Guiding the Evolution of Social Systems

Joe Brewer
We need to learn how to see hidden patterns of cultural change.

It is currently impossible to guide the evolution of entire societies. Yet this is exactly what humanity needs the ability to do in these turbulent and dangerous times. The litany of threats is well known — global warming, political corruption, conflicts and war, extreme poverty, extremist ideologies, and more — all intensifying in the waves of exponential change that now dominate the patterns of global change in the world.

Here is my bold claim: We can do the impossible. We CAN guide the evolution of entire social systems.

And in these troubled times when the future of humanity and the vast biodiversity of Earth is now in jeopardy, we must do this impossible task. In the rest of this essay, I will explain how we can do this very thing. You may be surprised to learn that the impossible is merely a condition of the present that need not continue to describe our capacities as educated people living out a mission to heal the world.

First, a concept from psychology that will be necessary for learning how to guide our cultural evolution at large scales. An affordance is any action on the environment that is possible for someone (or something) to perform. A familiar example is your hand’s ability to grasp things that are the right shape and size. The human hand has the “affordance” of grasping beer bottles, coffee cups, the arm of a chair, a lover’s hand, and anything else that fits the criteria of graspability for primates like us. Note how the boundaries of possibility are determined by the traits of the object under consideration (the hand) as it relates to its environment (anything that the hand might grasp).

Using this concept of affordances, we can see that humanity currently lacks the traits that would be required for us to take collective actions at the societal scale — thus our inability to tackle the climate crisis as we feel powerless to stop the next hurricane, wildfire, or drought along with all the other problems mentioned above. Our inability to deal with systemic crises like this is the logical consequence of societal traits being inadequate to the task at hand.

Herein is where the magic hides. Alter the traits of an object and you will update its affordances. Figure out what humanity is missing in its bag-of-tricks for social change efforts and you have a design challenge capable of making the impossible possible. This is exactly what I have been working to create for the last 15 years, alongside thousands of other systemic designers working on global problems in the 21st Century.

An article published in 2014 titled Evolving the Future: Toward A Science of Intentional Change offers a good starting point for seeing which cultural traits humanity is missing. The authors have all become collaborators and friends on my learning journey to birth the field of culture design. They set out to explain how contextual behavioral science can be integrated with cultural evolutionary studies to give entire societies the possibility of guiding how they change across time.

Among the things we currently lack (and can create) are:

  • Clarity about the “selection mechanisms” that reveal cause-effect relationships for social change.
  • Whole-system understanding about the drivers of social change.
  • Testable set of variables about the functional relationship between behavior and outcome for social issues.
  • Modeling and simulation tools to study the dynamics of evolutionary change for entire societies.
  • Integrative knowledge from all relevant fields (sociology, psychology, biology, ecology, economics, history, etc.) brought together as frameworks for action.
  • Weightings for how different “levels of selection” shape societal outcomes (e.g. How much does family influence behavior? The municipal government? Trade associations? Religious groups? Federal government?).

If we can learn concretely how a cultural system evolves, it becomes possible to design effective interventions. And when our interventions fail we can clearly discern why they didn’t work as we continually learn and improve.

The only way to guide the evolution of social systems is to understand how they evolve with scientific rigor and practical clarity. We don’t currently know how to do this. But all the pieces are in place for such a synthesis of knowledge and practice. It is incumbent upon us to complete this synthesis before it is too late. If you have read this far, you know how late in the game it is. We have passed at least four of the nine planetary boundaries that define a safe operating range for global civilization — meaning we are now in overshoot-and-collapse with all the lag times and tipping points involved in such an exceedingly complex web of interconnected systems.

In other writings, I have explained how important cultural evolutionary studies is now that humanity is in the Anthropocene and how we must learn to grapple with its full complexity. This requires us to learn how to see the hidden patterns of cultural change and guide the evolution of social sciences writ large. You can follow these links to learn more.

For now, I will end by saying that the impossible is upon us. We must create new conditions that define what it is possible for us to collectively do. Time is of the essence and everything we hold dear hangs in the balance.

Onward, fellow humans.

Want to support my work? Appreciate my writings? Make a contribution here.

Joe Brewer

Written by

I am a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade