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Comment on “The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity”

A commentary on the Focus Article “The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity: Five predictions and a drum roll”

“The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity” is one of several recent publications that introduce the Seshat databank and its potential contributions to social science (e.g. Turchin, Whitehouse, et al. 2012; Turchin, Brennan, et al. 2015). Here Whitehouse and colleagues provide a number of interesting hypotheses concerning the relationship between ritual and social complexity that will be testable once Seshat is more complete. I have two critiques and one comment to make about this interesting paper.

First, Whitehouse and colleagues argue that one of the most important elements of Seshat is its “longitudinal depth,” implying that the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) lacks such depth. This is not wholly true. A number of the cultures (e.g. Iroquois) in the HRAF World Cultures archive do have longitudinal depth; that is, there are ethnographic materials from several focal periods. This longitudinal depth is not great—several centuries at most—but it does allow for some diachronic analysis. In addition, the HRAF Archaeology archive is designed around longitudinal sequences that explicitly provide data for diachronic analyses. HRAF Archaeology, however, does not extend into the historic period. Whitehouse and colleagues would be more accurate in saying that HRAF does not provide data that extends from the historic period into the past.

Second, I am puzzled by the prediction that dysphoric rituals produce more conflict. The discussion of the “imagistic” mode of religiosity suggests that these intense experiences are adaptive to conditions of high conflict, creating tightly bound groups in situations where defection might be a more “logical” option. To the extent that dysphoric rituals are a central element of “imagistic” religiosity, it would imply that dysphoric rituals are adaptive to situations of high conflict, not causal to them. Indeed, the explanation that Whitehouse and colleagues give for this hypothesis suggests to me that they are confusing a social adaptation to high levels of conflict for a causal force behind that conflict.

Finally, a comment, or perhaps a story. Whitehouse and colleagues rightly identify a common problem in social science, which is a misunderstanding of probability. Our predictions are probabilistic ones—in such and such a situation it is likely that such and such is the result—and not absolute ones. Some (perhaps most) social scientists do not understand this, and thus do not understand that exceptions to the prediction are expected, even desired, as they provide interesting cases to examine in order to improve explanations and predictions. But we are not alone in having this problem. As the late Steven J. Gould (1999:83) explains:

Broad generalizations always include exceptions and nuanced regions of “however” at their borders—without invalidating, or even injuring, the cogency of the major point. (In my business of natural history, we often refer to this phenomenon as the “mouse from Michigan” rule, to honor the expert on taxonomic details who always pipes up from the back of the room to challenge a speaker’s claim about a general evolutionary principle: “Yes, but there’s a mouse from Michigan that . . .“)

Even evolutionary biologists must face those critics who do not understand probabilistic explanation. We will never explain every case we find, for human behavior is too complex and too contextually-dependent for that, so we should not let the “mouse from Michigan” trouble us too much. Though maybe someday, and maybe with the help of Seshat, we will build a better mouse trap.

References Cited

Gould, Steven J. (1999). Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine.

Turchin, Peter, Rob Brennan, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Pieter François, Daniel Hoyer, J. G. Manning, Arkadiusz Marciniak, Daniel Mullins, Alessio Palmisano, Peter Peregrine, Edward A. L. Turner, and Harvey Whitehouse. (2015). Seshat: The Global History Databank. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 6(1): 77-107.

Turchin, Peter, Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter Francois, Edward Slingerland and Mark Collard. (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics, Vol. 3, No. 2: pp 271 – 293.

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  1. Chris Kavanagh says:

    First, to disclose biases, I’m a doctoral student of Harvey’s working on dysphoric rituals (but not involved with Seshat). As such I might not be entirely neutral 😉 but to offer some comments on the two points you raise:

    1. Even from your description it still seems fair to comment that Seshat has a much greater emphasis on longitudinal data than the HRAF. There certainly are cases, particularly for prominent ethnographic locations, that have longitudinal data but 1) these cases are limited, as you note, and 2) there is no guarantee that the same variables will be addressed in the sources. The longitudinal ambition of Seshat thus seems to be on a fundamentally different scale and thus fair to highlight as a unique feature.

    2) I’m not sure that this is intended as an explicitly causal prediction, although I agree the wording does imply that at some points. In the summary list the prediction is stated as “Dysphoric rituals correlate with small-scale armed groups, intra-elite conflicts, military revolts, and separatist rebellions”, which does not imply a clear causal direction. Maybe Harvey or another Seshat person can clarify but, either way, ultimately this would seem to be an empirical issue that could potentially be addressed though the database (and I am also aware that the topic is currently being addressed in experimental studies).