TIMN view of social evolution

(Papers here and here)

In the Neolithic era, societies are thought to have been mostly small groups bonded by kinship relations, with little social stratification. As technological advancement accommodated more complex social structures and larger groups of humans living together, problems of coordination became increasingly difficult. In response, more complex social structures arose, such as Chiefdoms, States and eventually Empires.

These structures solved coordination problems through a top-down command-and-control approach, enforced by strict hierarchical power structures. Historical exemplars of such structures include Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. These societies experienced immense growth, stretching out to dominate vast stretches of territory and millions of humans.

But as they grew, these societies began facing increasingly difficult problems of managing vast amounts of information involving complex exchanges and economic dynamics. Eventually, old mercantilist systems in which the state was in charge of economic transactions gave way to a grand new form of social structure: the market.

Societies that adopted market structures alongside the state became global leaders, dominating technological, social, and economic progress up until the present day. And just as previous forms of society had their distinctive failings, capitalistic societies face problems in the creation of social inequalities without the ability to address them.

Advances in technology that allow a revolutionary capacity for information exchange are resulting in the formation of a new form of social structure to address these problems. This structure is characterized by complicated heterarchical cooperation between massive networks of physically dispersed individuals, all coordinating on the basis of shared ideological aims. It is to them that the future belongs.

This is the view of history offered by political scientist David Ronfeldt, who framed the TIMN theory of social evolution.

If I were to summarize his entire theory in four sentences, I would say:

Societies through history can be explained through the interactions of four major forms of social structure: the Tribe, the Institution, the Market, and the Network. Each form defines a structure of governance and the way that individuals interact with one another, as well as cultural values and beliefs about the way society should be organized.

Each has different strengths and its weaknesses, and the progress of history has been a move towards adopting all four forms in a complicated balance. The future will belong to those societies that realize the potential of the network form and successfully incorporate it into their social structure.

There are a lot of parallels between this and previous things that I’ve read. I’ll go into that in a moment, but first will lay out more detailed definitions of his four primary structures.

The Tribe: Tribes are characterized by tight kinship relationships. Tribal social structures create strong senses of social identity and belonging, and define the culture of successive societies. They are small, egalitarian, and generally lack a strong leader. Their limitations are problems of administration and coordination as they grow, as well as nepotism and intertribal wars. Historical examples abound in the Neolithic era, and in modern times they exist in certain hot spots in Third World countries. In the First World, tribal patterns exist within families, urban gangs, civic clubs, and more abstractly in nationalism, racism and sports team mania.

The Institution: Institutions are characterized by authority figures, strict hierarchies, management structures, and administrative bureaucracies. Their strengths involve administration and solving coordination problems. They are afflicted with problems of corruption and abuse of power, as well as difficulty processing large amounts of information, leading to economic inefficiency. Examples include the great Empires, and they exist today in states, military organizations, religious organizations, and corporations.

The Market: Markets are characterized by competition and voluntary exchanges between self-interested individuals. They are uncentralized and nonhierarchical, and do well at handling enormous amounts of complex information and optimizing economic efficiency in exchanges of private goods. They lead to productive and innovative societies with thriving trade and commerce. Markets struggle to deal with externalities and lead to social inequality. Markets historically took off in the transition from mercantilism to capitalism in Europe, and are exemplified by the economies of the U.S. and the U.K. and more recently Chile, China, and Mexico.

The Network: Networks are characterized by cooperation between many autonomous individuals with no single central authority, where each individual is connected to all others. They are tied together not by blood or kinship relationships, but by ideology and common goals. Their strengths are yet to be seen, though Ronfeldt thinks that they could do well at promoting “group empowerment” and solving social issues. Same with their weaknesses, though he points vaguely in the direction of “information overload” and “deception”. Examples include social networks and transnational networks of NGOs.

Networks are the most poorly specified and speculative of the four forms. This is perhaps to be expected; after all, he thinks they have only begun to come into prominence at the advent of the Information Age.

They’re also the form that he stresses the most, making lots of breathless predictions about networked societies superseding the market-state societies that dominate the status quo. He urges states like the U.S. and the U.K. to become active participants in the ushering in of this great new era if they want to remain global leaders.

This part was less interesting to me. I’m not convinced that the problems of social inequality that he thinks Networks are necessary for cannot be fixed in a Market/State paradigm. All the same, it was nice to see falsifiable predictions from an otherwise highly theoretical work.

What I enjoyed most was his view of history. He sees the four forms as additive. When a society incorporates a new form, it does not discard the old, but builds upon it. Both end up modifying and influencing each other, and the end product is a combined system that incorporates both.

So for instance, the culture of a Tribe bleeds into its later instantiations as a State-run society, and can remain generations after the more visible tribal structures have passed on. And the adoption of free-market economic systems forces a reshaping of the State towards political democracy. He quotes Charles Lindblom:

However poorly the market is harnessed to democratic purposes, only within market-oriented systems does political democracy arise. Not all market-oriented systems are democratic, but every democratic system is also a market-oriented system. Apparently, for reasons not wholly understood, political democracy has been unable to exist except when coupled with the market. An extraordinary proposition, it has so far held without exception.

Ronfeldt explains this as a result of the market form pushing social values towards personal freedom, individuality, representation, and governmental accountability.


First connection:

I was reminded of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s categorization of the different basic types of moral intuitions in The Righteous Mind. These are:

  • Care/Harm: Includes feelings like empathy and compassion. These intuitions are most triggered by experiences of vulnerable children, intense suffering and need, and cruelty.
  • Fairness/Cheating: Includes feelings of reciprocity, injustice, and equality. Triggered by others displaying cooperation or selfishness towards us.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal: Includes feelings of tribalism, unity and kinship. Triggered by involvement in tight groups
  • Authority/Subversion: Includes feelings of respect for parents, teachers, rulers, and religious leaders, as well as the feelings that this respect is owed. Involved in hierarchical thinking and perceptions of dominance relations.
  • Sanctity/Degradation: Includes feelings of disgust, purity, cleanliness, dirtiness, sacredness, and corruption.
  • Liberty/Oppression: Includes feelings of individualism, freedom, and resentment towards being dominated or oppressed.

Different political ideologies line up very well with different “moral foundations profiles”. Liberals tend to care primarily about the first two categories, Libertarians the last, and Conservatives a roughly equal mix of all six. You can take a questionnaire to see your personal moral profile here.

These categories look like they map really nicely onto the TIMN model as organizing principles for the different forms. Here’s my speculation on how the different social forms engage and capitalize on the different types of intuitions:

Tribes: Loyalty/Betrayal

Institutions: Authority/Subversion

Markets: Liberty/Oppression

Networks: Care/Harm?

The natural next question is what types of social forms would have as organizing principles the values of Fairness/Cheating or Sanctity/Degradation.

Second connection:

Sociologist Robert Nisbet attempted to categorize the different basic patterns of social interactions. He gave five categories: cooperation, conflict, exchange, coercion and conformity. For some reason this categorization seemed very deep to me when I first heard it, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Cooperation involves coordination between individuals that have a shared goal, while exchange involves coordination between individuals that are each motivated by their own self-interest.

Conflict occurs when individuals work against each other, competing for a larger share of rewards, for instance. Coercion is the forced cooperation between individuals with different goals. And conformity involves behavior that matches group expectations.

These categories nicely match the types of social interactions that characterize the different social forms in the TIMN model.

Tribes are a social form that are dominated by conformity interactions. Identity is tightly bound up with tribal culture, lineage, and adherence to social norms involving mutual defense and aid and who can have kids with whom.

The structure of Institutions is quite clearly analogous to coercion, and Markets to exchange and conflict. And by Ronfeldt’s description, Networks seem to be analogous to cooperative interactions.

Third connection:

Scott Alexander makes the point that democracies have several unique features that set them apart from previous forms of government.

These features all arise from the fact that democracies answer questions of leadership succession by handing them to the people. This is a big deal, for two main reasons:

First, democracies put an upper bound on how terrible a leader can be.

Why? The basic justification is that while the people don’t get to select the absolute best choice for leadership, they do get to select against the worst choices.

(FPTP is terrible enough that I actually don’t know if this is in general true. But this is in contrast to monarchical forms of government, which involve no feedback from the population, so the point stands.)

When the king of a hereditary monarchy dies and the throne passes to his oldest son, there is no formally recognized way to guard against the possibility that the kid is literally the next Hitler. At best, the population can just try to throw him out when they’ve had enough and let whoever wins out in the resulting scramble for power take over.

Second, democracy provides a great Schelling point for leadership succession.

(A Schelling point is a decision that would be arbitrary except that that is made on the basis of an expectation that everybody else will make the same decision. So if you’re supposed to meet a stranger in NYC, and you don’t know where, you’ll choose to go to Grand Central Terminal, and so will they. Not because of any psychic communication between the two of you, nor any sort of official designation of Grand Central Terminal as the One True Stranger Meeting Spot, but because you each expect the other to be there. Thus Grand Central Terminal is a geographical Schelling point for NYC.)

The Schelling point for leadership succession in a hereditary monarchy is royal blood. Which is to say that when the leader dies, everybody looks for the person (usually the man) with the most royal blood, and elects them.

But who determines if somebody’s blood is truly royal? What do you do if some other family decides that they have the truly royal blood? What if two people have equally royal blood?

The Schelling point for leadership succession in a theocratic monarchy like Ancient Egypt is the Official Word Of God.

Who determines which individual God actually wants in charge? What if two people both claim that God chose them to rule?

The problem is that these legitimacy claims are founded on fictions. There is no quality of royal-ness to blood, and there is no God to choose rulers.  In a democracy, the Schelling point for democracy is a real thing that is easily verifiable: the popular vote.

Everybody agrees who the correct leader is, because everybody can just look at the election results. And if somebody disagrees on who the correct leader is, then they have a clear action to take: mobilize voters to change their mind by the next election.

Thus democracy plays the dual role of ending succession squabbles and providing a natural pressure valve for those dissatisfied with the current leader.

These differences in structure seem really significant. I think that I would want to break apart Ronfeldt’s Institution category and replace it with two social forms: the Hierarchy and the Democracy.

A Hierarchy would be a social structure in which there is a strict top-down system of authority, and where the population at large does not have a formal role in determining who makes it at the top.

A Democracy also has a top-down system of power, but now also has a formal mechanism for feedback from the population to the top levels of power (e.g. an election). (I’d like a word for this that does not have as political a connotation, but failed to think of any)


The TIMN framework naturally leads to a story of the gradual progress of humans in our joint project of perfecting civilization. At each stage in history, new social structures arise to fix the failings of the old, and in this way forward-progress is made.

Overall, I think that the framework offers a potentially useful way of assessing different political and economic systems, by looking at the ways in which they utilize the strengths of these four structures and how they fall victim to the weaknesses.

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