Henry Adams and an Entropic History

Source: Wikipedia

I am fascinated by how people historically viewed the world around them. Not “world” in the sense of politics or the current state of media, but “world” on a more cosmological scale. Changes in cosmological views are why we revere the scientists we do (like Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and Einstein). There is a much greater diversity in these large-scale views, however, and that is what I find so interesting – the views that are not frequently expressed. My favorite example I recently discovered was Lyell’s cyclical conception of the earth’s history which you can read about here, at History of Geology. The cosmological view I will tell you about here is the historian Henry Adams’ conception of an entropic history.

By the way, does anyone know any good books that analyze this kind of idea?

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When it came to reducing human history to scientific law, perhaps no one is surpassed by the American historian Henry Adams (1838-1918) – he believed that human history could be explained by an already existing law of physics: The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The Second Law was developed throughout the 19th century as scientists and engineers puzzled over the problem of losing energy permanently due to the dissipation of heat. While the Second Law has a mathematical description, it can also be stated in layman’s terms as “any system which is free of external influences [will] become more disordered with time” and “this disorder can be expressed in terms of the quantity called entropy” (HyperPhysics). Essentially, the law states that with time, any closed system (including the universe) will become more and more “disordered” over time as energy is continually dissipated into useless heat and entropy increases. (This definition is sufficiently similar to the working definition Adams employs.)

While in some ways this law could be interpreted as historical (and predictive of the future) since it arguably establishes an “arrow of time” and spells out the eventual end of the universe, Adams decided to apply this principle to human history specifically (and not necessarily only as a strict metaphor). Unlike many other historians, Adams did not subscribe to the upward progressive theory of history. To the contrary, by invoking the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he claimed that humanity was actually “the most advanced type of physical decadence, no longer at the top but at the bottom of the ladder” (Adams 60). Because humans recently evolved, they are more “disordered” than their evolutionary predecessors. He “cited mounting evidence of man’s decline in the form of increasing rates of suicide, insanity, alcohol and drug abuse, and other aberrations.” “Even more disturbing was the continuing ‘enfeeblement’ of man’s mental powers as reflected in the deterioration of his noblest instincts – religion, law, manners, morality, and art” (Burich 470). Furthermore, although humans were in fact building highly organized structures and institutions, the complexity and bloat were further increasing entropy and disorder. As societies ‘progressed’ through time, entropy increased – and it was because entropy was inevitable that society was deteriorating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Adams’ ideas were not well received. The historian William Thayer (1921) lambasted the entropic view of history for multiple reasons: (1) While Adams argued for a history governed by the second law of thermodynamics, he never applied it to history himself. Instead, his actual historical works were completely traditional. (2) Adams never shows nor instructs historians how to historically measure the dissipation of energy. How much energy did the Civil War dissipate, for example? (3) Why single out the Second Law of Thermodynamics and ignore “the law of gravitation, or of capillary action, or the binomial theorem?” (Thayer 82). Because Thayer believed these problems were so obvious he wondered if Adams was “making fun of historians” as there was no way to actually carry out his proposal (Thayer 82).

[Note: What follows is a comparison between Henry Adams and Henry Buckle. The stuff that precedes what you read in this post focuses on Buckle – a historian who thought history could be made into a science. He had some laws of his own (political in nature) but they were nowhere near the nature of Adams’ reduction of history to a scientific law.]

Furthermore, Adams’ history ignored Buckle’s central underlying idea – what mattered was not only observing how nature affected human history, but arguably (and more importantly) what mattered was the application of scientific methodology. Only through observing the facts and inferring how those facts could be explained could actual historical laws be discovered. Instead, Adams’ argument is not inductive, but is instead deductive. Adams took the Second Law and tried to fit history under its control. Thayer’s third argument strikes at the heart of the problem: What evidence led Adams to conclude that entropy was the arbiter of history? While Adams is correct in saying the history of the universe follows the law of entropy, human history is localized and brief and does not reside in a closed system (the sun continually gives Earth energy). Human history can defy entropy. Adams’ history, while scientific in the sense that it uses a scientific idea to explain history, is not scientific methodologically – Buckle’s history had both.

Adams had gone farther than Buckle, however, by attempting to explain (or theorizing the explanation’s existence anyway) human history in a much more reductionist manner. While Buckle explained history by arguing that humanity was essentially constrained by its environment, the theory is much more holistic than Adams’ reductionist use of an actual physical law described in a few mathematical statements. As perceived by critics and positivist followers, Buckle’s theories have a higher explanatory power, follow the scientific method and have been used by historians up to the present day, albeit unknowingly. Scientific history is still controversial, but it is not flat-out rejected as Adams’ theory quickly was.

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Adams, Henry. A Letter to American Teachers of History. Washington, 1910.

Keith Burich (1987). Henry Adams, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the Course of History Journal of the History of Ideas, 48 (3), 467-482. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709763

Thayer, William R. “Vagaries of Historians.” Annual Report of the American Historical Association 1951, no. 1 (1921).

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