Clio meets Seshat: Examining the evolution of large-scale cooperation


As a species, humans have an extraordinary ability to cooperate in large groups. Seshat director Peter Turchin recently shared his theories on the evolution of cooperation in large-scale human groups and its link to both the field of Cliodynamics and Seshat: Global History Databank in a webinar hosted by the Evolution Institute for project donors and collaborators.

Evidence for large-scale human cooperate dates back 11,000 years, said Turchin. Göbekli Tepe in modern day Turkey, the first known large-scale construction built by humans, dates to the 9th millenia BCE.From the monumental construction of Göbekli, the scale of human cooperation increased rapidly over the millenia. In the last 10,000 years, humans have evolved from living in small villages with populations of about 100 to mega-empires with populations of 10 million or more. The first instances of these mega-empires include the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), Maurya Empire (322-185 BCE), Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and the Roman Principate (27 BCE-284 CE). Turchin noted that at the mega-empire phase, humans reached a level of cooperation that exceeded the scale of any that have been observed before.

Turchin examines how large-scale social complexity evolved in his recent book “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of Warfare Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth.” He believes that cultural multi-level selection is an important tool for the spread of ultrasocial traits. In cultural multi-level selection, winning groups impose their culture and values on losing groups. Societies that are more equitable and governments with prosocial rulers, tend to win over despotic societies. Therefore, conflict and competition led to a larger, more cooperative society.

The Seshat: Global History Databank will serve as an important tool to test Turchin’s theories on cooperation, and similar social science theories. There are many theories and models, said Turchin, but we do not have the data to test the models. Seshat will collect and transform data into a machine readable form that can be used to test theories.

Theories on the evolution of large-scale cooperation and warfare will be among the first to be tested. Turchin and his colleagues have already detailed a paper titled War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies on the link between large-scale cooperation and warfare. The team has also specifically researched the spread of horse-based military technologies in Afroeurasia and its link to the intensification of warfare in the region.

The spread of horse-based military technology in Afroeurasia

In the webinar, Turchin demonstrates a mathematical model that predicts the evolution of large-scale societies in the Old Word (a glimpse into the field of Cliodynamics). Here are the maps of imperial density created with simulated data for the first, second, and third millennium. The data shows all states that exceeded 100,000 km in the extent they controlled. Turchin compares this simulated data to real map data in the webinar.

Simulated data of the evolution of large-scale societies in Afroeurasia

The webinar features Peter Turchin, Evolution Institute president David Sloan Wilson, and Seshat project manager Daniel Hoyer. Questions from the audience that were not answered in the webinar have been answered on Turchin’s personal blog.

View a recording on the Evolution Institute’s website.

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