A few months ago I posted Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society, which was a write-up of a paper in Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history. The study was of interest to me because it seemed to test the hypothesis and argument presented in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Their conclusion using the Seshat historical database was in the negative in relation to the hypothesis. That is, big societies gave rise to big gods, big gods did not seem to give rise to big societies.
Now a different group of researchers, some of them associated with the model of big gods leading to big societies, have shot back with an intense critique of the paper in preprint form, Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain.
There seem to two critical issues that these authors want to highlight: problems in analysis, and problems in the underlying data. In terms of the analysis, the authors suggest that because the Seshat database relies on written evidence it is going to be biased toward more recent dates because writing tends to be found later in social development and complexity. They reanalyzed the data by pushing the emergence of big gods back by a century and found the direction of the effect reverse. In other words, they are saying that the result was not robust. A second issue that impacted the analysis is that the authors of the preprint assert that since so many missing values from preliterate societies were recoded as an absence of big gods what the results are showing is a negative correlation of missing entries with complex societies.
A second broader issue seems to be a suggestion that Seshat itself is riddled with too many errors to be reliable.
As someone deeply interested in the scientific question I don’t have a strong opinion as to what’s going on here (though I am probably a bit skeptical of the idea that Seshat is without much value considering the time and effort I know Peter Turchin and his collaborators have put into it). Feelings seem to be getting heated online, but I’m hoping that open-science will win in the end.
Peter Turchin and Patrick Savage have put up preliminary responses. No doubt there will be more back and forth. But one major improvement over many historical discussions is that this is playing out transparently through data analyses, then the standard “historian here, let me assert my expertise here to shut you down….” (a lot of historians on Twitter behave in a mendacious manner in my opinion, because I often know enough about many historical topics to see exactly how they are laundering their credentials to support sophistry in a manner that is opaque to their trusting audience).