Most important historical trends
Which longterm trends have best predicted humanity’s trajectory?

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Start here for an introduction to prioritisation research

This profile is tailored towards students studying economics and history, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

Analysing long-term historical trends – such as economic and technological changes, and changes to human welfare and values – could help decision-makers anticipate major events, prioritise resources and identify the most effective strategies for positively steering the future.

For example, research could focus on key inflection points that caused the world to rapidly transform in the past, or analyse which trends can be used to predict catastrophic events, in order to help humanity prepare for future events. Research could also seek to identify which trends appear most important for making the world a better place; for example those that seem to improve human wellbeing.

If you’re interested in this research direction, you might find helpful information in many of the other profiles we feature, as analysing long-term historical trends could help predict events and inform attempts to improve the world in many areas. For example, this kind of research could help predict great power wars and societal collapses, or improve our understanding of if and why humanity’s moral circle has widened over time. Understanding which historical trends have had the biggest positive impact on the world could also inform attempts to speed up progress and illuminate which metrics we should use to measure it.

See the talk below for an exploration of one approach to using historical trends to predict future events using cliodynamics.


Explore existing research

Other resources

  • Our World in Data’s list of 12 key metrics to understand the state of the world.
  • Luke Muehlhauser’s post on whether the industrial revolution seems to have increased human wellbeing by analysing various metrics.
  • This spreadsheet from Holden Karnofsky mapping out historical events that seemed to have mattered most from the perspective of wellbeing and empowerment and this blog post about whether wellbeing has improved over time.
  • Seshat is an organisation creating a global history databank to analyse broad historical trends.
  • The research and grant-making foundation Open Philanthropy has done some work in this area – see here for an example.
  • Morris, Ian. The Measure of Civilisation.
  • Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel.
  • Turchin, Peter. Secular Cycles.
  • Christian, David. Maps of Time.
  • Turchin, Peter. Arise Cliodynamics: Toward a New Science of History.
  • Roth, Paul, and Thomas Ryckman. Chaos, Clio, and the Dynamics of History.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
  • Smil, Vaclav. Energy: A Beginner’s Guide.
  • McNeill, John Robert. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World.
  • Dyson, George. Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence.
  • Maynard Smith, John, and Eörs Szathmáry. The Major Transitions in Evolution.
  • Evans, Alice. The Great Gender Divergence (forthcoming)
  • Scheidel, Walter. The Great Leveler.
  • Manning, Patrick. Methods for Human History: Studying Social, Cultural, and Biological Evolution.
  • Chaisson, Eric J. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature.

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

Economic growth has brought significant increases in human welfare. It could be useful to examine what caused increases in economic growth throughout history and how these increases happened (e.g. how sudden they were, and whether they can be explained by the previous levels of growth rate, cultural changes, technological innovations, changes in natural conditions (e.g. climate) or something else). This might help us better understand how we reached our current level of prosperity, and could also help us better predict the likelihood of further increases in economic growth and what form they might take.

It could be useful to look into what sort of curve we can map on historical economic growth (see e.g. Robin Hanson arguing for a sequence of exponential modes vs Paul Christiano arguing for hyperbolic growth). See also Ben Garfinkel and David Roodman (in this report and this talk) on this topic.

Some guiding questions – on which valuable work has already been done – are below. There’s considerable controversy around many of these questions, so attempting to survey the range of expert opinions and explain how much uncertainty remains seems potentially useful.

  • Which trends seem to have been most important for humanity, for example from the perspective of welfare history?
  • Which trends have had the greatest counterfactual impact on where humanity is now?
  • Are there trends that predict large-scale catastrophes, such as great power conflicts or civilisation collapses?
  • What do environmental constraints tell us as predictors of social complexity and carrying capacity?
  • Why did collective learning arise?
  • How do environmental factors such as continental drift, microbes and energy transitions predict social changes?
  • Can energy, or information flows, be reasonably used as a complexity metric?
  • Why was Britain the first country to industrialise and how convincing are current answers to this question? 
  • Do some historical trends predict the development of certain values?
  • What is the rate of change of important metrics throughout history?
  • How predictable is history at the macro level?

Further resources

  • See this post from 80000 Hours on becoming a historian of large social trends for considerations to take into account if you are interested in pursuing this path.

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas.

You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area.

Big History is an interdisciplinary field that explores the history of the universe. Although this means looking at a history over a much longer timescale than we recommend in this profile, you may find researchers in these communities who are particularly open to the kinds of questions we include here. There is an active European Big History network which holds regular meetings and the International Big History Association holds conferences.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas. Because looking at these big picture questions in history is more unusual than looking at events over a more narrow time period, you’ll likely have to put some work into finding an open-minded supervisor who’s willing to support you working on these questions.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

Many history departments will consider research looking at broad historical trends to be outside the scope of academic historical research, however some universities have institutes or programmes focused on Big History, such as the Dominican University of California and the University of Amsterdam.

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This profile was last updated 31/12/22. Thanks to Elise Bohan for helpful feedback on this profile. All errors remain our own.

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