Theories on socio-political evolution put to the test

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)]. Credit: Seshat: World Historical Database

Over the past 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: Global History Databank, the best explanation for the evolution of socio-cultural complexity is a combination of increasing 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 seemingly supporting their putative mechanisms; but none has ever proven more convincing than the others,” says Turchin, who leads a team investigating social complexity and collapse in the United States. CSH. With other members of the Seshat: World History Database project, he applied the proven scientific method: determining what each body of the theory proposes as key factors for the rise of complexity and see 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 smelting or cavalry warfare and associated tactics, the scale of the largest corporations increased 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 variables – meticulously coded – relating to 373 societies that flourished between 9600 BCE and 1900 CE. With the help of this ‘big’ data, we are able to put the theories of world history face to face and see which ones win.”

Scientists consider this study a breakthrough in understanding how human societies have evolved 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, the influential ideas that do not agree with empirical data.”

What motivated the invention of military technologies?

More information:
Peter Turchin et al, Unraveling the Evolutionary Drivers of Social Complexity: A Comprehensive Hypothesis Test, Scientists progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abn3517.

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