WHAT IS EVOLUTIONARY WORLD POLITICS?

 

 

                   Evolutionary world politics is the employment of evolutionary theory in the study of long-term change in world-wide political arrangements.

 

                   World-wide political arrangements are those stable patterns of human behavior that are institutionalized at global and other levels of the organization of the human species.   These include city-states and empires, global wars and alliances, the nation-state system, global leadership and world organization.   The evolution of these structures over historical time is at the core of this field but world politics is not a stand-alone subject and needs at the same time to be seen as systematically related to, in particular, changes in economic institutions, such as industrial sectors and trade regimes, to social processes such as democratization, and to movements of world opinion.

 

                   The emphasis does nevertheless rests on world politics, and that also means, at this point, the politics of the last one thousand years, though to a certain extent that interest also extends over an even longer time space, that of world system time, hence over some five-six millennia.   The spatial domain of this study is of course planetary and includes regional and national politics, and reaches to wherever there are humans.

 

                   The subject has two main sub-divisions:   theoretical, and applied.  The first concerns the construction, elaboration, and verification of models of structural change in world politics.   The second applies this understanding to producing a serviceable account of the evolution of world political arrangements over world system time, and to predicting the outlines of such an evolution for the near future.

 

The basic question

 

                   As the introductory sentence makes clear, the focus of this study is not the rich description, or the analysis of the functioning, of global political institutions.   The basic question for evolutionary world politics concerns change:   how do world-wide political arrangements re-form over the long-run, and what explains the process that, certainly over the past millennium, can be described as one of political globalization?

 

                   It is the premise of that question that world politics is a domain marked by regularities that are amenable to analysis and to prediction,   That (scientific) premise is of course one that is shared by many students of International Relations and Political Science, and it makes clear that this domain is neither anarchic nor chaotic, in the everyday sense of these terms, but rather a challenging field of inquiry sharing many its characteristic with other social sciences but also marked by especial problems all its own.

 

                   The focus on institutional change in global politics is meant to be narrow and restrictive.   It is intended to bring inquiry to bear on a parsimonious set of problems that are indeed important and are also capable of being answered.   It is not intended to serve as a “theory of International Relations” that purports to resolve all questions about that field; it cannot and it does not answer all the innumerable practical or theoretical questions that can be asked about world politics, both contemporary and historical.   Most directly the long-range institutional focus might be contrasted with rational choice theory that focuses on decisions, and the short run.

 

                   The basic hypothesis organizing this field (and provisional answer to the basic question) is the evolutionary one:   that world politics is subject to evolution.  That is, it proposes that structural changes in political (and more generally, social) arrangements of the human species are the product of evolutionary processes.

 

                   How and why this might be so remains to be demonstrated, on this site, and elsewhere.   World political institutions obviously are not unchangeable.   That fact must be blindingly obvious to one who engages in the thought experiment of comparing world politics 500 or 1000 ago with those of the year 2000.   The whole of the world system has changed in that time, and with it also, unsurprisingly, the structure of world politics.

 

                   That is why the thesis of the allegedly permanent, hence also unchangeable, nature of international politics, and hence also for example its consequently unavoidable propensity to war, is unacceptable.   But if global institutions are indeed subject to change, the process can be either random, and therefore unfathomable, or else display patterns of regularity.  The task for students of evolutionary world politics is to explore that second possibility and that is where evolutionary theory finds its place.

 

Evolutionary theory

 

                   While in the biological sciences evolutionary theory is now nearly standard in the form of the modern Darwinian synthesis, the social sciences do not command a comparable, and widely accepted, body of thought to deal with problems of the emergence of social institutions of the human species [1].   Some of the social sciences, and notably economics, have, in the Schumpeterian tradition, explored the potential of evolutionary theory e.g. for problems of handling innovations, or in examining patterns of long-term development.   Students of International Relations, on the other hand, have had to contend with the legacy of late 19th century social Darwinism, and their problems have been compounded by 20th century disenchantment with the historical determinism of Marxism that discouraged the consideration of long-term processes.   While the term “evolution” has recently become increasingly acceptable as part of titles for books or articles, the evolutionary theory implied in such works still leaves much to be desired.

 

                   That is why evolutionary world politics calls for a model that draws upon the theoretical capital of general evolutionary thought (“universal Darwinism”) that is also adapted to questions more urgently at hand.   That is not a model of biological determinism as in sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology (that traces human traits to their origins in hunter-gatherer societies) nor does it posit a primary causal mechanism from genetic endowment to social organization, or to particular political arrangements such as war.    But it does use modern Darwinian theory and especially the central concept of selection, minimally in an analogical manner [2], but in fact, “beyond analogy”, as a universal template [3].

 

                   Darwin’s  dangerous idea” (in David Dennett’s phrase) was to explain the origin of the species, and their characteristic traits,  with the help of the concept of “natural selection”.   Evolutionary world politics  explains the origin of world political arrangements by processes that center upon social selection, that include elections, and electoral systems, various types of competition, and past wars.    Where “natural” selection concerns forces of nature operating within the physical environment (including climate and geography), “social” selection operates primarily within the social environment at the global, regional, national and local levels.    Where “natural” selection acts via genetic material, and must necessarily take time, “social” selection is faster, involves cultural transmission, and acts upon clusters of human behavior embodied in policies and strategies.

 

                   Despite such differences, much is to be gained by viewing “social selection as equivalent to natural selection.   Selection, just as the entire Darwinian system is a concept of great generality and analytical power, and includes i.a. competition, as well as markets, democracy, and science.   Indeed, such generality points to underlying mechanisms common to processes animating complex, open, systems, hence to all evolutionary processes.

 

                   Evolutionary world politics employs as its basic tool the Lewontin-Campbell heuristic [3] that brings together three basic mechanisms of evolutionary processes (g-t-r, generate variation, test or select, regenerate- or amplify) that are elementary components of Darwinian thought, but adds to it the mechanism of cooperation that is not fully accepted in biological theory but whose role in social organization has been recognized, for more than a century, if not since Darwin.   For how can you theorize about social change without factoring in the ever present mechanisms of social cooperation such as parties social movements, alliances and coalitions.   These four mechanisms jointly compose a learning algorithm.   In sum, global political evolution is here conceived as driven by both competition and cooperation organized and amplified by the diversity of policies and strategies.

 

                   Evolutionary learning mechanisms, powerful though they are, do not operate equally, everywhere, and instantaneously.   They appear first in, and favor, regions and areas with high evolutionary potential.  Such regions or areas are those marked by organizational capacity equal to the requirements of global competition;  they show openness that advantages diversity that is a condition of innovation; they excel in technologies of cooperation, and offer conditions favorable to low-cost transactions.   Generally they are responsive to global problems.   Because evolutionary potential varies across areas, and across time, some regions become, for periods of system time, privileged zones from which innovation then diffuses in well-understood patterns.

 

                   The (extended Lewontin-Campbell) learning algorithm is the elementary unit of all world system evolutionary processes.   One completed algorithm makes up one period of the evolutionary process.   Evolutionary world politics combines processes at three levels of organization: the agent level, the global-institutional level, and the species level.   That is, learning occurs, in synchrony, at each of these levels.   That makes the emergence of the world system, and the evolution of world politics a learning process for all humans, andt not just one learning process but a cascade of such processes [4].

 

                   The learning process therefore operates the sequence of the evolutionary mechanisms of variation, cooperation, selection, and amplification.   It constitutes a four-phase, algorithmic chain of events each phase of which maximizes one of these mechanisms.  Each such process proceeds at each own characteristic rate that is geared to generational turnover but embodies the claim that “social evolution is proportional to time”.  That is, each process has its own characteristic speed and produces change at a constant rate but each process will have different, albeit coordinated, timetables.   The basic beat is that of the generational period (of some 25-30 years, the replacement interval) which is is one of generational learning.   All social evolutionary processes in the cascade are multiples of that period, while shorter processes nest within longer ones [4].

 

Propositions

 

                   The following propositions – hypotheses to be tested – may be derived from these theoretical considerations:

 

                   Evolutionary world politics comprises a hierarchy of three learning processes, arranged in order of length of period:

 

1.     The (120-year) long cycle of global politics is also known as the rise and decline of world powers.   This is the process that selects the agency of global political evolution.   This is the process by which in the past half-millennium four nation-states have, in succession, each gained the position of global leadership {5,6].   This is the process that will also select the agency for future global organization.   Such a cycle has four generation-long phases: Agenda-setting (variation), Coalition-building (cooperation); Macrodecision (selection), and Execution (amplification).   This process is enabled by the evolutionary potential of the nation-state or global organization anchored in the active zone of the world system.

 

2.  The evolution of global politics is the (500-year) process by which institutional change occurs at the global level.   It comprises four phases that are: informational (variation), social-integrational (cooperation), political (selection), and economic (amplification).   Each long cycle (denominated by the agency selected in the long cycle and driven by the competition between world powers and their challengers) constitutes one phase of that evolution.  The two British cycles of the 18th and 19th centuries were the political, and economic mechanisms that completed the period of global political evolution that produced the institution of global leadership.

 

2.     Modern world politics is the (2000-year) process that effects structural change at the human species level.

The evolutionary potential for change is activated by a succession of active zones, the major regions of the world system.   It moves through the four phases of Preparation (variation), Nucleation (cooperation),

Organization (selection), and Consolidation (amplification).   At the year 2000, the world system had moved, since about the mid-19th century, into the phase of Organization centered on the Atlantic-Pacific region.

 

                   The long cycle of four generation-long phases thereby forms one phase of the evolution of global politics and in turn, each period of four phases of global political evolution accounts for one phase of modern world politics.   That means that each phase of modern world politics, a major experience for human organization, extends over a total of sixteen generations and that means approximately 500 years.

 

                   In a schematic fashion, the three hypotheses might be represented by a matrix (Figure 1 below) comprising four blocs (A-D), representing the four phases of modern world politics.  Each such bloc has four rows (numbered consecutively 1 to 16) each representing one long cycle and one phase of global politics, and all such rows are partitioned by four columns (a-d), each representing one phase of the long cycle.  The global political system might thus be thought to be moving, from about the year 1000, over long system time, from cell A1a onward.   The ‘x” in bloc C, row 10, column b, represents its position at about the year 2000, in the Coalition-building phase of the long cycle 1LC10, in the second (social-integrational) phase of global political evolution.

 

Testing

 

                   Such are, in broad outline, the framework hypotheses of evolutionary world politics.  Ifthe first principle of a scientific approach  is the need to confront the results of theoretical analysis with observable facts, then these hypotheses need to be tested against the experience of the modern world.   Does the actual evolution of world politics fit the network of predictions represented by the Matrix?   And even if initial tests are persuasive, is not a critical spirit still appropriate, given that at any one point what is thought to be accepted as scientific truth can be no more than provisional.

 

                    

                                                       1.   Matrix of evolutionary world politics (1000 to 5000)

a.

b.

c.

d.

        A.

 

 

            1   

 

 

 

            2

 

 

 

            3

 

 

 

            4

 

 

 

 

         B.

 

 

            5

 

 

 

            6

 

 

 

            7

 

 

 

            8

 

 

 

 

        C.

 

 

            9

 

  x

 

           10

 

 

 

           11

 

 

 

           12

 

 

 

 

        D.

 

 

           13

 

 

 

           14

 

 

 

           15

 

 

 

           16

 

 

 

 

 

 

                   What is the record so far of testing these propositions?

 

                   The existence of long cycles of global politics appears at this time quite well established, and especially so the sequence of world powers since about 1500.   Among others, there is a narrative treatment, backed by primary documents, of the rise of Portugal, the Dutch Republic, the two British cycles, and the United States [8], a study showing periodicity in the concentration of global sea power that matches the sequence of the world powers[9], a parallel study of land power concentrations focusing on the challengers for global leadership [10],  and analyses focusing on global war [11].   More recent work carries the analysis back to 1000, and documents the linkages between global political evolution, and the global economy [12].

 

                   The Matrix in Fig.1 has thus being tested against historical evidence, and the testing establishes an initial plausibility of the first two basic propositions [13].   But the analysis could be carried further.   An account of the Portuguese experience   in forwarding the evolution of global politics in the 15th and 16th centuries lends support to the notion of the phase movement [14].   That matrix, moreover, easily projects into the future and serves as a basis for a “calendar” of  world politics   [15].   In as much as such predictions will, sooner or later, be tested by reality they too belong to the general body of material of verification.

 

Applied evolutionary world politics

 

So much for the theory part of this subject.   What about the applications?

 

On this, non-theoretical side, the two main areas of application are:

1.     mastering the evolution of historical world politics;

2.     predicting the course of future world politics.

 

Mastering evolution means making the historical experience of world politics

accessible to students of  International Relations in general, and those interested in institutional change in particular.   Traditional teaching on this subject neglects the sources of recent developments, takes for granted the system of sovereign states as the ultimate reality and privileges contemporary events and the “world of to-day”.    It treats the history of world politics as a recital of events, and not as a meaningful process involving structural change at the global level.   In effect it relegates such “structural” problems to the dustbins of history.   An evolutionary approach, by contrast, restores the value of history and supplies a reasoned and theoretically supported account of the structural skeleton of world history over the past millennium.   It is no mere catalog of dates, wars, and personalities but a systematic explanation of why the shape of world politics is what it is to-day.  It is the basis for teaching courses on the “Evolution of World Politics”, courses that need to be standard features of a rounded Political Science curriculum.

 

                  

                                      The second main application concerns the future  [15].   A good theory ought to provide a handle on what is to come, a handle on large structural trends, and a guide to structural developments in world politics, as well as such trends as globalization in general, and democratization in particular.   That is not a matter of foretelling events but of having handy a stable and reliable framework of interpretation, one that is capable of guiding expectations of likely developments within well-specified time frames:  25-30 years, 50-60 years, a century from now.

 

                   The matrix of evolutionary world politics, as presented above and dressed up with all the relevant information, does provide such a workable framework.   Combined with a rich understanding of past evolutionary trends, such a framework is a fit basis for discussion.   Time will, , tell how useful it is and it does, of course, need to be regularly checked, and rechecked, and corrected, as needed.

 

 

Co-evolutionary processes

 

                   Evolutionary world politics, however complex an array of processes it does represent, and the primary object of interest of political scientists though it may be, does not, of course, stand alone.   Nor is it the only significant evolutionary set of processes.   If global politics is to be fully understood it must be seen as co-evolving, in a cascade of synchronized world system process, with other global evolutionary processes.   At a minimum, we need to take account of globalization in general [16], democratization, and the evolution of the global economy.   For a rounded understanding it must also be seen in the context of all world history.

 

                   Democratization [17] has been defined as humanity learning to live, and cooperate, with each other, constructively and non-violently.   Democracy has many sources going back for centuries, and is closely linked to global political evolution because democratization is an evolutionary process, one of building great communities, including the European one [18].   The world of the 21st century will be majority democratic and that feature is bound to exert a profound influence on its trajectory.   That world politics will in the main be a system of relations among democrats and democracies.

 

                   The co-evolution of global politics and economics  [12]   is the substance of economic globalization.   Over the past millennium it has produced an increasingly interdependent world economy, sustained by increasingly open trade regimes.   The process has been driven by innovative sectors of the global economy, closely associated with the exercise of global leadership, and has taken the form of regular K-(Kondratieff) waves  of an average period of one-half of the long cycle of global politics [19].

 

                   Most basically, world politics must also be situated within the context of the entire world system and its evolution [20].   World system evolution is the leading edge of world system history, and a good grasp of it helps to lend a truly long-term perspective.    Recent work lends empirical support to its propositions [21].   Evolutionary world politics is not all there is to world history, if the latter is thought to provide a comprehensive account of significant developments the world over.   It does not aim to be a systematic record of world happenings, giving equal attention to all areas.   It is neither Eurocentric, nor is it Sino - or Asia -centric, even though in the past five millennia, as far as we know, a majority of the world’s population have lived there, and many in China.   But  it is, in an important sense, an account of the center of the world system, wherever that might be at a particular time.   To round off the picture, must also factor in the hinterlands, and the peripheries [22].

 

 

                                                         George Modelski

                                                                                              August 17, 1997;             

                                                                                              Revised May 31, 2004.

 

References

 

1.     “Bibliography”, on this page;

2.     “The evolutionary analogy”;

3.     “Beyond analogy”;

4.     “Power Law Behavior and World System Evolution”, abstract on this page;

5.      “Global Leadership in an Evolutionary Perspective“,

6.     ”Long Cycles in Global Politics”, abstract on this page;

7.       “Evolutionary paradigm for global politics”.

8.       G. Modelski and  S. Modelski (1988)  Documenting Global Leadership, London: Macmillan.

9.       G. Modelski and W.R. Thompson (1988)  Seapower in Global Politics 1494-1993,  London, Macmillan

10.   K.Rasler and W.R. Thompson (1994)  The Great Powers and Global Struggle 1490-1990,  Lexington:          Kentucky University Press;

11.   W.R. Thompson  (1988)   On Global War,  Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press;

12.   G.Modelski and W.R. Thompson (1996)  Leading Sectors and World Powers:  The Co=evolution of Global   Economics and Politics,  Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press;

13. “Evolution of Global Politics”, on this page;

14. “Portuguese sea power and the evolution of global politics”;

15. “Time, Calendars, and IR”;

16. “Globalization”, on this page;

17. “Democratization in Long Perspective”;

18.  See also “The Democratic Lineage”, on this page;

19. “K-waves”, and “Evolution of the World Economy”;

20. “World System Evolution”, and “Evolutionary Pulsations in the World System”;

21. World Cities, Empires, and “World System Evolution”;

22. “Ages of Redistribution”, on this page.