December 2006 revised






                                         GLOBALIZATION AS EVOLUTIONARY PROCESS




                             George Modelski




                           1.   An institutional approach to globalization


The view to be advanced here is an institutional one:  it seeks to explain globalization as the emergence of planetary institutions such as world-wide free trade and transnational enterprises, the position of global leadership, and the role of global governance, world social movements and ideologies, and contemporary forms of world opinion, that jointly compose elements of change an evolving global system.


An institutional approach might best be contrasted with a “connectivist” one in which globalization is seen primarily as a condition of interdependence.  For instance, in a recent report, globalization is described as the “growing interconnectedness reflected in the extended flows of information, technology, capital, goods, services, and people throughout the world” (NIC, 2004:27).   Thomas Friedman (2000:9) defines it as the “inexorable integration of markets, nation-states, and technologies”.   These views highlight connectivity.


Another facet of globalization viewed as connectivity is “openness”. Openness is a property of national systems, and nations can be ranked according to the degree to which they are acceptant of world flows [1]. To operate freely connections require open societies because connections thrive most in the absence of barriers – barriers to trade, to capital movements, to migrants, or to the diffusion of ideas and practices. That is why another way to look at globalization is to search for country indices of openness – the degree to which nations are accommodative to the world system.


The measurement and analysis of connectivity via global interactions yields much of the substance of the phenomenon of globalization. Trade flows, capital movements, travel and migrations do indeed make the world more – and at times less – interdependent.  Scholars judge the progress of that process on the basis of such empirical observations. The mapping of connectivity tends to uncover a variety of networks - trade, financial, social – which are structural features of the world system.  Yet these developments also fluctuate, and sometimes even collapse utterly. It is widely noted, for instance, that the hopes for world peace aroused by the expansion of world trade in the latter part of the 19th century were to be rudely dashed in 1914, and what followed was a substantial reduction, if not derailment of an apparent trend toward globalization. And yet we are not entitled to say that the process as such had then come to a complete halt, only a pause. In other words, globalization cannot be viewed as a steadily, and linearly ascending.   More likely it is a set of long-term processes that experience local surges and then also flatten out.   In any event, a mere ascertainment of trends is no answer to the question: why and how do we globalize?


The approach developed by David Held and his collaborators (1999:27) that has been described as “transformationalist” goes beyond theconnectivist” view and treats globalization as a historical process (“a process or set of processes rather than a singular condition”) that brings about connectivity and openness but one that also has an institutional grounding, and can therefore be depicted in two dimensions, spatio-temporal, and organizational respectively. That model of globalization combines an interest in the intensity, extensity, velocity, and impact propensity of the flows that animate the world system, with an analysis of the organizational dimension that describes the infrastructure, and the institutionalization, of global interdependence (“a new architecture of world order”).


The present view leans strongly toward this second, institutional, dimension of global change as one more suited to an evolutionary analysis even while recognizing the importance of having good reliable measurements of the multitude of interactions that are of interest. Notice that both connectivity and openness are the product of a set of organizational and institutional arrangements. They derive from the organizations that originate and manage these flows, the regimes that facilitate and govern them, the matrices of mutual trust that sustain them, and the systems of knowledge that guide them. For instance, and briefly stated, political globalization tracks the evolution of world order architecture, from the classical imperial form, through global leadership, to global organization.


At this point we draw a distinction between types of global change.   As just noted, we view globalization as the construction (or emergence) of institutions of planetary scope.   These are global-level social arrangements for the organization of the human species on earth, and their appearance is one obvious instance of global change.  But there is of course more to global change than the evolution of the global (social) system. For instance, in and of itself world population growth, or urbanization, might too be so regarded.  


Then there is usage, gathering strength in the past decades that concerns earth-wide changes in the natural system.  In the Encyclopedia of Global Change (Goudie 2002:xii)) “the term ‘global change’ is synonymous with ‘global environmental change”. These are geocentric movements in the physical world that humans inhabit, and these might be either the workings of the forces of nature pure and simple (natural environmental change) or else anthropogenic (human-induced, as climate change might be the result of globalization, in a form of world system : earth system interaction). They too give rise to problems that land on the global agenda.  The mutual influence of these several kinds of global change is worth investigating but the topic is outside our scope here.


The institutional approach to globalization focuses not just on the facts of transformation (and is therefore also “transformationalist”), but also reaches out for explanation of these global changes. And it bases such explanation on the “learning” axiom according to which humans are a species capable of learning, and such occurs in favorable conditions, and as a programmed species process.   At bottom, it represents a problem-solving approach but it does reside in the humans’ stubborn search for a better world, a journey with many detours and false promises, but one that has so far taken us quite far. A learning process can also be modeled, simulated, and projected into the future.


The NIC report cited earlier raises globalization to the status of a “mega-trend”, a trend that can be visualized with the aid of aggregate data on world flows, “a force so ubiquitous that it will substantially reshape all of the other major trends in the world of 2020”   But the approach adopted here views it as not just a trend but as a sequence of events exhibiting a ‘universal law” (for which see below);  in other words, a ‘process’ (or, more precisely, as a set of processes), that can be not just be mapped (and projected) but also understood: analyzed, theorized and, subject to testing,  located in a larger explanatory framework as well as used in forecasting.


Process is a key term of this analysis that privileges change over stasis, and ‘flux’ over structure. It is a distinct way of perceiving reality, in that it highlights problem-solving event-sequences. More than a mere trend (a drift, tendency, or general movement), it is a ‘series of connected developments unfolding in programmatic coordination’. Four (self-similar, relatively autonomous) global (institutional) processes - economic, political, social, cultural – arrayed in a cybernetic hierarchy, make up globalization.



                             2.  Is globalization an evolutionary process?


Globalization is sometimes described as the defining feature of our current era. Some call it a process of the world “getting smaller”. Others emphasize those features that increase connectivity. As stipulated, it is for our purposes the process of “emergence of institutions of planetary scope”. That is a definition that obviously follows the institutional approach, but sees ‘connectivity’, and ‘openness”, both as causes, and as consequences.


In some discussions, globalization is treated as solely economic in character. Others view it as essentially a contemporary phenomenon and an obvious consequence of technological advances, and yet others treat it as a condition of life to-day without inquiring greatly into its provenance. In this discussion globalization is seen as a process that is historical, transformational, and also four-dimensional, as well as one facet of world system evolution [2].


Globalization is a process in time (that is diachronic), and therefore also is a historical process in that its understanding requires tracing it back into its past, if not precisely to its origins. Roughly speaking the onset of globalization may be determined to be coincident with the start of the modern era of the world system, and to be placed therefore at about the year 1000.[3]   These beginnings may be traced i.a. to experience of the Silk Roads across Eurasia, and to the projects of world conquest, most prominently pursued by Genghis Khan and his Mongol successors in the 13th century, but more clearly seen in the ocean-based enterprises of succeeding centuries. Similarly we cannot expect it to assume final form for possibly another millennium. It also is a historical project in that there is only one instance of it in the experience of the humankind. We cannot generalize about it (in the sense of summing up a number of instances ) except by trying to trace that one instance of it that we know through time, but also by reducing it to a set of constituent processes and elements.


Globalization is transformational-institutional because it traces successive steps in what we might call the development of a planetary constitutional design. Where one millennium ago, the human species was recognizably organized in some four or five regional ensembles, with basically minimal knowledge, low mutual contact, and no organization or common rules, , since then information has become more abundant and low-cost, contacts have multiplied, and organization and rules dealing with collective problems are no longer exceptional. The institutions whereby human relate to each other have been undergoing a transformation at the planetary, but also at local, national, and regional levels.


Globalization, finally, is also multi-dimensional, or more precisely, four-dimensional. That is, it has no simple recipe for identifying “stages of world history”, such as slavery or capitalism. As generally recognized, it comprises not just the spectacular expansion, under the banner of free trade, of world commerce and of capital movements, with the large array of transnational enterprises, and the elaborate body of rules and regulations governing all of these. Globalization also has most certainly a political dimension, and it further concerns the rise of global social movements, and world-wide cultural trends, and the emergence of world opinion as conception of common interest based on a common pool of knowledge.  


          As is appropriate for the process of globalization, the approach adopted here employs the human species as the basic unit of analysis and is therefore planetary (as long as humans remain confined to earth).  It therefore is not primarily about inter-species competition but is   confined to intra-human-species processes    In those processes a variety of agents partake, with varying success, and therein lies the story.


          If, as argued, globalization is a set of processes that are historical, transformative, and multi-dimensional, it is easy to see why it also is evolutionary.   The evolution of homo sapiens is a  long historical process but it is now increasingly capable of being traced, in respect of biological evolution, with the help of genetic information, the genetic endowment being steadily rearranged via sexual selection and environmental pressures.   Our own interest here is with social system evolution, changes in human species behavior over time.  More specifically, the processes we are interested in, the global transformations in politics, economics, society, and culture - such as are reviewed at some length in Held, McGrew, Goldblatt and Perraton (1999) - cry out for being explicated in terms of an evolutionary framework.   Outlines of such a framework have been presented in Modelski (2000), and Devezas and Modelski (2003).


The major premise of such an  approach is the idea of a program that actuates social evolution via an extended process of group selection because the human species tends toward self-organization at multiple levels over time in a cascade of learning algorithms. Programmatic coordination (basically a learning algorithm) inheres by definition in the notion of process.  Global processes are evolutionary sequences and are conjectured to be programmed accordingly by a Darwinian algorithm of search and selection. A program is implied in the notion of self-organization.  Search and selection respond to priority problems, and the result is periodic institutional innovation; each period is closely associated with a bunch of innovations responding to major global problems.  The first responders to these problems enjoy the support of evolutionary potential:  initial conditions that favor innovation (such as open society).   In that way, the key ideas: choice (as in selection, or election), and innovation (as in variation, or mutation) are hardly novel in the social sciences, but they are brought together in regular sequences over specified periods (that are units of these processes and are reckoned in generations).   In propitious conditions, each innovation sets in motion an S-shaped learning process.   We shall shortly lend substance to these propositions below, in Section 3.   But first let us review some theoretical problems attendant on an evolutionary approach (see also Thompson 2001)..  



 The requisites of an evolutionary theory:  Giddens


          An evolutionary analysis of long-range social processes has a long pedigree, shows several varieties and has also been subject to criticism, much of it in the recent past too.   One of the most cogent recent critics, Anthony Giddens (1984: 231-3, 243) maintains that “for ‘evolutionary theory’ in the social sciences to have a distinctive meaning” it should display the following characteristics:  it must

 (1)  show “at least some presumed conceptual continuity with biological evolution”;

(2)   specify something more than progressive change, that is “a mechanism of change”; 

(3)  trace “a sequence of stages of development” in which the mechanism of change is linked to the “displacement” of certain types of social organization; and

(4) demonstrate that “a mechanism of social change” means “explaining change in some way that applies to the whole spectrum of human history”.   


Examining these criteria in some more detail, and finding “evolutionism” wanting – in part because world history is not “a world-growth story” - he concludes:   “I do not think it possible to repair the shortcomings of either evolutionary theory in general or historical materialism in particular.”


          Interesting for our discussion is Giddens’ argument (ib., 238-9) that “history is not a ‘world-growth story”,    He writes: 


The history of Homo sapiens is more accurately portrayed as follows.  No one can be sure when Homo sapiens first appeared, but what is certain is that for the vast bulk of the period during which human beings have existed they have lived in small hunting-gathering societies.   Over most of this period there is little discernible progression in respect of either social or technological change: a ‘stable state’ would be a more accurate description.   For reasons that remain highly controversial, at a certain point class-divided ‘civilizations’ come into being, first of all in Mesopotamia, then elsewhere.   But the relatively short period of history since then is not one marked by the continuing ascent of civilization; it conforms more to Toynbee’s picture of the rise and fall of civilizations and their conflictual relations with tribal chiefdoms.   This pattern is ended by the rise to global prominence of the West, which gives to ‘history‘ quite a different stamp from anything that has gone before, truncated into a tiny period of some two or three centuries.   …The modern world is borne out of discontinuity with what went before rather then continuity with it.  


An evolutionary account of globalization is, of course, not “world history” though it is an exercise that engages the social sciences in the recent experience of the world system and in the construction and functioning of global organization in particular.   But we do take note of Giddens’ ‘requisites’, especially because more recently he has also been among the more significant writers on globalization.   He now argues that “modernity is inherently globalizing” (in Held and McGrew 2000:60), meaning that globalization is to be understood as a discontinuity with what went before, in and of itself, and certainly not as a product of an evolutionary process. 


Answering the first of Giddens’ requisites, we observe that the unit of analysis employed here is the human species, specifically homo sapiens, in its evolutionary trajectory.   That choice contrasts sharply with most of social evolutionary thinking that takes individual human societies (such as nations) as the primary object of study and to which Giddens’ critique might in fact be applicable.  The emphasis in the present  account is on (species-wide) processes of (generational) change that are then analyzed with the universal Darwinian concept set that hinges on variety and selection, but with additional attention to cooperation and symbiosis.


Key to an effective explanation of evolutionary processes is the mechanism of change.  

In the present analysis is that is not “adaptation” (that Giddens also criticizes) but evolutionary learning, for we hold that “evolution, at least in the domain of the living, is essentially a learning process” (Jantsch 1980:7). [4] Each period of the processes considered here, including the envelope one of globalization, is a phased, evolutionary, learning process (or possibly an “ultra-cycle, in Jantsch’s terms, cf. p.195) and has a programmed time-structure:  an event sequence that consists of four phases whose generic names are variation, coalition, selection, and amplification (the first two phases also being ‘preparatory”, and the other two, ‘decisive’.). “Time structure” means that the process exhibits, over time, variety, hence also complexity, of behavior.


  All that also means that all our evolutionary processes are self-similar (have the same, phased, time-structure, but different periodicities). Each period of the four processes of  globalization (in Table 1 below) consists of four phases, each phase constituting one period of the respective agent-level process that nests within it).   The decisive phase of each process is always the third, (selectional) or decisional phase. (e.g. Britain I in “global leadership’).    Nested learning processes are the mechanisms of evolutionary change.


          Third, our account of globalization represents it as marking stages in development in which evolutionary learning, the mechanism of change, accounts for the time-structure of the process, and for the displacement of certain types of social organization.   Prominently, for instance, the course of democratization may be seen as a substitution processes that displaces non-democratic forms.   Each of the processes Tables 1 and 2 below tell a story of the unfolding of evolutionary learning; important parts of that story have been subject to successful empirical tests.


Fourth, the type of analysis and the mechanisms of change proposed for the study of globalization  are potentially applicable across the entire spectrum of human history (Modelski 2000) and have been so applied (for a summary cf. Devezas and Modelski 2003).   These are the principal mechanisms of social change; they do not by themselves amount to an account of human history in all its richness but they do make it possible to tell a coherent “world growth story” (as for instance in the account of world urbanization presented in World Cities: -3000 to 2000 (Modelski 2003), of which globalization is the most recent part.   World system evolution is a world growth story that shows both discontinuities – for instance those produced by Dark Ages – and continuity – including a common genetic endowment; and a sequence of system-building innovations both in the time span that Giddens labeled “steady state” (that included inter-continental migrations, and ice ages), and in that of world system organization.


Note, finally that Giddens regards the evolutionary analysis of “history” as carrying all the liabilities of “historical materialism” and its ‘world growth story’ and he also rejects the idea that globalization primarily concerns the working of the world economy.   But the view that privileges economic factors does, of course, have wide currency.  It is linked to world-systems analysis and proposes that the modern “globalizing” world system is the product of the “capitalist world economy” that arose in Western Europe in the 16th century and has now spread world-wide.  That view therefore maintains in effect that “capitalism caused globalization”.  That proposition sits comfortably with the critics of globalization, and  of free trade regimes more generally, and of all those who fear unfettered markets or the power of transnational corporations, and who advocate alternative world orderings.   But, not unlike  Giddens “modernization”, the “capitalist world economy” perspective too posits a unique association between globalization and “westernization”.


An institutional theory of progress:  Popper .


          Early evolutionary theory is associated, in many minds (and not just in Giddens’ account), with historical materialism .   Friedrich Engels famously claimed (in 1883) that “just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic matter, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history”.   That was the materialist version of history in which the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange (such as feudalism, or capitalism) constituted the basis from which alone social organization, and political and intellectual history could be explained with the help of “laws of history”.  To this day, that is the conception that undergirds both “evolutionism’, and many a critique of globalization.


Giddens’ cool appraisal of evolutionary theory just reviewed was part of a debate with historical materialism, and so were important portions of the writings of Karl Popper, and it is in “The Poverty of Historicism” (1957) that we find a rigorous methodological examination of that philosophy as a form of historicism, and as entertaining evolutionary “laws of history”.    Popper’s main contention that “it is impossible … to predict the future course of history” on the basis of such laws is well known and some take it as a complete dismissal of the possibility of prediction.   Less noticed has been the project of “The Institutional Theory of Progress” (1957:152-9) that he proposed in the closing pages of that book, one that is entirely compatible with a systematic approach to large-scale change, and in particular with the evolutionary approach to globalization advanced here.


Popper asked: “can there be a law of evolution?” (1957:107), and answered: No, because “the evolution of life on earth, or of human society, is a unique historical process” and being unique cannot be tested in the light of a universal hypothesis.    He gave as an example Darwin’s assumption of the common ancestry of life forms that he found to be a descriptive device but not implying a universal law [5].   More broadly, he drew a sharp distinction between trends, knowledge of which (generally) does not allow for scientific prediction, and  (universal) laws, that, combined with knowledge of initial conditions, do make such predictions possible.   “A statement asserting the existence of a trend is existential, not universal….A universal law, on the other hand, does not assert existence; on the contrary … it asserts the impossibility of something or other”.  (1957:115)   However, trends may embody universal laws.


The explanation of a regularity, described by a universal law embedded in a trend, Popper argued, differs from that of a singular event.   It consists in the deduction of a law, containing the conditions under which the essential regularity holds, from a set of more general laws which have been tested and confirmed independently (1957:124-5).


In explaining evolutionary trends we therefore have resort to general laws of evolution and more specifically to the universal Darwinian principles centered on ‘search and selection’ – well known, tested, and independently confirmed.   From these we deduce and hypothesize a set of global evolutionary processes that characterize the human species (but not individual societies) over time, in certain specified conditions.   For global political evolution these the necessary conditions for the success of these processes would include, the existence of an ‘active zone’ – a seedbed of innovation – comprising, at various times, communities characterized by openness, awareness of global problems, those that are leading in economic innovation, and capable of deploying forces of global reach.  Parallel conditions promote global economic evolution etc., and overall, globalization.


In the light of Popper’s criteria, what is the status of the present analysis?   First, we view the evolution of human society, and more precisely, in our case, that of its global layerof interactions and institutions, not as a single and unique process but rather as a cascade of processes that are analytically distinguishable but are also related, being nested (long cycles are embedded in global political evolution), and self-similar (all global processes exhibit the same basic algorithm, albeit in several flavors).   Second, the four-phase learning algorithm (that is in fact a restatement of key Darwinian concepts) has the status of universal law rather than that of a descriptive device.  It is a law that determines the succession of a dynamic series of events.   In Popperian terms, it might be reformulated as follows:   evolutionary change cannot occur unless the relevant system passes through a ‘prescribed’ sequence of phases.   That means that this analysis, subject to testing, is capable of yielding scientific prediction.


In any event, Popper’s own argument was not as negative as it might have been represented.   In the closing sections of his book he went on to propose a “theory of scientific and industrial progress” that he called “The Institutional Theory of Progress”.   Countering Mill’s Logic, he denied that such ‘progress’ was due to psychological propensities of human nature, and suggested in its place “an institutional (and technological) analysis”. That would propose that evolutionary change will be likely to occur first in conditions of evolutionary potential associated with certain periods/areas;   Only upon a successful take-off in favorable circumstances will it diffuse throughout the system.   That means that a full explanation (and prediction) of evolutionary processes consists of the determination of both their initial conditions (do they show evolutionary potential), and the relevant learning algorithm.  


          In brief, how does the present approach differ from “historicist” or “evolutionist” theories that have appeared in the last century?   It deploys (1) a cascade of processes of several kinds, (2) at levels of resolution down to one generation (3) specifying a universal mechanism of change, (4) operating at the human species level.   Historicist-evolutionist theories, by contrast, identify one basic process, frequently materialist, of a resolution extending over several centuries (e.g. feudalism to capitalism), operating according to laws of one particular epoch (e.g. laws of capitalism), applied human (national) societies.



                                      3.   Processes of globalization


The institutional level


 So much for theoretical considerations.  In line with the institutional conception, we shall now delve into “reality”, and depict globalization as a set of four closely related institution-(or system-) building processes.   Table 1 below shows the array of four processes that jointly constitute globalization as an evolutionary phenomenon.   As one feature of their relatedness, observe that the characteristic periods of these processes stand in a determinate relationship, showing a doubling of periods as we go from right to left in Table 1 such that at each point in time, the global system experiences four innovative system-building processes at different phases of their paths.

The four institutional processes are: evolution of the global economy;   global political evolution, rise of the global community, and globalization viewed as a summary process also defining the principal problems of the evolving system.   Each searches, explores, and the selects and amplifies (‘culminates in’) a major institutional innovation:   the global economy is refashioned towards enhanced specialization and division of labor via successive stages of a commercial and industrial order, and is currently in the (computer-internet based) Information Age (that accounts for the major features of contemporary globalization).   The global political system, as shown below, passes through the learning stages of imperial experiments, and nucleation, to essays in global governance, toward increased capacity for dealing with global problems.   And the rise of the global community is based on the building of a democratic base, and its slogan might well be “no globalization without democratization” because no enduring community is conceivable without a democratic foundation.   The processes are synchronized, and mutually supportive.  


The capstone of this process structure is globalization viewed as an envelope that holds them together, and lends them coherence. In itself, globalization, too, is an innovation as compared with what we have known in past eras of the world system, but also as called for by rising population   In fact it is an epochal innovation whose progress might be charted as moving through elements of evolutionary learning.  We might measure the progression of globalization as each of its several necessary elements falls into place.   Because it is epochal, this cluster of innovations takes time to take root, and the process is a long-term one.   In Table 1, its period is measured in 2000 years, and we might be just over one-half the way though it.


A case study:   political globalization


To lend substance to this discussion, let us take a closer look at one of the set of processes that make up globalization, namely the evolution of global politics (or political globalization) [6].   The unit of this process (as of the others) is a period (world system time is not continuous or flowing but discrete or grainy, reckoned in generations, and unfolding in distinct periods). Political globalization has a characteristic period of some 16 generations (about 500 years). Each period is definable by a set of priority global problems, and by the launching and diffusion of institutional innovation. In Table 1, third column, the successive institutional innovations shown are Imperial Experiments, Global Leadership, and Global Organization.


The focus of this analysis is global-level organization that is a necessary condition of an ordered world society but cannot spring into being all at once, in an instant, but only via a sustained process of political globalization.    In this section, we ask the question: why and how political globalization might indeed be viewed analytically in an evolutionary perspective.  Political globalization is just another way of referring to global political evolution. It describes changes in the collective organization of the human species, for meeting solutions to global problems and devising institutions for dealing with them.   It traces the operation of the Darwinian learning algorithm of search and selection in the context of humankind as a learning system.


Political globalization therefore shares with global political evolution all the primary characteristics, of process, time, change, and multidimensionality. But an evolutionary approach gives it, as it were, one additional yet essential, feature: it supplies an internal motor of change, and makes it law-like. It brings out the mechanisms that make for global political





Table 1 – Global institutional processes (globalization)

(930 to 2300 AD)





Period:2000 years


Rise of the global community

Period: 1000 years

Global political evolution

Period: 500 years


Evolution of the global economy

 Period: 250 years


930 Emergence of global system



Imperial  experiments:

Song breakthrough








(failed world empire)

Commercial-Nautical Revolution






1430 ( mapping the global system)


Global leadership:

Framework of global trade








  (global nucleus)


Industrial take-off






1850  (global social


Democratic world

Global organization


Information age








(2080 global       governance)
















Columns show process; rows show 4-generation periods;

Periods in boldface, phases in (brackets).











change, without invoking the deus ex machina of technology while paying prompt

attention, too, to concurrent and antecedent developments in the economy, society and culture.


Table 1 depicts a summary outline of the course of global political evolution over one millennium.  It is also a timetable of political globalization, as well as a forecast of its future course. That is of course very much a Big Picture representation.  In reaching back one who;e millennium it does take globalization somewhat further than some would (though it is difficult to imagine how such a change could occur without printing, compass, and also gunpowder that the Mongols brought to Europe) but in its main lines conforms to the now increasingly familiar “history of globalization”, that took hold promptly over long haul of the long sixteenth century. But in looking forward to the future it also suggests that the critical (decisive) period for political globalization might be our own century.


In the main, Table 1 presents the evolution of global politics as a higher-order, institutional-level process, animating the search for new forms of collective organization and the transformation of world-wide structures away from traditional empire inherited from the classical era, via the institution of global leadership, and toward global governance. Noteworthy is the fact that global political evolution is paced by the long cycle of global politics, such that the four long cycles that composed each period of political globalization might also be viewed as its phases.   (Britain I marked the decisive phase of that period of “Global Leadership”).


The evolution of global politics is a higher-order learning process than the long cycle. It

 is a process of globalization because it is creative of political institutions of world-wide scope albeit in periods spanning half-a-millennium. It is one of political globalization because it accounts for the formation of political structures that weave together several strands of relationships and collective enterprises. Earlier, in the ancient and classical eras, political interaction was either local or regional. It is only about the year 1000 AD that interactors (conquerors, traders, explorers) began to emerge at the planetary level and launched a global layer of interactions.   Driving that process at the agent level are long cycles of political competition but at the higher, institutional, level they add up to global political evolution.


Since the start of the modern era, about 1000 AD, global political evolution has established, in the course of “imperial experiments”, the technical preconditions of global order, in part by defeating the project of the Mongol world empire.  In the period that fashioned the institution of global leadership (say 1430 AD to 1850 AD) an (oceanic) nucleus of global organization emerged in the defeat of (continental) imperial challengers. The two British cycles were the mature form of that structure as it moved from selection to amplification. The contemporary period, that of “global organization” from 1850 onward (and shown in more detail in Table 2) is expected to be completed in about two-three centuries. If the first period (of global political evolution) was one of no organization (or failed organization), and the second one of minimal organization, the third is one of selecting an adequate structure (to be completed in the fourth period). By adequate we mean one that has the capacity to respond effectively to problems of human survival, especially those posed by threats that are nuclear and environmental.   That third period (“global organization”), is sure to be ‘critical’. It is critical because it is programmed to be the one “selecting’ new forms of institutional innovation. That contemporary period is currently in the second of its preparatory (community-building) phases, and it imparts an agenda to global politics that centers on building a democratic base for global governance that will lay the ground – the sub-structure of solidarity - for significant institutional change in the next (selectional) phase of that process, a century from now.


Agent-level processes


Globalization is a set of institutional processes whose one important characteristic is their long reach.   These processes cover grand sequences that are reckoned in centuries and not just generations.   But their long periods create difficulties for observers and raise the question as to how they actually relate to day-to-day developments.


          The set of four institutional processes just reviewed may however also be seen as having nested in each of them a shorter-range, albeit self-similar, actor-sequences that animate and drive them in a catalytic fashion.   Thus the evolution of the global economy appears propelled by the successive surges (or blossomings) of new lead industrial sectors, in more recent memory from steam-powered rails and ship lines to computer-animated telecommunication networks.   Global political evolution has been catalyzed in the past half-millennium by great power competition for global leadership.   The possibility of a global community is premised upon the rise of a global-level cooperative network framed by democratic practices.   The organizing norms of a global system are animated by the rise of world opinion powered by complex new information and learning networks.


          Table 2 represents these four global agent-level processes since 1850.  All four of them are learning sequences: experiments accounting for the rise of new lead industries in the global economy, and new world powers in world politics, of social movements and currents of world opinion. Each such learning process comprises two preliminary phases that ready the ground for, and lead up to, the third one that activates the selectional mechanisms of collective decision and, in the fourth, achieves the completion, and “full tenure”. Each period of the learning process has the time structure of the learning algorithm, but the location of each depends on a set of favorable initial conditions.


We reckon the US (learning) long cycle as extending from 1850 to 1975, with its preparatory phases lasting up to 1914-45, laying down the foundations for global leadership that was fully established only after 1940. But the United States’ (lightly institutionalized) “term of office”, then started, extends beyond 1975, until another selection is achieved (on our timetable, after 2026). Thus in respect of that US cycle, the first learning sequence ends in 1975, but the “term of office” lasts longer, on this accounting, until 2026, but might also appear as a “lame duck” season, in which the global political system (as though in an election campaign mode), sets up the conditions for a new round of competition.


All four are actor-level processes that can potentially be represented by S-shaped logistics.    Empirical analysis of the Portuguese cycle of global leadership demonstrates it to have had precisely that shape showing Portugal learning by building the first elements of a global system (Devezas and Modelski 2006).  Studies of the rise and fall of leading industrial sectors in the modern age demonstrate the same point, and strongly support the notion of a succession of S-shaped surges of globally-significant activity shaping the global economy in synchrony with the global political process (Modelski and Thompson 1996).   The same argument holds for the spread of democratic practices, via democratization, that provide the grounding for a global democratic community. (Modelski and Perry 1991).  In other words, viewed closely, globalization re-appears as a cascade of multiple (S-shaped, logistic) shorter-




 Table 2:  Agent-level global processes 1850-2080




Global system process

(period: 500 years)



Global social


     (250 years)

Long cycles of global politics

(120 years)



(60 years)


World opinion

Global problematique


  Early adopters









High growth





 Democratic nucleus


World Wars I & II







High growth




Global connectivity

Democratic  transition




K19-Computer Internet






High growth








K20-Collective intelligence?








Global organization

Democratic community





Periods  in boldface - phases in smaller print

Each column shows one process; each row shows one generation.


term learning cycles that drive globalization at the ground level but are steered by higher-level evolutionary processes.


Democratization, global economy, world opinion


Table 2 shows, in addition to the global political process centered on long cycles, three related and co-evolving processes:  those bearing on community, economy and world opinion. They make up globalization at the agent level but catalyze developments at the institutional level.   Let us briefly comment on each of these.


Democratization is the global social process propelled by a competition between democratic movements and anti-democratic forces.   It has a period of one-quarter millennium, disseminates democratic practices on a global scale, and is now in the (decisive, or selectional) stage of ‘democratic transition’, that is just past the tipping point of establishing a world-wide majority of democracies, and building a base for future democratic governance. This global evolutionary process of the human species acquiring the elements of democratic practice may be represented by a learning curve that shows how an increasing portion of the world’s population has come to live in democracies. The first phase, one of early adopters, unfolded in the decades prior to World War I (at about the 10 per cent level); by 1975, a nucleus of democracies had emerged (reaching the 40ies) that moved, at the close of the 20th century, to a majority position in the world population.


Since 1850, democratization encountered a series of militant and competing movements.  These were anarchist-nihilist groups prior to World War I, fascist and communist forces through much of the 20th century, and since the late 1970ies, possibly the developments in the Arab and Moslem worlds.  These may be viewed as successive negative responses to democracy, and resistance to the spread of democratic values and practices.   The earlier attempts demonstrably failed to garner sustained global support.   Recently prominent has been the challenge presented by radical Islamist movements, even raising the call for a new “caliphate” that harks back to Islam’s classical empire.   In longer perspective, democratization lays the ground for an “Age of Reorganization” (Modelski 2006).


The rise and decline of world powers (the long cycles that drive global political evolution) has run in tandem with K-waves, the rise and decline of leading industrial sectors - the driving forces of economic globalization.  Both are evolutionary processes in that they exhibit, at the minimum, variation (innovation) and selection (power or market competition). They are self-similar (symmetric across scale), synchronized, and nested, in that K-waves are initially located in world powers.


The computer-internet K-wave (or K19, Table 2; see also Chapter 12 below) took off in the United States, and more precisely in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1970s. Around 2000, after experiencing a (selectional) shake-out, it entered upon high growth moment likely to last some two-three decades.  While shaping and reshaping the global economy and  boosting the forces of globalization, it launched a burst of innovative energy that  and renewed the bid of the American economy for “lead” status  (contra those, in the 1980s, who viewed it as “declining”).  While K17 and K18 provided the sinews of American power in World Wars I and II, K19 induced a “military revolution”, enhancing the US capacity for global reach and equipping its forces with high precision-guided weapons earlier than others.   However, past 2000, K19 is in ‘high growth’, and advantage now increasingly shifts from early to late adopters. The US relative advantage is declining, competition rises, and new productive centers, as in China, India, or Brazil, emerge, while older centers, as in Europe or Japan, retool.    


The fourth agent-level global process is the rise, since 1850, of world opinion,  a product of opinion leaders, the media, and the world of learning.    Its antecedents can be traced back to the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and early in the 21st century it is in the phase of global connectivity that promotes the discovery, definition, and institutionalization of global solidarity (1975-2080).   That is a process that moves ahead, on the basis of shared knowledge, with the recognition of common interests in global security and human survival.   World opinion lays down the intellectual basis of globalization; it clarifies global problems and helps to set the global agenda, and it also contrives to make the process more predictable. [7]



4.   Is it determinism?


          Globalization has been depicted here as a ‘process structure’: a set of processes creative of a new level of world organization.   The approach has been evolutionary, aiming at portraying it all as a product of self-organization viewed as the “scientific foundation of the evolutionary vision” (Jantsch).


          The processes dissected in this paper that make up globalization hold up well against historical evidence and their predictions are confirmed post hoc in novel and surprising ways.   For example, K-waves of leading sectors have been shown to generate spurts of economic activity basically as predicted, over an extended period spanning up to one millennium.  The rise and decline of world powers (long cycles) closely match fluctuations in the concentration of oceanic sea power.    Even urbanization demonstrates step-wise rise of intensity in each of the three major eras of world system evolution.   But does this form of evolution make sense only post hoc (as some maintain, because evolution is ‘open-ended’)  or does it also give us a degree of guidance for the future?


          One feature of the institutional approach is that it concerns processes of long duration and require a learned faculty for long vision but is focus only on one aspect of temporal development (obviously, the institutional).   The four processes displayed in Table 1 show periods ranging from 250 to 2000 years.   Is that not enough to warrant rejection by social scientists whose time horizons rarely extend beyond one generation?   Are the social sciences capable of handling such long perspectives?   Many would turn away from such bold and as yet more fully documented propositions, claiming that at such distances change is hardly observable in the present, even though it might be demonstrated, post hoc,  in historical conditions.   Even in agent-driven processes the minimum “resolution” is one generation - that might be reckoned as some 25 to 30 years – and is still often beyond the customary range of social investigation.


          One other criticism laid at the door of an institutional-evolutionary approach to long-range social change is the claim that it might entail determinism, and that is wrong.   Determinism, in the helpful formulation of Auyang 1998:259, a global doctrine “about the conditions of the world at large”, is one that we do not entertain.   It is a metaphysical doctrine about “The Future”, about free will, and the world as made up of deterministic systems, in which the future of that world is wholly determined by its present configuration.   Auyang usefully contrasts determinism with determinacy and that concerns local characteristics attributed to individual systems or processes that may or may not evince dynamic properties.   We reject determinism as a philosophical position but stipulate that the processes under investigation may well be subject to deterministic dynamic rules.  We also observe that a majority-description that depicts globalization as “inexorable” (some call it the ‘inexorabilist’ view) does indeed suggest local determination.


          On the other hand, the network of concepts for an evolutionary vision presented here meets demanding criteria, as i.a. those set out by Anthony Giddens or Karl Popper.   It shows continuity with biological evolution, proposes a clear mechanism of change, shows how that mechanism accounts for the phasing of evolutionary processes, and even suggests the applicability of that mechanism in the wider context of world history.   It does not, of course, account for world history as such nor does it offer a blueprint for the future but it clarifies the make-up of certain critical processes, and clarifies the rules underlying large-scale change.


          More specifically, why not conceive of our task as one of devising aids in thinking about the future.   The future may be full of uncertainties but it also harbors elements of continuity and stability that lend themselves to prediction.   For instance, in democratic countries it is possible to assert that elections will be held with predictable regularity.   That makes sense because a democratic political system will have institutionalized these matters to a satisfactory degree.   In similar manner, the rise of global institutions makes the global environment more predictable.   


That is why it is important and productive to view globalization as a cluster of local and

co-evolving dynamic processes whose behavior may be observed, charted, and analyzed and whose product is enhanced institutionalization (without necessarily precluding instability, randomness, or indeterminacy).   They may be deterministic processes whose dynamic rules, initial conditions and time-paths may be specified so as to allow for coarse-grained description, or they may be arrays of probabilistic processes.  What about globalization as a set of global (logistic) learning processes? (for an example see Devezas and Modelski 2006).   To the degree that they are well specified they will offer good material for prediction.   One as yet unsolved problem is how to measure globalization as global-system property, in a way that would capture all four of its processes.










1 The Foreign Policy magazine has published annually since 2000, the A. T. Kearney-Foreign Policy “Globalization Index” ( that employs a variety of data to measure the global entanglement of 62 countries that account for over 80 per cent of the world population. In 2005, Singapore ranked 1st on that index, followed by Ireland, Switzerland, and the United States. China placed 54, and Iran held the last place, at 62. For each country, the index measures economic integration, personal contacts, technological connectivity, and political engagement.   Apparently there exists as yet no common global measure of globalization (but see Chapter 18).


2 Globalization is placed in the context of world system evolution in the modern era in Modelski 2000:43-9, that is elaborated in Devezas and Modelski 2003.



3.  That would also imply placing the homo sapiens process to start at about 70000, and the world system process, at 5000 years BTP.


4.   Worth exploring is the relationship between “evolutionary learning” and Norbert Elias’s concept of the “civilizing process” (cf. Linklater 2006).


5.  Now represented by the “Tree of Life”, but originally presented and illustrated by a diagram in Chapter IV of the “Origin of Species”.   Since Popper’s writing, this has, of course, been confirmed by the  discovery that all life has a common genetic basis, a condition that does imply a universal law.


6.   Each period of global political evolution is an instance of the working of a learning algorithm (that is, of the enhanced Lewontin-Campbell heuristic: g-c-t-r: generate-cooperate-test-regenerate. In turn, each such period is driven (in a nested, self-similar process at the agency level) by four long cycles, each of which represents one phase of that algorithm,   It is not a “general theory” of world politics but an account of certain critical processes of transformation. The long cycle is a pattern of regularity in global politics but as an evolutionary process it charts change rather than a circular process of repetition. See i.a. The Evolutionary World Politics Home Page at .


7.   Karl Popper maintained, in the preface of his “refutation” of historicism that the future of human history cannot be predicted because the growth of scientific knowledge is inherently unknowable. (1957:vi-vii).






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