What Came First: Big Gods or Big Societies? Round Two

Peter Turchin


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In my previous post, Historians and Historical Databases, I discussed how the Seshat Databank would be impossible without a close collaboration with historians and other humanities scholars. Today I want to give a specific example of how this collaboration works.

For those who have not followed the Big Gods controversy closely, last Spring the Seshat project published an article in Nature, Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History. The article generated a ton of positive press (as is usual for a Nature article), but it also elicited critique from some, including supporters of the Big Gods theory. We have responded to these critiques on the preprint server SocArXiv (https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/xjrythttps://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/t8hgu).

The heart of a departed is weighed against the Feather of Ma’at Source

But the Nature paper was only the first of many planned articles investigating the role of religion, morality, and other factors in the evolution of social complexity. We have recently completed a further wave of analyses using more detailed data on moralizing religion, and testing additional theories explaining the evolution of Big Gods. The new analyses confirm our original headline finding (that Big Gods come after Big Societies) and also explore additional dimensions to this complex topic. Before we submit it a journal, however, we want to get feedback from all interested parties, including our critics.

To make the whole process extra transparent, we have posted all related documents online. The main article is on SocArXiv: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/2v59j/, and it is accompanied by supplementary online materials that include the data and the analysis scripts. Our aim is to achieve maximum transparency and critical engagement—everyone who wants, can critique and comment on each phase and reanalyze the data.

But we are also breaking new ground in this project. In addition to posting data and programs, we have invested a huge amount of effort into clarifying where the data come from. And this is where the collaboration with humanities scholars become critical. Most of the work during the past several months was devoted to building “analytic narratives” underlying the Seshat data.

Analytic Narratives are formalized verbal accounts focusing on several (in our case, many) in-depth case studies. The goal of this methodology is to employ the specialized knowledge possessed by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and religious studies scholars, who have the understanding of the particular, for the purpose of testing theories that may apply more generally. General theory (which focuses on moralizing religion in our case) imposes structure on verbal accounts by specifying which aspects of past societies we would like to get information on. But within this framework, scholars are free to explore variability between different societies, different continents, and different eras. The aim is to reflect in the document evolving interpretations and persisting controversies. Such qualitative nuance provides a much needed counterbalance to the “hard” quantitative data, which by their nature strip it away.

For those interested in looking “under the hood”, the current draft of this document is posted here:


Keep in mind that it is very much work in progress—some chapters and sections contain much more text and references than others. There are several reasons for this, the main being that there are societies for which we haven’t yet been able to recruit experts. Our approach in such cases is to “prime the pump” by including an initial description, based on the reading of available sources and then invite expert feedback and elaboration on this initial text.

As I stressed in my previous post, the success of Seshat critically depends on close collaboration with professional historians and other humanities scholars. By adding Analytic Narratives to the spectrum of products from the Seshat project we aim to deepen this collaboration and, more generally, to contribute to a dialogue between humanities and sciences. The richness and quality of Seshat results will also be enhanced. I am very keen to see how this will develop in the near future.


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Bret Beheim

Hello Peter,

Thanks for the sneak peek, and commitment to transparency. It seems to be the same problem all as the last paper, though – you’re assuming that absence of evidence of religious beliefs is evidence of absence. Take Hawaii’ – in the original Whitehouse, et al. paper (and on the Seshat website), Seshat doesn’t seem to know anything about Hawaiian religion around 1200 CE (see here: http://seshatdatabank.info/data/polities/big-island-of-hawaii-Hawaii2). Everything is “unknown”. Yet in the new dataset associated with this paper, if I run this line of R code

MSP[which(MSP$NGA == “Big Island Hawaii” & MSP$Start == 1200),]

I see Hawaii is given the following codes:

cooperation primary concern of gods: inferred absent
predictability of punishment is certain: inferred absent
broad domain moral enforcement: inferred absent
punishment only targets the guilty: present
supernatural forces punish antisocial rulers: present
elites believe in moralizing religion: present
commoners belief in moralizing religion: present
punishment in afterlife: uncertain/inferred absent
punishment during life: inferred present
punishing force has agency: inferred present

Where is all this new data coming from? It seems like you’re just assuming all those unknowns are absences all over again.


It’s about what Data is displayed on the website vs when you download the data set.

Unknown on the site vs absent in the dataset in the case of Hawaii2 for example


Ah I see , thank you

Bret Beheim

Seshat has somehow gone from 100% missing values for pre-1580 Hawaii (what you call Hawaii1 and Hawaii2) in Whitehouse, et al. to now a state where there are no missing values at all. The articles don’t say where the data on ancient Hawai’i is coming from, so i’m asking you.

steven t johnson

“…absence of evidence of religious beliefs is evidence of absence.” This is actually true, unless you are covertly moving the goalposts by reading “evidence” as “conclusive proof.” There is always absence of evidence for every issue. It is always possible to hypothesize any kind of historical alternatives, such as intelligent dinosaurs in the Cretaceous, by this standard. (Perhaps I should use scare quotes.) Personal incredulity is a motive for examining facts and inferences, but it is not an argument.

Radical epistemological skepticism is always the sign of intellectual failure as near as I can tell. Not even its professed proponents actually use it, Hume didn’t. Like Hume, the general purpose is to rule out rational assessment of evidence. Your own example even gives the impression you reject inference, as if circumstantial evidence wasn’t evidence at all. That’s blatantly irrational. Also, if you’re going to criticize points of detail, it does help to actually examine them, as in read the article.

To put it another way, there is a pattern where morality enforcing gods are associated with complex societies. Your skepticism doesn’t just deny the possibility of deciding if there’s any causal relationship, your skepticism even denies there is a pattern to explain. Further, your skepticism is so indiscriminate you don’t even consider the probability that no evidence of any simpler society held belief in moralizing gods would survive. Even your fellow reactionary Popper looked for falsifying evidence.

Last, it may be controversial but, as in creation science, I believe real science is about comparing the evidence for alternative hypotheses, rather than substituting a misleading combination of philosophical critique and vociferously arguing a few details while ignoring the preponderance of evidence…including that from other fields. In this case, what is the evidence that religious beliefs arising from nowhere change society? Do you really look at the world today, much less recent history, and conclude unexplained changes in religious belief prompted the Reformation, rather than changes like printing or motives like seizure of Church lands? Seriously?

I look at the part you cited and I wonder how one distinguishes the beliefs of commoners and elites in moralizing religion, given how elites often have an interest in conformity by their subjects. Also, I am not sure that assigning numbers to refined categories that may not even be objective (“real”) can’t be systematically misleading. Even more, the issue of significant figures in calculations and margins of error is omitted from the popular presentations I’ve seen so far. Those don’t even seem to be issues for you.

steven t johnson

Yes, I find that kind of circumstantial evidence compelling. Thank you for the example. I imagine that Bret Beheim would deny being an epistemological skeptic, though I can’t tell the difference from anything he’s posted here.

Bret Beheim

The strong form of “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” employed in the original Nature paper, and apparently also this analysis in cases like Hawaii1 and Hawaii2, is fallacious because you have to assume that, if moralizing supernatural punishment were present in a preliterate population like ancient Hawai’i or North Colombia, evidence for such beliefs *has to* survive into modern records with 100% certainty, which isn’t defensible. Back-of-the-napkin proof here: http://babeheim.com/2019/09/19/song-of-aeiea.html

Peter van den Engel

There hsve been island cultures i the pacific known for their peacefull behaviour, which concentrated on the male/ female sexual role in society, by accepting it as an open potential, very different from more strict western or mainland societies in their understanding of family.
It would be hard to find material artefacts of that, apart from lore.
But you clearly recognize it in their music; which is female harmonious and inviting and also in the flower kettings around their neck, promising the same atmosphere.
This would contain a moral, which of course is not surpressing, but at the same time would not accept anything contrary to it.
So perhaps evidence of punishment in that sense could be found, if they had prisons and who was sentenced for what reason.


Doesn’t this mean you can’t ever be sure of something in the past as you can never be sure that documentation survived to the present day?

Bret Beheim

Seshat has somehow gone from 100% missing values for pre-1580 Hawaii (what you call Hawaii1 and Hawaii2) in Whitehouse, et al. to now a state where there are no missing values at all. The articles don’t say where the data on ancient Hawai’i is coming from, so i’m asking you.

Patrik Lindenfors

Yes, this seems odd. I am also curious and would like an explanation.

Bret Beheim

Peter, I’m sorry you feel hectored. Clearly you and your team have done an enormous amount of work and have responded to our earlier critique seriously. I’ve registered my concern that the AEIEA fallacy is still at play here, with the test case being Hawaii1 and Hawaii2, which is coded
as MSP mostly absent despite apparently no clear sources in your Analytic Narratives or elsewhere. Best, Bret

Bret Beheim

Again, to be completely clear, the problem is *not* that Hawaii1 and Hawaii2 lack an expert’s approval of a research assistant’s summary of some historical source saying that ancient Hawaiians mostly lacked moralizing supernatural beliefs. The problem is that this paper’s MSP dataset has religious variables for Hawaii1 and Hawaii2 completely filled in with NO SOURCE AT ALL, neither region expert nor a paid assistant citing something.

Loren Petrich

An alternative to moralizing high gods is moralizing laws of nature, like karma in the Dharmic religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. If you do bad things, those actions will give you bad karma, and they will make you get reincarnated into a bad situation. The Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus also believed in karma. A man who murdered his mother would eventually get reincarnated as a woman who got murdered by her son.

Is there much discussion of that in discussions of moralizing high gods?

Loren Petrich

Thanx. I should have read your final link: http://seshatdatabank.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/MSP_Narratives_CurrDraft.pdf

I like this in it: Many researchers consider “supernatural” as a problematic term, because it assumes a particular (modern and Eurocentric) notion of what is “natural.” McCauley and Lawson (ref) proposed that we use the term “culturally postulated superhuman” instead.

Meaning that there isn’t a sharp conceptual line between something like the Tao and something like gravity.

Peter van den Engel

Religion in fact is a primary form of spacetime knowledge, in understanding that survival (the evolutionary aspect) is based on values which are contradictory. Like constructive (god) is a better way of getting there than destruction.(the devil).
So it promotes constructive (like strength) and disapproves destructive, by punishment. It uses the same strength for destruction,, which would be right if it understood reality properly and wrong if it understoid it incorrectly.

Stength is because its punishment is nonvocal, a most primitive way for explanation, because humans are informed by language, after vision.
Hence the first (religious ir wordly) elites discovered that huge buildings would promote the acceptance of the illiterate of there ruling insight. Without having to explain anything.

The god aspect actually is parallel to the unknown, which is quantum physics in our mathematicly understood reality.
Science has been a direct result of religion, since the alchemists projected logic on it. If the world was created, made by forces unknown, what could they be?
It must be the primary materials of earth, wind, fire and water. Which are all four oppositions of one another as you notice. In geometry terms it must be telated to the light which came first, explained as a circle (endless eternity) and a triangle the stars make, which led to square equations, or mathematics.
It is all related to one another and contains a learning process. Expansion of knowledge.
The construction of architecture led to the templers and after the pope expelled them to the freemasons, who constructed the logic of democratic government.
So, you see what was hidden has probably done a lot more than official religion. Although they use parallel values.
One is directed to the inner circle and the other to explaning the masses on the outside, which however are the only reality (materialisation) human kind knows.

Peter van den Engel

One overall important narrative; also concerning religion; to keep in mind is evolution has (almost) always travelled from east to west.
The reason is, the previous day, where the sun rises first, is your past and has always learned more about tomorrow before you do. So it is smart to adopt its knowledge. Etc.
It’s a leapfrog system, where some cultures are also left behind. Relative, because christianity came from an earlier spot in history than where the romans where in the west at the same time..
But having to deal with barbarians; northern Europe; was almost the,same as dealing with warfaring cultures which subjected the jewish culture into slavery. So they came up with a general human theory to evade that in the future.
Which was kind of the same as evading barbarism, but the romans where the barbarians themselves. Only on a higher level of civilisation.

[…] Beheim, one of the more level-headed critics of the original paper, was quick to point out (See the comments in Turchin’s latest blog post) that Turchin et al have still not addressed the central […]

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