Historians and Historical Databases

Peter Turchin


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In recent days there was much discussion by historians on Twitter of the proper and improper uses of historical knowledge in testing social science theories. It was initially prompted by the publication of a Science article last week on historical Church exposure and global psychological variation. Most of it was quite negative (I am still reading the article and its voluminous appendices, so I reserve judgment). Some of this negative reaction spilled over to Seshat as a result of Laura Spinney’s publishing yesterday a “long read” on Cliodynamics and the Seshat Databank in the Guardian. But such criticism can only come from those who know nothing about how Seshat works.

The Seshat Project is a collaboration between historians, archaeologists, and social scientists. Historians play key roles in all phases of building the Databank. Two out of five members of the core group have PhDs in History. Historians are involved in the workshops in which we develop conceptual scheme for translating knowledge about past societies into data; they consult Seshat research assistants and check Seshat data, and they fully participate in writing the resulting articles. Seshat articles typically have dozens of authors (in two cases over 50), most of them historians. Seshat would be impossible without such intense collaboration between scientists and humanities scholars. You can read more about how Seshat operates in “An Introduction to Seshat: Global History Databank,” in press in Journal of Cognitive History (SocArXiv Preprint).

Collaboration between scientists and humanists requires a lot more work than other interdisciplinary projects. The “two cultures” are often motivated by different research interests and goals, and use very different methodologies and languages. This is one of the reasons why Seshat spent such a long time in gestation (the project was launched in 2011, but the first article fully utilizing Seshat data was published only in early 2018). Our multi-authored articles go through innumerable iterations before the co-authors, coming from very different research traditions, can arrive on mutually intelligible and agreeable texts. This is a stiff price, but well-worth paying.

Seshat goals also reflect the diversity of motivations of the project participants. As a scientist I am primarily motivated by using the rich knowledge, possessed by the scholars of the past, in testing scientific theories about how human societies evolve over time. But over the last three decades I read and enjoyed thousands of books and articles by specialist historians and archaeologists, who delve into the intricate inner working of past human societies. Such knowledge is fascinating to me because of its intrinsic worth, irrespective of whether we capture it in the Databank.

Initially I thought that only a small fraction of historians would be interested in the Seshat data. I am happy to report that I was wrong. In fact, most historians we approach get involved. The degree of involvement varies. Some help us with identifying good general sources and answer a few questions. Others write detailed narratives and code datasheets with hundreds of variables. Most find a comfortable level of involvement somewhere in between.

Furthermore, many historians are interested not only in studying a particular society, or a segment of it, at a particular time (which is a very worthwhile and important), but also care about comparative history. Seshat allows one to start in a particular society at a particular time and focus on a particular aspect of it, and then “travel” back and forth in time, or in space, or in the conceptual space of different variables. It’s like “comparative history on steroids.”

Thus, Seshat is not only a vehicle for testing scientific theories, it is also a great informational resource both for the scholars of the past and (eventually) for general public. We are currently working on implementing features in the Databank that would make travel in time, geographical space, and conceptual space effortless. And Seshat publications are not limited to articles in scientific journals. We also produce “Analytic Narratives”, formalized verbal accounts focusing on multiple in-depth case studies. The first such narrative, Seshat History of the Axial Age, will be published in early December, and two more are in the works.

In closing, I want to reiterate that Seshat is far from being a threat to History. Seshat depends on the work of countless professional historians who are contributing to a remarkable store of knowledge about the human past. It also builds on and expands comparative history, which has been what historians have done ever since Polybius and Ibn Khaldun. Seshat also allows us to test various theories about the functioning and dynamics of past societies proposed by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and economists. By doing that, the Databank increases our understanding of how present-day societies work. And perhaps it will even enable us to change our societies so that they could deliver better human well-being. The last is not certain, but we will not know whether it is possible until we try.

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David Vognar

I started reading this blog in 2013 and it has been right about the age we live in. I do not know the deep processes behind the scenes, but I trust scientists working together to do the right thing. As far as the controversy, Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”


Seshat is absolutely stunning. Just having a look at it right now. However, where are the psychologists? In a previous comment I wrote about the book ‘Political Ponerology’, and the hysteroidal cycles it mentions (just under 200 year long sine waves). That book was written in 1984 from the POV of a clinical psychologist. He describes how an elite repress inconvenient truths and become ‘hysterical’, and how that hysteria spreads across society. Certainly visible in the UK and the USA right now. At a point of maximum polarisation, paralysis and hysteria an extreme ‘spellbinder’ comes to power – typically a mask-wearing malignant narcissist, psychopath or individual with brain-tissue damage to the frontal lobes (all three deviations having very similar outward behaviors). He also describes the various other types of psychological deviants involved in the overall process – the basic principle being that lesser deviants open the doors to greater deviants (i.e. they normalise deviant behavior and worsen hysteria, allowing increasingly psychopathological individuals to rise to positions of power).

If you do get psychologists involved, a couple of points:

1) The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is basically Mickey Mouse (see ‘The book of Woe’ by Dr. Gary Greenberg). As a result the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has set up the Research Domain Criteria to try and get mental disorders onto a scientific footing. See ‘Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Transforming Diagnosis’. The ICD (International Classification of Diseases) classification of mental and behavioral disorders by implication suffers exactly the same problems as the DSM – which is that current classifications are based on the ever-changing opinions of experts who are chosen by internal political processes to lay out their views. Mental disorders are currently ‘constructs’ i.e. to put it crudely, opinions – but some constructs are not worth the paper they’re written on, whilst other constructs have greater validity. Outside the DSM and ICD there are constructs that have stood the test of time, statistical analysis and peer reviews.

2) It’s imperative to ensure that no psychological deviants are involved in the process of assessing historical psychological deviants. Psychiatrists and psychologists are as likely to be manipulative, deceitful, egotistical, narcissistic or psychopathic as in any other profession.


You should recognize that the work you are doing makes the modern historians look like fools, the same way the research of scholars like David Reich is making the archaeologists look like fools.

Academics don’t like to look stupid, so they are sure to spew venom at you, but keep up the good work, and your stuff is so ambitious in its generality there is bound to be some errors in it, so keep up your spirits in the event someone lands a right hook.

Also, verbalists with physics envy are freaking out that the quants are taking over their fields at long last. The strong will pursue interdisciplinary collaborations, the weak will continue to publish mediocre and politicized histories and complain about the quants.

Peter van den Engel

I think you should view it as an emergence of (collective) consciousness, which is predictable since we are passing the material age (material economy dealing with entropy), releasing a lot of futere unknown timespace. An age of enlightment/ but also chaos.
It is quite normal a body consisting of at the same time peaks (nodes) of perception and interpretation will start in a state of chaos, where perceptions are identified falsely, or being interpreted: reacted to in an illogical manner (something like the process of global warming as a parallel issue right now which needs to be dealt with/ but can be interpreted inacuratly (by scientists) or overreacted to by entities with their own selfish greed for more profits, which society cannot afford).

The next stage would be the body of nodes does interpret reality in sinc and reacts in a purposeful flow. It will never descend into chaos again. In other words, also entropy is a false conclusion proposed by materialists.

It makes sense in evolutionaty terms this concsiousness (spreading over the internet) is first related to sciences, because they started the concept of it. Being used to comparing and communicating. Social media being a lower gradient state of that right now.
It (network evolution) is preceding further adaptations on the level of official hierarchies, embedded in say goverments and also the press (journalists talk a lot but know little), its old skin 🙂

steven t johnson

The Scientific American website noted the correlation of the hypothesized psychological effects with a higher prevalence of cousin-marriage in Italy…but it’s not clear cousin-marriage wouldn’t be higher in low population density areas (which factor includes travel time/cost by the way.) This low density areas may use cash more than checks because of other reason, such as lower density/cost/speed of banking services.

Even worse, it’s not clear that the study is taking proper account of cousin marriage in the elites, all with Church approval. And given the role of royalty in determining the religion of an area, this has further ramifications.

As for WEIRD being more trusting of strangers, don’t they meet more? And find out strangers are not usually quite so dangerous? Especially in wealthier areas where the real money is white collar crime?

Peter van den Engel

I can imagine there has been a church/ religious entanglement, since in Byzantium the king owned religious relics and was head of the church (they skipped the pope) – and it introduced by law the ruling of succession to the throne by kinship only for thev first time in history l, which was later on adopted in western Europe leading to all sorts of political manipulation through marriage.

So this created a sense of holyness, to keep it within the purity of the family (in Italy), following the example of the elites. Risks of inbreeding were not known at the time, since children having defects was not an exeption.
It had nothing to do with population density, trading was very common in Italy since Marco Polo; doing business does not mean you have to marry them; and check writing has never been a habit in Europe at all.
Family has always been a big thing in roman cathlic religion.


“And perhaps it will even enable us to change our societies so that they coul deliver better human well-being”
Wow just wow! I hope that this is just awkward phrasing and no a freudian slip.


Marxism traditionally views history as driven primarily (if not exclusively) by economics and class struggle. SDT appears to do likewise. If Seshat validates SDT, will it also validate Marxism?


I doubt it, as there are important differences between Marxism and SDT. First of all, Marxism sees all pre-communist sedentary society as being defined by class warfare between the ruling class and the lower class or classes, whereas SDT posits that there are times when a society’s rulers genuinely govern for the general welfare and not just for themselves. Secondly, Marxism posits a succession of social types, from slavery to feudalism to capitalism to communism, ending in an egalitarian paradise which lasts perpetually. On the other hand, SDT is a cyclical theory which posits that the same pattern persists repeatedly and can be observed throughout history, even between countries far removed in time and at correspondingly different levels of technology from each other. Lastly, Marxism sees regular warfare as just one more way for the rulers to gain at everyone else’s expense, whereas SDT gives it a prominent place as a driver of historical change.

Overall, Marxism represented an early attempt to achieve the same kind of goal SDT has, but was doomed to fail because not nearly enough systematically collected data was available at the time.

Loren Petrich

SDT has a class analysis, but a different one from Marxism.

Marxism has landowners vs. capitalists vs. workers, while SDT has common people vs. elite, where the elite can divide itself into rival factions which then fight each other for control. Like landowner factions and capitalist factions and worker-representative factions.

Peter van den Engel

The classes had been defined by Aristotle 2000 years before that. They are a physical element in society, in the way it functions between thinking and doing. Also represented by congres and parlement, in a way. Although the intention (of French design) was to swap the hierarchies by turning the top into doing.
Communism could not get the model working because of illiteracy of the commons – and democracy right now does not function because doing (precooked governing) cannot preceed thinking, which is the discussion.

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