June 11, 2011 at 2:05 am | Posted in Africa, Books, History, India, Latin America | Leave a comment








Natural Experiments of History

Jared Diamond (Editor), James A. Robinson (Editor)

Editorial Reviews


A superb collection of eminently teachable essays bound together by a common methodological framework that connects it directly to cutting-edge theoretical and empirical research across the disciplines of anthropology, archeology, history, political science, and sociology.
–John Coatsworth, Columbia University

Natural Experiments of History reaches across a wide variety of disciplines, in ways that should be accessible to just about every educated reader. It is tied together not by topic or region but by the idea that we can make useful and insightful comparisons in ways that are not casual or sloppy, but actually contribute to our understanding of human life.
–Jeffrey Frieden, Harvard University

Natural Experiments of History is a short book packed with huge ideas. Its collected essays advocate how controlled experiments can be applied to the messy realities of human history, politics, culture, economics and the environment. It demonstrates productive interdisciplinary collaborations but also reveals gulfs between different cultures of academia…All of the essays in Natural Experiments of History will trigger debate.
–Jon Christensen (Nature )

This ambitious, at times challenging, book aspires to contribute new ways of historical thinking and historical research by drawing attention, on the one hand, to the similarities between science (including social sciences) and history, and on the other, by using social sciences methods, especially statistical analysis, to study history. The editors argue that though the difference between studies of nature and human history is obvious, there are clear overlaps. They can be viewed through studying comparative history or by conducting “natural experiments of history” and analyzing the “perturbations” and their causes (exogenous or endogenous) in the involved cases. The book offers a broad array of case studies to illustrate and explain the argument, ranging from nonliterate to contemporary societies and from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to Brazil, India, and tropical Africa. The comparative methods showcased are quite versatile, from two-way to multiple-way comparisons. All the case studies are interesting and help demonstrate how, via comparative study, one society’s, region’s, or country’s situation is better displayed and explained by juxtaposing it with other, similar ones. A useful read in macro, global history.
–Q. E. Wang (Choice )

Natural Experiments of History is a thought-provoking collection of essays that covers an impressive array of topics and would make an excellent text for a course on comparative studies of human history.”
–Thomas E. Currie (Cliodynamics )

Product Description

Some central questions in the natural and social sciences can’t be answered by controlled laboratory experiments, often considered to be the hallmark of the scientific method. This impossibility holds for any science concerned with the past. In addition, many manipulative experiments, while possible, would be considered immoral or illegal. One has to devise other methods of observing, describing, and explaining the world.

In the historical disciplines, a fruitful approach has been to use natural experiments or the comparative method. This book consists of eight comparative studies drawn from history, archeology, economics, economic history, geography, and political science. The studies cover a spectrum of approaches, ranging from a non-quantitative narrative style in the early chapters to quantitative statistical analyses in the later chapters. The studies range from a simple two-way comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, to comparisons of 81 Pacific islands and 233 areas of India. The societies discussed are contemporary ones, literate societies of recent centuries, and non-literate past societies. Geographically, they include the United States, Mexico, Brazil, western Europe, tropical Africa, India, Siberia, Australia, New Zealand, and other Pacific islands.

In an Afterword, the editors discuss how to cope with methodological problems common to these and other natural experiments of history.

Product Details:

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; Reprint edition
  • April 15, 2011
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674060199
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674060197

This book is a collection of 7 essays, most of which are quite dry and academic.

Diamond co-wrote the prologue (which is mostly a summary of the book’s contents) and afterword. He also authored (alone) one chapter, which is a comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Specifically, he examines why Haiti and the DR have turned out so differently, despite the fact that they share the same island. Much of this is discussed also in his book Collapse, but the chapter is still very interesting.

Another chapter (by Kirch) compares a few different Polynesian islands, to try and discover which variables led to different political histories. Some areas of the world discussed in other chapters are: West Africa, India, and the western US, among a couple of others.

Natural experiments in history is a fascinating set of essays looking at seven historical “experiments”. Each chapter has a different author who presents the reader with a wealth of information of their subject of expertise. The writing styles vary, as expected, from author to author. Jared Diamond’s chapter on the origin of the differences between Haiti and the Dominican republic, and on different Pacific Islands is the highlight of the book.


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