All in the family. A segment of the constitution family tree shows how founding documents and constitutional ideas evolve. Illustration courtesy Daniel Rockmore/Dartmouth College

Nations are said to be built, formed, forged, and born. A recent analysis lends new support to the notion of the birth of a nation.

In the study, the researchers analyzed groupings of statistically connected words appearing in the texts of 591 national constitutions enacted since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Such groupings, or “topics,” form the concepts on which a nation’s laws are based, says SFI External Professor Dan Rockmore (Dartmouth), the study’s lead author. SFI President David Krakauer contributed to the study.

“If a new country arose tomorrow, it would not draft a constitution from scratch,” Rockmore says. “It would look around to see what other countries have done.”

Laws occupy a special place in social systems because they impose constraints and incentives on the networks of interactions among the adaptive agents that make up a society, he says. And, like any complex system, the law arises through a process of evolution.

By mathematically comparing topic groupings appearing in constitutions enacted over time, from 1789-2008, the researchers were able to construct an evolutionary taxonomy of the world’s founding documents, showing how political concepts flow through time and offering a window into how new nations inherit the political concepts from their predecessors.

“Constitutions are complex cultural recombinants,” he says. “The topic modeling enables quantitative comparisons, from which you can operationalize notions of ‘closest ancestor’ and ‘descendant’ while also bringing to bear other forms of evolutionary modeling.”

In particular, the new quantitative analysis is the first to show that constitutions fit a birth model in evolutionary dynamics—called the Yule or “cumulative advantage” process—commonly used to describe the growth in the number of species in a biological evolutionary taxonomy.

“We provide evidence that constitutions are formed—they speciate—in an evolutionary way that is well modeled as biological speciation,” he says. “From a modeling point of view, it looks like a birth process that makes sense in biology. That’s quite striking.”

The study notes a few surprises: Thailand’s original 1932 founding document, for example, is among history’s more significant constitutions, borrowing concepts from 15 previous constitutions and providing ideas found in 33 later ones.

The research was supported by SFI’s Feldstein Program on Law, History, and Regulation underwritten by SFI Trustee Andrew Feldstein. The program’s goal is to deploy the growing collection of theories, models, and methods of complexity science to analyze the evolution, cognition, and future of regulatory and legal mechanisms. The idea for the study grew out of a 2009 SFI Business Network meeting on innovation and regulation.

The study was published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. (November 23, 2017)