Big Data Meets Cultural Evolution in Jena

Peter Turchin


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Kate Kirby and I have organized a symposium on databases in Cultural Evolution for the first annual meeting of the Cultural Evolution Society in Jena, Germany. The symposium will run in two one-hour sessions on Sept. 14 and Sept. 15 (according to the tentative meeting program that I saw). Here’s a brief description of the symposium.

Big data meets cultural evolution/Invited Symposium on Databases in Cultural Evolution

Despite its youth, the field of Cultural Evolution has been highly productive of general theories and mathematical models proposing explanations for major patterns in human history. It has also inspired new empirical approaches, such as behavioral experiments conducted with people coming from a great diversity of human societies. Ultimately, however, theories and models of Cultural Evolution are about social change in the very long-term. Thus, they need to be tested with archaeological and historical data on past societies. In the last few years several research groups began constructing such historical databases, with the aim to test evolutionary theories. This symposium will bring together the key players in this new research direction in Cultural Evolution. Our goal is to discuss (1) the challenges and benefits of constructing historical databases and (2) how we can integrate the efforts of different projects to avoid unnecessary duplication and to increase synergy.

And here are the talks:

Day 1

  1. Introduction – Pete Richerson
  2. D-PLACE – Kate Kirby
  3. SESHAT – Peter Turchin
  4. Human Relations Area Files – Carol Ember


Day 2

  1. Database of Religious History – Ted Slingerland
  2. Pulotu – Joseph Watts
  3. Glottobank – Quentin Atkinson/Russell Gray
  4. General Discussion


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al loomis

for the general public, avoiding the disasters of history might be thought the primary reason for professional study.

Justin Lane

Do you think that the issue of funding agencies being shy here might be because these are branded as “big data” (not just here but in most places these databases are brought up these days), but in fact databases like DRH and SESHAT don’t qualify as “big-data” in the usual sense. So when a computer or scientist is asked to review the grant they conclude that it is claiming to be something it isn’t?

Justin Lane

I’m glad to hear that, although in many public venues such as conferences and papers (and the title of this post) it comes off to some as if “big data” is what is claimed here. If a data scientist or computer scientist looked at the size of these databases (such as if they were asked to review a grant and were reading over related publications), it is very possible that they wouldn’t take it seriously. My research team deals specifically with big-data and when we presented them with the size of SESHAT and DRH they had a rather humorous response. I’m worried that this is an issue for funding because, as you can see through funding calls such as DARPA (for example) big-data is a hot button funding source. So I wouldn’t say that calling it big-data is irrelevant at all, it has a very specific use in a well established scientific field. To throw it under the carpet is similar to denying that “social darwinism” isn’t still latent issue for the field of “cultural evolution”. These terms have established meanings and I think its probably best if we inform ourselves on their use and history so that those who take the study of culture seriously are best represented when we are in inter-disciplinary dialogues with other fields, I’d assume…

Peter van den Engel

Me too. I presume big data are often funded for speculative reasons, they might lead to patents, which are products that can be sold so there is a return on investment. In case of evolution theory up till now; apart from genetic research perhaps; I guess it is still in research and does not lead to patented product solutions. If that was the intent. Of course when cultural situations have a tendency to repeat themselves you would need some kind of encyclopedia to look them up. For practical use.

It’s not bad when sciences use open source interchange of knowledge.

For setting up collecting big data I guess a cross funding from related disciplines is a possibility as well. For SESHAT there must be a corresponding Egyptian interest fi. It sort of reverses funds looking for big data/ into big data looking for possible funding.

Peter van den Engel

It might be that big data only serve the field they are collected for, so there is no other general interest in them. In general human history I presume is seen as a field of historians, not so much that of evolution theory. So there is a knowledge gap there.

In this case only evolution theorists could explain them further. Then in depends on narratives derived from them describing the special field of knowledge. Something I am afraid which is usually missing or very much astray in subjects of minor and of more important issues with no obvious strings connecting them. There stil is a lot of work to be done.

Darwins science concentrated itself on the biological evolution. That is one subject and was clearly previously unknown. What society selected from it was the survival of the fittest, as a working tool perspective, whether that was right or wrong. So, evolution theory can also be further used for explaining present and future. The field of knowledge splits in two sections. So, is it history, or it it the future? .

The most positive thing about the symposium is collecting a community in a share interest and the thing of collecting big data, once they are collected, they’re there for eternity.

What I’ve been missing in all the information so far is the role of te Max Planck institute, if there is one.

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