Prosociality in History and Historiography: PWIAS workshop – October 2014

prosocialityProsociality in History and Historiography: Can Big Gods tip the Balance in World History?

An International Research Roundtable awarded to Dr. Edward Slingerland and Dr. Brenton Sullivan, Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC

Recent scholarship in the cognitive science of religion, social psychology and anthropology has advanced the hypothesis that the development of large-scale, complex societies has been dependent upon the presence of “Big Gods,” that is, “powerful, omniscient, interventionist, morally concerned gods”.  In tight-knit, hunter-gatherer  societies composed of genetically related or otherwise closely related individuals, kin selection and reciprocal altruism can explain cooperation, or prosociality, among members of the group. In larger, more far-flung societies composed of genetically unrelated, anonymous strangers, however, the mechanisms of kin selection and reciprocity break down. How, then, can we explain the sudden rise of stable cities and social institutions that accompanied the agricultural revolution beginning with the Holocene period nearly 12,000 years ago?

This Roundtable will bring renowned scholars of world history together with experts here at UBC to assess this hypothesis in light of our collective knowledge of history: did the appearance of a Big God in a given social group affect the cooperation and success of that group and thereby propel its growth? The research mentioned above certainly suggests that the answer to this question should be “yes, everything else being equal.” To date, however, insufficient historical data and the lack of a transparent model for interpreting that data have prevented extending these findings to the human past.

For over a half century, historians and sociologists, best represented by Karl Jaspers, S.N. Eisenstadt and Robert Bellah, have also sought out causal explanations for the rise of the world’s major civilizations, and they have often placed religious transformations  at the centre of that research. However, to the extent that that field has addressed gods, it has been to evaluate an opening or distancing of the relationship between the gods and humans that began in the axial age, rather than considering the distinct, anthropomorphic  characteristics  of “Big Gods” or “high gods.”  Moreover, their grand histories are difficult to test empirically, and their insights have failed to convince historians not to eschew theory and cross-cultural explanations of change in exchange for more and more localized, descriptive histories.

More recently, in our era of “Big Data,” several attempts have been made by historians and others outside of sociology to clarify the scope of human evolution and history (e.g. Diamond 2005, Morris 2010; Sanderson and Roberts 2008), although these efforts have typically ignored the role of religion (for an exception, see Wilson 2002). Moreover, all of these projects have suffered from a lack of a single, standardized and expert-verified database of cultural historical data. Our Roundtable will contribute to UBC’s Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium’s (CERC) on-going efforts to rectify these deficiencies by inviting experts from a variety of disciplines to participate in a dialogue about the prospects of comparative history and to address the question of Big Gods in the specific times and places with which they are most familiar. We are particularly interested in the histories of China, India, and Islam, areas in which UBC possesses significant expertise.

Our unique approach intends to encourage historians and other humanities scholars to seriously consider some of the hypotheses and findings coming from the sciences.

The origins of human civilization have fascinated scholars and others for decades and arguably much longer. Hitherto, sociologists, historians, and cognitive scientists have operated in isolated silos, sometimes ignorant of others who were asking similar questions and other times frustrated by their inability to coordinate with them. Our Roundtable will embolden scholars to engage in novel research by asking a common question that derives from the sciences and by incorporating into the Roundtable new methods from the digital humanities as well as more traditional events.

The International Research Roundtable program was created by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies to offer unique opportunities for UBC and international scholars to explore big ideas, and examine pressing social, health, economic or other research questions, creating the foundation for new and innovative research. The program fosters both basic and applied research, and is designed to ensure that the roundtables are catalytic in the development of new knowledge and potential solutions to important problems. The International Research Roundtables bring together leading scholars, policy makers, scientists and artists from across the globe to develop serious research plans to address specific problems that require interdisciplinary thinking.

This event is also sponsored by the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium, who are developing the Database of Religious History.

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