Chapter 8



This chapter develops some key ideas concerning replication and information transition in socio-economic evolution. Inspired by the great 1995 book on The Major Transitions in Evolution by the biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, this chapter argues that increasing social complexity has resulted from crucial changes in the way that information is stored and transmitted. Sharing their informational perspective, we identify six modes of replication in human society above that of the genes.

The first supra-genetic mechanism of transmission occurred millions of years ago in our ape-like ancestors. Even without language, there were proto-cultural mechanisms of transmission in social groups, involving expressions, noises, smells and feelings. The second social level of transmission occurred around 100,000 years ago, with the development of a complex language. This enabled the communication of know-how, rules and meanings. The third social level occurred once language became established, involving customs, ceremonies and social positions. The fourth social level involved the development of symbols and writing, which occurred at different times in different civilizations. The fifth social level concerned the development of a legal system, with a judiciary and written rules. The sixth social level emerged much more recently; it is the institutionalization of science and technology.

Each level of social evolution has its own characteristics and mechanisms. Each depends on the bedrock of preceding layers, as in Maynard Smith and Szathmáry’s (1995) account of the major transitions in biological evolution. We argue that each new level is associated with a new type of generative replicator. The complex, multi-layered nature of social evolution means that it is highly unlikely to follow an optimal path. No new layer must build on the rudiments of the past, even if they may be imperfect for the future.


1. Focusing on information transitions omits other important changes in (biological and social) evolution. Does this undermine the value of this approach?
2. Why is it important to distinguish between multiple levels of social evolution? Isn’t it all “cultural”?
3. In what senses are these different levels “informational”?
4. Why is social evolution suboptimal?

4 thoughts on “Chapter 8

  1. david ronfeldt

    Perhaps I may intrude. I know little about Darwin or Darwinism. But I keep working on a theoretical framework about social evolution — for brevity, I call it TIMN — that seems partly Darwinist or Darwinian (not to mention partly some other –isms, -ists, and –ians as well). I’d like to hear how experts on Darwin might view TIMN and might propose to improve it (though I’m pretty slow these days).

    According to TIMN, as I understand it, four cardinal forms of organization lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages: the tribal form (T), the hierarchical institutional form (I), the market form (M), and the network form (N). All four forms were present in early societies, but the forms have emerged, grown, and matured at different rates. Thus, across the ages, societies have advanced from monoform (T-centric), to biform (T+I), to triform (T+I+M), and next to quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies. The rise of each form leads to the creation of a new sector (or realm) that is different from preceding sectors. Ultimately, TIMN is about the balancing and compounding of all four TIMN forms and their respective realms, in a preferred progression over time.

    If interested in clarification and elaboration, there is an overview about TIMN here:

    I remain unsure whether, when, and where to raise TIMN with you, but here seems a good spot, because above you associate different “social levels of transmission” and “levels of social evolution” with different modes and methods of communication or “information transitions.”

    A somewhat parallel proposition in TIMN is that the rise and spread of each TIMN form is associated with a different information and communications technology revolution. In brief, the rise of the tribal form depended on a symbolic revolution: the emergence of language and early writing (runes, glyphs), enabling the storytelling that is central to tribal cultures. The rise of the hierarchical institutional form — as in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the absolutist states, and their vast administrative structures — reflected a mechanical revolution: the development of formal writing and printing, first penned script and later the printing press. This was important not only for keeping records and issuing commands, but also for inscribing laws that chiefdoms and states could apply to growing populations who were not kinfolk and often not well-known to each other. Next, the rise of the market form and its far-flung business enterprises was sped by the electrical technologies of the 19th century: the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Today’s spread of the network form extends from the digital revolution and its technologies, notably the Internet, fax machines, and cellular telephones, which are especially empowering for civil-society associations around the world and across political spectrums. I should add, as a corollary, that each successive information / communications technology revolution also modifies each of the older forms.

  2. Geoffrey M Hodgson Post author

    Thank you for the interesting outline of “TIMN”. It is one thing to postulate stages in (human or social) evolution and another to identify the causal mechanisms that drive evolution forward and account for the transitions from one stage to another. I do not know if you do all this. Our claim in Darwin’s Conjecture is that the only known and viable framework for dealing with these mechanisms (in complex population systems) is Darwinism. Do you agree? Or do you propose a different framwork?

    1. david ronfeldt

      TIMN has a posture regarding “the causal mechanisms that drive evolution forward and account for the transitions from one stage to another” — though it is not fully worked out. Most writings I’ve seen about social evolution focus on specific drivers — e.g., population growth, technological change, economic development, etc. — and then show how these drivers (and their interactions) lead to evermore complex kinds of societies. TIMN is not averse to that traditional approach. But TIMN is quite different.

      As I began to assemble the framework in the 1990s and wondered what may “cause” the transitions from T-only onward to T+I+M+N societies, I did notice the associations with different revolutions in information and communications technologies, as noted above. Very important factor. But it occurred to me that something more systemic was going on that could not be captured by a linear focus on specific drivers/factors over time. Instead, similar system dynamics — or patterned interactions — seem to reoccur with each major transition, no matter which TIMN form is rising or settling, expanding or receding, influencing or being influenced. These system dynamics reflect a ratcheting, spiraling coevolution of the four forms, rather than the distinctive causes and effects of each one. What is interesting about these dynamics is that they repeat whenever a form arises, irrespective of which form or transition it is. That is how and why this compact framework can generate and accommodate complex patterns.

      So I’ve focused far more on seeking to identify general propositions about system dynamics than on causes as traditionally understood. For example: During the rise of a new TIMN form, subversion precedes addition. Addition brings the creation and consolidation of a new realm. Combination restructures and strengthens the overall system. Combination alters the nature of causation. All that occurred with the transitions from classic tribal and clan-based societies, to centralized states, to market-oriented societies. It is now reoccurring with the evolution of advanced societies that have begun to incorporate the information-age network form as well.

      Now, I could discuss all this in Darwinian terms, I suppose. Selection and adaptation are occurring throughout, and I occasionally use those valuable concepts. At the same time, it seems to me I should be very careful, not just about those concepts, but also about other matters I’ve noticed: Social evolution is often said to proceed from simple to complex — social evolution is about increasing complexity. True in general — but I hasten to add, not true enough. According to TIMN, as I understand it, each transition leads not only to greater complexity but also to a kind of re-simplification. For example, China and the Soviet Union once represented modern T+I societies that rejected the market (M) form. As a result of growing problems, their T+I systems became evermore complicated and inefficient. By now, China and Russia are accommodating to the +M form; thus, their systems are now both more complex and re-simplified compared to before.

      I could ramble on, but maybe that’s enough (or too much) for here now. If interested in further clarification and elaboration, I’ve put most of what I know here:

      Perhaps a biological analogy or metaphor would help. In a sense, it’s as though each TIMN form corresponds to a different aspect of anatomy: tribes to a body’s overall appearance, the look of it’s skin; hierarchical institutions to a musculo-skeletal system (as Thomas Hobbes implied); markets to a cardio-pulmonary circulatory system (as Karl Marx noted); and networks to a sensory nerve system (as Herbert Spencer thought, and many writers still suppose today). I’d suppose each has its own distinctive cause, but as Darwin found, there are system dynamics at work too.

  3. david ronfeldt

    I’ve finally finished reading this chapter and would offer a few comments:

    I agree that information transitions are crucial for explaining social evolution. You make many good points. But I have some problems/questions regarding the six you identify:

    First, some of the six seem to be of a different order or level of significance than others. The highest-level information transitions in your approach are about the formation of aggregate social orders: notably, tribes (#3) and states (which runs through several transitions, but is not singled out the way tribes are). At the same time, some other transitions — e.g., about judicial law (#5) and science and technology (#6) — pertain to areas of activity that take shape as full-fledged societies (tribes, states, etc.) become evermore complex. This seems to me not so much a mixing of apples and oranges, but rather of trees and branches, or even of genus-level and species-level categories. Your book does acknowledge distinctions between interactors (e.g., states) and replicators (e.g., laws) in the list of six, but I find them rather elusive, including when at one point laws seem to be a replicator but the legal system is an interactor, if I read correctly.

    Second, while you note that the list is incomplete, these still are treated as the six most important. To some extent, maybe so for pre-modern societies. But not when it comes to including later societies, esp ones where the market form starts to take hold some centuries ago. Then information transitions about business and commerce, statistics and accounting, etc. become vital. Your chapter alludes to this, but not much.

    Third, the discussion about tribes (#3) overemphasizes that they are about the rise of hierarchy. My understanding remains that, while informal social hierarchies do play a part in tribes, this social formation is much more about establishing kinship, identity, and solidarity, not hierarchy. Tribes are more about dignity, honor, respect, and pride, than about power, authority, and legitimacy. Indeed, classic tribes tend to be acephalous and to lack the early exemplars of formal hierarchy: chieftains. Chiefdoms take shape later, as intermediate forms on the way to the rise of states. (Also, you note at one point that “tribes come together to form states” — yet, I gather that was rarely true.)

    So while I much like and agree with many of your general points about the importance of information transitions in the Darwinian flux and flow of social evolution, I suggest that your list of six would benefit from much revision as you go along.

    In any case, I admire what you have done with this blog, inviting a chapter by chapter discussion. Bravo.


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