Mar 22nd 2019

Big gods came after the rise of civilisations, not before, finds study using huge historical database

by Harvey Whitehouse, Patrick E. Savage, Peter Turchin and Pieter Francois

 

 

Harvey Whitehouse is Chair professor, University of Oxford

Patrick E. Savage is Associate Professor in Environment and Information Studies, Keio University

Peter Turchin is Professor of Anthropology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Mathematics, University of Connecticut

Pieter Francois is Associate Professor in Cultural Evolution, University of Oxford

 

 

 

 

File 20190319 60972 18hsrny.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
What came first – all-seeing Gods or complex societies? God the Father and Angel, Guercino Giovan Francesco Barbieri via Wikimedia Commons

 

When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them.

 

Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.

Now, thanks to our massive new database of world history, known as Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of record keeping), we’re starting to get some answers.

Eye in the sky

One popular theory has argued that moralising gods were necessary for the rise of large-scale societies. Small societies, so the argument goes, were like fish bowls. It was almost impossible to engage in antisocial behaviour without being caught and punished – whether by acts of collective violence, retaliation or long-term reputational damage and risk of ostracism. But as societies grew larger and interactions between relative strangers became more commonplace, would-be transgressors could hope to evade detection under the cloak of anonymity. For cooperation to be possible under such conditions, some system of surveillance was required.

What better than to come up with a supernatural “eye in the sky” – a god who can see inside people’s minds and issue punishments and rewards accordingly. Believing in such a god might make people think twice about stealing or reneging on deals, even in relatively anonymous interactions. Maybe it would also increase trust among traders. If you believe that I believe in an omniscient moralising deity, you might be more likely to do business with me, than somebody whose religiosity is unknown to you. Simply wearing insignia such as body markings or jewellery alluding to belief in such a god might have helped ambitious people prosper and garner popularity as society grew larger and more complex.

Nevertheless, early efforts to investigate the link between religion and morality provided mixed results. And while supernatural punishment appears to have preceded the rise of chiefdoms among Pacific Island peoples, in Eurasia studies suggested that social complexity emerged first and moralising gods followed. These regional studies, however, were limited in scope and used quite crude measures of both moralising religion and of social complexity.

Sifting through history

Seshat is changing all that. Efforts to build the database began nearly a decade ago, attracting contributions from more than 100 scholars at a cost of millions of pounds. The database uses a sample of the world’s historical societies, going back in a continuous time series up to 10,000 years before the present, to analyse hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space. Now that the database is finally ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about global history.

One of the earliest questions we’re testing is whether morally concerned deities drove the rise of complex societies. We analysed data on 414 societies from 30 world regions, using 51 measures of social complexity and four measures of supernatural enforcement of moral norms to get to the bottom of the matter. New research we’ve just published in the journal Nature reveals that moralising gods come later than many people thought, well after the sharpest rises in social complexity in world history. In other words, gods who care about whether we are good or bad did not drive the initial rise of civilisations – but came later.

As part of our research we created a map of where big gods appeared around the world. In the map below, the size of the circle represents the size of the society: bigger circles represent larger and more complex societies. The numbers in the circle represent the number of thousand years ago we find the first evidence of belief in moralising gods. For example, Emperor Ashoka adopted Buddhism 2,300 years ago after he had already established a large and complex South Asian empire known as the Mauryan Empire.

The global distribution and timing of beliefs in moralising gods shows that big gods appear in big societies. Whitehouse, Francois Savage et al. Nature., Author provided

Our statistical analysis showed that beliefs in supernatural punishment tend to appear only when societies make the transition from simple to complex, around the time when the overall population exceed about a million individuals.

Social complexity tends to increase more rapidly before the appearance of moralising gods, not after. Whitehouse, Francois Savage et al. Nature., Author provided

We are now looking to other factors that may have driven the rise of the first large civilisation. For example, Seshat data suggests that daily or weekly collective rituals – the equivalent of today’s Sunday services or Friday prayers – appear early in the rise of social complexity and we’re looking further at their impact.

If the original function of moralising gods in world history was to hold together fragile, ethnically diverse coalitions, what might declining belief in such deities mean for the future of societies today? Could modern secularisation, for example, contribute to the unravelling of efforts to cooperate regionally – such as the European Union? If beliefs in big gods decline, what will that mean for cooperation across ethnic groups in the face of migration, warfare, or the spread of xenophobia? Can the functions of moralising gods simply be replaced by other forms of surveillance?

Even if Seshat cannot provide easy answers to all these questions, it could provide a more reliable way of estimating the probabilities of different futures.

Harvey Whitehouse, Chair professor, University of Oxford; Patrick E. Savage, Associate Professor in Environment and Information Studies, Keio University; Peter Turchin, Professor of Anthropology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Mathematics, University of Connecticut, and Pieter Francois, Associate Professor in Cultural Evolution, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.