Divine punishment didn’t goad us into building civilization — it was the other way around

New research is looking into the interplay between society and moralizing, ‘big gods’ — the latter seem to be a consequence, rather than a driver, of the former.


Prevailing theories today, the paper explains, hold that ‘big gods’ nurtured cooperation between large groups of genetically-distinct people, in effect underpinning societies as we know them today. These deities are defined as having a powerful moralizing effect over societies — being perceived as entities that punish ethical faux-pas — thereby acting as the common moral glue holding large groups together. However, the study we’re discussing today finds that this isn’t the case. Rather, the team suggests, it’s these complex societies that produced their complex gods, not the other way around.


Of gods and men


“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, one of the paper’s co-authors.


The earliest bunches of people lived in close-knit family units. They would cooperate because doing so would help ensure that their bloodline — and thus, their genes — would survive. People would try their best to keep themselves and their families alive, even if that meant raiding other family-groups (with whom they shared no genes, thus making it a-OK). It’s a very straightforward, very intuitive approach to survival and cooperation.


Since then, things have changed. We work with and for people who have no blood ties to ourselves. We share residential buildings with people we sometimes never even meet. We help fund charities for causes half the world away. If we applied the ‘me and mine’ mentality of yore, it would make perfect sense to protect our kin-group even at the expense of others. But we don’t do that. Society would run amok, and we like society. The million-dollar question (or whatever currency it is that anthropologists use; knucklebones, maybe?) is why.

Agriculture, warfare, and religion have been proposed as the main driving forces behind our need to cooperate. Such pursuits hinge on a community’s ability to work together in large numbers. Tilling the fields requires many able hands, as do raids or defense; gods, in turn, provide the moral incentives (i.e. eternal punishment) needed to hold communities together when blood-ties don’t apply.

Nobody wants to make the boss mad. Especially when the boss is the god of war and can thus really mess up eternity for you.
Image credits Bishnu Sarangi.


But, the team wasn’t convinced. Working with data from the Seshat Global History Databank, “the most current and comprehensive body of knowledge about human history in one place” according to their website, they pitted these theories against statistical rigor. The databank contains about 300,000 records on social complexity, religion, and other characteristics of 500 past societies over 10,000 years of human history, which the team used to analyze the relationship between religion and social complexity.

If ‘big gods’ spawned complex societies, then logic dictates that they appeared in these peoples’ collective imaginations before their societies increased in complexity — or, in other words, that the fear of divine retribution coaxed people into behaving in a socially-acceptable way. The team, however, reports that this wasn’t the case.


“To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this [big god] hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.”


“Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs.”


The complexity of a society can be estimated by social characteristics such as population, territory, the sophistication of its institutions and information systems, the team explains. Religious data used in the study included the presence of beliefs in supernatural enforcement of reciprocity, fairness, and loyalty, as well as the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.


Big gods may not have spearheaded communities, the team explains, but ritual and religion definitely had a large part to play. Standardized rituals tended to appear, on average, hundreds of years before the earliest evidence of moralizing gods, they report. Where such deities would have been the proverbial stick, these rituals acted like the carrot — they gave people a sense of belonging and group identity that allowed cooperation.


Picture of a half-animal half-human in a Paleolithic cave painting in Dordogne, France. Paleoanthropologists Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Michelson take the depiction of such hybrid figures as evidence for early shamanic practices during the Paleolithic.

The Seshat database proved invaluable in this study. It has been founded by data and social scientist Peter Turchin, together with Harvey Whitehouse and Pieter François from the University of Oxford (also a co-author of this study) in 2011. It aimed to integrate the expertise from various fields into an open-access database specifically to allow researchers to tease out cause from effect in social and historical theories, they say. Through the work of dozens of researchers the world over — who compiled data on social complexity and religious beliefs and practices from polites (communities) from 9600 BCE up to today — Seshat grew into the first databank of standardized, quantitative historical knowledge in the world.


“Seshat is an unprecedented collaboration between anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and evolutionary scientists”, says Patrick Savage, corresponding author of the article. “It shows how big data can revolutionize the study of human history.”


“[It] 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 Pieter François. “Now that the database is ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about human history.”


One of the biggest questions the team wants to tackle (of which the present paper is the first step) is why we came to work together in societies in excess of millions of people despite lacking any genetic incentive to do so.


The paper “Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history” has been published in the journal Nature.