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Ancient historians have been in the big open data business for almost 200 years, with Mommsen’s establishment of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum to publish all surviving ancient Latin inscriptions in 1853. Right now there are two competing projects to create an encyclopedia of quantitative data on world religious history which could be subjected to statistical tests: the Database of Religious History at UBC, and Peter Turchin’s Seshat project in the USA. Turchin belongs to a Russian tradition of social scientists such as Andrey Vitalievich Korotayev who want to find predictive, mathematical laws of history, often in the forms of cycles. A recent paper based on Seshat data has provoked not one but two responses only six weeks after publication.

  • Harvey Whitehouse et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History,” Nature 568 (20 March 2019) pp. 226-229 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1043-4
  • Edward Slingerland et al., “Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), ‘Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History'”, PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019 https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/2amjz
  • Bret Beheim, Quentin Atkinson (yes, that Atkinson), et al., “Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain,” PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019 https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/jwa2n

Whitehouse and his Seshat colleagues ask whether “belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies.” They examine which appears first in 414 societies over the past 10,000 years, and argue that the sequence tends to be first large-scale societies and then moralizing gods.

The respondents, some of then associated with the DRH and others independent, have many concerns. The first is a point about the relationship between past societies, and the written traces they left behind:

Unlike proxies of social complexity such as polity size and population density, their definition of MG requires written evidence in order for MGs to be detected. Yet, as one proceeds back through the archeo-historical record, both literacy and written materials become less common. Thus, the earliest surviving documentary evidence of MGs will likely be much later than their actual emergence and differentially ‘forward biased’ relative to the physical evidence of social complexity. For example, Hawaii’s population history is well-documented archaeologically, but MGs only appear in the Hawaiian Seshat records upon the arrival of Europeans with quills. In light of Pacific ethnography, MGs likely existed in Hawaii far earlier than post-contact accounts.

When they repeat the analysis on the assumption that people in a region may believe in moralizing gods before the first surviving text documents this, the results reverse and the usual sequence is first moralizing gods and then large-scale societies. This strikes me as plausible, because moralizing gods seem to me the kind of thing that people imagine throughout world history, often alongside gods which are above human concerns.

Moreover, they argue that the Seshat data is fundamentally flawed: created by busy research assistants without training in the specific fields, copied and pasted across periods more than a thousand years long or from an imperial power to a newly claimed territory, granted authority by citing vetters who deny that they were involved, and failing to follow standard version-control practices as they change their main data set (the data submitted with the Nature article has been taken down and replaced with an updated version, so readers can’t look at the original data and decide whether the criticisms are fair). They don’t object to a database of religious history in principle, but they think that the Seshat data needs say ten times more work before its a trustworthy representation of what experts know and can’t know. In short, they accuse the paper in Nature of being not just bad history, but bad statistics and bad quantitative social science.

I can say that the Seshat entries for Achaemenid Susiana and Achaemenid Sogdiana are more of a ‘notebook’ than a polished article: all the fields are filled in, but the only vetting was for the ‘moralizing high god’ religious data, and the supporting essay is patched together quotations from modern authorities, some of them describing places as distant as Egypt. They also want to code concepts as binaries (either there is promotion by merit in the bureaucracy, or there is not) which seems like a false dilemma. On the other hand, I like their choice of 30 regions to use as the framework for their world history.

People studying the ancient world are often at the cutting edge of methods, whether their leap into electronic and digital publication in the 1990s or their sophisticated work on house sizes and inequality. Both of these projects agree that an open encyclopedia of data on world history is a good thing, and that the kinds of statistical methods which quantitative social scientists like are worth trying. But at the same time, its wise not to assume that adapting those methods to another kind of evidence will be quick and easy, or to overlook the need to convince people who already study the subject that these new methods are valid.

Several of the Seshat/Nature side of the debate are responding in blog posts. They have had so little time to read and absorb their critics’ arguments that I would recommend focusing on reading their original article and the two responses. Note that Nature is a natural science journal, so what they call the article is more of an ‘executive summary’ and the actual contents and evidence are in the supplements.