Sociocultural Evolution

Sociocultural Evolution

Sociocultural evolution describes the process of evolution as it acts on macro-scale social systems of all kind. Sociocultural evolution through a process of variation, selection, and duplication of social structures and cultural constructs leads over time to create complexity. Evolution operates through a number of key stages, that need to be performed successfully for the process to be effective. Including firstly the production of variety in order to create new sets of possible solutions to the changing context, with those variants then needing to be exposed to their operating environment in order to see how effective they are within that context, and finally we talked about the need for some objective mechanism for selecting and replicating those that have been successful while discontinuing those that have not. Through this process of evolution, sociocultural systems can develop to exhibit greater complexity as the parts become both more differentiated and interdependent within the whole.

The question of what exactly complexity is, is one of the big open questions within complexity theory, as there are a number of different approaches to trying to answer this question. We can, for example, talk about it in terms of computation or interconnectivity, among various other approaches. But evolution offers us one answer to this question, this perspective starts with a recognition that systems do not start out complex, all systems start out simple and evolve to become complex. Through this process of evolution the subcomponents within the system become more specialized and differentiated but also it involves a process of reintegration, increased interconnectivity and interdependence between those differentiated subsystems. As an example we can think about the human body, of course, we started out as very simple unicellular organisms like every other creature, but through a long process of evolution, different cells have come to work together while also becoming increasingly specialized and it is through this combination of integration and differentiation during the process of evolution that our bodies have become the complex systems they are today. From this evolutionary perspective a complex system is a system that is both differentiated and integrated and out of that, we get synergies and the emergence of complex phenomena.


The first thing to note is that evolution is not something that only happens to dinosaurs and monkeys, it is a pervasive phenomenon in our world, the mechanism of evolution in the abstract, is a process of development for any type of adaptive system, ecosystems, economies, societies, cultures, football teams, ideas, religions, political parties and the list goes on. Evolution is the same process as adaptation, but now operating on the macro scale, adaptation is how an individual responds to change within their environment. Evolution is the process through which a whole population of agents responds to change within its environment. Both adaptation and evolution are characterised as processes of change without centralized coordination, both adaptation and evolution do not require a centralized regulatory system they both happen in a distributed fashion, with evolution there is no one single divine entity that gets to make choices about which creatures will live or die, that choice is distributed out across the entire ecosystem, just as no one in a free market economy gets to say which products will be produced or not produced, that choice is made by many different producers and consumers across the entire market as part of an evolutionary process. The point to take away is that evolution is a macro scale process of development within any adaptive system that is characterized by a distributed mechanism for selection.

Within this world of evolution, there is no right or wrong, good or bad, there is only really survival and adaptation, survival means being able to effectively intercept and transform resources within some environment. Adaptation means being able to alter your state so as to be able to continue performing this function when the input values from the environment change, it is through being able to do both of these that you can ensure your survival. And this environment may be ecological where we are talking about some biological creature, or it may be some business within an economy, some political movement within a society, some ideology within a culture etc. For all of these entities to survive, for them to be continued within their particular environment, they have to be intercepting and transforming resources effectively and be capable of adapting as the environment changes, if you can’t do that then over time you will become irrelevant within that environment and ultimately discontinued. The whole mechanism through which this operates is called the process of evolution.

Process of Evolution

This process of evolution then operates through a number of key stages, that need to be performed successfully for the process to be effective. Firstly we need the production of variety in order to create new sets of possible solutions to the changing context, secondly those variants need to be exposed to their operating environment in order to see how effective they are within that context, and finally we need some objective mechanism for selecting and replicating those that have been successful while discontinuing those that have not.

For evolution to act on any population there needs to be variety amongst its members, in terms of socio-cultural evolution this would mean a variety of subcultures, information and knowledge sources, political ideologies and social institutions plus the capacity to create new ones through cross mixing. Low barriers to entry would be important enabling marginal beliefs and institutions to get a foothold and gain some exposure. The Internet is a good example of this, allowing otherwise marginalized ideas and subcultures to get exposure through low-cost mass communication, making it easier for people to access and remix content into new cultural variants, and easily create new organizations around them. This is like the prototyping stage in design, this stage in the process will be most effective when there are lots of different building blocks, the capacity to easily remix them, putting them together and taking them apart, and having low barriers to entry so that we can rapidly deploy and test them, fail early and quick at low cost and learn fast. Internet organizations are again a good example of this, through social networking technologies we can very rapidly create dynamic organizations around any theme or location and collaborate at low cost, allowing for a much greater possible number and diversity of new organizations, with such low barriers to entry we can have rapid iteration to see which might scale.

These different types of socio-cultural institutions need to be given the time and autonomy to develop in order to see how well they are suited to that particular context. What is needed here is a level playing field so that all variants can compete in a somewhat equal fashion, that is that all are exposed to the same environment in which they have to compete. If there is one dominant ideology, culture or political regime that is given precedence over all others this will work to hinder the emergence of new variants that may be better suited than the existing incumbents and create a barrier to change and evolution. Here we can see the cost of unequal socio-economic opportunities, a cost that may not be borne immediately but will have a long-term detrimental effect on the system as a whole, that will again lead us into self-organized criticality on the macro scale, reducing sustainability. Democratic political processes are an example of this, theoretically they allow for a number of different political parties and ideologies to compete on an even playing field, but of course this is not what always happens in practice, when we increase the amount of money for campaigning we will distort this process, reducing the number of viable possibilities to those that are amenable to the interests of the economic incumbents. Again this will sooner or later reduce the solution set that the system has to respond to the challenges it is presented.

Although diversity and variety may be necessary for evolution and change they also carry a cost, once these different belief systems, cultures, social movements or other intuitions have explored the full state space of possibilities within that social context, and we have some metric for understanding which ones perform best, there then needs to be some mechanism for selecting those most successful variants and replicating them so that they will become more prevalent within the future life-cycle of the whole system, while those that have proven less effective are not replicated and left to expire. Within democracies political parties are subject to selection at the ballot box, companies are subject to selection by their consumers, when people stop believing and spreading an ideology it becomes discontinue. But in that discontinuation, we get the release of resources that were previously occupied and the system makes space for those resources to be reconfigured through those patterns of organization that have proven most successful within this cycle to the evolutionary process.


Evolutions is not a process of luxury it is a process of necessity of long-term survival, if it is not performed, then the system’s chances of survival, in the long run, will be degraded, and distortion to any stage, whether it involves excluding new varieties from emerging, giving them an unequal field on which to compete or distorting the selection process, the net result of this would be a degradation of the macro system leading to some form of self-organized criticality. Evolution may not give us short term optimal solutions, but what it does produce is long-term sustainability, it is a framework for how to manage the development of distributed complex systems sustainably. 

Through this process of evolution, the system becomes both more differentiated and integrated. As a system goes through this process of evolution it has to develop new differentiated subsystems in order to operate in new environments, with this process of differentiation the system comes to have more parts with those parts being more specialized and autonomous. For example, traditional hunter-gatherer societies have only a few dozen distinct functional roles within the community, while a modern census would recognize 10,000 to 20,000 distinct occupations. But in order for the whole system to be effective and sustainable it also has to integrate those subsystems and through the process of integration those parts become more interconnected and interdependent, today most of humanity is deeply interdependent through our dependence upon the global economy, within which there are many differentiated specialized functions that are highly interconnected and interdependent. Through this process of evolution, a social system can transition from a small society with few subsystems to those that are large with many different interconnected subsystems. And this complexity enables the system to operate sustainably in a broader environment, as we have gone from local patterns of organization within simpler communities to the emerging global society of today.

Systems Innovation

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