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Social organization

Previous articles concluded that human history is most profitably examined through the lens of social organization.

Historian Ian Morris defines social organization, in simple terms, as:

‘. . .‘their capacity to get things done – to shape the physical, economic, social and intellectual environment to their own ends.’

And more fully as:

‘. . . the bundle of technological, subsistence, organizational, and cultural accomplishments through which people feed, clothe, house, and reproduce themselves, explain the world around them, resolve disputes within their communities, extend their power at the expense of other communities, and defend themselves against others’ attempts to extend power [5]

Underlying all activity . . . all work . . . all ‘getting things done’ . . . there is energy. It is therefore unsurprising that the four major phases of history – Natura, Agraria, Industria, and Informatia – have been determined and defined by kinds of energy and their modes of use in driving both social activity and social organization.


Historically, social organization has increased in complexity as existing energy sources were used more efficiently and new, readily accessible, and more concentrated forms of energy were embraced.

Acceleration in collective learning provided the means for enhancing technology and public administration. In pre-industrial societies of Natura and Agraria it was biological energy derived from plants that powered the muscles of slaves, workers, and domesticated animals, providing the social work needed to ‘get things done’. But in the economies of Industria and Informatia (to date) it has been largely the energy of fossil-fuels that has powered the economic activity of engineering and construction, transport and communication, and the provision of goods and services through the economic cycle of resource extraction, production, distribution and consumption.

Historically, the growth and interconnection of widespread populations, and the diversification of economies, presented the emergent possibilities of social scale, such as the capacity to build ocean-going ships, assemble armies, to mint and exchange coins and so on. And, eventually, to develop complex technologies like computers.

Geography & resources

The question arises as to how these grand underlying historical forces have played out in history.

In examining the reasons for the current Western pre-eminence in the world, archaeologist and Professor of Classics and History at Stanford University, Ian Morris, suggests that large-scale and long-term human history is, in the final analysis, most effectively interpreted as determined by mostly geographic, rather than cultural factors, and that it is the interplay between geography and social organization (ultimate causes) that is of greater consequence than cultural factors, religion, science, political institutions, or the actions and ideas of great people (proximal causes) . . . it is a matter of ‘latitudes not attitudes’.[1]

Morris maintains that, across the broad sweep of history, as societies became more complex and technology more efficient, the challenges and limitations imposed by geography were progressively overcome. With each geographic barrier broken down came new geographic challenges, which he calls the ‘paradox of development’. The process then repeats itself in a kind of dialectic.

An early example of the geography-social development interaction occurs with the independent emergence of settled agrarian communities in about six major regions after the last Ice Age. These communities arose about 9,500 BCE in latitudes and places where both animal and plant resources were rich, varied, and amenable to domestication. The first and most dense arose in the Hilly Flanks of Mesopotamia. Ecology and climate were juxtaposed in a way that made settled communities more likely to occur here than elsewhere. Here there were several naturally-occurring cereals (barley, wheat) as well as animals (?pigs, oxen, chickens) amenable to domestication.

Much later, in about 5,000 BCE, communities moved to the exceptionally fertile soils between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that facilitated the transport of resources. Here, by building elaborate irrigation systems for their crops (an emergent social development), a much greater control was gained over the food supply. As this region became more productive than the former sites around the Hilly Flanks (which depended on natural rainfall for irrigation) the centre of human distribution changed. This pattern was to be followed in the Nile delta, Indus Valley, and the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. At around 3100 BC the Nile valley was united into the largest kingdom the world had ever seen, and around 2230 BC the Western cores in Sumer and Egypt had totally eclipsed other settlements.[5] But this was about to change with the collapse of Egypt and Mesopotamia as the former geographic paradigm of an irrigated river valley was about to change.

By 1500 BCE a new ‘International Age’ had arrived with an exchange of people, royal marriage, trade, and ideas between Egypt, Babylon and the new states of Assyria, Mittani and Hittites. The Mediterranean was now becoming a new geographic challenge as trade developed along its shores. Increase in social complexity (large ships, advanced weaponry, early machinery, cities) was at a peak at this time. Morris’s social development index indicates that between 1000 and 100 BCE social organization doubled in both East and West, but it was not to last as it actually decreased in the medieval period. In Morris’s terms it was ‘greater when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon than it would be when Columbus crossed the Atlantic’.[6]

At the time of the Roman empire in the West, and the Han dynasty in the East, social complexity had never been greater, but both declined, followed by Eastern ascendancy from 550 to 1800 CE, the surge of social organization since 1800 a result of the Industrial Revolution which exceeded this former high point sixfold, and it is still accelerating. Inevitably this trend correlates strongly with population growth and energy use per capita. By 200 BCE the world was divided into single empires in East and West linked by the Silk Roads and highways across the steppes of Central Asia.

In summary, Morris attributes the Western ascendancy to its greater capacity for ‘getting things done’, its ability to shape the physical, economic, social, and intellectual environment. In Morris’s view domestication occurred when the situation presented itself and conditions were conducive: it was not just a matter of chance. Though many cultural factors could have influenced the time and place of its occurrence, or its occurrence at all, in retrospect it was a highly probable eventuality. Even the sequence of events by which domestication was achieved in the Eastern and Western cores was similar though lagging by about 2,000 years in the East.[7]

This interplay of geography and social development is then repeated through history. Social organization through the phases of city, state, and empire is constrained by trade which depends on trade routes over land, along rivers, and across the sea. With increasing social complexity ships became more seaworthy, and the geographic boundaries of the larger empires were extended. In the West, the boundary is, at first, the Mediterranean and then in the European Age of Discovery the Americas which open up to Britain, a developing sea power, and the closest nation to the Americas on the European Atlantic coast. This results in an Atlantic economy stimulating further social development. Although China at this time scores higher than the West on the social development index, access to the Americas from the Asian Pacific would have entailed a journey of Atlantic access from Europe 3000 km, Pacific access from Asia 6,000 km. Britain with ready access to coal deposits, and collective learning that assisted the development of appropriate technology, engaged in an Industrial Revolution using fossil fuels. As America assumed the mantle of global power in the late twentieth century the Pacific, like the Mediterranean and Atlantic, was no longer a geographic barrier.

So, societies can only develop or become more complex when they have the necessary resources (beginning with energy sources) which, in turn, depended ultimately on geography. This geographic dependency was most pronounced in early human history The limitations and boundaries set by geography can then be overcome by improved technology, transport, and communication systems (increasingly complex social organization). Historically, as the search for resources widened new lands were drawn into the ambit of ambitious societies. Today’s global economy is confined both spacially and in terms of the resources it can process.

The emphasis on social organization and geography does not deny the influence of other factors, it just provides a suggested point of focus for ideas that can otherwise quickly become contentious and misleading.

Social Organization Index

Morris provides a Social Organization Index to quantify his assessment of degrees of social organization.

A quantitative measure or index, however approximate, permits the comparison of societies over the full breadth of human history or, to use his word, it gives history ‘shape’.

His social development index is not intended to imply value: it does not say that some societies are ‘better’ than others or equate social organization with some kind of value-charged progress – say, good progress leading us towards affluence, a peoples’ paradise, or God . . . or bad progress leading us towards an apocalypse like an environmental, climatic, or financial Armageddon. Value judgments like these are left up to the reader.

A social development index, Morris maintains, focuses unproductive debate about long- and short-term historical change, and its determinants, by drawing attention to those factors which are of greatest social and historical importance.

For Morris there are no short cuts; we must look at the shape of the whole sweep of human history if we are to understand why it has that shape.

Western ascendancy during the Great Divergence was not predetermined because, after all, the East (the region emerging from the second oldest Eurasian core of domestication between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers) dominated the world for more than 1,000 years from about 550-1775 CE, so things could have been different. But then, nor was it the result of recent accidents because there are compelling long-term trends dictated by geography.

For Morris the period starting with the Industrial Revolution, often treated by historians as the single major force of history, was just the final phase of a long-term pattern of social development, with the long- and short-term working together.

Sequential, cumulative, & evolving?

Long-term social development is, to a large degree, both sequential (path dependent, difficult to reverse), and cumulative. As Morris puts it: ‘William the Conqueror could not have built computers in medieval England’.[4] The order of social changes in agrarian communities was broadly the same in East and West with no, or minimal, contact between the two. Further, the more complex the social organization, the greater its social momentum – the speed and degree of change. Although history was not predetermined, there are higher probabilities of some outcomes rather than others.

There are many social changes that, once discovered and implemented, are difficult to reverse. One example of this path-dependency is the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. Once a community became efficient at agriculture it would be difficult to then adopt a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and for many reasons. In modern times it would be difficult to ‘undiscover’ modern weapons, including nuclear bombs.

It is the combined effect of irreversible and cumulative socio-technological change that gives us a sense of direction and progress, as we encounter increasing complexity. This seems akin to biological evolution which started as extremely simple replicating organisms and, in one of its evolutionary branches, has produced the complexity of conscious human beings – matter that has become aware of itself.

Whatever our view on the connection, or not, between biological and social evolution or change, there are important biological ideas that are equally relevant to societies: for example, that societies, like organisms, tend to adapt to their environments and that sometimes, if they are to survive they will need to adapt. We might also consider, as in biology, about the divergence and radiation of societies and civilizations. Is long-term human history a history of divergence or convergence? Morris maintains that the answer to this question lies in the time frames under consideration and their end points. He points out that for millennia geography pushed social development down different paths in different biomes but that today societies are becoming more uniform, more convergent. By 1900 with the advent of a global economy there was a convergent path to modernity.

Finally, there is nothing that is inevitable in history. Morris isolates five factors that throughout history have repeatedly challenged long-term social development: climate change, famine, state failure, disease, and migration.

Another perspective

Morris’s view on Western ascendency is not the only one. Here, for your consideration, is another way of appraising Western ascendency and the Great Divergence.

Niall Ferguson, professor of economic history at Harvard and a popular and influential contemporary British broadcaster, though presumably a ‘short-termer’ under Morris’s scenario, gives us a different take on matters. For him Western ascendancy can be accounted for through six general factors, what he refers to as ‘killer apps’:

1. Competition – a decentralisation of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for capitalism

2. science – a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest

3. The Rule of Law – a cumulative model for peacefully resolving disputes between individuals over property which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government

4. Medicine – a branch of science which allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies

5. The Consumer Society – a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing plays a central economic role, without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable

6. The Work Ethic – a moral framework and mode of activity derived from Protestant Christianity that provided the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by factors 1 to 5.

For Ferguson these six key factors collectively provide the institutional framework that explains why the West has prospered. They explain why the Industrial Revolution reduced inequalities within societies but increased them between societies to create the present-day global chasm between peoples that has been dubbed the ‘Great Divergence’ of rich and poor. [examine each of these in turn from a biological perspective – in terms of benefits and costs. [before 1800 material living conditions were shaped by climate, disease, natural resources, technology, fertility]

In more matter of fact and direct terms Staurt Macityre, Professor of History at Melbourne University in the following statement does not provide an explanation of the historical process but crystallizes, for a given point in time, the historical physical and intellectual ‘baggage’ brought from Europe to New Holland by the settlers of 1788:

‘Newcomers brought with them livestock, plants and tools. They also brought a mental toolkit fashioned from the objective rationality of the Enlightenment and a corresponding belief in human capacity, the moral certainty and stern duty of evangelical Christianity, and the acquisitive itch of the market. Those ways of thinking and acting made possible the establishment of European dominion over the rest of the world’[8]

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scale     0 - 1000

Natura        -      8
Agraria        -      8 - 43
Industria    -      43  -  c. 600
Informatia  -   c. 600 - 900+




short term -> long term



accelerating synergistic growth in: collective learning, technology, material complexity, globalization



coll. learning - innovation



food & agriculture
transport & communic'n
manufacture & trade
raw materials, mining, engineering



impact of population (urbanization)

Media gallery


Social Complexity Overview

Systems Innovation – 2015 – 24:49


Systems Innovation – 2016 – 14:15


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . substantial revision 21 September 2020

The City of Chicago, Illinois, showing pattern of grid system with obvious integration of structure and function.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Siqbal – Accessed 16 October 2020

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