Michael Hochberg Scientific Advisory Board of the Evolution Institute; CNRS, France
Peter Turchin Vice President of the Evolution Institute; University of Connecticut, USA
Harvey Whitehouse Scientific Advisory Board of the Evolution Institute; University of Oxford, UK
The Social Evolution Forum (SEF) is supported by the Evolution Institute and by Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History
The Social Evolution Forum is a new platform aimed at promoting communication, discussion, and collaboration on diverse topics related to human society.
A central question of social evolution is elucidating the mechanisms and dynamics that resulted in the rise of large-scale complex human societies. How did ultrasociality (the ability of humans to cooperate in huge groups of unrelated individuals) evolve? Although much progress has been recently made in understanding the first phase of human social evolution, from ape-like ancestors to small-scale groups of hunter-gatherers, much remains to be discovered, and the area continues to generate high interest among the researchers. Even more controversial is the second phase, the evolution of large-scale hierarchically organized societies with cities, states, extensive division of labor, writing, monumental architecture, etc. There is currently no consensus on the processes and mechanisms that were responsible for this major evolutionary transition.
We think that conceptual and empirical tools are now sophisticated enough to make possible dramatic breakthroughs in this discipline. The stakes are enormous – not only because of the scale of the intellectual puzzle and intrinsic interest in the emergence of states, empires and civilizations, but also because of potential application in addressing such societal problems as war and failed states, and more optimistically trust, peace and large-scale cooperation.
Currently, researchers interested in these issues work in highly diverse disciplines – anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, evolutionary biology, and mathematics – with little interdisciplinary contact. Periodically scientists from these different disciplines meet at conferences or workshops, and interact intensively, but durable projects rarely emerge. There are many challenges to fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and collaborations, including semantics and different conceptual models and approaches.
An important aspect of the SEF is the historical dimension. After all, it would be unthinkable to study biological evolutionary without the insights and data gathered by paleontologists. Historians and archaeologists should play the same role in social evolution: documenting macrohistorical patterns in the development of complex societies that need to be explained, conducting microhistorical studies that help us fine-tune the proposed mechanisms, and providing data for empirical tests of theories.
The SEF has several dimensions. First, it is a virtual seminar, that is, a website dedicated to promoting the presentation and discussion of the most novel and important questions in social evolution theory. Second, it houses a blog dedicated to an informal discussion of current topics in social and cultural evolution, connections between of social evolution research and history and archaeology, and policy implications of this research (this blog is currently authored by Peter Turchin, but we expect that other authors will be joining in on the fun). And third, although fundamentally a communication network, the SEF also provides the foundations for inter- and pluri-disciplinary – and, ultimately, trans-disciplinary – collaboration. This takes the form of adverts to workshops and conferences, international funding opportunities, and the posting or publication of interim reports for specialists and for the broader community interested in social evolution.
We believe that the Social Evolution Forum will have a considerable impact on interdisciplinary research in social evolution theory, and will contribute to informing and educating the public about pressing issues of today’s society.
Note aded 14.III.2013: You can learn about new posts by following Peter Turchin on Twitter: @Peter_Turchin