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Testing the Big Gods hypothesis with global historical data: a review and “retake”

This Retake article presents a corrected and extended version of a Letter published in Nature (Whitehouse et al., 2019) which set out to test the Big Gods hypothesis proposing that beliefs in moralizing punitive deities drove the evolution of sociopolitical complexity in world history.

The Letter was retracted by the authors in response to a critique by Beheim et al. (2021). Correction of errors in the coding and analysis of missing data to address this critique does not, however, significantly change the main findings of the original Nature Letter.

We report the results of a major reanalysis of Seshat data following expansion of the codebook and database and substantial improvements to our data management methods. We also employ a more direct statistical methodology to test theories of evolutionary causality.

Together, these results show a compellingly convergent picture, confirming the headline finding of the original Letter in Nature, which shows that the largest increases in social complexity do indeed precede Big Gods in world history and that Big Gods did not contribute to the evolution of sociopolitical complexity as predicted by the Big Gods hypothesis.

H. Whitehouse, P. Francois, P.E. Savage, D. Hoyer, K. C. Feeney, E. Cioni, R. Purcell, J. Larson, J. Baines, B. ter Haar, A. Covey, P. Turchin, Testing the Big Gods hypothesis with global historical data: a review and “retake”, Religion, Brain & Behavior 13(2) (2022), 124-166.

Peter Turchin, faculty member at the Complexity Science Hub

Peter Turchin

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