Posted: 19/05/16

Renowned anthropologist and ritual theorist, Professor Harvey Whitehouse, Chair of Social Anthropology and a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College at the Univerity of Oxford, gave a public keynote address as part of a major two-day workshop, Computational History and Data-Driven Humanities, organised by the ADAPT Centre for Digital Content Technology at Trinity College Dublin. His keynote address was titled “Ritual and Social Evolution: Understanding Social Complexity through Data”.

The workshop brought together scientists and scholars in the emerging field of ‘cliodynamics’, named after Clio, the Greek Muse of history. This new, inter-disciplinary research area uses the power of computers to study data from the distant past to establish patterns and insights into our future world. Insights that have been gained from this analysis have seen the publication of bold predictions such as the rise of ISIS to the emergence of Donald Trump’s presidential run.

Speaking at the event, Professor Whitehouse said: “We are only getting started in this exciting area, we have some new insights but using large historical databases to test theories about the evolution of human societies is the future, now. Working with scientists all over the world on the Seshat project – the greatest ever effort to amass high-quality data describing all historical societies - is a global history databank that is helping us understand how human societies and cultural systems have evolved. Among other things, Seshat will enable us to explore the relationships between ritual, warfare and social complexity over the past ten thousand years.”

Professor Whitehouse was joined at the conference by other world leading participants including Professor Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut who is also involved in the Seshat project. Turchin and his colleagues mine newly digitised historical documents and the massive amounts of digital data that are now available via the Internet. Using complex mathematical algorithms, the scientists then identify and model the broad social forces they claim shape all human societies. At the workshop, Professor Turchin presented the first major analysis of the insights that can be gained from the data collected so far, which included a pattern of social instability in US history, which predicts a new wave of internal strife in the United States, to peak in the year 2020.

The chair of the workshop, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Trinity College Dublin and the ADAPT Centre, Declan O’Sullivan, said: “This emerging discipline sees mathematicians and computer scientists in dialogue with historians, evolutionary biologists and social scientists in an effort to push forwards our understanding of human societies.”

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