An international research team, including a member of the Vienna Science Complex, examines the role of the "great gods" in creating complex large societies. The great gods are defined as moralizing deities that punish ethical transgressions. Contrary to prevailing theories, the team finds that beliefs in the great gods are a consequence, not a reason for the evolution of sophisticated societies. The results are published in the current issue of the journal Nature.
For their statistical analysis, the researchers used the Seshat database: Global History, the most complete and ever-growing collection of historical and prehistoric data. Currently, Seshat contains about 300,000 records of social complexity, religion and other characteristics of 500 past societies covering 1
"This has been a debate for centuries, why people, unlike other animals, collaborate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals," says Ssath Peter Sr., director and co-author of the University of Connecticut and the Science Center for Complexity in Vienna. Factors such as agriculture, war or religion have been proposed as the main driving forces
One of the prominent theories, the hypothesis of the great or moralizing gods, suggests that religious beliefs have been key. According to this theory, people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they do not. "To our surprise, our data strongly contradicts this hypothesis," says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. "In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tend to follow, rather than precede, the increase in social complexity." Moreover, standardized rituals usually show hundreds of years before the gods who take care of human morality. 19659002] Such rituals create a collective identity and feelings of belonging that act as a social glue that makes people behave more closely. "Our results show that collective identities are more important to facilitate collaboration in societies than religious beliefs," says Harvey Whitehouse.
Big Data: A New Approach to Social Theories
Until recently, it was impossible to distinguish between cause and social theories and history, as there are no standardized quantitative data from all over the world. To cope with this problem, Peter Turchin, a sociological scientist, together with Harvey Whitehouse and Peter Francois of Oxford University, founded Seshat in 2011. The multidisciplinary project unites the experience of historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, social scientists, and data professionals in the most up-to-date open access database. Dozens of experts around the world helped compile detailed data on the social complexity and religious beliefs and practices of hundreds of independent political units ("political structures"), starting with Neolithic Anatolians (now Turkey) in 9600 BC.
The complexity of society can be assessed through social features such as the population, territory and complexity of state institutions and information systems. Religious data include the existence of beliefs in the supernatural imposition of reciprocity, fairness and loyalty, and the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.
"Sesheh allows researchers to analyze hundreds of variables related to social sophistication, religion, war, agriculture, and other characteristics of human culture and society that differ in time and space," explains Pieter Francois. "Now that the database is ready for analysis, we are ready to test a long list of human history theories." This includes competing theories about how and why people have evolved to collaborate in large societies of millions and more.  "Seshat is an unprecedented collaboration between anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and evolution scientists," said Patrick Savage, author of the article. "This shows how great data can revolutionize the study of human history."
This article is reissued by materials provided by the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Note: The material may have been edited for length and content. For additional information, please contact the quoted source. : Whitehouse, H., Francois, P., Savage, PJ, Curie, T.E., Feeney, KS, Sioni, E., …, P. (2019 ). Sophisticated societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history. Nature, 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1043-4