They Call It “Coding Errors”?

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Our recent article in Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history has been generally very well received, but this week we got slammed with two critical articles, both published as preprints on PsyArchive. It will take us some time to carefully evaluate these claims and publish responses in academic journals. A response to Beheim et al. on analysis issues is in the works, but on my blog I am going to focus more on the criticisms of the Seshat data in Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History”. The first author of this piece is Prof. Slingerland who is the head of the Database of Religious History (DRH), a rival project to Seshat. His co-authors are also associated with the DRH.

One particular issue that they discuss at length is, when did moralizing gods appear in Chinese history? This is an important case study, because it is often used by the proponents of the Big God theory to support their claims (for example, see Section 3.2.2 in The cultural evolution of prosocial religions).

The data coded in Seshat, which we analyzed in the Nature article, suggest that moralizing high gods appear in North China around 1000 BCE during the Western Zhou period (c.1040–771 BCE). First truly large-scale societies in North China appeared roughly half a millennium earlier. During the Erligang period (1650–1250 BCE) the population of the Early Shang polity was at least 1 million, and likely more. The Shang capital city was huge, sprawling over 2500 ha with a population numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, the North China sequence – first large-scale societies, then moralizing gods – supports the general conclusions of the Nature article.

Here’s what Prof. Slingerland and his colleagues have to say on this issue:

These coding errors undermine the analysis presented in Whitehouse et al. (2019). For instance, a crucial datapoint for Whitehouse et al. (2019), a supposed instance of a Natural Geographic Area (NGA) that possessed writing before a moralizing high god, is the Middle Yellow River Valley (MYVR). This is because the Late Shang polity was coded as lacking a moralizing god, based on a citation from Robert Eno, an expert on the area. Eno’s opinion, however, is in the minority in the field, as anyone familiar with the literature would know. A look at expert-generated, pre-coded data from the DRH shows that Eno’s view ( is contradicted by the other two entries on the Shang, by the eminent scholars David Keightley ( and Lothar von Falkenhausen ( Re-coding this variable as 1 (based on majority opinion) or weighting it as .66 would seriously undermine Whitehouse et al.’s conclusion.

This paragraph is a good example of the strident, self-righteous tone permeating Prof. Slingerland’s critique. Wherever there is a difference between a Seshat code and a DRH code, the professor counts it as a Seshat error. But is this conclusion justified?

In the Early Shang/Erligang period (1650–1250 BCE), archaeologists find bone fragments and ceramic jars with inscribed characters, but no records that could tell us about the specific tenets of religious practices in this period. Records become abundant during the late Shang (1250–1045 BCE). Most of what is known of Shang’s religion is written on 107,000 “oracle” bones.

Di, the High God of the Shang, was the god of rain, snow, hail, wind, thunder, and disasters. According to Robert Eno’s translations of Shang oracle bones, Di could summon natural phenomena to ruin harvests or call lightning, but also could support or ruin political and military endeavors. The Shang king acted as an intermediary to appease or influence Di through the correct ritual sacrifices. Eno concludes there is no evidence in the oracle bone records for Di as a moralizing force: “Nowhere in the texts do we see clear indication that the Powers are beneficent …. The Shang rulers seek advance approval for their actions – sometimes, it seems, obsessively – but there is no suggestion that the basis for approval will be anything other than the arbitrary inclinations of the Powers” (Eno 2009: 100).

The introduction of the concept of Tian (Heaven) in Western Zhou inscriptions has prompted scholars, such as archaeologist Li Feng, to question the nature of religious continuity between the Late Shang and Western Zhou. The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven became a central concept in the Western Zhou, making a significant change in the Chinese religious landscape. Evidence from the Western Zhou on the Mandate of Heaven is sparse. Robert Eno points to a 998 BCE Western Zhou inscription that quotes a ruler named King Kang claiming the Shang had lost the Mandate of Heaven because of its king’s acceptance of poor behavior like drunkenness and overall bad governance.

To summarize: we have plenty of evidence from the Late Shang period about horrifying and capricious deities, who exhibit a complete lack of concern for human moral behavior, and instead need to be placated by sacrifices and rituals. David Keightley provides numerous examples of such, distinctly not moralizing, behavior in the Shang inscriptions. The first signs of a moralizing high god appear only during the Western Zhou period. So why did the DRH experts coded it differently?

Let’s look into the DRH data coded by Prof. von Falkenhausen. For China, 1750–850 BCE, the DRH asks, is there supernatural monitoring of prosocial norm adherence?  The answer by the expert is “yes.”  It would be interesting to know what Prof. von Falkenhausen thinks about the Shang-Zhou transition, but all we have is a “yes”. This is quite different from the Seshat record, which provides a paragraph explaining the basis of the code (“no” for Late Shang and “yes” for Western Zhou) and gives an academic reference for the change.

Furthermore, we might ask, what is the basis for coding “yes” for the whole period, 1750–850 BCE. During this period, nearly a millennium, the society and polity of North China was utterly transformed. It seems foolhardy to code it as one period. In contrast, Seshat not only breaks up this millennium in four phases, but also allows us to capture any changes within a phase by attaching such a change to a date. Furthermore, 1750 BCE falls into the Erlitou period (1850–1600 BCE) for which there are no records that could throw light on Erlitou religion. One wonders, what is the evidential basis for the code in this early period. Unfortunately, “yes” for 1750–850 BCE as a whole is all we have.

I want to emphasize that the preceding is in no way a criticism of Prof. von Falkenhausen, who is an excellent and broadly respected archaeologist of Ancient China. This strange coding – indeed, one could use Prof. Slingerland’s term and refer to it as a “coding error” – is, rather, a failure of the DRH.

Now, unlike Prof. Slingerland and his DRH, we at the Seshat project make no claim that we know the ultimate truth. All data codes in Seshat are subject to change as new or additional evidence is brought to bear. But in this particular case I see no reason why Seshat codes for the Shang and Western Zhou periods need to be adjusted.

In this blog post I delved into just one, although important, example from the critique leveled at us by Prof. Slingerland and his co-authors. But more broadly their critique is full of gross misrepresentations, simple misunderstandings, and false charges. We are currently writing a scholarly response to it, which will eventually be published in the Journal of Cognitive History. In our response we will demonstrate that Seshat is the most reliable source of data ever created to test cultural evolutionary hypotheses using world history.

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Scott Atran

So far as I can make out, the criticisms are more serious than interpretations over this case or that. It is that the presence of moralizing gods requires documentary evidence, almost always post-contact, in pre-literate societies, regardless of archaeological indications (e.g., as with pre-contact Hawaii). And in the absence of documentary evidence, all missing values are converted from “unknown” to “definitely not,” which is quite a dubious maneuver. When missing values are not treated this way, the statistical support for moralizing Gods as a later development seems to weaken or vanish, especially for pre-literate societies. Am I missing something?

Edward Slingerland

Scott, you’re quite right that this is about issues much larger than interpretative debates over this code or that, or any particular coding decision, but they also go beyond the analysis stage issues. Our concerns about the Seshat data itself (and it’s really only the ritual and religion variables we were looking at) center on the false claims about expert vetting, the manufactured vetting attributions, and the widespread use of data pasting (taking one observation about a particular Polity and then pasting it into all subsequent polities to create continuous coverage) and data filling (taking, for instance, a general intro to Indian Buddhism and using it to code any Buddhist polity in any part of the world throughout history). These broader issues are what we hope we’ll get responses to.

The early China stuff in Seshat is pretty good, it’s one of the few areas where they actually cite research that’s relevant to the place and time they are coding. I just hope we get more than merely a litany of quibbles about individual data points, or crowing about how Seshat does better than the DRH on some particular polity, when the problems that we’ve documented are far more global and systematic.

steven t johnson

“…regardless of archaeological indications (e.g., as with pre-contact Hawaii).”

The notion that archaeology provides sound evidence of moralizing high gods is remarkably bold, to put it politely. Even lay people have heard humor about archaeologists finding their preconceptions about religion in mute artifacts.

“And in the absence of documentary evidence, all missing values are converted from ‘unknown’ to ‘definitely not,’ which is quite a dubious maneuver. When missing values are not treated this way, the statistical support for moralizing Gods as a later development seems to weaken or vanish, especially for pre-literate societies. Am I missing something?”

Yes. To posit the possible existence of moralizing high gods without evidence is also a dubious maneuver. It’s altogether too much like Russell’s teapot. The assumption that non-documentary evidence needs quite a lot more justification, somewhere if not here. Worse, moralizing high gods by definition produce moralizing, evidence. The notion that you cannot conclude the absence of expected evidence means you cannot conclude this is evidence of absence is doubtful.


I am totally unqualified to judge but bringing such a still specialised debate to a general forum strikes me as questionable at best. Sorry


Why should scholarly debates happen behind closed doors? More openness is better.

Ross Hartshorn

Hear, hear. I greatly appreciate that we are allowed to hear the professionals debate such issues. My thanks to Drs. Turchin and Slingerland for letting us listen in.


I am glad that this debate is done openly and brought it general media like this blog or twitter.


Me too- I also have a strong interest in ancient China. I love the openness…


I noticed the odd opaqueness of DRH in their coding of the Roman imperial cult, which codes it as having prosocial monitoring and supernatural punishment (“yes” to both) for almost five centuries. There’s no examples or specific citations for either of those and that coding seems odd (although again I’m not a specialist and could be wrong on that). For the coder’s sources we have five main sources and sources for corpora (not clear if the latter was used).

While DRH pride themselves on having the latest consensus opinions of the field, it’s not at all clear what sources they used for important specific questions like religious prosocial norms, and supernatural punishment.

J. Daniel

Does this mean modern China (and other atheistic countries) are inherently unstable?

Ross Hartshorn

My understanding is that there is quite a bit of religion in China, albeit not officially sponsored.

Vladimir Dinets

Totalitarian atheistic countries desperately try to replace moralizing god with some alternatives. The cult of Marx-Engels-Lenin-(Stalin) dynasty in the Soviet Union mimicked Christianity in every possible way, while China is going hi-tech with its “social capital” system. The results are rather pathetic: these systems become permeated with grassroots corruption; cheating the state and stealing state property develop into main sources of income for the population; and if they attempt a transition to free market economy, the only kind of capitalism they can build is crony capitalism, also corruption-based. Atheistic democracies seem to do a lot better, but their long-term stability also began to look questionable recently, as you’ve probably noticed. The question is, are they less stable than more religious ones? The most religious of major Western democracies are the US, and they don’t look like a bulwark of stability 🙁

steven t johnson

The notion that a political movement of any sort is a religion relies on a vacuous notion of religion. And the claim that Marx et al. are a cult relies on an equally vacuous notion of cult. Worst of all, the notion that it mimicked Christianity in every possible way is nuts. One trait of Christianity is canon (and local churches had their own canon before the universal canon was settled, by compromise.) There is no such canon in Marxism. Even if you pretended there were churches of Marxism that added the scriptures of Stalin in one but the scriptures of Trotsky in another, this isn’t like Christianity. Another trait of Christianity is the wholly/nearly wholly imagined histories (like Acts,) biographies (the Gospels) and prophecies (Revelation.) Not even Stalinist falsifications display the the audacity of Christian writers. Christianity promise supernatural rewards. Christians and other reactionaries who already believe man’s nature is sinful and therefore a better world would be magical say Marxism is promising pie in the sky too, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? This nonsense is a powerful symptom of reactionary derangement.

Also a symptom is the notion that crony capitalism is a thing different from the noble capitalism. The old tag “No True Scotsman” for dismissing an ugly reality by saying it’s not the real thing should be replaced by “Crony Capitalism” as the name of the fallacy.

Vladimir Dinets

That’s a nice rebuttal to a whole bunch of statements I never made 🙂

Dick England

I think Scot Atran is right. It may not be productive to search written records for the first appearance of behaviour that probably began before writing evolved, even though writing would have given it a much longer life expectancy. It could well be better to look for it in the traditions of illiterate cultures that still exist.

A working hypothesis could start with the likelihood that a tribe whose leader successfully suppressed internal conflict by making moral rules would be selected over those that fought amongst themselves. Chagnon’s observations of tribal fission would be relevant. Successful leaders prevent or stave-off fission, shaping a larger, more cooperative living and fighting unit that would be selected in the struggle for existence with other tribes. When a conspicuously successful leader died, a tribe that promoted the fiction that the leader was still around but in another world, communicating through his surviving deputies and their deputies, could still be selected in the ongoing competition. Vespasian’s last words were, “Oh dear, I think I am turning int a god.” When the reality of the historical leader disappears in the mists of time, the god could still persist. Illiteracy may be necessary for that to happen. That might be the difference between Yahweh (a real leader predating Hebrew literacy?) and Vespasian.

Bret Beheim

Incidentally, the Aztecs would be counted as “moralizing gods unknown” in the Nature analysis, had they been included. Seshat says about the Aztec god Bezelao, “Unfortunately, nothing appears to be known about this god’s attributes.”

The fallacy that “moralizing gods unknown” equals “moralizing gods absent” is the heart of our critique:

Bret Beheim

Sorry, I should have said “they should have been coded as” absent – Valley of Oaxaca was included in the analysis.

steven t johnson

Given that moralizing is by definition announcing that this is morally right and that is morally wrong, an ethical discourse, does indeed suggest that absence of expected evidence, i.e., moralizing, is absence of alleged social institution, mores, events, etc. At a glance, it’s very much like saying you can’t rule out a legal system just because you find no trace of laws, courts and judgments. If your critique requires denying that one can ignore the absence of expected outcomes in favor of posting things for which there is no evidence, it is very likely not sound at all. At this point, it sounds like some sort of crank Popperism is being used here.

Connor Wood

> A good example is the Aztecs who built an empire in Mesoamerica, but whose gods only cared about being fed with sacrifices.

A slight aside, but one highly relevant to this entire debate: the fact that Aztec gods cared primarily about being fed sacrifices doesn’t at all mean that they weren’t moralizing. What they morally demanded was sacrifice. If you were chosen to be a sacrifice and you refused (as an Aztec citizen, not as a war prisoner), it would have been interpreted as a grave moral affront by other Aztecs.

This is to say that the decision to code gods as “moralizing” only if they sanction in favor of, say, disinterested economic cooperation and humanistic ethical concerns is culturally arbitrary. Gods are *always* interested in human behavior, in a normative way. In terms of testing cultural evolutionary hypotheses, then, more careful and ethnologically valid definitions of the key variables would do a lot of good. This applies to both sides of the current debate.

In sum: All gods are moralizing. Specifying what *kinds* of activities or behaviors particular types of gods moralize for or against is more operationally useful, and offers the opportunity for more granular analyses, than an artificial dichotomous distinction between moralizing and non-moralizing gods. Ben Purzycki’s work on Tyvan religious beliefs is a good example of how this strategy plays out.

steven t johnson

Pretty sure that this distinction does do the work you want it to. Even in the example of the Aztec gods, why would it not be a moral affront if a foreigner fought or escaped being sacrificed? Generally, moralizing is regarded as in some sense binding upon everyone, not just the family/tribe but the strangers and other nation. It’s universally normative, which is why the whole discussion is not just about moralizing gods, like this comment switches discussion to, but moralizing high gods. The emphasis on the high because the universalism and the normativity.

The content of the moralizing does indeed vary, but if there is a quid pro quo, it’s not generally regarded as moralizing. The Aztec gods preserved the world in return for the hearts.

Further, ritual purity is for good reason not generally regarded as a moral issue in any useful sense. A Levite must pass by a badly wounded man on the road, lest his dead body make the Levite impure.

I am not at all sure such distinctions as proposed here would be useful in any way.

Bret Beheim

Blah, how do computers work? They should have been coded as “unknown” (not absent) based on the Bezelao entry.


Doesn’t it say high god unknown in the database, but supernatitonal enforcement of group loyalty or reciprocity = absent?

Bret Beheim

Yes, but the “moralizing gods” variable is the logical OR of those two. An “absence” or an “unknown” is an “unknown”, which is why MG are ‘NA’ in Valley of Oaxaca in the authors’ analysis.

In R:
returns NA


The simple fact is the only way that people can judge these databases is to make their systems open and ALL their data available as quickly as possible.
Survival of the fittest, no?

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