A New Era in the Study of Global History Is Born but It Needs to Be Nurtured


  • Harvey Whitehouse University of Oxford
  • Peter Turchin University of Connecticut
  • Pieter François University of Oxford
  • Patrick E. Savage Keio University
  • Thomas E. Currie University of Exeter
  • Kevin C. Feeney Independent researcher
  • Enrico Cioni Seshat: Global History Databank
  • Rosalind Purcell Seshat: Global History Databank
  • Robert M. Ross Macquarie University
  • Jennifer Larson Kent State University
  • John Baines University of Oxford
  • Barend ter Haar University of Hamburg
  • R. Alan Covey University of Texas




Religion, evolution, social complexity, global history databank, open science


This article is a response to Slingerland et al. who criticize the quality of the data from Seshat: Global History Databank utilized in our Nature paper entitled “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History”. Their critique centres around the roles played by research assistants and experts in procuring and curating data, periodization structure, and so-called “data pasting” and “data filling”. We show that these criticisms are based on misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the methods used by Seshat researchers. Overall, Slingerland et al.’s critique (which is crosslinked online here) does not call into question any of our main findings, but it does highlight various shortcomings of Slingerland et al.’s database project. Our collective efforts to code and quantify features of global history hold out the promise of a new era in the study of global history but only if critique can be conducted constructively in good faith and both the benefits and the pitfalls of open science fully recognized.

Author Biographies

Harvey Whitehouse, University of Oxford

Harvey Whitehouse is Professor of Social Anthropology and a Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford. A Founding Director of the Seshat: Global History Databank, he is well known for his theory of “modes of religiosity,” which explains how the frequency and emotional intensity of collective rituals influence the scale and structure of religious organisations. He is the author of Inside the Cult (1995), Arguments and Icons (2000), Modes of Religiosity (2004), and a new book manuscript entitled The Ritual Animal, contracted by OUP.

Peter Turchin, University of Connecticut

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut. He also leads the Social Complexity and Collapse project at the Complexity Science Hub–Vienna and is Chair of the Board of Directors of Seshat: Global History Databank. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. His most recent books are Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth and Ages of Discord (both published in 2016).

Pieter François, University of Oxford

Pieter François is an Associate Professor in Cultural Evolution and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion at the University of Oxford. He is a Founding Director of the Seshat: Global History Databank. He is a digital humanities specialist and his work focuses on the evolution of social complexity and religion globally and on the history of travel and migration.

Patrick E. Savage, Keio University

Patrick E. Savage is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus. Previously, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography and received a Ph.D. in Musicology from the Tokyo University of the Arts and an M.Sc. in Psychology from McMaster University.

Thomas E. Currie, University of Exeter

Thomas E. Currie is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Ecology & Conservation at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus. He belongs to the Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group and his research focuses on investigating human behaviour and cultural diversity by applying evolutionary theory and using quantitative methods. He is particularly interested in understanding how our ability to create social rules (“institutions”) affects the evolution of cooperation and collective action in humans, and how institutions evolve over time. He also applies this framework to studying community-based conservation, and works with pastoral communities in Kenya to understand the factors affecting success or failure of different community-based projects.

Kevin C. Feeney, Independent researcher

Kevin C. Feeney is a computer scientist and database specialist. He is CEO of TerminusDB and specialises in applying modern computational techniques to large-scale historical data analysis.

Enrico Cioni, Seshat: Global History Databank

Enrico Cioni is a Senior Research Assistant on the “Seshat: Global History Databank” project. He earned his MA in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the University of East Anglia, UK, in 2014, with a dissertation on the Precolumbian items in the university’s Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. Before then, he studied Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

Rosalind Purcell, Seshat: Global History Databank

Rosalind Purcell was a Research Assistant on the “Seshat: Global History Databank” project. She completed her undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University and her Master’s in Forensic Archaeological Science at UCL.

Robert M. Ross, Macquarie University

Robert M. Ross is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University (Australia). His fields of research are the cognitive science of belief and cultural evolution.

Jennifer Larson, Kent State University

Jennifer Larson is Professor of Classics at Kent State University (Ohio, USA). Her fields of research are ancient Mediterranean religions, Greek poetry, and gender and sexuality in antiquity. Her current projects focus on perceptions of divine knowledge among the Greeks and cognitive approaches to ancient magic. She is the author of numerous articles, chapters and books including Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (Oxford 2005), Ancient Greek Sexualities: A Sourcebook (Bloomsbury 2012) and Understanding Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach (Routledge 2016).

John Baines, University of Oxford

John Baines is Professor of Egyptology emeritus at the University of Oxford. He has held visiting appointments in Africa, East Asia, Europe, and North America. Among other works, he is author of Visual and written culture in ancient Egypt (2007) and High culture and experience in ancient Egypt (2013), as well as co-editing Historical consciousness and the use of the past in the ancient world (2019). He has published articles on the comparison of early civilizations in journals and in interdisciplinary collections. In addition to comparative analysis, his main research interests are in Egyptian art, religion, literature, biography, and social issues.

Barend ter Haar, University of Hamburg

Barend ter Haar is professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Hamburg, focusing on Chinese language and literature as well as a visiting professor at the Sichuan University, Chengdu, China. In his research he focuses on social history of religion and culture as well as on issues of ethnic identity, violence and fear, and social organization. He has recently completed a book manuscript on the fear of witches in traditional China. His next project is the role of oral culture and sound in all of its dimensions in Chinese history

R. Alan Covey, University of Texas

R. Alan Covey is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his PhD in anthropological archaeology from the University of Michigan in 2003 and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History, where he remains a Research Associate. His research focuses on Latin American archaeology and ethnohistory, with nearly 25 years of research in the Andean highlands, studying Inca imperial origins, provincial strategies, and the transformation of the Cuzco region under Inca and Spanish rule. His work has appeared in more than 100 academic publications.


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How to Cite

Whitehouse, H., Turchin, P., François, P., Savage, P. E., Currie, T. E., Feeney, K. C., Cioni, E., Purcell, R., Ross, R. M., Larson, J., Baines, J., ter Haar, B., & Covey, R. A. (2020). A New Era in the Study of Global History Is Born but It Needs to Be Nurtured. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 5(1-2), 142-158. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.39422




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