Savage et al. (2019) have posted their response to Beheim et al.’s (2019) critique of their Nature paper (Whitehouse et al. 2019a) which argues that moralizing gods appear as a consequence of social complexification, rather than as its precursor, which the Big Gods hypothesis requires. I discussed the original controversy here and here. The Seshat team posted two other documents in response to last year’s critiques, one by Whitehouse et al. (2019b) on quality issues in large historical databases, and one by Turchin et al. (2019) on the Seshat database itself.

Absence of evidence vs evidence of absence

My first reaction on reading Savage et al., beyond noting that they refer to critics as “rival teams”, is that they have still not understood the main critique leveled at their initial Nature paper. According to them, “Beheim et al.’s core challenge regards our assumption that moralizing gods were largely absent in small-scale, nonliterate societies.” That is not, in fact, Beheim et al’s core challenge. Not at all.

The core challenge from Beheim et al. is rather that the original paper treats absence of evidence for moralizing gods as evidence of their absence. It changes all N/A (not available) values to absent. In other words, the original paper considers that if there is no information on the presence of moralizing gods in a certain region at a certain time, there is no moralizing god.

The first appearance of moralizing gods in the database for a certain region is almost always preceded by a period in which there is no information, and which the paper therefore treats as having a positive absence of moralizing gods, rather than an absence of information about the presence of moralizing gods. “The resulting correlation between ‘having any outcome data at all’ (not ‘NA’) and recording ‘moralizing gods present’ is r = 0.97, suggesting that the study is essentially an analysis of the missingness patterns in Seshat. (Beheim et al. 2019)”

Treating absence of evidence as evidence of absence is a massively different problem than a simple disagreement about whether “moralizing gods were largely absent in small-scale, nonliterate societies”. Not only do Savage et al. miss the point of Beheim et al.’s critique, they double down in their response on what I see as a very serious methodological error: “Given this ethnographic evidence, we adopted a collection strategy that focused on identifying the earliest direct evidence for the presence of beliefs in moralizing gods, meaning that we treat such beliefs as absent until we have evidence of their presence. This strategy is reasonable because the first evidence of moralizing gods generally post-dated the advent of written records…”.

In archaeology and in historical disciplines in general, it is critically important that absence of evidence not be treated as evidence of absence. The records with which we work are fragmentary, their preservation is biased in various ways that we hardly understand, and what is initially preserved is often modified over time by various opaque. mysterious, and potentially invisible natural and cultural processes.

Even when Savage et al. are on less uncertain grounds, that is when they are dealing with cases in which they have strong evidence for how and when belief in a moralizing god spread to a region through conquest and expansion, they are still dealing with the arrival a particular moralizing god. They don’t address the possibility that other moralizing gods may have been present and unrecorded in earlier periods.

Despite their claim that Beheim et al.’s critique is “at odds with known historical processes”, I can well picture other, equally important historical processes by which an arriving moralizing god erases evidence of an earlier one, for example. Their response doesn’t at all address the question of absence of evidence being used as evidence of absence.

Until that particular critique gets a clear and direct answer, the rest of the controversy, about the appropriateness of T-tests for a given analysis, about which experts agree or disagree on whether this or that region really does have evidence of moralizing gods at this particular time period, etc., is just noise, and I won’t get into it.

Darwinian vs Lamarckian cultural evolution

After all that, there remains the issue of what, in the absence of good evidence one way or the other, makes theoretical sense. Do moralizing gods precede the development of larger, more complex communities, or do larger, more complex communities come up with moralizing gods to facilitate their survival and expansion?

My own intuition is more on the Darwinian side of this debate. Variation does not arise because it is needed to solve problems. It arises randomly and opens up new evolutionary possibilities, such as the development of larger and more complex communities. We don’t need to invoke intentional variation to explain human cultural evolution, and so we shouldn’t.

A more Lamarckian culture evolutionary framework, which may yet turn out to be more appropriate, favours innovation as an active problem solving mechanism by informed, strategic human actors. It would more easily tolerate the idea that people, finding themselves in large, unwieldy, complex communities, came up with moralizing gods to solve the problems of living together. The Darwinian view is that it is more likely that people came up with moralizing gods for no particular reason, but this allowed them to form large, complex communities, and keep them wieldy.

Savage et al., along with Peter Turchin in a series of tweets, do seem, however, to be adjusting their position in response to the critiques. They are now talking more in terms of the broader concept of moralistic supernatural punishment (MSP) rather than in narrow terms of moralistic gods. They are moving in the direction of a strongly co-evolutionary relationship between complexity, MSP, and eventually fully fledged moralizing gods.

But pushing back the origin story by pointing to the MSP that begat the moralizing gods that the complex societies begat, only moves the problem of absence of evidence further back in time. It doesn’t eliminate it. MSP is a much more amorphous concept than specific, named moralizing gods. It is therefore easier to see it extending back in time, even to the middle paleolithic, which would make the whole debate a bit moot.

The fact remains that if there is not evidence of absence of either MSP or moralizing gods at some point (and how could there be?), their test of the Big Gods hypothesis is not very informative. The real questions we need to address in this whole controversy are whether we can ever find evidence of absence of moralizing gods, and what do we do if we can’t?


Beheim et al. 2019. Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain


Savage et al. 2019. Reply to Beheim et al.: Reanalyses confirm robustness of original analyses


Turchin et al. 2019. An Introduction to Seshat: global history databank


Whitehouse et al. 2019a. Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history, Nature 568 :226-229.


Whitehouse et al. 2019b. A new era in the study of global history is born but it needs to be nurtured

3 thoughts on “The moralizing gods debacle takes a turn for the worse

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