Our recent article in Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history has been generally very well received, but this week we got slammed with two critical articles, both published as preprints on PsyArchive. It will take us some time to carefully evaluate these claims and publish responses in academic journals. A response to Beheim et al. on analysis issues is in the works, but on my blog I am going to focus more on the criticisms of the Seshat data in Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History”. The first author of this piece is Prof. Slingerland who is the head of the Database of Religious History (DRH), a rival project to Seshat. His co-authors are also associated with the DRH.
One particular issue that they discuss at length is, when did moralizing gods appear in Chinese history? This is an important case study, because it is often used by the proponents of the Big God theory to support their claims (for example, see Section 3.2.2 in The cultural evolution of prosocial religions).
The data coded in Seshat, which we analyzed in the Nature article, suggest that moralizing high gods appear in North China around 1000 BCE during the Western Zhou period (c.1040–771 BCE). First truly large-scale societies in North China appeared roughly half a millennium earlier. During the Erligang period (1650–1250 BCE) the population of the Early Shang polity was at least 1 million, and likely more. The Shang capital city was huge, sprawling over 2500 ha with a population numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, the North China sequence – first large-scale societies, then moralizing gods – supports the general conclusions of the Nature article.
Here’s what Prof. Slingerland and his colleagues have to say on this issue:
These coding errors undermine the analysis presented in Whitehouse et al. (2019). For instance, a crucial datapoint for Whitehouse et al. (2019), a supposed instance of a Natural Geographic Area (NGA) that possessed writing before a moralizing high god, is the Middle Yellow River Valley (MYVR). This is because the Late Shang polity was coded as lacking a moralizing god, based on a citation from Robert Eno, an expert on the area. Eno’s opinion, however, is in the minority in the field, as anyone familiar with the literature would know. A look at expert-generated, pre-coded data from the DRH shows that Eno’s view (https://religiondatabase.org/browse/299/#/) is contradicted by the other two entries on the Shang, by the eminent scholars David Keightley (https://religiondatabase.org/browse/23/#/) and Lothar von Falkenhausen (https://religiondatabase.org/browse/187/#/). Re-coding this variable as 1 (based on majority opinion) or weighting it as .66 would seriously undermine Whitehouse et al.’s conclusion.
This paragraph is a good example of the strident, self-righteous tone permeating Prof. Slingerland’s critique. Wherever there is a difference between a Seshat code and a DRH code, the professor counts it as a Seshat error. But is this conclusion justified?
In the Early Shang/Erligang period (1650–1250 BCE), archaeologists find bone fragments and ceramic jars with inscribed characters, but no records that could tell us about the specific tenets of religious practices in this period. Records become abundant during the late Shang (1250–1045 BCE). Most of what is known of Shang’s religion is written on 107,000 “oracle” bones.
Di, the High God of the Shang, was the god of rain, snow, hail, wind, thunder, and disasters. According to Robert Eno’s translations of Shang oracle bones, Di could summon natural phenomena to ruin harvests or call lightning, but also could support or ruin political and military endeavors. The Shang king acted as an intermediary to appease or influence Di through the correct ritual sacrifices. Eno concludes there is no evidence in the oracle bone records for Di as a moralizing force: “Nowhere in the texts do we see clear indication that the Powers are beneficent …. The Shang rulers seek advance approval for their actions – sometimes, it seems, obsessively – but there is no suggestion that the basis for approval will be anything other than the arbitrary inclinations of the Powers” (Eno 2009: 100).
The introduction of the concept of Tian (Heaven) in Western Zhou inscriptions has prompted scholars, such as archaeologist Li Feng, to question the nature of religious continuity between the Late Shang and Western Zhou. The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven became a central concept in the Western Zhou, making a significant change in the Chinese religious landscape. Evidence from the Western Zhou on the Mandate of Heaven is sparse. Robert Eno points to a 998 BCE Western Zhou inscription that quotes a ruler named King Kang claiming the Shang had lost the Mandate of Heaven because of its king’s acceptance of poor behavior like drunkenness and overall bad governance.
To summarize: we have plenty of evidence from the Late Shang period about horrifying and capricious deities, who exhibit a complete lack of concern for human moral behavior, and instead need to be placated by sacrifices and rituals. David Keightley provides numerous examples of such, distinctly not moralizing, behavior in the Shang inscriptions. The first signs of a moralizing high god appear only during the Western Zhou period. So why did the DRH experts coded it differently?
Let’s look into the DRH data coded by Prof. von Falkenhausen. For China, 1750–850 BCE, the DRH asks, is there supernatural monitoring of prosocial norm adherence? The answer by the expert is “yes.” It would be interesting to know what Prof. von Falkenhausen thinks about the Shang-Zhou transition, but all we have is a “yes”. This is quite different from the Seshat record, which provides a paragraph explaining the basis of the code (“no” for Late Shang and “yes” for Western Zhou) and gives an academic reference for the change.
Furthermore, we might ask, what is the basis for coding “yes” for the whole period, 1750–850 BCE. During this period, nearly a millennium, the society and polity of North China was utterly transformed. It seems foolhardy to code it as one period. In contrast, Seshat not only breaks up this millennium in four phases, but also allows us to capture any changes within a phase by attaching such a change to a date. Furthermore, 1750 BCE falls into the Erlitou period (1850–1600 BCE) for which there are no records that could throw light on Erlitou religion. One wonders, what is the evidential basis for the code in this early period. Unfortunately, “yes” for 1750–850 BCE as a whole is all we have.
I want to emphasize that the preceding is in no way a criticism of Prof. von Falkenhausen, who is an excellent and broadly respected archaeologist of Ancient China. This strange coding – indeed, one could use Prof. Slingerland’s term and refer to it as a “coding error” – is, rather, a failure of the DRH.
Now, unlike Prof. Slingerland and his DRH, we at the Seshat project make no claim that we know the ultimate truth. All data codes in Seshat are subject to change as new or additional evidence is brought to bear. But in this particular case I see no reason why Seshat codes for the Shang and Western Zhou periods need to be adjusted.
In this blog post I delved into just one, although important, example from the critique leveled at us by Prof. Slingerland and his co-authors. But more broadly their critique is full of gross misrepresentations, simple misunderstandings, and false charges. We are currently writing a scholarly response to it, which will eventually be published in the Journal of Cognitive History. In our response we will demonstrate that Seshat is the most reliable source of data ever created to test cultural evolutionary hypotheses using world history.