INTRODUCTION to CHAPTER EIGHT
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?