Evolution of societies: A Perspective

It is hard to try to understand evolution of societies, there are many factors, all the way from geography to genetics to culture, language,religion. so feel free to disagree to this.

I would try to place 4 factors to see the differences between societies.

1.Diversity of thought/ideas, freedom for disagreement

2. Scaling, reinforcement or social conformity, the ability to bring large numbers of people to act or to have greater cohesion . Asabiya would fall into this category

3. incentive system,law & order.

4. external factors,threat of other groups,geography.

Of course, for even these ideas, we could go further back to ask why did these traits evolve in some places and not in others and so on. However, I do value these first 3 factors as they are what would constitute internal engine for societies to modulate themselves. The fourth being external threats and how that interaction plays out.

My view is to look at what societies can possibly do of their human resources. It makes sense to talk from the point of view of agency , of what can one possibly do to transform a society at a reference point A to another reference point B. Much as basic physics is study of dynamics of matter over time, basic social sciences should be about dynamics of societies over time as well.

What kinds of interventions can transform societies from a reference point A to reference point B. And is it reversible?

From the point of view of political agents of these societies, all they can possibly do is to either change their ideas about some views, bring conformity in large numbers of people,change incentive system, law & order.

Now that we have these in place, we can look at evolution of societies. Here Christianity began under the influence of polytheists, it gained institutions from Romans in the west, its common law, its ideas in science, philosophy, politics, all of these ideas were mined in due course of time, before that though it also brought conformity.

So Christianity had traits of diversity of ideas embedded in its early history, it also had better incentive system in place, copyright laws, patent laws , institutions of learning, these I believe brought them a decisive advantage. For it provided them a certain kind of knowledge of future possibilities for change in both society ,economy, sciences, one weaving into another and this was helped by profit motive and recognition/fame. Newton and Leibniz famously fought for credit, Galileo apparently sued his student. I am not sure of earlier periods where preeminent scientists and thinkers of a culture were suing each other for having stolen each others work , literary or scientific/mathematical/technological works.

These were given a fillip with peace of Westphalia, due to religious wars in Europe, the scale of violence and lack of outright victory of one group over the other side meant that christian conformity of one sect came to an end. This religious pluralism inside Christianity perhaps gave about a period of relative peace which helped bring the age of enlightenment in Europe into being as the old truths were now being replaced with new ideas of nature. Descartes,Newton,Hobbes,Locke were some of the people who published their works in the period. The total sum of interactions, publications, ideas and most importantly the incentive system propelled the society from the old and into the new and the bold . Also the beginnings of colonial expansion was perhaps enough incentive for religious peace in Europe and exploration outside for profit .There were other fish to fry.

I think the wars of religion placed a very important role, it meant Europe now had to simply accept heresy(Protestantism). While other societies had some of these traits, the totality of all these traits were not there, is not there even now in many societies.

Imagine the Catholics winning out decisively against protestants , then perhaps it would have the strength to decisively close the new avenues of research as a potential threat for formation of new heresies. Again, the position of dominant power could have changed this. Or if say the threat of Islam was felt very strongly in Europe, would they have then been willing to value rationalism over faith?. Here I am invoking the 4th factor of external threat. The questions that must matter are what factors can tilt societies from one mode of development to another?.  How must those internal and external incentives be tweaked, how does the internal structure of society align with this?. Is there too much diversity that society essentially is fragmented?. Or is the conformity to dogmas has a momentum that it cannot allow for freedom of speech?.

And if one were to value the peace of Westphalia as having played an important role in change of Christianity, One suspects the initiative of reform inside Islam, when plurality is not accepted within Islam itself,to expect them to be tolerable of other religious people seems strange.

A replication of what happened in Europe would entail them confronted by futility of war of social conquest within themselves first,to confront the cognitive dissonance of finding oneself in fruitless violence among themselves. I am not confident that cognitive dissonance can be elicited if Muslims were at war with non Muslims though. And what would the cost be for them to abandon excessive zealotry.

While India had religious pluralism, it didnt have universities, development in science, the printing press, incentive system for literature or sciences /technology.

Islam did not for various reasons including geography either have this pluralism or the incentive system. One Idea I have picked up from the following article on consciousness is the idea of counterfactual depth.


If action depends upon inference, then systems must be able to make inferences about the consequences of their actions. You can’t pick what to do unless you can make a guess about the probable outcome. However, there’s an important twist here. A creature cannot infer the consequences of its actions unless it possesses a model of its future. It needs to know what to expect if it does this as opposed to that. For example, I need to know (or subconsciously model) how my sensations will change if I look to the left, to the right or, indeed, close my eyes. But the sensory evidence for the consequences of an action is not available until it is executed, thanks to the relentless forward movement of time.

As a result of the arrow of time, systems that can grasp the impact of their future actions must necessarily have a temporal thickness. They must have internal models of themselves and the world that allow them to make predictions about things that have not and might not actually happen. Such models can be thicker and thinner, deeper or shallower, depending on how far forward they predict, as well as how far back they postdict, that is, whether they can capture how things might have ended up if they had acted differently. Systems with deeper temporal structures will be better at inferring the counterfactual consequences of their actions. The neuroscientist Anil Seth calls this counterfactual depth.

So if a system has a thick temporal model, what actions will it infer or select? The answer is simple: it will minimise the expected surprise following an action. The proof follows by reductio ad absurdum from what we already know: existence itself entails minimising surprise and self-evidencing. How do systems minimise expected surprises, in practice? First, they act in order to reduce uncertainties, that is, to avoid possible surprises in the future (such as being cold, hungry or dead). Nearly all our behaviour can be understood in terms of such uncertainty-minimising drives – from the reflexive withdrawal from noxious stimuli (such as dropping a hot plate) to epistemic foraging for salient visual information when watching television or driving. Second, the actions of such systems upon the world appear to be endowed with a purpose, which is the purpose of minimising not-yet-actual, but possible, surprises.

We might call this kind of system an agent or a self: something that engages in proactive, purposeful inference about its own future, based on a thick model of time.”

So, the age of enlightenment brought about a new consciousness in Europe, A kind of counterfactual depth unlike other among others. What all these developments did is increase progressive agnosticism. To entertain ideas different from one’s own is to for a moment engage in cognitive dissonance leading to certain kind of agnosticism by stealth. Progress therefore has been thorough this agnosticism by stealth reinforced many times over by mercantilism. To Imagine is to change. However, asabiya is also important, one cannot become agnostic to the point that societies become internally divided and are unable to bring the scale of numbers and pressure to bring about a transformation.