Culture Magazine

Evolution and Emergence Explain Social Change

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance

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Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

The two theories of social change that I find most compelling are Evolution and Emergence. Evolution is a well known idea in terms of biology and Darwin, but in terms of social change the theory assumes that variations among human traits and behaviors, as well as group social norms and trappings, combined with the ability to replicate these patterns and a selection process for environmental fitness and adaptation, leads to societal changes over time. For example, the evolution of mobile technology and all the ways how that in turn has caused people to adapt to an environment of almost constant communication. The theory of Emergence is a nice complement to Evolution, because it suggests that diverse dynamic interacting agents with individual intentions can produce societal patterns as a collective simply through the bottom-up process of self-organization. The emergent societal whole becomes more than the sum of the individual members. Consider the spontaneous emergence of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street which led to social reactions that then changed the character of society and these movements.

The shape theories of Progress, Development, Cycles, and Conflict are all good for explaining some moments of social change, but problematic on their own as complete theories because they incorrectly assume an overall macro-shape to society that is perpetually maintained. Change can be progressive, or only mean that things are getting more complex, or that nothing lasts forever, or that groups with opposing agendas create a dialectic. I don’t see any of the shape theories as taking precedent over each other though, so a better way to encapsulate all of these different shapes is to say that they are all possible emergent patterns that can arise from the interaction of individual agents acting autonomously and guided by an evolutionary process.

For example, increasing complexity over time per Development theory is possibly an emergent phenomenon of increasing diversity and interactions between agents. These same interactions may result in self-organized criticality and a collapse, perhaps through growing tensions due to the increasing interactions and diversity which results in Conflict between groups. After a period of greater tension between groups has transpired this could lead to a golden age of peace and cooperation between agents, a time of perceived Progress. In due time this golden age may just present more complexity devoid of any increase in value, and we get to Development and Conflict again, giving us a Cycle. This example of a cyclical pattern I am using is also not an explanation either, given that cycles in culture may never quite repeat the same way, begging for additional explanation.

The driver theories of change are also all insightful and get at something important, but I don’t think it works to say that any one of them is the primary driver of change. Technology, Culture/Ideas, Power, and Markets all drive, and are driven by, each other. A revolutionary technology can change the culture, the power structure, and the distribution of goods and services. At the same time, to bring a technology to market it takes investment and capital formation. Powerful people, like a Supreme Court Justice, can oppose the use of a technology, say for instance drones, and limit the amount of change that is ultimately driven by a technology. Ideas can inspire inventions, changes in the power structure, and the channeling of money. Also, drivers leave out the context of the environment, which is key, because none of these drivers operates in a vacuum. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and necessity is an environmental determination. Because of the chicken-and-egg problem of picking one dominant driver of change, I think a better way to understand change overall is to recognize drivers, but think of them as embedded and dependent on systems of interacting and interdependent ecology.

I think the weakest theory of social change is Progress. The biggest problem with believing that social change is primarily characterized and explained as a continuous progression is the assumption of universal value. What one sees as progressive another may see as a loss of tradition for the worse. Greater amounts of liberty to one group may seem like a dangerous drift toward anarchy to others. For many, modern progress means loss of culture, growing complexity, stress and being forced into the rat race. Finding a standard of value for which to measure progressive change is a chimerical endeavor I think. Although it is hard to deny that, generally speaking, life has improved over the last couple of centuries in most places around the world.

The encapsulating theories of social change from this perspective are thus Emergence and Evolution. The shape of change in a society emerges from the interaction of diverse autonomous agents, so there can be different shapes at different times, and perhaps many simultaneous shapes that change and mingle within societies, characterized by different lengths of time, generating outcomes that are greater than the sum of these shapes and drivers. It’s the dynamic dancing landscapes of entities, in the context of their environment, that determines the shape and direction of change. Evolution is a good explanatory complement to Emergence because it shows how conditions, and fitness for those conditions, determine which forms are maintained and which are not. As agents act within the situation of resource constraints, and where other agents are also acting, there is competition, cooperation, coopetition, and different strategies for obtaining individual goals. The right fit at the right time will decide which system of organization will persist within a society, and this mechanism causes societies to evolve rather than progress, develop, or simply cycle in a loop.

Jared Roy Endicott

Evolution and Emergence Explain Social Change
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