, dealing with my specialty, in the plot of Japanese civilization (pg. 89), Blaha sees it beginning in 58 BC during the Yayoi period. The plot shows that the highest societal level reached at any point in Japanese civilization occurred during the Yayoi period in AD 76. The Yayoi culture was a non-urban, ranked agricultural society that left no written records. The only contemporary written accounts of the Yayoi culture are brief passages in the Chinese histories Han Shu and Wei Chih. My curiosity is piqued as to how the societal level and rate of cultural change can be determined for a society that left no written record when the material culture is being ignored. Even if the material remains are taken into account, I am still baffled as to how the Yayoi culture achieved a societal level higher than Japanese civilization during the Kamakura period (AD 1185-1333) or Meiji era (AD 1868-1912). The high societal level reached during the reign of the legendary emperor Nintoku is also problematic; once again this is a time period from which there are practically no contemporary written accounts.
This is not the only problematic section. There are also numerous other mistakes and errors littering this book. Detailing them all will take far more space than this review has.
The paucity of the bibliography is also disturbing given the scope of this book. Only seventeen references are listed in the bibliography, and the majority of them were published before 1970. While not being dismissive of earlier works, the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and history have all gone through massive paradigm shifts in the intervening years. For the prehistoric and early historic civilizations covered in this book, new discoveries since 1970 have also altered our understanding of them. The bibliography also has a noticeable absence of books and articles on the use of mathematical models and simulation studies in the social sciences. With the advent of personal computers, this is an area of research that has grown immensely. In my opinion, the sparseness of the bibliography demonstrates a lack of primary research and understanding of the complexity of the topic under study.
At best, The Rhythms of History is an example of how not to use mathematical models in historical research. The equations and graphs look impressive at first, but close examination of them reveals historical, methodological and theoretical errors. If you are interested in macro-history, I would strongly suggest books by Diamond, Fernandez-Armesto, or even Toynbee.