Summary of "Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution"

Summary of

Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution

By Kenneth Boulding

Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Kenneth Boulding, Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution, (Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications, 1978).

In this text Boulding draws on a lifetime of study and experience to develop general theory of human social evolution. Humans understand the universe in terms of patterns. The basic idea of evolution is that the way in which patterns change over time can itself be understood as a pattern; the pattern of evolution. When investigating human evolution, the most important patterns to understand are patterns of "know-how, which refers to the ability, in principle, to produce something. Humans transmit the "know-how" to produce other humans by biogenetic processes. They transmit the "know-how" to produce organizations and other physical artifacts by "noogenetic," or cultural, processes. Boulding argues that human social evolution can be understood as the evolution of human artifacts.

Human social evolution occurs against a background of physical and biological evolution. The first five chapters of Ecodynamics are devoted to examining the physical processes which set the stage for life to develop, and the biological processes by which species, including the human species, developed.

Chapters Six through Nine investigate societal evolution through the evolution of human artifacts. If evolution is understood as changing patterns, then the main patterns to examine in societal evolution are the patterns of social organization. Boulding identifies three basic types of social organization: the theat system, the exchange system, and the integrative system. These organizational systems are as much human creations as are physical artifacts such as buildings. Language use, the ability to imagine different futures, and the ability to learn are the primary factors which drive evolutionary change in these organizations, and in human society more generally.

Threats attempt to coerce some action out of another person by attaching undesirable consequences to any failure to perform the desired action. Threats may be met with submission, defiance, counter-threats, or avoidance. Examples of threat systems include military, police, and religious doctrines of damnation. Threat systems organize people into roles of authority, of dominance and submission.

Exchanges are invitations to trade beneficial actions or goods. The economic system is the primary example of an exchange system. Exchange systems are responsible for creating classes and the division of labor. Well-organized exchange systems facilitate productivity. However, increased production does not always result in improved well-being for all.

The integrative system is also called the system of love, in the widest sense of the word "love." Integrative acts are based in the agents' sense of who they are, and their recognition of others. People who share an identity or identify with a common group are in an integrative relationship. Marriages, churches, and nations are examples of integrative systems. Integrative systems produce relations of legitimacy, loyalty, benevolence and malevolence, and hierarchies of status. Boulding argues that integrative systems are the most powerful, and the most basic. However, most social institutions and relationships incorporate elements from each system: threats, exchanges and love.

Chapters Ten through Fourteen focus on the dynamics of evolution. The evolutionary interpretation of history can be understood as a set of interconnected sagas. The first is the "TOP" saga, which describes history in terms of the interactions between Things, Organizations, and People. For example, Boulding describes the rise of agriculture as the product of increasing populations tending to organize into settlements, which allowed gathers to observe that last year's discarded seeds tended to produce new plants. The second saga is the "KEM" saga of the interactions between Knowledge, Energy, and Materials. This saga focuses on the ways in which energy and materials are used to convert knowledge into artifacts. At the same time the knowledge available at any time is shaped by the tools of learning available at that time. The final saga is the "TIE" saga which sees human history as the product of systems of Threat, Integration and Exchange (as described above).

Decision making and choices play a greater role in societal evolution than in biological evolution. Decisions imply the power and freedom to change the future. Boulding considers whether human history is determined or random. He suggests that "power changes names, but it does not change patterns."[p. 239] That is, the basic dynamics of power are not changed, but the players and their roles may be changed. Boulding identifies three general types of human power, corresponding to the threat, exchange and integrative systems. In society these forms of power interact, opposing or reinforcing each other, and are very rarely found in pure form.

Boulding also explores the dynamics of evolution. He explores the roles of conflictual and non-conflictual processes in evolution, introduces the notion of evaluative change, and considers some of the limits to evolutionary processes. Boulding argues that most evolutionary processes are non-conflictual. Human social systems have a greater degree of conflict than do biological systems because choice plays a larger role in social evolution. However the great majority of human activities are non-conflictual activities: eating, sleeping, working, raising children. Conflictual processes, such as war, are very dramatic and tend to attract the historian's attention. However, Boulding concludes that conflictual processes "affect the details rather than the larger patterns of history."[p. 263]

Humans can imagine possible futures, and can make choices. Because of this, human social evolution has an evaluative component. Decision making requires evaluation of past experiences and future possibilities. Conditions may be evaluated in comparison to another state, or in reference to some goal. For humans, moral values and goals--such as justice, equality, health and meaningfulness--play an important role in guiding evaluative change. Interactions between these moral ideals are complex, and often actions taken in the name of one ideal may turn out to frustrate that or another ideal over the long term.

In considering the limits of evolution, Boulding notes, "the critical question facing the human race as we look forward into the next century or two is whether we are indeed facing a catastrophic overshoot, whether we can go on expanding the human niche in the face of increasing population, or whether we can move beyond large-scale catastrophe to a high-level equilibrium at the ultimate niche of the human race."[p. 291] Boulding approaches this question by examining global disparities in wealth, the growth of science, energy resources, pollution, exhaustion of material resources, and human population growth.

In his concluding chapters Boulding uses his evolutionary approach to understanding societal evolution to examine the role of religion and ethics in human history. He speculates on alternative futures, and alternative patterns for understanding the greater universe. Boulding identifies a number of factors which make it very difficult to make accurate predictions about human societies. With these difficulties in mind, Boulding offers some general observations about the possible alternatives for the future in human politics, the possibility of a world government, the future of human households, sex, arts and religion. While Boulding's project has been to understand the world through the pattern of evolution, he concludes by examining four other ways of viewing the world. These ways are animism, creationism, materialism, and revolutionism. He argues that none of these views is as comprehensive as evolution. However, each view has its role. Each view can be understood as a human artifact, developing and changing within the larger pattern of human evolution.