Turning history into a binary code

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Science  28 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6251, pp. 922
DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6251.922

In January of this year, Anders Petersen folded his nearly 2-meter frame into an airplane seat for a flight from Copenhagen to Vancouver, Canada, crossing two continents on his way to check boxes on a computer screen. It would be a new experience for the religious studies scholar from Aarhus University in Denmark, who, like many in the humanities, has made a career out of “sitting in a room and writing my books and my articles” alone, eschewing even a cellphone. Now, he had agreed to help test a burgeoning new theory about the origins of religion (see main story, p. 918) by translating the nuanced knowledge in his head into the kind of data that scientists need: a database's binary code of yes/no answers.

Petersen, who studies the religious movements—including early Christianity—that sprang up across the Mediterranean about 2000 years ago, was creating an entry for the Database of Religious History (DRH), the brainchild of a multidisciplinary team investigating the evolution of religion. They're attempting to bridge the gulf between humanistic and scientific scholarship, but success hinges on enticing leading scholars like Petersen to join them.

Many are reluctant. Cross-cultural databases like the DRH “are going to make the humanities a lot more powerful than they are now,” says Yale University historian Joseph Manning, who has written a DRH entry on ancient Egypt. But “a lot of my colleagues think the opposite.” Since the rise of postmodernism in the 1960s, the humanities have strenuously rejected the idea of a single “truth” in favor of understanding the world as an endless series of cultural “texts” whose meanings constantly shift. Comparing one culture with another came to be seen as meaningless at best, racist at worst.

Yet historical, cross-cultural information is what psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, needs to test his “big gods” hypothesis. Did moralizing gods, community-wide rituals, and supernatural punishment emerge before or after societies became politically complex? Has any large-scale society succeeded without prosocial religion? And what does “moralizing” really mean in different cultures and at different times?

Ara Norenzayan (left) and Edward Slingerland are recruiting historians to help test the big gods hypothesis.


To answer these questions in a way that goes “beyond cherry-picking and anecdote,” scientists need an unbiased, scientific survey of religions, says Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver who is heading up the DRH. And the only way to get that is to “force historians to do what historians hate to do”—turn their qualitative knowledge into black-and-white quantitative data.

Petersen, the Danish religious scholar, was one of the first to agree to try it. When he arrived in Vancouver, Slingerland and several grad students were on hand to guide him through hundreds of yes/no questions. Petersen chose one sect to focus on: Pauline Christianity, as expressed in texts written by the apostle Paul between 48 C.E. and 56 C.E. Some of the questions were easy. Is a supreme high god present? (Yes.) Does that god care about murder? (Yes.) Gossiping? (Yes.) Disrespecting elders? (No.)

Others stumped him. For example, it's impossible to tell how many adherents Pauline Christianity had based solely on Paul's writings, and Christianity left no archaeological record until later. It's even possible that Paul was writing only for himself, Petersen says. But the DRH doesn't leave much room for that kind of uncertainty, so when confronted with questions about community size and structure, Petersen checked “Field doesn't know” and moved on. All told, it took him 2.5 exhausting hours to turn the knowledge in his head into check marks on a computer screen.

Now up to about 60 entries, the DRH is still in its infancy. Recruiting is slow going and depends heavily on Slingerland's personal connections. He's not above showing up to colleagues' houses bearing gifts; Petersen admits that his participation was helped along by their “shared love of Italian red wine.” Slingerland believes going directly to top experts shows “we take humanistic scholarship seriously,” and that once enough high-profile scholars participate, it will create a snowball effect. Reaching that critical mass, however, will take a lot of work—and wine.

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