The ‘Axial Age’ generally refers to a historical period within the first century BCE during which a cluster of changes in cultural traditions, most notably the emergence of current world religions and moralizing philosophies (Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam), are said to have occurred in some of the relatively complex social formations in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Near East, and South and East Asia. Unfortunately, many questions remain unanswered as different scholars utilize different material to approach the topic. Indeed, it is not quite clear what exactly the 'Axial Age' even is. Seshat: Global History Databank is currently involved in a project trying to untangle these issues, testing systematically the different theories that have been offered about how/why Axial societies developed when and where they did.
The Seshat team is putting together a workshop, Testing the Axial Age, to be held in Oxford January 26-27, 2017. We will bring together some of the world's leading experts on Axial Age societies, religious and cultural history, and the history of social equality. Together, we will discuss Seshat's work testing the various predictions of Axial Age scholarship against the empirical evidence and to review our collection of structured historical data from these Axial societies.
Wed24May2017Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain
Most historians have abandoned the search for general principles governing the evolution of human societies. A typical approach to studying why institutions (laws, rules, sanctions, customs, and norms) emerge, change, and disappear is to focus on explanations that are contingent on the specific historical circumstances in which such institutions evolve. However, although every society is unique in its own ways, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that common features are independently shared by multiple societies. In my presentation I will argue that it is possible to study both the diversity and commonalities in social arrangements found in the human past. To advance beyond purely theoretical debates and comparisons based on limited samples, my colleagues and I are building a massive repository of systematically collected, structured historical and archaeological data, Seshat: Global History Databank. Specifically, I will focus on the evolution of institutions that promote equality (or vice versa, inequality). Levels of inequality have changed dramatically during the past 10,000 years of human evolution: from egalitarian small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers to first hierarchical societies with great inequities in the distribution of power, status, and wealth. The Axial Age (c.800–200 BCE) introduced another notable transformation, starting a move towards greater egalitarianism that has been continuing to the present. I will describe how the Seshat project codes data on religion, norms and institutions, and other cultural characteristics of historical societies in a form that make them suitable for statistical analyses, and present preliminary results of testing different theories explaining the evolution of a particular equity institution with these data.
Thu25May2017SimulPast Seminar, CSIC (Spanish Research Council), Barcelona, Spain
What are the social forces that hold together complex societies encompassing hundreds of millions of people? How did human ultrasociality – extensive cooperation among large numbers of unrelated individuals – evolve? The theory of cultural multilevel selection is a powerful theoretical framework for addressing these questions. I use this framework to investigate a major transition in human social evolution, from small-scale egalitarian groups to large-scale hierarchical societies such as states and empires. A key mathematical result in the theory is that large states should arise in regions where interpolity competition – warfare – is particularly intense, resulting in high probability of cultural trait extinction. To make these general ideas more concrete I describe a model for the evolution of large states during the Ancient and Medieval eras, motivated by the ideas of Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun primarily focused on the interaction between pastoralists and farmers in the Maghreb (Northern Africa), but I extend his theory to Afroeurasia as a whole. The ‘mirror-empires’ model proposes that antagonistic interactions between steppe pastoralists and settled agriculturalists within, or next to the Old World’s arid belt (running from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert) result in an autocatalytic process, which pressures both pastoralist and farming polities to scale up in polity size and military power. Thus, location on, or near a steppe frontier should correlate with the frequency of imperial genesis. I survey extensive historical data that support this prediction.
Tue13Jun2017Wed14Jun2017Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse
Why do institutions (laws, rules, sanctions, customs, and norms) in a given human society emerge, change, and disappear? Explaining institutional change has been a major theoretical and empirical challenge. A major obstacle facing explanations proposed by social scientists and historians is the peculiarities of the historical context. Historians tend to address this challenge by focusing on descriptions of what happened and emphasizing explanations that are contingent on the specific historical circumstances in which institutions evolve. Economists, other social scientists, and cultural evolutionists, on the other hand, tend to “generalize” and seek explanations that apply beyond the specific context of study. The tension between particular circumstances and general principles has not been resolved, with different scholars disagreeing as to the extent of permissible and empirically founded generalizations. Moreover, general principles in history are often as not as general as they may appear at first sight and are also bounded by the peculiarities of the data and the context.
Wed13Sep2017Fri15Sep2017Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany
The Cultural Evolution Society supports evolutionary approaches to culture in humans and other animals. The society welcomes all who share this fundamental interest, including in the pursuit of basic research, teaching, or applied work. We are committed to fostering an integrative interdisciplinary community spanning traditional academic boundaries from across the social, psychological, and biological sciences, and including archaeology, computer science, economics, history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and religious studies.
Read more: https://www.shh.mpg.de/cescjena2017
More information coming soon.