“Humans are social creatures. We live in groups. We use our social abilities to increase our overall capacity, to improve our potential, while being part of families, clans, tribes, communities, states, or economic continental regions.

The potential of a group of three individuals can be greater than the sum of the potentials of the same three operating individually, assuming that they maintain a relation that favors collaboration. As we increase the size of the group, the dynamics between members changes and the effectiveness of the group can diminish. According to the size of the group, different types of relations, protocols, norms and tools are needed at different scales in order to maintain the advantage of the group over the sum of its parts. Social structures grow in relation to their potential to generate more benefits for the individuals that compose them. Whenever a group loses its capacity to provide for its members it fragments into smaller groups, or it may completely dissolve. In other words, individuals seek different types of benefits within groups, and if they don’t find them, if the group can’t provide these benefits, and if they have the possibility to choose other alternatives, they will simply quit the group for a better one, if they have this choice.

Throughout the long history of humanity, the number of individuals that live in a relation of interdependence to benefit from their collective output has increased, as social structures have scaled from the family, to the clan and the tribe, to kingdoms, to states and empires, to continental socioeconomic structures. Over time, we have evolved increasingly effective means to deal with the complexity that comes with larger groups, allowing these groups to provide a higher advantage to members, at increasingly larger scales. This social evolution has not been continuous, smooth or homogeneous. It is evolution at work, with its irregularities and setbacks.

In the ancient world, the mastering of plants and animals growth had unleashed a new possibility of scale by solving an essential problem, food supply stability. Collaborating to work the fields and herding animals produces a surplus that can free us time to think and to develop new technologies. Some people took social support roles to become priests, politicians, soldiers, administrators, animators, philosophers and scientists … The invention of representative or descriptive scripts (writing) has made possible the recording of information, which enables reliable communication and effective coordination of action over large geographical areas and through time. Quantitative symbolic systems (mathematics) have enabled bookkeeping and complex systems of redistribution and exchange of resources. Culture, social norms and laws have also evolved to sustain life in increasingly large social settings. We have created institutions of all sorts to crystallize some relations and processes, to make them more transparent, more ubiquitous, to order flows in our societies. All this has further increased our ability to sustain even larger social structures.

A new technology opens new possibilities, governance and culture model new human behavior and habits to complete a new transition to a new socio-economic structure. After that, the new society goes through a period of consolidation, followed by decline, and even demise. But the new ways don’t die with the declining civilization. They are picked up by newly emerging societies, they are remixed with other ways, and the process repeats itself, over and over again, in small or large increments depending on how disruptive is the technology that instills the evolution.

Those who evolved ways to function well at a larger scale, to show up in larger numbers on the battlefield, to create more surplus from their economic activity and to allocate it wisely, usually imposed their domination on their neighbors, who were still limited at a smaller scale. We can formulate the hypothesis that this evolution of our capacity to function at larger scales has been conditioned, and even imposed by our belligerent nature, by our latent urge to dominate the others, or else be dominated by the others.

One of the most important thread in our socioeconomic evolution is the redistribution of resources in a group, a community, a nation or a continental socioeconomic structure; resources that we collectively produce. Again, if the group doesn’t provide for its members it is weak and can collapse, can be destroyed or be absorbed by another group. Redistribution of resources in this context means the reallocation of the production (seen as a collection of material and immaterial, tangible and intangible assets) of the group to individual members for their own use, and for collective uses following endeavors that the group may pursue (development of new technologies, solidarity mechanisms, military action, etc.). Over the course of our history, we have implemented different solutions to this problem of redistribution, striking a balance between being a potent society (surviving nature and the threat from other groups) and creating a livable and enjoyable environment for its members, or at least a critical number of them that can insure stability. This redistribution is about flows of assets. We may think that these assets can transit through organizations, or any other construct, but in the end we are dealing with individuals, which are the substrate of any social system.

Systems of redistribution of resources have been shaped by the compromise between what individuals desire for themselves and what the others accept or tolerate to be taken or consumed from the pool. Egalitarian systems assume that individuals voluntarily moderate their desires to create a general sense of fairness: everyone has equal access but no one should abuse. At the opposite, we find tyrannic systems that are ruled by the most powerful, where the redistribution is dictated according to the will of a few in power. History shows that both systems are unstable, or require a lot of resources to be maintained. In larger groups, where anonymity reigns, where at any given moment we can’t have enough information about every other individual’s contributions to society and consumption, meritocratic systems have been implemented: everyone takes in proportion to his contribution. These systems require some metrics and evaluation mechanisms in order to restore a sense of fairness from the tension between individual desires and the other individuals’ acceptance. This is in an oversimplification. In reality, we find mixed systems with tendencies towards one way or the other.”

Find this and other articles by Tiberius here.

7 Comments Scale of social structures

  1. Matthew Slater

    Tieberius I take great offense at the unreferenced accusation that I, your reader, have a belligerent nature or an urge to dominate or be dominated. You hardly even know me. Furthermore the assertion in no way supports your larger hypothesis, nor is likely to win supporters.
    The wider point about scaling and systems evolving is valid, of course. Would be nice to see Dunbar’s number brought in, because it would seem for most of our evolution, we lived in extended family groups. Thus it could be that that level of organisation is the most effective and meaningful and we would do well to empower them, as opposed to allowing political power always to float to the top of the pyramid.

  2. john

    Excellent article. The urge to dominate I believe is innate. Only a few actually want to dominate. To have some semblance of control, yes, but not to actually beat all others into servitude. A big difference is the difference between the psychosocial attitudes of village life and that of city life. Controlling our immediate surroundings, dwellings, family life, education, etc, is much different in the desire to control that for others. Especially when it represents totaltitarinistic or dictatorship philosophies: suppressors and the suppressed, the oppressors and the oppressed. A very good read, thank you for it.

  3. Tiberius Brastaviceanu

    But I think this blog post here misses the point of my essay, which is my definition of value, within the context of redistribution of resources. Use the link in my previous post and search the sections on value.

  4. El Cheapo

    “One year’s alumni have then added $5.5 billion to the economy and opened up 11 new fields of scholastic inquiry, only counting the small percentage of people who completely succeeded at their projects. A much greater proportion of students will have attained partial success sufficient to make significant but less dramatic contributions.” http://www.projectpolymath.org/renaissance

    For some reason the US education system is generating trillions in new debt and defaults subtracting wealth from the economy.

    Courthouse News Service-7 hours ago
    BOSTON (CN) – The ACLU sued the U.S. Department of Education this week for information about the racial impacts of its student loan …

    It must be classified.

  5. Kathleen

    Matthew,
    Don’t take it personally. A simple peruse of the rise and decline of come and gone societies shows the synopsis above is true. The family groups or individuals you mentioned, was not the point of the article, the intent went well beyond the small group, but how societies evolve, devolve and a simplistic rationale as to why (I say simplistic as dictated by the length of the essay).

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