Human societies evolve along similar paths

Credit: George Hodan/public domain

Societies ranging from ancient Rome and the Inca empire to modern Britain and China have evolved along similar paths, a huge new study shows.

Despite their many differences, societies tend to become more complex in "highly predictable" ways, researchers said.

These processes of development - often happening in societies with no knowledge of each other - include the emergence of writing systems and "specialised" government workers such as soldiers, judges and bureaucrats.

The international research team, including researchers from the University of Exeter, created a new database of historical and archaeological information using data on 414 societies spanning the last 10,000 years. The database is larger and more systematic than anything that has gone before it.

"Societies evolve along a bumpy path - sometimes breaking apart - but the trend is towards larger, more complex arrangements," said corresponding author Dr Thomas Currie, of the Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

"Researchers have long debated whether can be meaningfully compared across different parts of the world. Our research suggests that, despite surface differences, there are fundamental similarities in the way societies evolve.

"Although societies in places as distant as Mississippi and China evolved independently and followed their own trajectories, the structure of social organisation is broadly shared across all continents and historical eras."

The measures of complexity examined by the researchers were divided into nine categories. These included:

  • Population size and territory
  • Number of control/decision levels in administrative, religious and military hierarchies
  • Information systems such as writing and record keeping
  • Literature on specialised topics such as history, philosophy and fiction
  • Economic development

The researchers found that these different features showed strong statistical relationships, meaning that variation in societies across space and time could be captured by a single measure of social complexity.

This measure can be thought of as "a composite measure of the various roles, institutions, and technologies that enable the coordination of large numbers of people to act in a politically unified manner".

Dr Currie said learning lessons from human history could have practical uses.

"Understanding the ways in which societies evolve over time and in particular how humans are able to create large, cohesive groups is important when we think about state building and development," he said.

"This study shows how the sciences and humanities, which have not always seen eye-to-eye, can actually work together effectively to uncover general rules that have shaped ."

Explore further

Math explains history: Simulation accurately captures the evolution of ancient complex societies

More information: Peter Turchin el al., "Quantitative historical analysis uncovers a single dimension of complexity that structures global variation in human social organization," PNAS (2017).
Citation: Human societies evolve along similar paths (2017, December 18) retrieved 21 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Dec 18, 2017
I think this explains a lot of the political turbulence in the world today.
We can be anywhere in the world in a day. We have developed a instant and global communication system and have public access to the most meticulous records ever kept in history.
A lot of things are changing, and it's a constant tug of war learning to live on such a small planet with each other, we are being forced into the most complex society possible

Dec 18, 2017
A perfect analogy of this;

And actually, Steve, it's pretty simple - in the end, it all becomes one...

Dec 19, 2017
Post scarcity societies will have different constraints and the growth patterns will differ because of that. Imagine if the Indus Valley people had discovered steam power and started the industrial revolution that much earlier. They were not that far off based on their tech level when the rains stopped falling and they collapsed again.

Dec 19, 2017
This can't be true. As we are taught: "There is no such thing as society." --Margaret Thatcher, and the entire ruling party in the USA.

Dec 20, 2017
Post scarcity societies

There is no such thing as "post-scarcity". Get off your ivory towers, please.

Dec 21, 2017
"These processes of development - often happening in societies with no knowledge of each other..."

- No apparent knowledge, that is.

One great mystery is why the early great civilizations emerged within a few millennia of each other, after a few hundred thousand years of chaos and intertribal conflict.

I think this can be explained in part by the acceptance of endemic overpopulation within the species, the discovery of ways to manage it, and the initiative to begin controlling growth on a global scale.

Agriculture quickly spread globally soon after it was invented so it's naive to think that similar social and technological developments could not be spread intentionally.

I believe that early rulers accepted the inevitability of overgrowth and began to manage it by staging preplanned conflict between competing tribes.

Predetermining the outcome of conflict would preserve overall stability and progress and the ability to create these great civilizations.

Dec 21, 2017
Overgrowth has been humanity's greatest problem ever since we became able to hunt the predators which were keeping our numbers in check. Overgrowth caused humanity to congeal into tribes for protection of territory and resources, and intertribal competition quickly became the determinant of human behavior.

Domestication supplanted evolution as humans were systematically selected for their ability to conform to the unnatural environment of tribal living.

Knowledge about the natural world could provide advantages in conflict and allow for enduring stability and progress. But archeology shows us the repeated fall of incipient order in the layers of city mounds. Uncontrolled overgrowth would always overwhelm stability, and the store of knowledge, our most valuable commodity, would be lost.

So Leaders took it upon themselves to wage war intelligently, always with preconceived goals in mind. And Leaders of both sides would be in on it.

Dec 21, 2017
If we assume that this was the case, and further that it was in the best interest of Leaders to spread this new philosophy among rulers everywhere as a solution to their common problem, we can look at history in a different light. We can appreciate for instance how the Greek civilization endured for 1500 years by staging designer wars among city states. Kings would always consult with oracles who decide who would be allies and who would fight whom. Their method of warfare was static and easily controlled, governed by strict rules of conduct and engagement.

We can see how leaders of both Macedonia and Persia were schooled by Aristotle, and shortly thereafter a young and inexperienced conqueror miraculously consolided the entire known world.

We can wonder how a similar Leader born in the Mongolian wilderness could sweep the largest continent in a few short decades. Easier to assume that he was schooled and advised on proven ancient methods of conquest and consolidation.

Dec 21, 2017
The key is that Leaders on both sides are on one side. The people are the enduring enemies of rulers everywhere, and will always blame them as their numbers swell and their children begin to starve, no matter how benevolent and well-meaning these rulers are.

A Tribe of Leaders emerged, dedicated to preserving stability and progress, and to protecting our precious store of knowledge at all costs. THEY established the great civilizations. THEY established the great Chinese dynasties. THEY established Rome, ruled Europe and Asia, and designed the religions which made it possible.

And they did this by dividing the people up and setting them against one another in planned and controlled ways.

Dec 21, 2017
"9And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague, and that all the children of men may not perish through all the secret things that the Watchers have disclosed and have taught their sons. 8. And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azâzêl: to him ascribe all sin.' 9. And to Gabriel said the Lord: 'Proceed against the bastards and the reprobates, and against the children of fornication: and destroy [the children of fornication and] the children of the Watchers from amongst men [and cause them to go forth]: SEND THEM ONE AGAINST THE OTHER that they may destroy each other in battle: for length of days shall they not have."

Book of Enoch chap 10

Dec 21, 2017
"Destroy all wrong from the face of the earth and let every evil work come to an end: and let the plant of righteousness and truth appear: ⌈and it shall prove a blessing; the works of righteousness and truth⌉ shall be planted in truth and joy for evermore.

17 And then shall all the righteous escape,
And shall live till they beget thousands of children,
And all the days of their youth and their old age
Shall they complete in peace."

-The victorious tribe, the Tribe of Leaders, will conquer the corrupted by having them kill each other off.

"I love it when a Plan comes together." - Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith

Dec 21, 2017
"MAKE NO LITTLE PLANS; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty."
Daniel Hudson Burnham 1907 - Great American architect and urban planner; high-ranking Freemason

Dec 21, 2017
"Let your watchword be ORDER and your beacon BEAUTY."

Haha I totally missed that part. Brilliant.

Dec 21, 2017
Wow, Otto are you ok? Your posts looks like they came from Chris Reeve

Dec 21, 2017
Who, Chris Reeve the knife guy, the superman guy, or the green beret guy?

Do any of these Reeves make as much sense as otto does? I think not.

Dec 21, 2017
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
George Bernard Shaw
Man and Superman "Maxims for Revolutionists" (1903)

Dec 21, 2017
This one perhaps?

"I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?" Nietzsche, thus spake zarathustra

Or this one?

"16 For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the WORLD to condemn the WORLD, but to save the WORLD through him." John 3

- God and Nietzsche and Shaw and Burnham and Enoch and his priestly descendents all seek to save the WORLD from the people upon it. And so god will promise them absolutely anything in order to get them to do what he says.

And what he says is that unbelievers do not deserve to inhabit this world. Only the Just are worthy to fill it up. As Enoch is telling us and the others are predicting.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more