Developmental Levels as Evolving Social Structures

10 Jan 2016 · 6 min read

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Wooden blocks depicting people, connected by dotted lines
image credit: iStock/Eoneren


As human society has evolved over the centuries, we have developed different types of social structures. None of the later structures replace earlier ones, yet each new structure has been devised in order to confer some new sort of evolutionary advantage to our species – in other words, to help us survive and thrive more effectively.

It’s important to consider each of these structural patterns from two important perspectives.

  • From the exterior perspective, each type of structure helps to organize human beings in a new way to more effectively address certain sorts of challenges.

  • From an interior perspective, each structure encourages humans to feel a deep sense of allegiance to structures of that type.

These two perspectives are two sides of the same coin: as the old song says, “You can’t have one without the other.”

So let’s look at humanity’s major developmental levels in the form of different sorts of social structures.

Types of Structures

1. Lone Wolf

This earliest and most primitive level is really characterized by the lack of any social structure, but it’s important to include it, because we are all still motivated by basic survival instincts: fight or flight, hunger, thirst, avoidance of physical danger, and so on. Some social structures can override these basic instincts – as when a soldier goes to war to protect his or her country – but these basic survival motivations are all still present, and so must be kept in mind and accounted for.

It’s important to note, though, that a human being motivated only by these basic instincts is generally categorized as a sociopath, and for good reason. So while this level is a necessary starting point, nothing here offers table stakes to get you into the game called humanity.

2. Family

These are the kinship bonds between husband and wife, parent and child, child and sibling, as well as the bonds linking those who share a particular ethnic heritage tied to a particular region.

The family structure serves to conserve knowledge and property by sharing them among family/tribal members, and passing these things down from one generation to another.

3. Power Pyramid

This is a hierarchical structure in which those above have power over those below, and in which the strongest rise towards the apex of the pyramid.

This sort of hierarchical structure is evident in gangs, in corporations, and in organized religions, to point out just a few common usages.

4. Shared Principles

This is a structure bound together by a shared adherence to a set of written principles, or laws. These writings are accepted as fundamental articles of faith, and are intentionally difficult or impossible to modify.

This social structure can be seen in most religions and in any sort of constitutional government.

Note that such organizations are open to anyone willing to pledge allegiance to the shared principles, without regard for a person’s background or origins.

5. Peer Network

These structures are based on networks of peers with shared interests, willing to openly share their knowledge with others, and willing to have their beliefs challenged based on fresh data and/or new analysis.

All of science is based on this sort of social structure. Improvements in publishing, such as the printing press, and the World Wide Web, are critical enablers for this sort of structure.

6. Pluralistic Cosmopolis

This social structure brings together people with many different interests, skills and backgrounds into a shared community in which all have equal status. Diversity is actively valued as a means of improving social cohesion, and as a means of bringing to bear as many different talents as possible. In this structure, individuals are encouraged to explore and discover new and meaningful ways of connecting with one another, essentially creating emergent structure. The World Wide Web is based on this structure.

7. Systemic / Global

A systemic approach consciously and dynamically constructs and modifies social mechanisms with an awareness of all of these various types of structures, with the goal of producing optimal outcomes for society as a whole.

Note that, from an interior perspective, this level encourages an acceptance of all these structures, respecting the strengths of each, without any bias for or against any of them.

Why They Matter

Now that I’ve described these social structures (aka levels), let me tell you why it’s important for us all to understand them, and to consistently apply this knowledge.

A. All of these structures are constantly at work around us, whether we recognize and understand them or not.

As employees, we work for organizations that are based on all or most of these structures, to varying degrees.

As citizens, we are ruled by governments that are organized using all of most of these structures.

As capitalists and/or consumers, we are conducting transactions within economies based on these various sorts of structures.

As members of a church, or some comparable secular organization, we are participating in organizations run with these same sorts of structures.

B. We need to accept that all of these structures have their uses.

All of these structures have evolved to serve distinct and useful purposes. None of us can afford the luxury of thinking that some of these structures are inferior to others in any kind of absolute, universal sense.

C. We need to understand that all of these structures can be at work simultaneously.

If we think about social organization in a way that emphasizes some of these structures, and excludes others, then we are probably not seeing a complete picture of what’s going on.

D. If we understand our structural preferences, we can compensate for them to achieve better outcomes.

Some of us are drawn to power pyramids. Others are more comfortable with peer networks, while still others like the feel of a post-modern cosmopolis.

But this is like saying I prefer chocolate, or I love ice cream. It’s good to know you’re drawn to these things, it’s good to indulge once in a while, but you don’t want to end up sitting in front of the TV every night with a half gallon of ice cream for dinner. To have a well-rounded life, we need to accept all of these types of social structures.

E. If we’re aware of these structures, then we can establish success criteria for them.

Once we understand these structures, it’s possible to start asking questions about how well each of these are working.

  • For the family structure, are most children receiving sufficient education and property to allow them to become useful members of society? If not, then it’s hard to see how much else will work out well.

  • For hierarchical power structures, are the higher levels issuing useful direction, and are the lower levels following this direction? When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was on the brink of collapse. And his first job was to convince employees that he had a vision of where the company needed to go, and then to get them to move in that direction. This video is a great illustration of his approach to this difficult task.

  • For structures based on shared principles, do people accept the authority of these written words, even when they conflict with other direction they may be hearing? Are people accepted based on their shared adherence to these principles, or are there other requirements for acceptance?

  • For peer networks, are members sharing new information and analysis with each other on a regular basis? And are they converging on shared truths, or is each “expert” continuing to insist on his or her favorite view of reality?

  • For pluralistic societies, are people connecting with others they would not otherwise interact with, and are people deriving mutual benefit from these interactions? Or is each clan keeping to itself, and viewing members of other clans with distrust and suspicion?


Our modern society depends on the proper functioning of a variety of different social structures, and the more we are aware of them, the more we can consciously leverage them for the benefit of our society as a whole.

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