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Nico Wilterdink: Goudsblom’s Law of Three Stages: The Global Spread of Socio-Cultural Traits in Human History. [Abstract]

In several publications, Johan Goudsblom advanced a “law of three stages” concerning the spread of certain socio-cultural traits (x, y, z...) over humanity. In the first stage, no human society has trait x; in the second stage, some societies have that trait; and in the third stage, all societies have the trait. Important examples of such traits pertain to what Goudsblom has depicted as the great “ecological transformations” in human history: the control of fire, the domestication of plants and animals, and industrialisation. Other examples are metallurgy, writing, money, state organisation, clocks, and computers. This paper elaborates this model and explores its scope, validity, and usefulness for understanding long-term trends in human history. It discusses the model’s theoretical implications (section 2), causal interconnections between socio-cultural traits that spread globally (section 3), explanations for the transition from the second to the third stage (section 3, which includes a brief discussion of Cultural Darwinism), and different mechanisms by which socio-cultural traits spread from some to more societies (section 4). Section 5 deals with the consequences of this spread for power relations between societies. Section 6 focuses on recent developments, including the digital revolution and the transition from the use of fossil fuels to the exploitation of other energy sources. The concluding section discusses briefly the scope and validity of Goudsblom’s “law of three stages” in view of these recent developments.

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