The huge corpus of knowledge about past societies collectively possessed by academic historians is almost entirely in a form that is inaccessible to scientific analysis, stored in historians’ brains or scattered over heterogeneous notes and publications. The huge potential of this knowledge for testing theories about political and economic development has been largely untapped.
Our goal is to build a historical database that will enable us and others to test theories about the processes responsible for the rise of large-scale societies in human history. The database will bring together, in a systematic form, what is currently known about the sociopolitical organization of human societies, and how it has evolved with time. It will also be used in analyses to determine how characteristics of large-scale socioeconomic organization vary with culture, institutions, world region and historical period, and whether there are any universal features that all complex societies share.
In recent years Biology has been revolutionized by the development of databases such as GenBank®, which enable data to be collated and shared. Our ultimate goal is to bring this approach to the social and historical sciences. The data collected during this project will create an enduring impact on the way research into human societies is conducted. Our aim is not to replace traditional forms of archaeology or historiography, but rather to use new technologies to bridge gaps between the humanities and the sciences, making it is easier to gather and share knowledge, and then use what we have learned about our past to shape our future.
Seshat is a general tool for testing theories about sociocultural evolution and historical dynamics (Cliodynamics). Ultimately, we would like to include all kinds of theoretically relevant data in it. However, trying to do everything at once would be self-defeating. Instead, our strategy is to rely on the ‘Big Question approach’ in selecting variables that are coded first. One such Big Question, evolution of complex societies, is described below; for others, see Research Projects to the right.
The Puzzle of Large-Scale Complex Human Societies
Until about ten thousand years ago all humans lived in small-scale societies characterized by face-to-face cooperation. Today the vast majority of people live in very large-scale anonymous societies, typically organized as states. The functioning of large-scale complex societies is only possible on the basis of cooperation among its members—at least among some of them, some of the time. When the degree of cooperation in a society declines below the threshold necessary for its survival, societies fall apart.
Cooperation in large-scale societies can take many forms: volunteering for the army when one’s country is attacked, willingly paying taxes, helping strangers by donating to the local food-bank, and refusing to take bribes. The ability to cooperate in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals—ultrasociality—is unique to humans.
How ultrasociality evolved presents a serious puzzle for both evolutionary and social theorists, and has been a question that thinkers have struggled with throughout recorded history, from ancient China and Greece to the present. Nevertheless, we still do not have a generally accepted answer.
The problem is that the enormous amount of historical (including archaeological) information that exists has never been brought together in a way that would allow the various hypotheses that have been put forward to explain the origin of ultrasociality to be tested rigorously. Seshat is going to change this state of affairs. For details on the theories that we will be testing, and the kinds of data we need to code, see our article, A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. For information on how the data is compiled and utilized, see a video from our colleagues at Trinity College Dublin.