Graphing Influence

As today seems to be the day of cool visualizations on this blog, so on this note I’d like to highlight a really cool way of analyzing the influence of various people (philosophers, coding languages, etc) on history.

One of the basic strategies is to feed the information in Wikipedia info-boxes into a computer program called gephi that creates graphs of influence. The more connections a particular node has the bigger it appears, and distinct groupings of objects have the same color. I won’t reproduce the images here because they are typically so big (>10MB) but they are quite fascinating so here is a list of links to the relevant posts.

  • Graphing the history of philosophy by Simon Raper. Note how the the algorithm successfully manages to recognize distinct schools just by analyzing the number of connections within them. The biggest nodes are those of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and Schopenhauer which is broadly consistent with general informed opinion on the greatest voices in Western philosophy.
  • Following up on the The Graph of Ideas by Griff’s Graphs (who is also the author of all subsequent graphs linked to here). It goes beyond the above by also including authors (including sci-fi/fantasy) and comedians. We get an idea of the most influential authors – Hemingway, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Borges, Nabokov, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft; though the Big 7 philosophers both within philosophy and overall.
  • This was followed up by a Graph of Ideas 2.0 in which nodes were sized not by direct influence but by the total number of other nodes with which they were connected with (so, theoretically, an obscure ancient Greek philosopher with just one connection to Plato would also have access to Plato’s entire network). This results in a pretty meaningless graph in which the influence of ancient philosophers is over-weighed.
  • Graph of Mathematicians isn’t very useful because too many outright philosophers creep up and achieve prominent (Bertrand Russell? Avicenna?). There is no clearly dominant grouping.
  • The Graph of Programming Languages is more interesting; Haskell, Java, C dominate, followed by a dozen or so of the likes of Algol-68, C++, Fortran, Perl, Python, Lua, Ruby, Smalltalk, Pascal, and Lisp. I do not have the background to assess if this is an accurate representation of reality, though I’ve never heard of Haskell, and would have guessed Fortran and Lisp would be higher.
  • The Graph of Sports Teams.
  • The Graph of Beer though they don’t really influence each other all that much.
  • The Graph of Human Diseases is apparently dominated by colon cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, and deafness.

There is clearly a lot of scope to continue building on these graphs, especially involving ideas (philosophers, politicians, economists, sociologists, authors, etc) though finding or building the requisite databases is a time-consuming endeavour. Interesting patterns will also emerge. For instance, now that I think of it, the most influential person in history is Jesus Christ, and Karl Marx is surely in the top ten. Amazing really how deep Jewish over-achievement goes even on the biggest historical scale.

Another interesting project would be to build a graph of influence in the blogosphere perhaps based on some combination of blogroll connections and visitor numbers. This will of course be a very computationally demanding project given that there are something like 100 million blogs in existence today.

Book Review: Kenneth Pomeranz – The Great Divergence

Pomeranz, Kenneth – The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001)
Category: economy, history, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Brad DeLong’s reviewThe Bactra Review; Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial?

The Power Of Contingency: Why China Didn’t Rule The World

great-divergence-pomeranzIt’s a rare book that not only vastly informs you on a particular issue, but in so doing overturns many prior conceptions you had on the general subjects. Now, Pomeranz is not a good writer. The text is slow and turgid, and readable only by dint of my interest in the subject. Many potential counter-arguments go unanswered (which is not to say that they sink the overall theory, as I will try to prove in this review). All that said, I have little choice but to give it a 5*/5, as this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.

This book attempts to answer the big question of world economic history: Why Europe? It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age such as Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India. The first big finding is that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – there were far more similarities than differences, at least between Britain and the most advanced Chinese region, the Yangtze Delta.

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Book Review: Howard Bloom – The Lucifer Principle

Depressingly fatalist, morbidly truthful, irresistibly Nietzschean. That’s Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” in a nutshell: a meandering trawl through disciplines such as genetics, psychology and culture that culminates in a theory of evil, purporting to explain its historical necessity, its creative potential and the possibility of it ever being vanquished. The odds do not appear to be good. For in the world painted by Bloom, peace is submission, social hierarchies are natural, ideas are polarizing, and liberal individualism is invidious to the collective “superorganism” that both oppresses, nourishes and saves us. Fascism really is the “natural state” in every sense of the term.

Bloom, Howard – The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (1995)
Category: human society, psychology, history; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Amazon reviews, James Schultz

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Book Review: Peter Turchin – War and Peace and War

Then you might get something like Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, which I’ve finally read on the recommendations of Kolya and TG. Ranging from Ermak’s subjugation of the Sibir Khanate to the rise of Rome, Turchin makes the case that the rise and fall of empires is reducible to three basic concepts: 1) Asabiya – social cohesiveness and capacity for collective action, 2) Malthusian dynamics – the tendency for population to outgrow the carrying capacity, and 3) the “Matthew Principle” – the tendency for inequality and social stratification to increase over time. The interplay between these three forces produces the historical patterns of imperial rise and fall, of war and peace and war, that were summarized by Thomas Fenne in 1590 thus:

Warre bringeth ruine, ruine bringeth poverty, poverty procureth peace, and peace in time increaseth riches, riches causeth statelinesse, statelinesse increaseth envie, envie in the end procureth deadly malice, mortall malice proclaimeth open warre and bataille, and from warre again as before is rehearsed.

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Cliodynamics: Mathematizing History

One of the most interesting emerging sciences today, in my opinion, is cliodynamics. Their practitioners attempt to come to with mathematical models of history to explain “big history” – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse. To the casual observer history may appear to be chaotic and fathomless, devoid of any overreaching pattern or logic, and consequently the future is even more so (because “the past is all we have”).

This state of affairs, however, is slowly ebbing away. Of course, from the earliest times, civilizational theorists like Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee dreamed of rationalizing history, and their efforts were expounded upon by thinkers like Nikolai Kondratiev, Fernand Braudel, Joseph Schumpeter, and Heinz von Foerster. However, it is only with the newest crop of pioneers like Andrei Korotayev, Sergey Nefedov, and Peter Turchin that a true, rigorous mathematized history is coming into being – a discipline recently christened cliodynamics.

As an introduction to this fascinating area of research, I will summarize, review, and run an active commentary on one of the most comprehensive and theoretical books on cliodynamics: Introduction to Social Macrodynamics by Korotayev et al (it’s quite rare, as there’s only a single copy of it in the entire UC library system). The key insight is that world demographic / economic history can be modeled to a high degree of accuracy by just three basic trends: hyperbolic / exponential, cyclical, and stochastic.

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Book Review: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs, and Steel

While trawling through my computer archives, I stumbled across this book review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” from five years ago. Overall, it’s a great book, better than his follow-up “Collapse”, which is also interesting – especially in the psychological aspects of “collapse”, like creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia” – but far from the best in the genre (that would be Tainter).

Diamond, Jared – Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997)
Category: world systems, history, anthropology; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Guns, Germs, and Steel (wiki)

Having finished reading this book in November 2004, I came away impressed by its success in compressing 13,000 years of human history into a lucid and compelling explanation of why the rate of socio-economic development varied so significantly on different continents, without resorting to culturalist or racialist arguments. Jared Diamond succeeds spectacularly at proving why Eurasia had become by 1500 AD (the dawn of “Europe’s assault on the world”) the world’s most technologically advanced continent, far ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Australasia. In the final chapter, he extends the analysis to question why, within Eurasia, it was Europe that decisively overtook apparently better-endowed competitors (primarily China) within the next four hundred years and proceeded to “remake the world in its own image”.

The underlying thesis in this work is that the environment is the primary shaper of human societies – hence the title of Chapter 2, “A Natural Experiment of History”. Connected with Diamond’s general aim of transforming human history into a scientific discipline, it explains how the Austronesians who populated the Polynesian islands, despite sharing common ancestors in Fujian, China, went on to produce remarkably different societies – agricultural and hunter-gatherer, technologically adept and primitive, oligarchic and egalitarian.

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