Theories of socio-political evolution put to the test

image: Apparent standstill interspersed with periods of rapid change associated with major technological “revolutions” caused by new military technologies. The longest period of no 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 level of 3 million square kilometers.

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

vision Lake

Credit: Seshat: Global History Database

[Vienna, June 2022] Over the past 10,000 years – the Holocene – human societies grew larger and more complex. An international team of scientists led by Peter Turchin from the Complexity Science Hub Vienna (CSH) set out to explore different theories about the drivers of this process. According to his analyzes of data from Seshat: Global History Database, 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 (particularly the invention of iron weapons and cavalry in the first millennium BCE). The study just appeared in the journal scientific progress

Many theories need to be tested

“Over the years, numerous explanations have been put forward to explain the incredible ‘Holocene transformation’,” notes Peter Turchin. Some theorists, such as Jared Diamond, argue that the transition to agriculture was both the necessary and sufficient condition for the emergence of complex societies. Other theories focus on conflict theories, class struggle, the threat of external warfare or functionalist explanations, for example, that a complex social organization came into existence to solve certain problems of societies.

“All of these theories could cite historical examples that seem to support their alleged mechanisms; but none have ever been more convincingly convincing than the other,” said Turchin, who leads a team at CSH investigating Social Complexity and Collapse. Together with fellow members of the Seshat: Global History Database project, he applied the tried and tested scientific method: determine what each theory presents as the main factors driving the increase in complexity and see which one best explains the available empirical evidence. The results show that many old and influential theories receive little support from data.

Plow and sword drive human history

The best explanation for the observed patterns is provided by the framework of cultural evolution. “Essentially, the conflict between groups over territory and resources creates enormous selective pressures on societies,” Turchin explains. It favored societies that were increasingly larger and more populous, could store more information and communicate effectively at greater distances, and were able to mobilize greater numbers of people for communal projects such as defense and maintaining public infrastructure. “While previous theories have included some of these elements, a single, cohesive framework has been provided and demonstrated for the first time with the historical record,” Turchin says.

The scholars also identified several important “transformations” during the Holocene: after the invention of key technologies such as the smelting of bronze and later iron or cavalry warfare and associated tactics, the scale of the largest societies increased dramatically before leveling off to a relatively stable size. New innovations and cultural adaptations continued to evolve until another breakthrough was achieved, propelling societies to new heights before stabilizing again, as the whole process started over.

Big Data Reveal Decisive Patterns

“This article is the culmination of more than a decade of intense collaboration,” said Harvey Whitehouse, corresponding author of the article and one of the founders of Seshat. “Our study used more than a hundred variables – precisely coded – relating to 373 societies that flourished between 9600 BCE and 1900 CE. Using such ‘big’ data, we are able to contrast and compare theories of world history. see which ones win.”

The scientists consider this study a breakthrough in understanding how human societies have evolved since the very first farmers settled thousands of years ago. In the future, the team will apply similar methods to test the diverse group of ideas proposed in other areas of research, such as the causes of societal collapse or the role of religious ideology in cultural evolution.

The ultimate goal, as Turchin puts it, is to “put to bed once and for all those influential ideas that don’t fit the empirical record”.

About the CSH

The mission of Complexity Science Hub Vienna is to host, educate and inspire complex systems scientists dedicated to understanding Big Data to boost science and society. Scientists at the Hub are developing methods for the scientific, quantitative and predictive understanding of complex systems.

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

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