Tribes and cities

We can be fairly confident from the way that primates organise themselves that the oldest form of group structure is the tribe.  Banding together in tribes makes a lot of sense from the point of view of both genes and memes.  Because the tribe consists of interlinked families, collective child rearing and group foraging increases the chances of genetic survival and propagates memes which benefit the tribe.

Tribal organisations are simple and efficient to manage, with a clear hierarchy, well-understood roles, and typically few barriers to internal communication.  And they have not gone away: we see tribe-like organisation structures everywhere in modern business, although the element of consanguinity has usually been lost.  We see tribe-like structures in the commune, the co-operative, the kibbutz, the start-up, and the family businesses.  This structure is ideal for researchers, software shops, creative agencies, charities and any organisation where mutual support is beneficial and size is not an advantage.

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Guilds - protecting knowledge

From the memes’ point of view, tribes (and tribe-like organisations) provide a fertile but small breeding ground.  There is an upper limit to the meme’s spread because our brains are too small to remember everyone we meet.  The memes needed to find a way to spread beyond the limits of the monkeysphere.

The next organisation structure to arise was the ‘trade guild’.  We have examples of guilds in Rome, ancient India and the early Islamic world, but they really came to dominate the commercial landscape in medieval Europe. 

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The joint stock company

Guilds are great at perpetuating a consistent set of memes, but it was evident that their dominance would be ended by the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th Century.  Where, then, could the memes find a home that was broad in scope, long lasting, and capable of considerable growth?

They found such a home in today’s dominant form of commercial organisation, the joint stock company. 

Read more: The joint stock company