We Need Experimental Societies

Our instincts and emotions are those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors of a million years ago. But our society is astonishingly different from that of a million years ago. In times of slow change, the insights and skills learned by one generation are useful, tried, and adaptive, and are gladly received when passed down to the next generation. But in times like today, when the society changes significantly in less than a human lifetime, the parental insights no longer have unquestioned validity for the young. The so-called generation gap is a consequence of the rate of social and technological change.

Even within a human lifetime, the change is so great that many people are alienated from their own society. Margaret Mead has described older people today as involuntary immigrants from the past to the present.

Old economic assumptions, old methods of determining political leaders, old methods of distributing resources, old methods of communicating information from the government to the people – and vice versa – all of these may once have been valid or useful or at least somewhat adaptive, but today may no longer have survival value at all. Old oppressive and chauvinistic attitudes among the races, between the sexes, and between economic groups are being justifiably challenged. The fabric of society throughout the world is ripping.

At the same time, there are vested interests opposed to change. These include individuals in power who have much to gain in the short run by maintaining the old ways, even if their children have much to lose in the long run. They are individuals who are unable in middle years to change the attitudes inculcated in their youth.

The situation is a very difficult one. The rate of change cannot continue indefinitely; as the example of the rate of communication indicates, limits must be reached. We cannot communicate faster than the velocity of light. We cannot have a population larger than Earth's resources and economic distribution facilities can maintain. Whatever the solutions to be achieved, hundreds of years from now the Earth is unlikely still to be experiencing great social stress and change. We will have reached some solution to our present problems. The question is, which solution?

In science a situation as complicated as this is difficult to treat theoretically. We do not understand all the factors that influence our society and, therefore, cannot make reliable predictions on what changes are desirable. There are too many complex interactions. Ecology has been called the subversive science because every time a serious effort to preserve a feature of the environment is made, it runs into enormous numbers of social or economic vested interests. The same is true every time we attempt to make a major change in anything that is wrong; the change runs through society as a whole. It is difficult to isolate small fragments of the society and change them without having profound influences on the rest of society.

When theory is not adequate in science, the only realistic approach is experimental. Experiment is the touchstone of science on which the theories are framed. It is the court of last resort. What is clearly needed are experimental societies!


Social mutations, it seems to me, are what we need. Perhaps because of a hoary science-fiction tradition that mutants are ugly and hateful, it might be better to use another term. But social mutation – a variation on a social system which breeds true, which, if it works, is the path to the future – seems to be precisely the right phrase. It would be useful to examine why some of us find the phrase objectionable.

We should be encouraging social, economic, and political experimentation on a massive scale in all countries. Instead, the opposite seems to be occurring. In countries such as the United States and the Soviet Union the official policy is to discourage significant experimentation, because it is, of course, unpopular with the majority. The practical consequence is vigorous popular disapproval of significant variation. Young urban idealists immersed in a drug culture, with dress styles considered bizarre by conventional standards, and with no prior knowledge of agriculture, are unlikely to succeed in establishing Utopian agricultural communities in the American Southwest – even without local harassment. Yet such experimental communities throughout the world have been subjected to hostility and violence by their more conventional neighbors. In some cases the vigilantes are enraged because they themselves have only within the previous generation been accepted into the conventional system.

We should not be surprised, then, if experimental communities fail. Only a small fraction of mutations succeed. But the advantage social mutations have over biological mutations is that individuals learn; the participants in unsuccessful communal experiments are able to assess the reasons for failure and can participate in later experiments that attempt to avoid the causes of initial failure.

There should be not only popular approval for such experiments, but also official governmental support for them. Volunteers for such experiments in Utopia – facing long odds for the benefit of society as a whole – will, I hope, be thought of as men and women of exemplary courage. They are the cutting edge of the future. One day there will arise an experimental community that works much more efficiently than the polyglot, rubbery, hand-patched society we are living in. A viable alternative will then be before us.


Sociology is too complex to accurately predict how we should manage our society; we need to conduct experiments in order to determine the best path forward. In America, the States could serve as such laboratories.

Folksonomies: politics democracy sociology government governance

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 Carl Sagan's cosmic connection
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Sagan , Carl (2000-10-23), Carl Sagan's cosmic connection, Cambridge Univ Pr, Retrieved on 2012-01-01
  • Source Material [books.google.com]
  • Folksonomies: science