On the origin of societies: Towards a theory of social evolution

The following is also available as a YouTube talk, here, after I presented these tentative findings as a “three-minute thesis” at Selwyn College in the spring of 2022.

Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species speculated that traits are more likely to be passed on from organism to organism if they aid the organism’s survival in a scarce environment. Subsequent research finds these traits to be coded by molecular genes, whose replication and propagation constitute the driving forces of natural evolution.

The battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard, from the war of the third coalition in the year 1805 AD.

Societies, I suggest, similarly have their origin in an evolutionary process, but one which selects for traits which further the development of technology, rather than the propagation of genes, since technology contributes to the survival of the two most powerful social organisms: sovereign states, and social classes. Social evolution, history suggests, has two dominant selective pressures: war, and trade.

In Napoleon’s time, the industrial revolution in Britain was kicked off by eighteenth-century trade, which favoured the emergence of a new class relationship between workers and the masters of industry and investment. This led, in the nineteenth century, to social cleavages within states which poured into open conflict among states in the twentieth century. This century, the centralised state that interstate war generated now presides over a new commercial society, much like the one that was maturing into modern industrial civilisation in the age of Napoleon, all those years ago.

History, I find, is ruled not by moral progress but by political struggle over the technology that allows states and classes to survive under the competitive selective pressures of war and trade. Societies, like species, have their origins in an evolutionary process — just not quite the same one as Darwin envisaged, all those years ago.

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