It’s been a few weeks since I found an article to share. As easy as it would be to share an article, or even multiple, every week, I know that not all of you are interested in seeing every single article that happens to catch my interest, from a piece discussing the senescence of ectotherms, to one investigating the trophic role of megalodons, to discussions of the future of particle physics and supersymmetry, trajectories of asteroids entering Earth’s atmosphere, or maybe bubble based energy generators. With that in mind, I exercise restraint, and attempt to keep the articles I share to ones that I can make somewhat relevant to a wider audience.
When I unearth one that I can make applicable to writing and storytelling, though, I have no compulsions against sharing it with you. This week, that’s a paper from Science Advances on how societies initially arose: “Disentangling the Evolutionary Drivers of Social Complexity: A Comprehensive Test of Hypotheses.”
I don’t think I suffer from world-builder’s disease, and I know that it’s unnecessary to have an origin story for every civilization you create, but understanding how and why civilizations come to be can help us create more realistic and convincing worlds. The paper identifies agriculture as a “necessary but not sufficient” condition for the development of complex civilizations, which is the common conclusion for the past century or so.
However, it spends most of its time performing a statistical analysis of the Seshat database, which, if you’ve read Bernoulli’s Fallacy, you will likely find flawed. The paper also seeks to reduce civilizational development to trends and variables, which strikes me as an oversimplification. There are so many variables involved in the development of civilizations that any large-scale examination like those enabled by the Seshat database is likely to be the victim of gross generalizations that fail to provide any useful insight. What good is a generalization influenced by a handful of major civilizations in world history when there have only been a handful of major civilizations in world history?
I was disappointed by the paper, from which I expected to gain more insight. While an interesting read, it contributed little new to a holistic understanding of civilizational development. Reading and studying history without a database of arbitrary variables and frequentist statistical analyses might give the impression of being less rigorous and more work, but I think it will lead you to a better understanding of the topic than the authors of this paper achieved.