Theories on socio-political evolution put to the test

image: Apparent stasis interspersed with periods of rapid change, associated with major technological “revolutions”, triggered by new military technologies. The longest period without systematic change was during the nearly two millennia between the Iron/Cavalry Revolution and the Gunpowder Revolution. Although empires rose and fell during this period, the maximum areas of empires fluctuated around the 3 million square kilometer level.

[Brown curve: average territory of the three largest polities.
Tan shading: mean ± SD (note the logarithmic scale of the Y-axis)]

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Credit: Seshat: World Historical Database

[Vienna, June 2022] Over the last 10,000 years – the Holocene – human societies have become larger and more complex. An international team of scientists led by Peter Turchin of the Complexity Science Hub Vienna (CSH) set out to test various theories as to why this process occurs. According to his analyzes of data from Seshat: World History Database, the best explanation for the evolution of socio-cultural complexity is a combination of increased agricultural productivity and the invention or adoption of military technologies (notably the invention of iron weapons and cavalry in the first millennium BC). The study has just been published in the journal Scientists progress.

Many theories need to be tested

“Countless explanations have been offered over the years to explain the incredible ‘Holocene transformation’,” says Peter Turchin. Some theorists, such as Jared Diamond, argue that the transition to agriculture was both the necessary and sufficient condition for the rise of complex societies. Other theories focus on theories of conflict, class struggle, the threat of external war or functionalist explanations, for example, that complex social organization evolved to solve certain problems faced by societies.

“All of these theories could cite historical examples apparently supporting their putative mechanisms; but none has ever proven more compelling than the others,” says Turchin, who leads a team investigating social complexity and collapse at CSH. With other members of the Seshat: World History Database project, he applied the proven scientific method: determining what each body of theory proposes as key factors leading to the rise of complexity and seeing which best explains the available empirical evidence. The results reveal that many long-standing and influential theories have little support in the data.

Plow and sword drive human history

The best explanation of observed patterns provides the framework of cultural evolution. “Essentially, the conflict between groups over territory and resources puts enormous selective pressure on societies,” says Turchin. It has fostered societies that are increasingly larger, more populous, able to store more information and communicate effectively over greater distances, and able to mobilize greater numbers of people for common projects like defense and maintenance of public infrastructure. “While previous theories contained some of these elements, for the first time a single, consistent framework was provided and demonstrated with the historical record,” says Turchin.

Researchers have also identified several major “transformations” during the Holocene: following the invention of key technologies such as bronze smelting and later iron or cavalry warfare and associated tactics, the scale of largest companies grew dramatically before stabilizing at a relatively stable size. New innovations and cultural adaptations continued to unfold until another breakthrough was achieved, propelling societies to new heights before leveling off again, while the whole process started all over again.

Big Data Reveals Critical Patterns

“This article is the culmination of more than a decade of intensive collaboration,” says Harvey Whitehouse, corresponding author of the article and one of the founding directors of Seshat. “Our study used over a hundred meticulously coded variables relating to 373 societies that flourished between 9600 BCE and 1900 CE. With the help of such ‘big data’, we are able to compare theories of world history and see which ones win.”

Scientists consider this study a breakthrough in understanding the evolution of human societies since the very first farmers settled thousands of years ago. Going forward, the team will adopt similar methods to test the diverse group of ideas that have been proposed in other areas of research, such as the causes of societal collapse or the role of ideology. religion in cultural evolution.

The ultimate goal, as Turchin puts it, is to “put to bed, once and for all, influential ideas that do not agree with empirical data.”

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About CSH

The mission of Complexity Science Hub Vienna is to house, educate and inspire complex systems scientists who are dedicated to making sense of Big Data to drive science and society. Hub scientists develop methods for the scientific, quantitative and predictive understanding of complex systems.

CSH is a joint initiative of AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, Central European University CEU, Danube University Krems, Graz University of Technology, IIASA, Medical University of Vienna, TU Wien, VetMedUni Vienna, Vienna University of Economics and Business and Austrian University of Economics Chambers (WKO).

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