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The Past Doesn’t Tell Easy Stories About the West

Searches for cultural lessons in historical data often go wrong.

By , a historian of late antiquity and the Middle Ages.
A man dressed as a knight checks a sword during the annual Ritterfest at Satzvey Castle in Mechernich, Germany.on September 5, 2020.
A man dressed as a knight checks a sword during the annual Ritterfest at Satzvey Castle in Mechernich, Germany.on September 5, 2020. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

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In an uncertain time, forays into the past for advice are becoming ever more common. They often make for grim reading, like the attempts to harness the “spirit of the Blitz” in the United Kingdom post-Brexit or equating the crisis of American democracy with the downfall of the Roman Republic. Without proper historical expertise, attempts to draw lessons for policy from what happened in the past often end up wandering in the wilds of history without a map. Historical data is not a house cat that purrs on command. It’s more of a wild tiger that will chew you up if you don’t treat it with respect.

To be sure, instrumental use of history goes back a long way. Nowadays, governments in countries as diverse as Poland, Hungary, and India try to write narratives of the past that fit their current goals. Earlier, communist and fascist regimes excelled in weaponizing history to achieve what they wanted. As did Roman emperors, for that matter. But recently, a different form of this phenomenon has appeared. Backed up this time with spurious “data-based” claims, these sweeping statements are often in the service of a fictionalized and self-serving version of Western history. Most of this is coming not from historians themselves but from scientists or pundits who decide that they have discovered a magic key to the past.

In an uncertain time, forays into the past for advice are becoming ever more common. They often make for grim reading, like the attempts to harness the “spirit of the Blitz” in the United Kingdom post-Brexit or equating the crisis of American democracy with the downfall of the Roman Republic. Without proper historical expertise, attempts to draw lessons for policy from what happened in the past often end up wandering in the wilds of history without a map. Historical data is not a house cat that purrs on command. It’s more of a wild tiger that will chew you up if you don’t treat it with respect.

To be sure, instrumental use of history goes back a long way. Nowadays, governments in countries as diverse as Poland, Hungary, and India try to write narratives of the past that fit their current goals. Earlier, communist and fascist regimes excelled in weaponizing history to achieve what they wanted. As did Roman emperors, for that matter. But recently, a different form of this phenomenon has appeared. Backed up this time with spurious “data-based” claims, these sweeping statements are often in the service of a fictionalized and self-serving version of Western history. Most of this is coming not from historians themselves but from scientists or pundits who decide that they have discovered a magic key to the past.

Last September, for instance, neuroscientist Lou Safra and her team attempted to analyze which factors contribute to how “trustworthiness” changes over time using machine learning. The authors examined historical portraiture in order to identify facial features that correlate with “trustworthiness” and discovered that it rises over the period 1500 to 2000 and that this increase correlates with “higher levels of affluence.”

Over the span of the last decade, Peter Turchin and his collaborators have championed a new approach in which history as a discipline will be replaced by cliodynamics, a new way of reading the past through discovering great patterns that explain the course of history and can even predict the future. This is not a new idea in itself. The 20th century, especially 20th-century conservatives, had a love affair with using history as futurology, with varying degrees of credibility. Oswald Spengler and Samuel Huntington wished to see patterns in the historical record that could explain not only why things happen but also how and if they happen. This often meant being very selective with said historical record. It also often meant falling for various forms of Western exceptionalism. Playing loose with history gets worse with every such attempt. Recently, evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich and other proponents of interdisciplinary use of the WEIRD theory—focusing on societies that are “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic”—reached a new level of distortion and Western exceptionalism, claiming that the rise of the West is attributable to psychological reasons rooted in the way the medieval Catholic Church directed an overhaul of marriage rules in Europe. The prohibition of kin marriages, they argue, broke down the clannishness of Western societies.

But those studies lack an important element: context. The authors of the “trustworthiness” study did not, as they thought, take big data on human depictions and extract patterns out of them. In reality, they took fashions, cultural norms, and power structures of a colonial European polity and put them into predictions about an arbitrary feature they called “trustworthiness.” The correlations that they thought they had seen between the rise of this arbitrary feature and the rise of affluence were based on a false understanding of the societies that created those portraits and ultimately of what portraiture actually is. This led them into the vast and broad desert of racial, gender, and economic bias.

Theorists like Turchin try to trim the past in search of neat patterns. Those patterns are supposed to explain phenomena as diverse as the raise of moralizing gods and complex societies or why the beginning of the 21st century was riddled with violence. But under scrutiny, those patterns show themselves to often be just results of omissions and lacunas in the underlying databases. Those studies show so well that curating data, especially historical data, is not a neutral act.

Things do not get better with the WEIRD study. While the church did indeed attempt to influence the marriage rules in Europe, its obsession with regulating the institution was not, contrary to what Henrich claims, a Christian invention. The Romans did the same, attempting to control various minutiae of how people married, as such examples like the lex Papia Poppaea, a 9 A.D. law, show. In fact, Christianity owes many of its precepts on marriage to Roman law, in which polygynous marriages were already prohibited. While the centerpiece of Henrich’s thesis, first-cousin marriages, were permitted, they were actually rarely practiced.

If Henrich’s team had consulted a historian, they could also have learned that just because a church figure said something in the Early Middle Ages didn’t mean people obeyed—or even that it represented the opinion of the whole church. The historian Peter Brown has coined the term “micro-Christendoms” to describe the stunning diversity of views and interpretations that permeated the first millennium of Christianity. Most of the promulgations cited by Henrich as examples of a unifying program are local synods, letters directed to local rulers or ecclesiastics, and only a handful had even a pretense of being widespread. Paradoxically, at the point when the church started to appear more universal, the strictest prescriptions against cousin marriage were already gone.

What unites Henrich and many others is confusing prescriptive sources for reality. What is forbidden is rarely banished, and what is permitted is not always practiced. Medieval sources are particularly tricky in that respect. Take penitentials, essentially handbooks of sins and transgressions—cheat sheets for priests. They offer a lot of information about what their authors thought were common, especially sexuality-related, sins. But they do not necessarily reflect the reality on the ground.

In fact, one of the core texts cited by Henrich to mark the beginning of a unified program to ban cousin marriage, the Book of Responses by Pope Gregory I, was a topic of extremely sharp debate as early as the 8th century. And the dispensations from those strict rules were commonplace—even if they are ignored by Henrich. Brothels might have been discouraged in medieval Christian Europe, but they were widespread and sometimes heavily regulated.

The devil lies in the details, so often brushed aside by those who search only for big patterns. This lack of attention to context truly shows in the work. It’s easy to cherry-pick examples if you’re sloppy about them. For example, contrary to what Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World claims, no “papal commission” visited England in 786 to “assess the progress on Christianizing” and police the imposing of stricter marriage rules. There was a local synod with papal legates present aimed at introducing various reforms. By then, the various kingdoms of Britain had been Christian for almost 200 years. Out of 20 chapters of synodal proceedings, two deal with the problems of marriage and illegitimate children, and one deals with the issues of remaining pagan practices. None is truly innovative or unprecedented.

Henrich postulates that imposing those rules took centuries. But in reality, it was trying to agree on them in the first place that took centuries, and such an agreement was never truly reached. In fact, it was not until the period between the 9th and the 11th centuries that marriage started to be treated as a sacrament, and there was little divergence between Christian and Roman civil law up to that period.

While all this is important, there are broader implications of this carelessness with historical data and the search for great overreaching patterns. They are united with their disdain for the most obvious guides to the wilderness of the past: historians, either directly, by omission, or by misinterpretation. On some level this is understandable: Historians tend to make things awfully complicated. With their attention to context and detail, they point out that overarching narratives are rarely as universal as they seem to be at first glance, that historical data is very peculiar, and that the enormous gaps in the data we have available hide serious pitfalls. Historical data has vagueness and uncertainty built in at the core. Failing to account for that will make you replicate and amplify the existing biases without realizing how it happened—much like the Amazon hiring algorithm that was trained on the resumes supplied to the company over a 10-year period. The human resources engine very quickly started to recommend only men—because men submitted more resumes than women. A bias in the database got replicated and amplified to a degree that the project had to be shut down. What might look pretty on a graph or in an appendix will often be misleading.

In an era of academic PR, stories about Western uniqueness are an easy sell. The trustworthiness study made it into the tabloids, where it was used to give scores to Russian President Vladimir Putin and such celebrities as Kim Kardashian. The most recent book by Henrich got covered with all the historical misunderstandings amplified and used to explain issues as diverse as China’s economic growth and differences in responses to COVID-19 around the globe. Predicting the future through “iron laws” of history and cliodynamics was hailed as an end to the old dusty historian’s purpose. That those “iron laws” required trimming the American Civil War as a statistical outlier evidently did not cause too many raised brows.

For a historian, this is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Stereotypes, racist and classist biases that, although never dead, were at least assumed to have been rebuked, are getting a new lease of life. The misunderstandings of history lead to a particularly dangerous form of Western exceptionalism that looks for a single rule, virtue, or pattern that is supposed to explain how “the West” was just predestined to succeed—as if it was not its fault, but its destiny.

This search has, at the end of the day, one goal: to exonerate modernity. Those distortions feed into populist narratives, even when not intended that way. They make it easier to play loose with the past to push a very current political agenda. History becomes the battlefield about the present. Narratives of exceptionalism already underpin major international issues such as Brexit. It was an argument about history that led to the recent controversies about removing statues in such countries as the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France.

By trimming and remodeling the historical data, the past is being infantilized in order to acquit the present. Greater affluence did not lead to increased trustworthiness in portraits. The monolithic church did not force the West into modernity by forbidding certain forms of marriage so successfully that it rewired European brains. The differences one sees between Europe and the other regions are a result of extremely complex processes. Those processes get simply omitted. Colonialism is mentioned just three times in over 600 pages of Henrich’s latest book—and only in order to dismiss it as a factor.

History and historical data can still teach us so much if we take a guide with us on the way: a historian. We can learn how humans reacted to technological innovations, how pandemics spread, and how societies acted under political crises. But the past will not exonerate the failures of the present.

Mateusz Fafinski is a historian of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin.

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