The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity: Five Predictions and a Drum Roll

Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Peter Turchin
Cliodynamics June 1, 2015 Journal Link


In his “Reflections on the French Revolution,” the great Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke declared: “In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.” But since the 18th century when Burke penned these lines, the “great volume” to which he referred has grown so vast through the accumulated discoveries and writings of historians, classicists, archaeologists and others that “unrolling” it has become practically unthinkable. Until now...The process of inferring general patterns in human history has usually meant cunningly plucking out facts to fit your argument—for instance ‘cherry picking’ historical events to lend credence to your judgments about the ‘errors’ of the past and your favored ‘prescriptions’ for the future. However flawed this methodology, alternative options were limited. Anybody seeking to use our accumulated experience of the past to predict likely patterns of history-making in the future has been limited by how much knowledge they could personally command, given the difficulties of accessing information, the limitations of brains (especially memory and processing power), and the shortness of scholars’ lifespans. To overcome these very human frailties, what has long been needed is a computerized database of global history in which patterns of correlations across space and time between variables of interest could be reliably tracked using statistical tools. Seshat: Global History Databank, a vast collection of information gleaned from the work of scholars who study the human past, will provide a new way of addressing this challenge (Seshat: Global History Databank 2015a). Seshat builds upon and radically expands a number of more established initiatives, including the Human Relation Area Files (HRAF; Human Relation Area Files 2015) and the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS; Murdock and White 1969).
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