Evolution and governments: what to expect after the Arab Spring

What can the unusual combination of evolution and world history together tell us about what to expect after the Arab Spring? A new study from the New England Complex Systems Institute, an independent institution based in Cambridge, uses mathematical tools and a scientific approach to argue that the type of protests and revolts that sparked governmental upheavals in the Middle East are unlikely to result in democracies.

The researchers compare governmental changes to the biological process of evolution and argue that complexity builds successively from a simpler scaffolding. It’s unlikely for a highly complex system, like a human being, to arise directly from single-celled bacteria without many intermediary steps, and the authors argue something similar holds true for government. Democracies are, by their nature, inherently more complex than autocracies. That’s in part because of the various branches of government, and control of society distributed over a wide population. Thus, just as scientists expect evolution of new traits and organisms to unfold over time, with many iterations, it may be unrealistic to expect a country plunged into chaos from a violent revolution to spontaneously turn into a democracy, even if that’s what people would like to have happen. It’s not impossible, the authors note, but it’s more likely that a simpler form of government, an autocracy, would result. They examined governmental change over a half century and found that democracies are far more likely to result from a leader stepping down than governmental changes induced by a revolution, civil war, rebels, or protests.


The New England Complex Systems Institute specializes in studying “complexity.’’ It’s a term most people throw around in their daily lives to describe everything from a recipe to the instructions on how to use an electronic device. But researchers there mean something specific by the term: it’s the amount of information one would need to describe a system, Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the institute said in an e-mail. Of course, one could describe a “system’’ at multiple levels of resolution, so complexity also depends on how far you zoom in — whether you are describing what each individual person is doing or what groups of people are doing. Applying complexity analysis to governmental change could provide a tool to help predict and understand what to expect after multifaceted political, social, and economic events.

Yaneer Bar-Yam answered questions about the work by e-mail.

Q: You compare governmental changes to biological evolution. Can you explain what that means? Is every election similar to a reproductive event?

A: Evolution is about how systems change over time through a process of selection. Governments don’t exactly replicate and grow the same way that biological organisms do. However, the more general properties of progressive selection are taking place. Elections are a kind of selection, but there are also other ways the decision making processes of governments change over time through new laws—whether by legislatures or by popular votes, budget allocations, constitutional amendments, and revolutions. Every one of these processes is about selecting the roles of government, its structure and more specific responsibilities, balances of power and so on.


Q: What did you find when you analyzed historical revolutions?

A: Revolutions are about changing the government very quickly. The problem is that building a complex government can’t be done quickly if you want to do a good job. This means that violent revolutions that disrupt the existing government structures tend to result in simpler structures, typically autocracies, rather than more complex structures, specifically representative democracies — this is true even when the people who make the revolution want a representative democracy.

A classic example is the French revolution which set up legislative bodies but they were ineffective. Eventually Napoleon stepped in and took over–which was possible because of the turmoil that was ongoing. There are many other cases where revolutions involved violence, and they had a much higher probability of ending up as autocracies than those which had less disruptive governmental transitions.

Q: What does that suggest about the Arab Spring?

A: The revolutions of the Arab Spring want to fix problems of the existing governments. They expect/need a quick fix because the conditions are so bad. However, making a government requires careful construction–selection over time like in evolution. If the new governments are required to solve problems quickly, frustrations will build and result in autocracies because they are the only kind of system that can be up and running quickly.

Q: Is it ever adaptive for a government to get less complex?

A: Actually, the case of revolutions leading to autocracies IS adaptive — if one needs to act quickly to solve problems, including restoring order, then autocracies are adaptive. That they are adaptive over the short term, doesn’t mean that they are desirable over the long term.


Q: Are there recommendations from this type of research?

A: The speed by which governments have to be formed is actually related to the underlying stresses on the people in the country. High food prices and unemployment are major stresses. Calming things down by addressing the economic problems would help the countries take more time to put their governments together.

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