Monday, January 22, 2007

How do societes evolve?

How do societies evolve? I’m quite interested in this question, and I want to explain a little about what I mean by it and why I think it's an important topic.

How, is a society built, from its beginnings in ‘primitive bands’ to the complex forms we see today, with their many laws, insitutions, and so forth?

It seems to happen by piecemeal evolution -- you can't jump straight from a hunter-gatherer society to a modern democratic society -- but what are the actual details of this process? (i.e. like other complex systems, it's a matter of laddered skills).

For example, how does a policing system arise? What conditions are required for that to happen? And what developments does it enable?

What sorts of structures are found within our socieities, and what is the ‘division of labour’ between them?

What are the general themes at work societal evolution? One seems to be the ability to put increasing levels of trust in individuals and insitutions, which seems to enable more complex structures to be built within socieities.

What are the general driving forces behind the development? One seems to be improved communication mechanisms, that allow information to be transmitted more accurately, over greater distances in shorter amounts of time. That example is, in turn, an instance of technological evolution, which seems to be a significant driving force, though it is of course only one of the many facets of this issue.

I have limited knowledge of what we currently know about these issues. How much do we know? Under this general umbrella of ‘the evolution of society’, there is a lot of exiting work, but how much of this goes beyond just chronicling the changes, to an analysis specifically focused on the nature of the evolution itself?

What is the value of understanding how societies evolve? I can think of two main areas. I think it's important for understanding the nature of the institutions and other elements within our societies, and I think it's a large source of insight into human psychology.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of the instituions and other elements of societies, and I think understanding them from an evolutionary standpoint would be a good way to understand their nature.

For example, the law seems to be commonly thought of as some sort of abstract force. John Searle's book The Construction of Social Reality is an attempt to clear up some of these misunderstandings and understand such institutions in concrete terms.

By understanding such things from an evolutionary standpoint, it's easier to appreciate their actual, concrete realisation, because you can see the processes by which it is built, and thus the way that it is realised. And it helps us hone our intuitions about how elements of socieites can change, and how the ways in which such change is constrained.

You need to understand these sorts of things if you want to think effectively about them -- which is important in many social/political/economic matters.

It's pretty obvious that human psychology plays an important part in the evolution of societies. If we can understand such changes (and similarly, when changes were not able to occur) then we can get some useful insight into our psychology. For example, by looking at the various conditions when people will or will not put trust in institutions.

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