Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
Does Affluence Lead to Asceticism? Part II

Comments on Part I tended to take a rather negative view of the argument advanced by Baumard et al. Thus, Gene Anderson questioned whether Confucianism is even a religion. It was certainly a moralistic teaching, but how important a role did supernatural agents play in it is very much in question. Furthermore, Confucianism, as far as I know, does not advocate asceticism. Moderation, yes. But extreme forms of asceticism? I don’t think so.

Scott Atran asks, did moralizing religions, which encouraged material sacrifice for spiritual rewards, gradually evolve over millennia? Or did they emerge rather suddenly over a short period of time – during the Axial Age?

These and other comments make it very clear that treating Axial ideologies (whether we want to call them religions or philosophies) as binary, all-or-nothing developments is a very unhelpful form of simplification. It artificially converts what might have been a gradualistic process into a threshold one, for example.

Sign up for our newsletters

I wish to receive updates from:

Moreover, there are just too many dimensions here. In addition to such aspects as morally concerned supernatural beings, monotheism, concern for equity, indictments of selfish and despotic elites (the “renouncers”), which I mentioned in the previous blog, there are others. Just to name a few: concern with cooperation, punishment of free riders, long-term goals over immediate needs, and so on.

Some of these appeared quite early in some regions, others came later. To answer Scott Atran’s question, we need to score different Axial ideologies along all these different dimensions, taking care to determine when different elements appeared in the evolution of each society (religions, after all, don’t spring forth fully formed and fully armed, like Athena from Zeus’s brain – as Scott Atran noted in his comment).


My suspicion is that when we do so, we will find that while many of the elements I listed above appear well before 800 BCE, the evolution of religion greatly accelerated during the Axial Age.

So we need much more detailed and nuanced data. But equally important is how we analyze these data. I know that most people’s eyes glaze over when one starts talking about statistics. But it is crucial to use the correct statistical approach, especially when you are analyzing observational, rather than experimental data. Unfortunately, the paper by Baumard et al. makes a rather elementary statistical mistake, which throws much of their conclusions into doubt.

The statistics that the authors used assume that each of the eight regions in the analysis (Greece, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia, Mesoamerica, and Andes) developed independently of each other. In fact, they did not. For example, the Achaemenid empire, which arose in 550 BC, just prior to the narrow definition of the Axial Age they use (500-300 BC), incorporated at various times Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and more fleetingly/partially Greece and northern India.


The Achaemenid Empire (source)

The authors are aware of the problem, but steps they took to deal with it are wholly inadequate. Thus, they decided to drop Israel, because it was too culturally dependent on the neighbors.Then they analyzed the remaining regions as statistically independent of each other.

But dropping data is not how you deal with the problem of interdependence. You include all the data and explicitly estimate the autocorrelations. This is the approach that we used in our PNAS paper last year, for example.

In fact, I would argue that none of the Axial Age developments were independent of each other. They all were due to the rise of mounted archers in Central Asia, who then affected a broad swath of Eurasia, from Anatolia to North China. For details, see my article Religion and Empire in the Axial Age.

In this paper and several others (for example, here) I have argued for the following sequence of events. We start with technological improvements: Central Asians learning to ride horses in combat. This was combined with a previously known technology for making recurved bows, which were very powerful, but small enough to be shot from the horseback, and recently invented iron (among other things, for making deadly arrowheads). The combination of these military innovations created a true weapon of mass destruction. See these blogs for more detail:

The Western Way of War?

The Western Way of War II

The Iranic horse archers spread from the Great Eurasian Steppe into the swath of Eurasia extending from Anatolia to northern China. Their arrival intensified selection pressure on farming societies. Some went under, other survived by significantly increasing their scale, in the process becoming the Axial empires. In order to function reasonably efficiently without splitting up, these empires needed new integrative ideologies – the Axial religions. So the Axial religions arose as a result of invasions from the steppe (incidentally, Karl Jaspers, who came up with the idea of the Axial Age, also thought that it had to do with steppe archers.


So the causal chain was as follows:

mounted archers → intensified interstate competition → rise of megaempires → Axial religions for integrating new megaempires → empires pacify huge areas and create wealth → long-distance trades become possible due to pacification of terrain and to cater to new imperial elites.

Thus, I think that the explanation of Baumard et al confuses causes and effects. Affluence did not cause Axial religions; they both were effects of a third factor.

In fact, their whole premise seems unlikely to me. Wealth doesn’t create morality. If anything, morality creates wealth.

But we can argue about the theoretical merits of our rival theories until we are blue in the face and never make any progress. Fortunately, we can use data to resolve this argument. What we need to do is to resolve the temporal sequence of developments during the pre-Axial and Axial periods. And I hope we will have the data in about a year from now. Stay tuned.


Join the discussion


  1. spandrell says:

    So your argument is that better war technology in the form of horse-archery and iron eventually produced the huge Persian Empire, and all its neighbors freaked out so much they developed new philosophy/religion so as to be able to produce large scale societies themselves.

    I don’t know how Greek Philosophy or Buddhism or Prophetic Judaism helped produce any mega-empire (if any), but at any rate Persia wasn’t a threat to China. And the Xiongnu weren’t there in the days of Confucius and the Hundred Schools.

    Of course China had plenty of upheaval in those days, but cavalry wasn’t a thing yet, nor were iron weapons widespread until much later in the days of the Qin conquest 3c BC.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      No, the Persian empire was as much the reaction to the pressure from the Great Steppe as all other Axial Age developments.

      And yes, Hunnu (Hsiung-Nu) _were_ a threat during Confucius times. Horse archers appeared on the Chinese northwestern frontier in the sixth century BCE

      • spandrell says:

        The Xiongnu (I know it obscures the relation with the Huns, but let’s use the standard naming for Chinese history) don’t appear in Chinese records until 318 BC, and they only unified into a coherent force after Zhao and Qin encroached into their territory, i.e. before Maodun the Xiongnu weren’t a threat even to the pre-imperial Chinese states. Hardly a trigger of anything.

        It is true that steppe nomads were around in the 6th century BC, and there is some evidence that they were ancestral to the Xiongnu, but they weren’t a military threat, and the Chinese didn’t even hear about them for centuries.

        The Cambridge History of Ancient History says steppe nomads weren’t even in direct contact with China, there being a buffer of non-horse riders, semi-pastoralist peoples between them. So I would like to know where you read that the Xiongnu or any other horse-archer nomads were a threat in Confucius time.

        • Peter Turchin says:

          On Xiongnu: I heard people pronounce it as Ksayong-noo. As the best historical linguists can reconstruct it, the ethnonym was Hun-nu, or Hun-na. So you are welcome to use whatever term (it’s a free country), but I will stick with Hunnu.

          According to archaeological data, horse-riding (in fact, the whole “Skythian package”, not to say that I think Hunnu were Iranic speakers) arrived on the northwestern frontier of China in early 7th century BCE. The first historically attested military contact with the horse-riding ‘barbarians’ (Hu, who are uniformly identified by scholars to be the same as the later Xiongnu) was in 457 BCE.

          Finally, what’s important is not when Confucius lived, but when his ideas were widely adopted. As an example, we don’t really know when Zarathushtra lived, but we do know that his ideas spread very broadly in the sixth century, and were adopted as an imperial ideology by the Achaemenids. Similarly, Confucianism became the official ideology only during the Han period. So there is a causal connection: first the pressure from the steppe intensifies (earlier in Persia, later in China), then, with some lag, an Axial ideology is adopted by a mega-empire.

          • spandrell says:

            Well yes but that’s not explaining much about the Axial Age, is it? The Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism while it began to mobilize its resources to combat the steppe nomads; the Roman Empire also adopted Christianity as it struggled to combat the Hunnic and German hordes. That’s a more obvious parallel; but it has little to do with the Axial Age; in fact it’s 600+ years removed. Some lag.

            That farming empires developed univeralist moral ideologies as a response to barbarian pressure is a good theory indeed. But that doesn’t explain at all why China, Greece, India and Judea had both their intellectual golden age in the same time frame way before steppe riders were a threat to any of them.

            You aren’t in much firmer territory than, say, Christopher Beckwith and his idea that it was the steppe riders who developed all the advanced ideologies through the “steppe conveyor”.

  2. (1) Long distance trade exists without mega empires (in fact, way predates them), though I agree that long distance trade is made safer (usually) by mega empires and so encouraged by them.

    (2) Mega empires can exist without integrating religions.

    (3) Long distance trade spreads ideas. The juxtaposition of ideas encouraged new ways of putting things together. Which creates idea sets which can be used to integrate mega empires. Though I suspect motivating conquering groups (Iranian Zoroastrians, Arab Muslims) may be as important as integrating after the fact (Constantine & Christianity, Ashoka & Buddhism).

    (4) More trade also led to more revenue for states to fight over; the intensified state competition and increased trade encouraged social levelling/shook up existing cultural patterns, which encouraged more questioning and new ideas.

    So, the new integrated effectiveness of steppe peoples encouraged trade (since trade and tribute is way more stable a revenue source than loot and the new form of warfare required much more integrated military organisation), spread ideas and led to new patterns of belief that appealed outside their originating cultural matrix which could either integrate/motivate conquerors and/or integrate empires after the fact.

    To put it another way, the steppe peoples became a much more effective ideas nexus–both as throughpoint for ideas and in encouraging new perspectives.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      If trade may (or may not be) a more stable source of revenue. Nevertheless, trade relations break down all the time and are replaced by raiding and war. The main problem in the relations between nomadic pastoralists and settled farmers is that farmers don’t need pastoralists, but nomads need farmers.

      • The claim that pastoralists “need” farmers is dubious. See the work of David Anthony and Christopher Beckwith. Pastoralists also often worked out arrangements with local farmers, such as with the oasis city-states of central Eurasia.

  3. Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Greek Philosophy, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam all developed during periods of competing polities (often lots of small ones). Christianity is unusual in developing within a mega empire, and took three centuries to become its religion.

  4. The steppe trade routes (way) predate the Silk Road and continued after it operated. The Silk Road was largely an agrarian state/empire route and was partly motivated by providing alternatives to the steppe route. The notion that the Han/Parthian Empires spontaneously decided that trade would be a great idea and then created it makes much less sense than they tried to set up direct routes to reduce the influence of the steppe peoples,

  5. Sounds good to me–I’ll have to think–but let me unpack Chinese religion a little. Confucius explicitly did not talk about it: his only comment on it was when he was asked about life after death he said “you do not yet know about life, so don’t ask about death [till you do].” He was also famous for NOT talking about ghosts and spirits. Daoism also began as statecraft and political philosophy, not religion. Both became “religious” in the Han Dynasty (400 years after Conf) when the Han rulers found it expedient to fuse the state religion with Confucianism–tyranny in a Confucian shell, basically–and both the rulers and the ruled fused Daoism with folk religion for a lot of reasons. The folk and state religions were both thousands of years old by then, and developed slowly and steadily thereafter, incorporating a lot of Buddhism, etc., over the centuries.
    There really is a fundamental difference between east and south Asian religions and the “Abrahamic” ones of the west–the eastern ones are inclusive rather than exclusive. They are not only polytheist, they are perfectly happy to incorporate new gods. I have seen Chinese worshipers incorporating little images of Jesus, Mary, etc. in their shrines, along with Confucius, Laozi, and so on.
    Morality in east Asia has thus been partially separate from religion–the folk religion has it and Buddhism is an intensely moral religion, but the main moral current is, broadly, Confucian, and thus not really religious, even in the eyes of some of the moderns who worship Confucius. So it’s sort of hard to talk of some sort of tight link between a particular “religion” and a particular morality.
    I would also like to reaffirm my earlier comment that traditional tribal religions have plenty of morality! Far from being invented by the world religions, some of them have backed away from a lot of earlier morality–specifically, Christianity has backed away from morality about the environment. Though some are trying to bring it back in.