New Nature Paper: Moralizing Gods Emerged After the Evolution of Complex Societies


God the Father, Saint Salvator’s Cathedral, Bruges, Belgium (Creative Commons)

Humans invented “big gods” after the rise of complex large-scale societies, according to a recent analysis of 10,000 years of history by the Seshat: Global History Databank team. Big gods are defined as moralizing deities who punish ethical transgressions. Contrary to prevailing theories, our team found that beliefs in big gods are a consequence, not a cause, of the evolution of complex societies. The results are published in the March 20 issue of the journal Nature.

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.

One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t. “To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says co-lead author Harvey Whitehouse (University of Oxford). “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.” Strikingly, however, doctrinal rituals tended on average to appear hundreds of years before gods who cared about human morality.

Doctrinal rituals (performed frequently or subject to policing by a religious hierarchy) are thought necessary to standardize beliefs and practices in large groups. “Such rituals may have played a more important role in the initial rise of social complexity than moralizing gods,” says Whitehouse.

Map showing the global distribution and timing of beliefs in moralising gods. For regions with precolonial moralizing gods, the date of earliest evidence of such beliefs is displayed in thousands of years ago (ka), coloured by type of moralizing gods. Whitehouse, François, Savage et al. (2019) Nature.

The complexity of a society can be estimated through social characteristics such as population, territory, and sophistication of government institutions and information systems. Religious data collected by the team include the presence of beliefs in the supernatural enforcement of reciprocity, fairness, and loyalty, and the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.

Seshat allows researchers to analyze hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space,” explains co-lead author Pieter François (University of Oxford). “Now that the database is ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about human history.” This includes competing theories of how and why humans evolved to cooperate in large-scale societies of millions and more people.

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Mark Altaweel and Andrea Squitieri
April 15, 2019

We thank the authors for providing this contribution to Nature and stimulating important conversation. Our response, however, incorporates a number of concerns, as experts in some of the areas discussed.

First, the methods seem entirely appropriate and reasonable, where the authors indicate similar approaches in previous works. Our critique mainly centres around the data. It seems that the datasets collected are biased towards more historical societies, while the illiterate and prehistoric ones appear mostly invisible. Furthermore, browsing through the original dataset, some societies appear to have been coded mistakenly or at least the coding is not so evident. This could be problematic, in our opinion, as it means that the results are effectively incorporated without needed vetting or proper debate among experts in relation to coded values. A more reasonable approach may have been to conduct a large-scale (or perhaps larger than what was done) crowdsourcing effort asking for qualified experts in all regions studied in the research to provide data, which then can look for variations, trends, and other characteristics. If this was done, it is not evident from the article as there is no clarity who the experts really are and how much effort was made to reach out to the wider research community. This, to us at least, may undermine the philosophy of the Seshat Global History Databank that relies on a wide network of collaborators checking and guaranteeing the quality of the data incorporated.

Second, we can demonstrate potential problems with the data from regions we work in. For instance, in the ancient Near East, long before complex societies arose, there were temples to various gods very likely evident in many sites across the region. As one example, the site of Eridu, a well known city in today’s southern Iraq, has a temple to a likely god, most likely Enki (Ea; god of water), by the 6th millennium BCE, a period well before the region emerged into something we call a “complex society.” While there are no written records to say there are morals associated with this god then (another problem with the article we shall soon discuss), we know in later periods this god did have what one might call moralising aspects.. For instance, he is associated with saving a god that was cruelly abducted to the Netherworld. What this shows is that the predecessors of what might be called moral gods, or at least fitting characteristics you mention as part of morals, could have easily emerged much earlier as the temples these gods were worshipped in were evident long before the rise of cities and what many archaeologists/anthropologists would consider as complex societies. Even if this result is not certain, it shows a clear potential of moralising gods present in societies long before urbanism formed since the direct predecessors of these gods are very ancient. While this does not prove the authors are incorrect, it does create possibility that cannot be discounted easily and put greater uncertainty in the conclusions.

Thirdly, this brings us to another major point, which is how can one know what prehistoric, non-literate societies believed? The authors appear to be arguing based on an absence of data for many pre-complex societies in the Old World. This would mean one cannot argue any society has moral-based beliefs prior to the late 4th millennium BCE as there were no literate societies then. Writing was not widely adopted in the Old World until after the advent of the 2nd millennium BCE. Hence, it seems that the authors take absence of evidence as evidence for absence when they say that evidence for moralising gods is lacking in non-literate societies. When writing is used, the vast major of it in many literate societies in the Near East is for record keeping, letters, and economic aspects in many cases rather than recording religious thought and behaviours. Even among some of the most literate ancient societies, we have very few records that directly discuss their religious beliefs and thoughts. Some of this can be inferred from mythology, omen texts, oaths, and epics but direct discussion of the dimensions of what constitute moral dimensions similar to what you include in your database are often missing a clear data link. For instance, we have almost no primary records Judaism until long after it emerged, which is why there is so much debate about the rise of this faith, what beliefs in given periods were, and the events surrounding them.

Furthermore, we find it surprising no clear material culture or archaeological data are used to support the argument. In the case of the universal religions, one can argue migration played an important role because at least there we see shifts in settlement patterns, new temples/gods emerging in places they had not been before, new material culture emerges, etc., where there one can better argue social transformation are evident prior to the rise of new universal philosophies or religions. What is missing is clear empirical (i.e., material) data that link to this database.

We thank the authors for this work that stimulated much discussion. We very much respect their work and applaud it. We hope our feedback could be of some use to them.