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


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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.

Related Links

General Information and FAQ for Nature Paper on Moralizing Gods

Press on our Nature Paper 

Peter Turchin: Do “Big Societies” Need “Big Gods”?

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