On Samo Burja's Great Founder Theory

I am interviewing Samo Burja tomorrow, and I wanted to collect my thoughts on his great founder theory.

The problem with theories of history is that they are all correct. History is very complicated, and many explanations are required in order to account for it. At current margins, I would say that great men, technological and economic development, and randomness are underrated while great ideas, group conflict, and geography are overrated.

That being said, I have learned a tremendous amount from Samo’s great founder theory (that’s why I’m interviewing him!) and I’m really glad he’s exploring the explanatory power of this model.

My understanding of great founder theory

The natural state of civilization is decline. Knowledge - both explicit and tacit - slowly evaporates, rival factions wage wars of attrition by eroding the resources of their institutions, and elites counter the gains of growth by increased rent seeking.

These forces of entropy and decay cannot be reversed or even halted by unthinking trial and error. Neither the memosphere nor the market can preserve and improve social technologies with blind cultural and economic competition. The competence, intention, and foresight to reinvent institutions, create new social technologies, and establish traditions of knowledge must be concentrated in the hands of small teams of founders, often just a singular founder.

These great founders are the most important force in history. They cause radical jumps in our ability to organize people and allocate resources. When they fail to arise, societies collapse, taking with them technologies and ideas which will take centuries or millennia to fully recover, and whose complexity will stretch the credulity of distant posterity.

I like to analogize his theory of history to a pinball machine. Civilization is the pinball itself, scoring points here and there as it bounces around, but on average moving downwards towards the drain. Great founders are the flippers which catapult the ball back upwards just before it is lost, giving it a chance to careen around again and score some more points. When great founders fail to arise, the ball slides down the drain unabated, and civilization collapses. The game restarts, the ball is relaunched, and the cycle repeats.


The market has solved the succession problem

Samo writes:

the founder cannot remain the pilot forever. Whether due to death, disease, old age, or simply new concerns, another pilot, a successor, eventually has to step in and take the reins for the institution to remain piloted. Furthermore, in order for the institution to remain both functional and a live player, this new pilot must also be skilled. Such a person extends the life of the institution, allowing it to achieve more than it otherwise would. Ensuring the institution acquires this new, skilled pilot is the succession problem.

The top three companies in the world by market cap are Apple, Microsoft, and Google. All three companies have replacement CEOs under whose leadership they have seen incredible growth, often more so than when they were under the control of their original founders.

Now, you might object that by picking the most successful companies, I have obviously selected for those that have solved the succession problem, because otherwise they wouldn’t be so successful. But that’s exactly my point! Over the long term, the market gives companies which solve the succession problem greater control over total resources under private ownership. If a greater share of total resources were in private ownership, a proportionally greater share would be controlled by excellent leaders. Therefore, we can solve the succession problem by privatizing more resources.

I think Samo would object that I am ignoring the destructive part of this creative destruction. For the market to be controlled by firms with great successors, the firms with bad successors have to die, and with them goes tremendous amounts of intellectual dark matter:

Functioning firms are repositories of many kinds of capital that cannot be liquidated, and when they die, it is destroyed … These are casualties of economic competition more frequently than we would like to think.

But this ignores the amount of horizontal knowledge transfer in the modern economy. An engineer at the top three companies I mentioned above - Apple, Microsoft, and Google - will work there on average less than two years. Once they leave and join other firms, they will presumably bring with them the connections, technical know-how, and tacit knowledge that they gained there. Even if Google goes down, it’s institutional knowledge will not.

TLDR: The market does a great job picking successors and preserving intellectual dark matter.

Punctuated equilibrium explains big jumps

Samo writes:

social technologies appear in clear, discontinuous jumps, with several interlocking, interdependent institutional complexes put into place in a short time span. They did not evolve, but were designed and then implemented.

Not only does evolution explain rapid changes in an entity’s components followed by relative stagnation, it has produced exactly this result in nature. Gould and Elderedge created the theory of punctuated equilibrium to explain why the fossil record is full of stasis and interspersed with periods rapid changes in morphologies. Rohit Krishnan explains it best:

evolution wasn’t a gradual process after all as it was understood to be until then. Yes there was gradual accumulation of new characteristics. Yes this involved mutation and natural selection. And yes this happened across multiple scales.

But there’s also the fact that these equilibria were fragile at best, present in a form of homeostasis, and disturbed through external events. And these events would give rise to new and rapid forms of speciation.

One way is to think of this as a large number of latent mutations standing poised and ready, and as the environment changes it turns from a relatively steady competitive equilibrium to an evolutionary free-for-all.

Couldn’t the same be true of our institutions and culture? A bunch of symbiotic social technologies lay dormant in their infant form in some corner of the memosphere, waiting for either their laggard complementary technologies to emerge or for their moment of opportunity to arrive.

It seems to me that one of the main things the great founder theory was created to explain is why there are so many discontinuous jumps in human history. But evolution can explain such jumps. However, can Samo explain continuous long run trends that last for centuries like economic growth with the great founder theory?

Evolution happens in culture

Samo might object to the punctuated equilibrium explanation by saying that evolution is not a valid concept in describing cultural and institutional change:

A crucial difference between organisms and organizations is that organizations do not undergo natural selection. Since the fidelity of transmitting intricate social technologies is so low, complex adaptations cannot arise.

But practices and beliefs often behave as discrete units of selection capable of heritability, variation, and differential selection. In his book, The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich highlights many examples of cultural evolution in action:

Concerned about their low prestige and weak pig production, the senior men of Irakia convened a series of meetings to determine how to improve their situation. Numerous suggestions were proposed for raising their pig production but after a long process of consensus building the senior men of the village decided to follow a suggestion made by a prestigious clan-leader who proposed that they “must follow the Fore’” and adopt their pig-related husbandry practices, rituals, and other institutions. The Fore’ were a large and successful ethnic group in the region, who were renowned for their pig production. The following practices, beliefs, rules, and goals were copied from the Fore’, and announced at the next general meeting of the community:

1) All villagers must sing, dance and play flutes for their pigs. This ritual causes the pigs to grow faster and bigger. At feasts, the pigs should be fed first from the oven. People are fed second.

2) Pigs should not be killed for breaking into another’s garden. The pig’s owner must assist the owner of the garden in repairing the fence. Disputes will be resolved following the dispute resolution procedure used among the Fore’.

3) Sending pigs to other villages is tabooed, except for the official festival feast.

4) Women should take better care of the pigs, and feed them more food. To find extra time for this, women should spend less time gossiping.

5) Men must plant more sweet potatoes for the women to feed to the pigs, and should not depart for wage labor in distant towns until the pigs have grown to a certain size.

Let me highlight three features of this case. First, the real causal linkages between many of these elements and pig production are unclear. Maybe singing does cause pigs to grow faster, but it’s not obvious and no one tried to ascertain this fact, via experimentation for example. Second, the village leadership chose to rely on copying institutions from other groups, and not on designing their own institutions from scratch. This is smart, since we humans are horrible at designing institutions from scratch. And third, this transmission between groups occurred rapidly because Irakia already had a political institution in the village, involving a council of the senior members of each clan, who were empowered by tradition (social norms) to make community-level decisions. Lacking this decision-making institution, Fore’ practices would have had to spread among households, and thus been much slower in spreading. Of course, such political decision-making institutions themselves are favored by intergroup competition.

Of course, I don’t mean to resolve the deep and intricate debate about the role of evolution in culture with one example. But I hope this shows why I don’t agree with Samo here that social technologies are usually consciously designed and are hard to copy in a Darwinian way:

It’s important to note that all except the simplest social technologies are designed. Though many of our crucial social technologies seem like natural parts of reality today, this was not always so. At some point they required intentional construction and adoption. Many social technologies we take for granted, including the very idea of having such critical systems as currency, law, and government, were born from concerted human agency.

If the creation and improvement of social technologies can be explained by cultural evolution (and more recently, market competition), then why do we need to add great founders to our theory?

I have more I want to say, but I’m interviewing the man tomorrow and I need some sleep. If you want to hear more, make sure to catch the podcast by subscribing on YouTube or on your favorite podcasting app.