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During the Holocene the scale and complexity of human societies increased dramatically. Generations of scholars have proposed different theories explaining this evolution, which range from functionalist explanations, focusing on the provision of public goods, to conflict theories, emphasizing the role of class struggle or warfare. To quantitatively test these theories, Peter Turchin develops a general dynamical model, based on the theoretical framework of cultural macroevolution. Using this model and Seshat: Global History Databank he tests 17 potential predictor variables (and >100,000 combinations of these predictors) proxying mechanisms suggested by major theories of sociopolitical complexity. The best-fitting model indicates a strong causal role played by a combination of increasing agricultural productivity and warfare intensity, proxied by invention/adoption of military technologies (most notably, iron weapons and cavalry in the first millennium BCE). Overall, these empirical results support the idea that a major evolutionary force explaining the rise of large-scale complex human societies, organized as states, was Cultural Multi-Level Selection.

About the speaker

Peter Turchin is Project Leader at the Complexity Science Hub–Vienna, Research Associate at University of Oxford, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Connecticut. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. A founder of the field of Cliodynamics, his books include Ultrasociety (2016), Ages of Discord (2016), and The Great Holocene Transformation (forthcoming in 2023).

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