Quicklet on Natural Experiments of History edited by Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson

by Nicole Silvester

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • About the Book
    • About the Author
    • Synopsis
    • Chapter-By-Chapter Commentary & Summary
    • Key Character List
    • Key Terms and Definitions
    • Major Themes and Symbols
    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Additional Reading



Natural Experiments in History grew, in a way, out of co-editor Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. In the earlier book, he spent a chapter looking at the Polynesian expansion as a near-perfect natural experiment in which a single ancestral Polynesian culture migrated to hundreds of islands in the Pacific Ocean, each with its own different geographic features. Because the culture that settled the islands was the same, any differences that developed between separate island societies could be largely attributed to the geography of the individual islands.

At the conclusion of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond noted that there were many other such natural experiments in history, just waiting to be studied, and he called for historians to pick up where he left off and see what else could be learned. Of course, scholars have been using such natural experiments for a long time, especially in other disciplines like archaeology and anthropology, but they have not been as popular in historical scholarship. With Natural Experiments of History the editors and authors hope to illustrate how natural experiments can be used to bring the rigours of the hard sciences to historical scholarship, both in descriptive and statistics-based studies.


Nicole has been writing since she could make letters with a pencil, and has been making a living at it for more than ten years. She has gone back to school too many times, studying archaeology, folklore, writing and visual art. She writes fiction under several pen names, and also does printmaking, book arts, and photography. She's an avid amateur natural historian with a particular fascination for things that fly, whether it's birds, bats or insects. And if it's possible to be both a luddite, with a love for the low-tech, and a technophile, with a fascination for everything new and shiny, Nicole is both. She reads too many books, plays too many video games, and watches too much anime.


Natural Experiments of History, as mentioned above, is a collection of studies of different parts of the world at different periods of time, that all share the use of the “natural experiment” as their connecting theme. Many sciences use experiments to test hypotheses about cause and effect or the relationships of physical, testable variables. While the historical sciences — that is, any field of study involving the past, which includes disciplines as varied as geology, astrophysics, and archaeology — can’t set up tests in a lab or travel back in time to change things in the past to see how that change might affect a particular society, they can still use experiments of a sort. They can use situations naturally arising in history that resemble experiments.

The first four studies in the book (chapters 1 through 3 and the first half of chapter 4) are descriptive. That is, they make no use of statistics, but instead describe the situations and the development of the societies under study through history. In chapter 1, the subject is three parts of Polynesia. By comparing the three societies to each other and especially to their ancestral Polynesian culture, and then looking at the geography and other features of the islands on which the three societies are located, the author shows how social structures evolved in response to the environmental variables on the different islands. In chapter 2 the American West is examined at different points in its boom-and-bust cycles and compared to the European colonization and expansion into other frontiers during the same general time period. The author is able to conclude that 19th century European expansion followed a fairly regular cycle of boom-bust-recovery that played out in much the same way each time.

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