A response to commentaries on The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity: Five predictions and a drum roll

Our recent article invited readers of the SEF to imagine a drum roll in the background as we announced the imminent arrival of a vast global databank that will bring history under the purview of experimental science for the first time. We are extremely grateful to Peter Peregrine and Brian Malley for their willingness to comment on the article—and for raising such big and interesting questions, to boot. But first, let us emphasize that our purpose here is to explain our approach—this is a work in progress, not a set of results. Our main rationale is that we want our key predictions to have appeared in print before putting them to the test through the first phase of analysis in 2016.

Both commentators express reservations about the capacity of Seshat: Global History Databank to demonstrate causal links between the variables of interest. Malley concedes that the database could be used to disconfirm certain causal claims (e.g., where a hypothesized effect precedes its putative cause), but because socio-cultural systems are so complex, he suspects that the causal role of one or a few variables is likely to be “non-linear.”  To some extent, this concern may illustrate Peregrine’s point about the dangers of misunderstanding probability in social science. If we have enough examples of a particular variable (e.g., routinized ritual) historically preceding another (e.g., enlarged political systems), then we can say that, all else being equal, routinization causes political expansion. The fact that that this causal chain may depend on the presence of numerous mediating variables does not detract from the main claim—indeed, it only opens up the prospect of more finely-grained analysis of the causal chain.

A related issue may lurk behind the concern that Seshat will be just another, grander version of The Golden Bough (Frazer, 1890 [1926], Macmillan Press). But as Malley himself points out, Frazer never attempted to place his hypotheses about the evolution of religion or, more generally, social complexity, head-to-head with alternative hypotheses. That is exactly what we attempted to do, however, in Table 2: Five Predictions of DMR Theory. Deciding which rival theories to test is obviously a key challenge here. Although the ‘Ritual Frequency Hypothesis’ (from McCauley and Lawson’s Bringing Ritual to Mind, CUP, 2002) that Malley mentions in passing is an attractive candidate for some but not all of the predictions of interest to us, it also requires historically accurate information about the intervention of culturally postulated supernatural agents in rituals —information that is generally lacking in the historical record and entirely absent in the archaeology.

In fact, we would argue that our general approach is the very antithesis of the classical approaches used by humanists, so brilliantly illustrated by The Golden Bough. Unlike Frazer, instead of focusing on a single hypothesis, we bring in multiple explanations right from the start of the enterprise. Yes, we cannot cover all possible hypotheses—that’s a practical and logical impossibility – and, yes, we have started with variables of relevance to theories of particular interest to us as Seshat’s creators. This is one of the great privileges of pioneers in any domain, that you get to make decisions about what to prioritise. But we also build a solid foundation and neutral platform for others to add to the database by collecting data on additional variables to test additional theories. As the stock of variables increases, the job of each next researcher wishing to test an additional theory becomes easier.

A second difference between the approach taken by Frazer and ours is that we do not “cherry-pick” facts. Instead, we employ a systematic procedure by collecting all data available for all societies that occupied a set of 30 points on the globe between the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. We are limited only by what historians and archaeologist know about these societies. (And one of the “products” of the Seshat Databank will be to highlight important gaps in our knowledge that can be filled with additional research.) By turning Seshat into a public resource available to everyone to test theories they consider to be the most compelling or timely, we believe to have put in a place the infrastructure necessary to analyze history using the scientific method. Science, like other domains of culture, evolves—and we believe a science of history may evolve faster and more spectacularly than most.

Published On: December 11, 2015

Harvey Whitehouse

Harvey Whitehouse


Harvey Whitehouse is Chair of Social Anthropology, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, and a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford. Harvey is one of the founders of the cognitive science of religion field. He is especially well known for his theory of “modes of religiosity” that has been the subject of extensive critical evaluation and testing by anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary theorists. The modes theory proposes that the frequency and emotionality of rituals determines the scale and structure of religious organizations: low-frequency, highly arousing rituals bind together small but very cohesive groups of participants; high-frequency, less emotionally intense rituals create large anonymous communities that are more diffusely integrated. In recent years, Harvey’s work has expanded beyond religion to examine the role of rituals of all kinds in binding groups together and motivating inter-group competition, including warfare. This research has become increasingly global in reach with ongoing data collection now established at field sites in Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Vanuatu, Brazil, the U.S., Spain, Cameroon, the U.K., Turkey, and Libya. Harvey is also a founding editor, and the editor for ritual variables, of Seshat: Global History Databank.


Pieter François

Pieter François

Dr. Pieter Francois is a Lecturer in Digital History at the University of Hertfordshire. His work focuses on travel and migration in the nineteenth century and on the evolution of social complexity, ritual and warfare. Together with Professor Peter Turchin (UConn) and Professor Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford) he founded the Seshat: Global History Databank project in 2011 (https://new.evolution-institute.org/project/seshat/). In 2013 he won the British Library Labs competition with his Sample Generator for Digitized Texts. He is also the Research Coordinator of the Cultural Evolution Lab at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford.

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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