How Do Social Movements Evolve?

I will begin by stating that this is a terrible question.

This is a terrible question.

What social movements? What do you mean by “evolving”? I’m sure everyone can provide an opinion on how social media is making social movements more effective or not, how social movements are too concerned with being inclusive and not sufficiently concerned with being effective, or… whatever. I have no intention of doing that, because it is the easy path and also because it assumes evolving is synonymous with progressing, or just changing over time in general.

I want to talk about evolution.

How Do Social Movements Evolve?

For those who haven’t taken a biology class in a while, a brief history of evolution is as follows: There’s variation in populations. Some of the varying traits will be beneficial for survival and reproduction within an ecosystem, and others will be detrimental. Traits are passed down through reproduction. Therefore, the traits that are beneficial to survival and reproduction will spread throughout a population, and the population will change over generations of this process.

Now let’s imagine that social movements are organisms. What social movements have there been thus far?

There’s been the movement towards democratic institutions, characterized by a wave of revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The American, the French, the Latin American revolutions, the Haitian revolution, etc. There’s been waves of socialism and communism. There’s been movements to abolish slavery. There’s been first, second, third, and fourth wave feminism. There’s been the civil rights movement. There’s been the movement for gay rights, multiple movements for increasing accessibility for the disabled, there’s currently a movement to increase acceptance and accessibility for autistic and other people with abnormal psychology. Tied to that is the movement towards the acceptance of non-binary gender identities. Add to that increasing accessibility of women’s healthcare, legalizing marijuana, the creation of safe spaces, de-stigmatizing the violation of gender roles, economic equality, secular humanism, fighting against police brutality… etc.

There’s also been the movement for second-amendment rights, to make abortions illegal, to increase religiosity in schools and households, scientology, science denial, radicalized religious fundamentalism in both Islam and Christianity and most notably in recent years the revival of literal Nazis. There’s more you can probably think of, like environmentalism, libertarianism, the recent increase in homeschooling, Men’s Rights Activism and the related Pick Up Artist movement online.

That’s our population. It’s not actually that bad a sample size given how recent social movements in their current form are.

Movements are more similar to viruses than anything else in that they need a host–people–to exist, and reproduce by obtaining more hosts. Therefore, movements that are good at obtaining more hosts, and that are good at survival (that is, because they either extend the lifespan of their hosts, like Mormonism does, or because they spread faster than they kill the hosts, like cigarette smoking), are movements that are likely to continue onto the next generation, until most movements have those traits.

This is why suicide cults are a lot less popular than Catholicism, by the way.

So, what have social movements evolved? Well, after movements to abolish slavery and grant women’s suffrage, they developed a trait. It had been used in the past by religions, themselves either a kind of movement or a precursor to them depending on your views.


Shame at the inhumanity of a set of behaviours was for a long time a very useful tool at modifying it. It is why it was often used to hinder movements as well as to further them. Over time, the race traitor’s position became the racist’s, for people ceased to be ashamed of being race traitors and began being ashamed of being racist. Sexist went the same route, going from adjective to insult over a relatively short time span, even for linguistic drift in the English language.

You can see this trait begin to appear in new movements with words like Islamophobic and Homophobic, which were never just adjectives. Instead the movements coined the insults that would shame the opposition into different behaviour from the get-go, after such an adaptation proved useful for previous movements.

You can see it now in the many people opposing abortion, who use terms such as baby-killer to shame others into behaving differently. They walk up to you and ask “do you believe in human rights?”. If you answer anything other than “yes”, you’re a monster, and if you answer “yes”, you’re officially on their side.

Thus shame (like flight in birds, bats and insects) is an adaptation at which many different movements have arrived, somewhat independently of one another.

The same goes for inclusiveness. The more inclusive a movement is, the more accessible it is made out to be, the more hosts it will reach. This is kind of a tautology, but it is important to state because looking upon the more successful movements of today, they tend to be the most inclusive. For example, one particularly inclusive movement has been about gay rights. While it is related to one very small minority, it has gained steam far quicker than the somewhat analogous movement for making interracial marriage legal in America. And this is because the gay rights movement, while concerned with the rights of a small group, was not actively isolationist the way Aryan Nation movements need to be. They spoke about allies, they created parades where anybody can join in and have fun independently of their sexual orientation, they sought to normalize themselves when society was demonizing them. This made the change in perspective regarding the gay community much quicker than the perspectives regarding many racial or religious minorities with similar issues around marriage.

You can see this in action in terms of the “good” X. Other movements have adopted the idea of the “ally” into “a person who is not a member of this group but who will still be accepted provided they further the cause”, including groups that are in many ways devoted to nothing but being against some other group. If you don’t know what I mean, I will not destroy your innocence here. If you do… I do not need to speak further.

So we have shame and inclusiveness as important useful traits for a successful movement. We can see that they become used more frequently with every iteration in the somewhat longitudinal case study of feminism. First wave feminism was not very focused on shame, and was actually super racist, its focus was instead on marches and results. Because of this, it achieved some of what it wanted to, but left many people behind in the process. Across the decades though, you can see a more generous helping of shame and inclusiveness, which culminates in what people tend to refer to as intersectionality. This is the pinnacle of movement inclusiveness in that it allows those who are members of other movements and whose plight is not necessarily served by this or that movement to become part of it anyway by finding one or two shared foci.

A movement does not need to get results to spread, though. Strange detrimental behaviours  can evolve thanks to their benefit in reproduction. See: birds singing, which is awful when you realize birds are giving away their location and opening themselves up to predators when they do that. Same with their bright colours. These similar oddities crop up in movements. For example, the use of shame, once important, seems to have become excessive and potentially harmful to many movements. Feminism is one thing that has reached a point of backlash, leading to the creation of things like “why I don’t need feminism”, whereupon women claim they do not need the movement that granted them rights because they now have them, like somebody who claims they no longer need medicine for a chronic disease because they feel better now after taking it for six months.

I do not know how to fix that, but it is a thing that happens, and should be made note of.

Another trait of movements is their generalization. Like feminism went from providing women suffrage to seeking access to education and to the workplace, and to equal pay, and to protection from harassment, and to reproductive rights, of course not in a neat order, many other movements have in turn generalized themselves to survive. The civil rights movement reformed into a kind of general opposition to racism after it reached its primary goal. The gay rights movement merged into what we now call the LGBTQ+ rights movement and has spread to include people of all gender identities, asexual people, and those whose sexual preferences are not clearly explained with words like Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual. The movement against ableism has grown from trying to increase wheelchair accessibility and tools for blind and deaf people to including mental disabilities, mood disorders and even abnormal neurology such as that of people who have had strokes.

An important variable in evolution is of course the selection process. For every successful movement there are countless that never took off, from strange cults nobody joined to anarchism which continues to thrive in bursts among the general population before going quiet for a while.

The selection pressures on movements must be tied not only to whether or not they can spread, but whether or not their concerns will age well. There was a very important movement in favour of eugenics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but after Nazis very few people want to touch that with a ten foot pole. At least publicly and in those words. There were also movements against the advent of cars, and radio, and the television, and the steam engine, and the loom. Their concerns proved in some cases true, but in all cases insufficiently influential.

And so the question arises once more:

How Do Social Movements Evolve?

Well, they have traits, and if those traits are useful then more people become part of the movement. If those traits are not useful, the movement dies, or the version of the movement without the useful traits dies, and a new version with the beneficial traits arises. They spread from person to person, each host being affected by those traits, and then the hosts take some set of actions, which if it aids in the spreading of the movement, makes it grow, and if it  doesn’t… doesn’t.

This process has provided at least three notable adaptations: Shame, inclusiveness, and generalization.

So… there. Answered. Boom.

How Do Social Movements Evolve?

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