Quantitative and Physical History

To What Extent Can History Be Quantitatively Modeled?


First published on March 3, 2019

We are concerned with developing a unified history of science, which means that we must be able to propose testable hypotheses. It is a lot easier to reject hypothesis that can be quantified. Yet given how complicated individuals are, and how much complex entire societies of many individuals must be, how could it every be possible to quantify societies? There are ways, but there are some phenomena that first require discussion.

Regimes As Vast Numbers of People

Large regimes are comprised of vast numbers of individuals. Even a small city might contain tens of thousands of people. Most large urban areas contain millions of people. Most powerful countries contain at least 50 million people to over one billion people in modern times.

Even if a regime is governed by a single individual such as a monarch or dictator, the regime is nevertheless comprised of all of the individuals governed, each with their now needs, perspectives, influence and power (even if individually small).

Individual Freedom of Action

These thousands and millions of people each possess their own interests and scope of action. Individuals appear to have a significant scope of freedom of action, even when they have limited civil rights.

Does the Time Make The Hero?

Does individual freedom translate into freedom of action for the entire regime? This brings to mind an age-old question. Does the time make the hero or does the hero make the time? Consider the following two cases.

In football, the San Francisco 49ers were a legendary football team in the 1980s. For much of that time, they were lead by a legendary quarterback, Joe Montana. In one game, the 49ers were behind with 15 seconds left in that game. Then Joe Montana threw a winning touchdown pass and the rest was history. Joe Montana was certainly a great quarterback. Yet, while acknowledging Montana’s skill, coach Bill Walsh pointed out that this last minute play had been rehearsed time and again in a comprehensive system of team training. Montana was part of that system.[1]Without that system, Montana could have thrown a great pass, but there would have been no one there to catch it.

A second case applies to factory assembly lines.[2]  In an assembly line a conveyer belt moves an uncompleted product past a series of workers. Each worker completes a task, which is often dependent upon the already-expended efforts of workers “up-line.” What if one worker works exceptionally diligently and quickly? What will happen? If the worker processes products too fast, there will be a pile of “work-in-process” waiting in front of the next worker who is working more slowly. Unless that next worker speeds up, all that will happen is that the factory’s inventory of unfinished goods will increase, which is a waste of money and resources.  The factory will be harmed. Or the hard-working worker, dependent upon an “up-line” worker for work-in-process, will simply run out of product to work on and have idle time. In neither case do the extra efforts of the diligent worker contribute to the productivity of the factory and in one case even reduces productivity.[3]

In a large, interdependent system, such as a large society, the conclusion here is that it is the time that makes the hero, even if the time is silent as to which individual will earn the title of hero.

Regime As The Summation of Individual Behavior

A regime can be viewed as the sum of the individual contributions and actions of its individuals.  When one thousand carpenters strike one thousand nails with one thousand hammers, the regime is one thousand nails-hits richer. A city is a single legal entity, but is comprised of numerous houses, factories, shops and other structures.

This summation effect appears to tend to cancel out any effect of individual free will over material lengths of time.  Many individuals will behave in one way while many others will behave in the opposite way. Some carpenters will drive nails into boards, while others will remove nails. The larger the society, the greater this canceling effect will tend to be.

Is a regime then completely at the mercy of historical destiny? This is not necessarily so, but the ways a regime can escape its “destiny” are limited and fairly specific in nature.

Regimes As Producers and Consumers of Resources

Regimes can be viewed as produces and consumers of resources. Just as an individual human requires air, water, food and other goods, so does a city albeit in larger amounts. Humans are to regimes as are cells to the human body. Great networks of blood vessels supply nutrients to individual cells and carry away waste. Networks of nerves convey information. In a contemporary society, water is carried in great aqueducts, rail lines and freeways channel in nutrients and remove garbage, and a myriad of telephone and internet lines transmit information. Such resources can be anything necessary to sustain the regime.

Resource Exhaustion

Some resources are partially renewable, such as agriculture production.  Others are limited and can be totally exhausted. Such resources can include fossil fuels, ground water, and old growth forests for example. Social resources can also be exhausted. In business, social resources are accounted under the term “good will” and even have a quantitative financial value placed upon them.

Societies Dependent Upon a Nonrenewable Resource

When a regime is substantially dependent upon a limited, nonrenewable resource, it can be modeled as a function of a normal distribution or other similar distribution. Regimes which are substantially dependent upon mining mineral reserves such as gold and silver are a prime example. Spanish governance over the New World and the mining communities of the San Juan region of Colorado were both highly dependent upon producing gold and silver. Even where a critical physical resource is not apparent, most regimes are dependent upon limited social resources and can therefore be modeled as a Hubbert curve.

Transition Points

A new society grows exponentially. Its people expect that exponential growth will continue. They frequently do not recognize limits to growth soon enough. Production does not match expectations, leading to social disruption. Where growth slows and expectations diverge from actual production represents a transition point and may graphically appear as an inflection point.


[1]William Walsh et al, Finding the Winning Edge.

[2]This example is inspired from Elihu Goldratt, The Goal.  Great Barrington, MA: North River Press, 1992

[3] Goldratt, The Goal.



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