A bad time for (some) theories but a good time for history?



Join 36.6K other subscribers

A guest post by Harvey Whitehouse and Pieter Francois

This is an interesting moment in the development of history as an academic discipline. We stand on the brink of a sea change, not necessarily in the way historical evidence is gathered and documented, but in the way the resulting data can then also be compared across space and time. For those who are interested in theories about how human societies have evolved, these are exciting times. But they are also turbulent times because many of those theories will turn out to be wrong. One of the first casualties appears to be the hypothesis that big societies require moralizing gods.

Our Nature paper is just a first step towards adjudicating on the moralizing gods hypothesis. But it is an important step because it demonstrates that even using very lenient criteria for the presence of beliefs in supernatural punishment, such beliefs appear late in the rise of social complexity. Advocates of the view that such beliefs occur much earlier include distinguished academics whose work we respect. But the way some have recently gone about defending their cherished hypothesis is problematic.

In the first of two papers posted online our critics have argued that they can reverse our results by systematically changing the data to adjust for what they call ‘forward bias’. Unfortunately, half the adjustments they propose are indefensible on factual grounds effectively beyond dispute. Even if we adjust all the remaining data in their favour exactly as they propose, this doesn’t reverse our main finding, as claimed.

The second paper challenges the quality of our data and will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Historiography alongside a rebuttal that we are currently working on. The fact that both critiques have been ‘pre-published’ online, and that considerable effort has been invested to disseminate them to the widest possible audience, means we can no longer restrict our rebuttal to academic journals and the pressure is on to summarise key points at a much faster pace on more informal platforms, such as blogging sites. This situation has its limitations but it also affords novel opportunities.

A limitation of this informal online approach to debating scientific findings is that it is hard to coordinate critique and response. The pre-published attack on our work submitted to the JCH includes a substantial appendix, the contents of which we need to rebut at length (and will do so). But in the meantime, it could look to some as if a valid pre-published critique stands while the main finding of our Nature paper, which underwent rigorous peer review, can simply be dismissed. It would arguably have been better for science if critique and rebuttal had appeared side by side, as the journal editors in this case intended.

More positively, though, online debate allows us the license to step back more informally and consider bigger-picture issues. For example, are we really at a turning point in the history of history? Potentially yes. The likes of Marx, Spencer, Tylor, Frazer, and Durkheim – among other big-thinking Victorians – dreamt of establishing generalizable theories of history but they were held back by the ‘cherry picking problem’. That is, theories of history – from grandiose visions of economic and technological determinism through to the idea that the division of labour in society evolves through discernible stages – have always rested on evidence selected because it supported the theory, while less congenial evidence was rejected or overlooked. What is radically new about the approach adopted in our Nature paper is that it tests theories of history based on a serious effort to avoid bias in the selection of data by coding for features of social complexity, religion, and ritual, in exactly the same way across hundreds of polities. The data itself and the methods used to gather and analyse it are all publicly available so that colleagues can inspect it, replicate and criticize our efforts, and run analyses of their own. As we have seen, they can even run analyses that explicitly bias the data to fit their own theories if they so wish – but at least we can see clearly that this is what they are doing.

Seshat: Global History Databank allows us for the first time to address the problem of selection bias convincingly in our efforts to test theories of world history empirically. Fully realizing this vision requires the input of very large numbers of experts from fields as diverse as history, archaeology, classics, anthropology, comparative religion, and others. Many scholars in these fields, however, are wary of scientific methods so it is no mean feat to have attracted such large numbers (around 100 or so currently) to the Seshat enterprise. Can we continue to do so?

The very public attack on our data, analysis, and methods launched online, albeit using material that has not been peer reviewed, has the potential to undermine confidence in Seshat. Those leading the criticisms against us are closely associated with a rival database which is at a much earlier stage of development but which may hope to catch up if only we can be slowed down. Attacking Seshat could, however, hamper everyone’s efforts in this new field and not just our own.

If our new approach to the study of global history survives, this will be very good news for the humanities. It will not change the fundamental methods of historical enquiry but will complement them. Existing historical research will become more thoroughly integrated with many areas of the social sciences and attract more resources. On the other hand, it will be mostly bad news for theories.

Few theories will survive unscathed. But that is a desirable situation scientifically. What is undesirable is to try to smother the latest prodigies of science before they are old enough to speak or loud enough to be heard.

Harvey Whitehouse and Pieter Francois are both at the University of Oxford, and (together with Peter Turchin) are Seshat Databank Founding Directors

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ross Hartshorn

I think the very fact that the debate has shifted to questions of how data in rival databases might or might not be biased systematically (intentionally or not), is itself evidence of progress. It is public discussion regarding the issues of how data are gathered and coded, which is not something that was really part of the debate among the Victorian era scholars you reference, because:
1) there wasn’t enough data available, and certainly not in database form, and
2) the issues of systematic coding errors and non-random bias weren’t even all that well understood in much of the physical sciences, much less in history

I am confident that the debate will, in the long run, result in a strengthened field, although I am certain it must be stressful to be in the middle of it as you are now. From my perspective, cheering from the sidelines, I am immensely encouraged.

Also, I would like to point out that it is not impossible that having rival databases might turn out to be a good thing in the long run. Similar to how a prediction that emerges from an ensemble of models can be more reliable than one which does not, having multiple historical databases (if they are all eventually of high enough quality) can result in good things, as any theory which is valid across them is almost certainly _not_ going to be later discovered to be dependent on some quirk of how the data is collected. So, although I can understand why it might seem annoying to have a “rival” database when combined efforts in one could get things done faster, please consider that in the long run it may turn out to be an advantage to the field to have more than one.

But, of course, I’m cheering most for Team Seshat! Well done!

Bret Beheim

Drs. Whitehouse, Francois,

If I may, I don’t think it’s registered yet how bad the problem here really is. Nearly 2/3rds of your outcome data were originally “unknown” values in Seshat, which during the analysis were recoded to negative responses, i.e. “moralizing gods absent”. I have to think this was accidental, as it was only indirectly done early in the programming code, and despite its severity is not mentioned anywhere in the Nature text or supplement.

Of course, since the populations with “unknown” values in Seshat are almost always small, pre-literate societies, this indefensible decision entirely determines your headline conclusion, that moralizing gods are only found in big, literate societies. Remove this bizarre assumption, and our reanalysis finds moralizing gods are likely commonplace in human societies, big and small.

Vladimir Dinets

A list of small pre-contact societies definitely known to have had moralizing gods would be helpful to the discussion, I think?


Everyone loves what you guys tend to be up too. This type of clever work and coverage!
Keep up the good works guys I’ve added you guys to my blogroll.
I will right away grab your rss feed as I can’t find your e-mail subscription link or newsletter service.
Do you’ve any? Kindly let me understand in order that I
could subscribe. Thanks. Does your website have a contact page?
I’m having problems locating it but, I’d like to shoot you an e-mail.
I’ve got some suggestions for your blog you might be interested in hearing.
Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it develop over time.

Pieter van Pelt

I follow your work from a distance, but I am not intimately familiar with the way you handle the data from Seshat database. However, the dispute you describe reminds me of another debate in Brussels, 1911. The first Solvay Conference took place then and in attendance were people like Lorenz, Einstein, Planck, Madam Curie and other scientists from that time, many of whom would become nobel laureates later. The debate then was about the nature of elementary particles that seemed to behave strangely. For instance the electron seemed to be either a particle or a wave, depending on how you looked at it. And the interaction between particles could either be described by classical mechanics or by wave formula’s. It was the time that quantum-mechanics was developed as a tool to understand the world of elementary particles and their interactions. But the interactions seemed to be illogical, or as Einstein put it, the particles were “gambling” in a statistical way. Der liebe Gott würfelt nicht said Einstein.
It would be nice if we had some form of quantum-mechanical formulation to describe the nature of humans and how they interact, but I am afraid such a theory is far beyond our present scope. But remembering that a human is a collection of atoms and molecules, maybe we can describe a single human by its constituents and how they interact on the micro and biological scale. Maybe we can then also get a handle on how humans (described as a collection of atoms and molecules) interact given their internal interactions. Maybe just a dream, but would it be possible to debvelop such a theory?

Peter van den Engel

Interesting point of view. Yes we do live in a quantum physical environment, which means it depends how you look at reality creates a parallel which is consistent with it.
However taking the micro world as a source is inconsistent, since the macro world is just a continuation of the same source principal.
In that sense both theories in comparison may mean they represent an inclusive option/ not an exclusive, not going into details about speciffic notations and what choices were.made.

For instance, if you would conclude physical strength is a token of god, which one is right or wrong, as it was perceived in the past, you can make the point this morality led to large societies/ in stead of making the point large societies rejected this viewpoint, deceided on another morality, which was cooperation, or otherwise it could not have functioned as such. It was a higher morality system, because it got more intelligent.

On the other hand the story of of David and Goliath still is based on that very principle and seen as a true victory/ not a false interpretation of reality, next to the fact societies in history choose to believe large predators like the lion and the eagle are the king of animals (parallel to their own shield)/ while there is no proof they were. They just took a certain position in the food chain, making they would have to be stronger than so called lower species in order to succeed. Which creates the law within that single perspective/ but not be an overarching one.
It is a partical within a wave.

You could even argue the US was constructed by strong man (including gun rights) or by cooperation, which would invoke the other side to make the claim it is impossible to create a surviving people out of weak.
Looking at the whole, you can conclude it would take strong (decisive) man first to get there/ but would be counterproductive in a large society, if it would persist being hostile to itself.
So the same law actually inverts in the course of evolution to explain its quantum character/ but still can be explained quite logically, so it is not an open end mystery.

In that sense broadly speaking, it would be logical large societies which had the time for a learning process and in retrospect had to come up with laws which were consistent with their size, would create them at a point in timespace which was behind their reaching a certain number of people. Because it is included in the logical process. As a generalisation that is correct.

[…] of large, complex societies, one by Beheim et al. and one by Slingerland et al., they have posted a preliminary response on co-author Peter Turchin’s blog. There are four main elements in their response, only one of […]


” we do live in a quantum physical environment”?
Speaking precisely, it is not true. Unfortunately,today, we have no unified theory which can explain how quantum microscopic randomness is translated into macroscopic or classical deterministic world.Hence, some unified effects we simply cannot see. Intuitively, some quantum observations work very well ( for example, in my field anthropological experiments I used quantum – like games, – but not true quantum games based on entanglement) Please, see https ://www.oxford.academia.edu/MichaelPopov. Generally, human exploration of real randomness is a very hard problem.Indeed.

Peter van den Engel

I use a different (unifying) theory for understanding the natural physical explanation of reality than the standard one, when there is none.
The core of it is understanding space and time.
As long as humans even don’t have a proper understanding of what time is… what do you expect.
Real randomness is an ill definition for it.

  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Cliodynamica
  4. /
  5. Guest Posts
  6. /
  7. A bad time for...

© Peter Turchin 2023 All rights reserved

Privacy Policy

%d bloggers like this: