Big Gods and big science: further reflections on theory, data, and analysis


Our target article empirically tested the Big Gods Hypothesis which proposes that beliefs in moralizing supernatural punishment (MSP) contributed to the evolution of socio-political complexity (SPC) in world history. We tested this hypothesis using a suite of measures of MSP, SPC, and other potential evolutionary drivers coded in Seshat: Global History Databank.

Our analyses indicate that intensity of warfare and productivity of agriculture were major drivers in the evolution of both SPC and MSP. The correlation between social complexity and moralizing religion resulted from shared evolutionary drivers, rather than from direct causal relationships between these two variables.

Most commentaries on the target article broadly accept our conclusions, but some argue that alternative measures might be used in future studies before the Big Gods Hypothesis can be conclusively rejected. In this response, we argue that while some of these alternative measures should be developed, they are closely related to the ones we have already adopted. Thus, it seems unlikely that further research will give rise to substantially different outcomes.

A particularly fruitful aspect of the discussion is that it illustrates both the pitfalls and productive affordances of transdisciplinary research that seeks to bridge the “two cultures” of the humanities and sciences.

P. Turchin, H. Whitehouse, J. Larson, E. Cioni, J. Reddish, D. Hoyer, P. E. Savage, R. A. Covey, J. Baines, M. Altaweel, E. Anderson, N. Kradin, J. D. Levine, S. E. Nugent, A. Squitieri, V. Wallace, P. Francois, Big Gods and big science: further reflections on theory, data, and analysis, Religion, Brain & Behavior (2022)