Current Research Projects

Combining quantitative analysis and massive amounts of historical data, Peter Turchin studies the evolution of complex human societies and the reasons why they rise and fall.

Main Research Questions

The evolution of complex societies: What explains the dramatic increase in the scale and complexity of human societies over the past 10,000 years?
The resilience and fragility of complex societies: Why do all complex state-level societies experience periodic social stress, often leading to state breakdown and sometimes to social collapse?
Surviving social crisis: Why do some societies emerge from periods of crisis relatively unscathed, while others suffer mass bloodshed, population crashes, and institutional loss?

Over the past 10,000 years, human societies have evolved from small-scale, relatively egalitarian groups to complex, large-scale societies characterized by great differentials in wealth and power, extensive division of labor, and elaborate governance structures. There are many theories attempting to explain this major evolutionary transition. Which are correct?

Social complexity has not increased in a steady, gradual fashion. Instead, complex human societies—including our own—periodically experience social turbulence and dysfunction, which often results in state breakdown, political fragmentation, simplification of the economy, population declines, and loss of institutions and other accumulated cultural knowledge. Again, past thinkers and modern social scientists have put forward myriad theories explaining social breakdown, but these theories have not yet been systematically tested with data.

To solve these problems, my team at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna is using a massive accumulation of empirical historical data—the Seshat: Global History Databank—to test theoretical predictions about the evolution of social complexity and the causes of breakdown. Seshat was co-founded in 2011 together with Prof. Harvey Whitehouse and Prof. Pieter François, and we work closely with their team of researchers at Oxford University. Our aim is to merge the computational and statistical methods of complexity science with the new discipline of cultural evolution and more traditional theories in social sciences, while fully deploying data on past societies from history and archaeology.

Our team at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna

  • Peter Turchin. Team leader “Social Complexity and Collapse”
  • Dániel Kondor. Post-doctoral researcher
  • Jenny Reddish. Researcher and editor
  • Majid Benam. Database manager
  • Jakob Hauser. Research assistant
  • Jakob Zsambok. Research assistant

External collaborators

  • Daniel Hoyer, Evolution Institute and University of Toronto
  • Pieter François, University of Oxford
  • James Bennett, University of Washington
  • Maria del Rio-Chanona, University College London
  • Helena Miton, Stanford University
  • Sergey Gavrilets, University of Tennessee
  • Andrey Korotayev, Higher School of Economics Moscow

Current projects

Cultural macroevolution

What has driven the remarkable rises in social scale and complexity since the end of the last Ice Age?
What role do religion, warfare, technology and agriculture play in the evolution of states and
empires? Our work on cultural macroevolution combines computational modelling with data in order
to disentangle the drivers of change in human history.

Crisis Databank

What causes sociopolitical crisis and what determines how they unfold? How can we steer societies
towards less destructive outcomes? We are building a Crisis Databank, bringing together data on
historical and contemporary periods of upheaval to draw out common patterns and lessons for our
own “age of discord.”

Enhancing Seshat with large language models

Seshat: Global History Databank is a vast repository of information about past societies. We are
developing a natural language processing model, fine-tuned for the social sciences and humanities,
to allow us to increase its accessibility and interoperability. This will provide a powerful tool for
researchers worldwide.

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