Item Details

Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History”

Issue: Vol 5 No. 1-2 (2018)

Journal: Journal of Cognitive Historiography

Subject Areas: Ancient History Cognitive Studies Archaeology

DOI: 10.1558/jch.39393


As historians, archaeologists, and database analysts affiliated with the Database of Religious History (DRH;, we share with the Seshat: Global History Databank team, authors of a recent study published in Nature, an excitement about the potential for deep and sustained collaborations between historians and analysts to answer big questions about human history. We have serious concerns, however, by the approach to the quantitative coding of historical data taken by the Seshat team, as revealed in the backing data (, as well as by a lack of clarity concerning the degree of involvement of expert historians in the coding process. The apparent lack of appreciation for historical scholarship that this coding strategy displays runs the risk of permanently alienating the community of academic historians, who are essential future collaborators in any project devoted to large-scale historical data analysis. In the present commentary, we present a preliminary critical review of their latest article, “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History” (2019).

Author: Edward Slingerland, M. Willis Monroe, Brenton Sullivan, Robyn Faith Walsh, Daniel Veidlinger, William Noseworthy, Conn Herriott, Ben Raffield, Janine Larmon Peterson, Gretel Rodríguez, Karen Sonik, William Green, Frederick S. Tappenden, Amir Ashtari, Michael Muthukrishna, Rachel Spicer

View Full Text

References :

Ambasciano, L., and T. J. Coleman III. 2019. “History as a Canceled Problem? Hilbert Lists, du Bois-Reymond’s Enigmas, and the Scientific Study of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion lfz001. Published: 19 February 2019. 

Frayne, D. 1993. Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2334-2113 BC). The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Early Periods, Vol. 2. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Halton, C., and S. Svärd. 2018. Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia an Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jennbert, K., and C. Raudvere (eds). 2006. Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives. Origins, Changes and Interactions. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Keown, D. 2013. A Very Short Introduction to Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Price, N. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Uppsala: University of Uppsala Press.

Raudvere, C., and J. P.  Schjøt (eds). 2012. More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Shattuck, C. 1999. Hinduism. Religions of the World. London: Routledge.

Slingerland, E., Q. D. Atkinson, C. Ember, O. Sheehan, M. Muthukrishna, J. Bulbulia, and R. D. Gray. Under Submission. “Five Challenges for a Comparative Science of Culture,” Nature Human Behavior. 

Sundqvist, O. 2015. An Arena for Higher Powers: Ceremonial Buildings and Religious Strategies for Rulership in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Leiden: Brill.

Turchin, P., T. E. Currie, H. Whitehouse, P. François, K. Feeney, D. Mullins, D. Hoyer, C. Collins, S. Grohmann, P. Savage, G. Mendel-Gleason, E. Turner, A. Dupeyron, E. Cioni, J. Reddish, J. Levine, G. Jordan, E. Brandl, A. Williams, R. Cesaretti, M. Krueger, A. Ceccarelli, J. Figliulo-Rosswurm, P.-J. Tuan, P. Peregrine, A. Marciniak, J. Preiser-Kapeller, N. Kradin, A. Korotayev, A. Palmisano, D. Baker, J. Bidmead, P. Bol, D. Christian, C. Cook, A. Covey, G. Feinman, Á. D. Júlíusson, A. Kristinsson, J. Miksic, R. Mostern, C. Petrie, P. Rudiak-Gould, B. ter Haar, V. Wallace, V. Mair, L. Xie, J. Baines, E. Bridges, J. Manning, B. Lockhart, A. Bogaard, and C. Spencer 2018. “Quantitative historical analysis uncovers a single dimension of complexity that structures global variation in human social organization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(2): E144.

Whitehouse, H., P. François, P. E. Savage, T. E. Currie, K. C. Feeney, E. Cioni, R. Purcell, R. M. Ross, J. Larson, J. Baines, B. ter Haar, A. Covey, and P. Turchin. 2019. “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History.” Nature. Published: 20 March 2019.