Axial-Age Religions and the Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism

Levels of inequality have changed dramatically during the course of human evolution: from the social hierarchies of our hominin ancestors to egalitarian small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers, and then to large-scale hierarchical societies with great inequities in the distribution of power, status, and wealth. The Axial Age (c.800–200 BCE) introduced another notable transformation in the evolution of inequality, starting a move towards greater egalitarianism that has been continuing to the present.

The roots of these recent developments can be traced back to the evolution of new forms of spirituality associated with the rise of world religions during the Axial Age, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and, later, Christianity and Islam. The overall trend during the post-Axial period was a strengthening of the moral foundations of complex societies.

The questions we seek to address in this project are:

  • What caused these two trend reversals in the evolution of human inequality?
  • What steps did societies take to overcome the tensions between the benefits of hierarchy and the desire for fair treatment by the majority of the population?
  • What were the cultural mechanisms involved in the first and second reversals?

We will code data on religion, norms and institutions, and other cultural characteristics of historical societies in a form that will be suitable for statistical analyses so that different theories can be tested in a rigorous manner.

See Also:

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