211 Years of Political Evolution in 60 Seconds

The GIF below—click on it to make it play—animates a series of 211 heat maps summarizing annual data on national political regimes around the world from 1800 to 2010. The space in the heat maps represents two of the “concept” variables from the Polity IV data set—executive recruitment and political competition—that roughly correspond to the dimensions of contestation and participation Robert Dahl uses to define modern regime types. In the animated maps, the lower left is least democratic, and the upper right is most democratic. The darker the grey, the higher the number of cases in that cell. [NB. For a version that uses proportions instead of raw counts and some additional thoughts on patterns over time, see this short follow-up post.]

[Fellow propeller-heads: I built this in R with helpful suggestions from Trey Causey and Tom Parris along the way. The heat maps were made with a function appropriately called ‘heatmap’, and I used the ‘animation’ package to compile those images into a .gif. Ping me if you’d like to see the script.]

I made this animation because I think it supports the idea, discussed briefly in my last post, that political development is an evolutionary process. Evolutionary processes feed on diversity and mutation, but the results of evolution are not randomly distributed. Borrowing from Daniel Dennett, we can imagine evolution occurring in a multidimensional design space that contains all possible combinations of a particular set of building blocks. In biology, those building blocks are genes; in politics, they might be simple rules.

For present purposes, let’s imagine that there are only two dimensions in this design space. Those two dimensions suggest a map of the design space that evolutionary biologists call a fitness landscape. The topography of this landscape is determined by the fitness of specific combinations, as indicated by sizes of the relevant populations. That’s what the heat maps in the animation above are showing.

The existence of the system is a matter of chance, but once an evolutionary system emerges, we can expect to see certain patterns. The selection pressures present in any particular environment mean that some combinations will be fitter than others, producing visible and often durable peaks in that fitness landscape. Mutation—and, in the case, of social technologies like government, deliberate tinkering—will keep producing new varieties, but most won’t be fit enough for the environment of the day to survive and spread. As a result, most of the variation will cluster around the existing peaks, because small differences in design will often (but not always!) produce small differences in fitness.

When selection pressures change, however, the designs embodied in the previous peaks will often become less fit, and new designs will emerge as stronger competitors. Importantly, though, that transition from the old peaks to new ones usually won’t be smooth and direct. Instead, as Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould describe in their model of punctuated equlibrium, we can expect to see bursts of diversity as the evolutionary engine “searches” for new forms that better fit the changing environment. As the selection pressures settle into a new normal, the fitness landscape should also settle back into the familiar pattern of clearer peaks and valleys.

The two Polity variables used here are, of course, gross and conceptually biased simplifications of complex phenomena. Underlying each of these dimensions are a few component variables that are themselves simplifications of complex sets of written and unwritten rules. Still, the Polity data are the best we’ve got right now for observing change in over a long period of time, and it’s pretty hard for us humans to visualize four- or seven- or thirty-dimensional space. So, for now, I’m using these two summary indices to get a very rough map of the design space for modern political institutions.

Maybe it’s confirmation bias at work, but when I watch the animation above, I see the patterns evolutionary theorists tell me I should see. In 1800, the fitness landscape is dominated by a single peak representing highly undemocratic regimes—mostly monarchies with virtually no popular participation. If we could extend the movie back several more centuries, we would see the same pattern holding through the entirety of human civilization since our hunter-gatherer days.

Pretty soon after we drop in to watch, however, things start to move. In the early 1800s, a couple of new lumps rise as popular participation expands in some regimes. Most countries still select their rulers by hereditary lineage or other closed means (the peak in the middle left), but some start using competitive elections to pick their governments. By the late nineteenth century, a second peak has clearly emerged in the upper right-hand corner, where rulers are chosen through competitive elections with broad participation. [NB: I think Polity rushes things a bit here by ignoring the disenfranchisement of women, but we go to publish with the data we’ve got, not the data we’d like.]

Through most of the twentieth century, the same general pattern holds. There’s a fair amount of variation, but most regimes are concentrated in the same few patches of the design space. At the end of the twentieth and start of the twenty-first centuries, however, we see a burst of diversity. The authoritarian peak shrinks, the democratic peak holds, and large swathes of the design space that have rarely been occupied bubble with activity.

To my eye, this very recent phase looks like one of Eldredge and Gould’s punctuation marks, that is, an episode of heightened diversity caused by a significant shift in selection pressures. Most observers of international politics won’t be surprised to see this pattern, and many of them would probably attribute it to the end of the Cold War. I’m not so sure. I’m more inclined to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion in the diversity of political forms as twin consequences of deeper changes in the global system that seem to be favoring democratic forms over authoritarian ones. What new peaks we’ll see when the system settles down again—and on what heretofore hidden dimensions of political design space they might draw—is impossible to know, but it sure is fascinating to watch.

Leave a comment


  1. Fascinating to watch, indeed! As a propeller head, I’m curious about how we could employ the rest of the dataset. Granted, it may not provide any more analytic leverage, but that’s a tall assertion to make without trying. Could I get a look at that script?

    • I’ve got some ideas about how to explore the data set more, but I deliberately wanted to start with these two dimensions because of their simplicity and the conceptual space they cover. And, of course, this is a blog post, not a book or journal article. The point is to stimulate conversation, not to run the intellectual table.

      Anyway, if you’d like to see the R script, please send me an email at ulfelder gmail, and I’ll ship it right out.

  2. Gyre

     /  September 30, 2012

    I’m sorry but it seems to me that this relies heavily on a, historically speaking, small amount of data. I prefer not to think so but it seems possible* to me that the most common historical type of government will simply be authoritarian.

    *Note ‘possible’ instead of ‘probable’. I simply have reservations about the suggestion for democracy being ultimately more probable than authoritarianism rather than any belief that I know better.

    • It’s hard to respond because I’m not sure which part of the post you’re referring to when you say “this relies heavily.” Empirically, there’s no question that authoritarian government is far and away the most common form in human history. Democracy in the modern sense—rule by representatives chosen in fair elections with universal suffrage—is a very recent invention. As I’ve articulated in a couple of previous posts, I think there are reasons to believe that democracy is “fitter” in the contemporary environment, and I think these data bear that out. How long that will last and what new forms will emerge as the environment changes, though, it’s really impossible to say.

      • Grant

         /  October 1, 2012

        I’m sorry, I meant that it only measures the past two hundred years. Of course I will admit that it’s possible that the massive increase in technology and communication (as well as the general decline of absolute religious authority) has led to a world where the old rules about the predominance of authoritarianism no longer apply and governments will need to expand power sharing. I simply feel uneasy at thinking that democracy would be an inevitable result.

      • Well, on two parts of that, I agree for sure: 1) democracy is a very recent invention, and 2) it was not inevitable. I do see an affinity between democracy and economic complexity, but there are a lot of alternative versions of history we didn’t see, so who knows how else this might’ve turned out?

  3. thegrauredhens

     /  October 1, 2012

    I think the question here is whether democracy is only an episode in History or it is the next step in “social performance”. And that better performance may be related with the growth of capitalism, which happened in the same period that the rise of democratic governance. So should we look at the environment to guess which is the “fittest” political system?

  4. I think you are on to something. Back in 1994 as grad students at Indiana, Richard Tucker and I wrote a paper (presented at the ISA Northeast) called “A Historical-Structural Approach to Democratic Transitions” in which we showed essentially the same thing. I can’t find a copy (it may have been lost in the transition to my job/new computer), and we never did anything with it, but I remember even back then thinking that there’s a clear evolutionary process. We argued it within the context of Long Cycles (building off Modelski’s argument about evolution within the international system), with more transitions to democracy driven by cycles of hegemony, where dominant liberal states directly or indirectly push others to change their institutions to survive/thrive, but the dynamics looked pretty much the same. If I can find a copy of that long lost paper I’ll send it along. -Matt

  5. Jay, love this. Very cool. Is there a way to also control the space by the total number of states in the system? Make the cells a proportion rather than a raw count maybe? Would this lead to different inferences?

    • Tom Parris had the same suggestion about proportions rather than counts. It shouldn’t take a lot of additional work to do it that way. I’ll try to get to it soon and will let you know what I see.

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