Axial-Age Religions and the Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism
Funded by the John Templeton Foundation
The long-term evolution of social and economic inequality in human societies appears to have followed a zig-zag pattern. Our closest primate relatives are characterized by dominance hierarchies, yet early human groups were highly egalitarian. With the advent of agriculture larger-scale, more hierarchical and unequal societies emerged. The Axial Age saw yet another turn, a move towards greater egalitarianism. In this project we seek to understand what caused these fluctuations in inequality, and how societies balance the pros and cons of hierarchical organization. Religion may have played an extremely important, yet little appreciated role in these processes. The goal of the proposed research is to test this idea by analyzing the role of religion, social equity norms, and inter-societal competition in the evolution of egalitarianism. Our theoretical framework for addressing these issues is modern cultural evolutionary theory. To accomplish our goal we will construct a large historical database using an innovative approach that will assemble the specialized knowledge of experts on the characteristics of past human societies. A range of competing hypotheses will be tested using rigorous, quantitative statistical analyses. The results of our analyses will be disseminated via multiple high-impact, high-profile publications . A workshop involving policy makers will help translate the empirical findings of our investigations into practical measures that help create more inclusive and cohesive societies. The project will create a new, interactive, open-access database that in the long term will enable many other important questions to be addressed. The establishment of our database will create an enduring impact on the way research into human societies is conducted, making it easier to to share and collate knowledge in order to test hypotheses about the past quantitatively and rigorously, and helping to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences.
The Deep Roots of the Modern World: Investigating the Cultural Evolution of Economic Growth and Political Stability
Funded by the Tricoastal Foundation
Why is there so much variation in the ability of different human societies to construct viable states and nurture productive economies? And why sometimes do states fail and economies crash? In their search for explanations, most economists and political scientists focus on current conditions. If history is considered at all, few look beyond the last 10 or 20 years.
Yet modern societies did not suddenly appear 20 or even 50 years ago—they gradually evolved from pre-existing societies over many centuries and millennia. History matters. For example, if one were to rank countries in 1500 from the wealthiest to the poorest, it would not be very dissimilar from their rankings today. The degree of economic development in 1500 AD, in turn, is correlated with that of 1000 BC. The ability of humans to cooperate in political settings is similarly conditioned by history. For example, the efficiency of provincial governments in Italy is closely correlated with the vibrancy of civic life in the province during the Renaissance, and that has deep roots going back to the late Roman.
History also records many dramatic reversals in the fortunes of human societies. Explaining both the rise and fall of societies over time is one of the greatest intellectual puzzles in the social sciences. And adjudicating between competing theories is not just an academic question: the potential implications for public policy are profound. For example, so far efforts by the international community to reverse persistent poverty in such tropical nations as Haiti, and in much of Africa, have been unsuccessful. In order to design better economic development programs we need a much better understanding of the deep historical causes of economic growth, or lack of it.
Ritual, Community, and Conflict
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse)
Some of the greatest atrocities have been caused by groups defending or advancing their political aspirations and sacred values. In order to comprehend and address the wanton violence of war, terrorism and genocide, it is necessary to understand the forces that bind and drive human groups. This five-year programme of research investigates one of the most powerful mechanisms by which groups may be formed, inspired, and coordinated: ritual.
This project examines the role of ritual in child development, in social behaviour, and in the evolution of political systems:
- Studying how children learn the rituals of their communities will shed light on the various ways in which rituals promote social cohesion within the group and distrust of groups with different ritual traditions
- Qualitative field research, surveys, and controlled psychological experiments will be conducted in a number of troubled regions (including the Middle East and North Africa) to investigate the role of ritual in group bonding and inter-group competition
- New databases will be constructed to explore the relationship between ritual, resource extraction patterns, and group structure and scale over the millennia
Nation Building and Failed States
A workshop funded by the Evolution Institute
The rise of a centralized state that commands real authority throughout its territory can be seen as the reverse of the process by which a state loses its authority and gradually crumbles into a “failed state.” A key aspect of state building involves establishing the internal bonds that make it possible for a disparate congery of smaller-scale groups to unite within a larger framework. Both formation of larger social units from smaller ones and its reverse, disintegration, have been studied intensively from the perspective of cultural and social evolution.
Recent research indicates that different evolutionary histories can constrain present-day political trajectories. For example, the “AfPak” region (Afghanistan and Pakistan) is cross-cut by three Eurasian zones with very different histories and cultures: (1) areas that developed under the influence of the Great Eurasian Steppe (“Turkistan”), (2) mountainous regions with a very rare incidence of state-level forms of social organization throughout its history (“Pashtunistan”), and (3) the area belonging to the imperial belt of Eurasia, characterized by a precocious development of cities and states and a long history of large empires (“Pakistan”).
This observation raises a number of questions related to both policy and research. Should the same, generic approach to state-building (or preventing state failure) be used in all three regions? If not, how should policies differ between these cultural areas? Should we aim at building a modern democratic state in all cultural areas?Alternatively, might a loose confederation, with most decisions delegated to the local level, sometimes be a better solution?
To address these questions the Evolution Institute held a workshop that brought together academic experts from such diverse fields as evolution/complexity and social/political science with actual practitioners — diplomats, policy makers, and specialists on the AfPak area. The main goal of the workshop was to set the future agenda for integrating evolutionary insights with policy-oriented research on failed states and nation-building. The workshop was held on the campus of Stanford University in December, 2011.