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Challenges this Year

I’ve been back from our vacation for several days, but have been prostrated with a nasty cold. On one hand it was glorious to enjoy being outside, bask in the sun, and swim in the ocean. But the toll vacations impose is much greater than the actual time spent away. You have to add days recovering from the flu, days spent on catching up on e-mail and other stuff that accumulates while you are away. Still, it’s worth it. I know that for Europeans Tenerife is pretty much on the beaten track, but I found the place completely charming, quite cheap actually (for the Euro-zone), and it was a fulfillment of a childhood dream to visit the Canaries. I also could catch a breath and start plotting work for the coming year (as a scientist you are never far from work, even when you are away from things, with no internet access).

Tenerife 020_1_1

And this year, 2014, is going to be a really exciting one. For me, this will be the year of Seshat, the Egyptian deity of writing (SESH means scribe in Ancient Egyptian), knowledge, and record-keeping – and by extension, of databases.

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This is what we call the historical database of cultural evolution that we are building. I have written about Seshat in these blogs:

http://socialevolutionforum.com/2013/08/20/an-imperfect-time-machine/

http://socialevolutionforum.com/2013/11/18/digital-humanities-racing-with-the-machines/

I have been working on this project for more than five years. After many failed attempts to secure funding for the project (depressingly too many to count), my colleagues and I finally found the approach that works. It turns out that instead of trying to explain how incredibly useful the database will be as a general tool for answering questions and testing theories, a much more effective approach is to focus on one ‘Big Question’ at a time, and write a proposal directed straight at it.

Seshat is there in the background, or rather it is an umbrella under which various projects, each addressing its own Big Question, coexist. Each projects stands on its own merits. At the same time, as more such projects are completed, each adds more data to the collective store of knowledge. Subsequent Big Questions become easier to answer, because information on some variables needed for them has already been gathered. Eventually, we will be able to answer some Big Question by relying entirely on the data already collected. We are years away from that, but eventually Seshat will become an auto-catalytic, self-sustaining project (here the example of Wikipedia is very encouraging).

Still, our success has been primarily with private foundations, which are much more willing to place risky bets (those of us doing transdisciplinary research know very well how resistant academia is to it, despite professing support for it). The real breakthrough came last fall when a small private foundation (established by a long-time friend and supporter of the Evolution Institute Bernard Winograd) decided to support the Deep Roots project (see more here).

More recently, we have heard from the John Templeton Foundation, also a private foundation, that they would like to support another project, focusing on a different Big Question (I have just learned about this development, so it’s not yet reflected on the Seshat site, but it will be as soon as we get the formal commitment from the JTF). This year we will be applying for funding under the umbrella of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 (more about this in a blog by Kevin Feeney).

Perhaps with this proposal we will be able to break through into academic science (Horizon 2020 promises to deliver true interdisciplinarity).

But what’s important is that we already have enough resources to get a lot of work done this year. So I am switching my main focus from seeking support to actually doing the work. I believe that in 2014 Seshat will truly come of age.

One big conceptual challenge we will face this year is figuring out how to investigate historical evolution of social norms and institutions. There is a lot of agreement among social scientists that institutions are very important, but a lot of controversies are about why some countries have good institutions, and others don’t. There is a lot of indirect evidence that history matters (and that’s where the Deep Roots project comes in).

Economists and political scientists know how to measure institutions in modern societies, because they can ask directly various groups of people (businessmen, politicians, common people) all kinds of questions about how they perceive various institutes, how well they work, and so on. But we cannot do the same for historical societies. And we need to do it, if we want to understand how ‘good’ institutions came to be. As well as how we can nudge societies with ‘bad’ institutions in the direction of improving them.

So we need to get at the information about historical institutional change indirectly, by using some kinds of ‘proxies’ (indirect indicators). I don’t yet know precisely how we are going to do it, although I have a lot of ideas. Furthermore, previous experience shows that once you start thinking about it, history actually yields many different ways to measure things of interest indirectly. So figuring out how to do this is going to be the main challenge for this year. I’ll be sure to write more about it in future blogs.

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2 Comments

  1. Doug Jones says:

    Maybe a bit off topic, but here’s a recent paper of likely interest to SEFers:

    Unified China and Divided Europe
    Chiu Yu Ko, Mark Koyama, Tuan-Hwee Sng (2013)
    link to ssrn.com

    Not only do the authors strengthen the case for exposure to the steppes being the major difference accounting for a unified China versus a divided Western Europe, but they also consider some consequences for demography and economics, including the Great Divergence.

    Part of my interest in the topic is as an anthropologist interested in kinship. Another anthropologist, Arthur Wolf, argues that in both China and Russia (pre-Revolutionary) the kinship system was based on “state patriarchy,” with the government propping up patriarchal extended families, which in turn acted as agents of social control. Meanwhile Western Europe and Japan developed different political regimes and family systems. I expect exposure to the steppes and mega-empires are part of this story.