Toward a Prolegomena of Evolutionary Sociology

Since my second year in grad school, I have been enamored with evolution as an explanatory framework for some types of historical, social, and cultural change. I realize there is deserved and undeserved skepticism surrounding evolutionary theory and evolutionary sociology, but so be it. On the one hand, the developmentalist modeling and teleological progressivism of Marx and Durkheim (to name heavy weights) or of Veblen and Sumner (to name less known evolutionists) is unfortunate. Not only had the modern synthesis between genetics and Darwinian ideas not happened when those folks were writing, social science was in its infancy. This, however, does not absolve the brief revival in the 60s that committed the sins of their “fathers” (Parsons; Bellah) or the strange sociobiology movement in the 70s. On the other hand, human societies and human cognition, behavior, and the like are what they are because of evolution. Evolution is one of the best supported scientific theories we have. And, because of this, there are numerous lessons worth gleaning from evolution.

But, besides the sins of our past, why don’t sociologists think evolutionarily? Pierre van den Berghe (1990) answered this question several decades ago, and thus it is worth reviewing his answer briefly so, as the the brave reader reads on, they can reflect on their own biases, their old mentors’ biases, and the discipline’s biases.

  • The Dogma of Environmentalism: biology is very often feared by sociologists because it has historically suggested something immutable; and immutable things, by definition, are difficult, if not impossible, to change. Few geneticists or biologists can seriously be labeled determinists today. Genes appear to have greater influence, ironically, over later life outcomes like probabilities of getting cancer or some other terminal illness, whereas most acknowledge that the environment shapes the trajectory of our life, particularly early on.
  • Comfort in Cultural Determinism: While most natural scientists resist determinism, the same is not as true of sociologists who intentionally and unintentionally promote oversocialized views of human behavior. Neoliberalism makes us do this; patriarchy makes us do that. If culture is the prime mover, and culture is malleable, then we can make societies however we want.
  •  Fear of Reductionism: Occam’s razor pushes for the promotion of the simplest, most parsimonious explanation. Yet, sociologists resist reductionism at all turns, often turning to the untestable thesis that society and people are too complex to reduce them to anything.
  • Idealism’s Ugly TruthEven the most committed Marxian materialists often fall back on, explicitly or implicitly, neo-Hegelianism when questions about the effects of the material environment, ecological dynamics, competition, and selection arise. Like Marx’s embarrassingly false stage, “primitive communism,” sociologists cannot picture humans as animals just because we are conscicous and have big brains.
  • Abstracted Empiricism: Much evolutionary research requires ethnology and ethnography, archaeology and paleoarchaeology. One wing of sociology valorizes aggregates, statistics, and the study of proxy measures to the point that the real things we study disappear from plain sight.

To this list, van den Berghe adds one big one that transcends the discipline and speaks more to the underlying reasons why evolution isn’t taken more seriously by both scientific and lay people alike: implicit anthropocentric attitudes. Let’s be honest, it is cognitively and affectually difficult to imagine ourselves as anything but higher-order creatures. Talk about apes, and people immediately forget we are apes. Talk about blind, purposeless evolution, and meaning and purpose become constructed and imaginary and we invite nihilism, fatalism, or existentialism. I would add, in this spirit, that sociologists simply have a difficult time imagining humans are, like their closest ape cousins, hierarchical creatures who have had to work really, really hard to suppress these tendencies (Boehm 2001). Or, contrary to our most cherished myth about humans and their sociality, we might be more like Chimps, Bonobos, Gorillas, and Orangutans who prefer few strong ties and several flexible weak ties (Maryanski and Turner 1993).

I think one final issue underscores the barriers to thinking evolutionary: sociologists are both products of their professions – and, thus the need to produce, produce, produce – and, many are products of the normative side of the discipline. Both of these components push sociologists – especially American sociologists, which I am – toward a society-centric view of sociology that I only noticed when I left to UBC in Canada. Our brains are designed to delimit information, and sociologists like other humans are delimited in space and time. Marriage or sexual orientation, in American journals, are talked about in general terms as though they apply to all nations and people. Social problems unique to the U.S. are generalized to social problems everywhere. Concomitantly, particularism dominates. So, instead of learning the general theoretical reasons for inequality, factions argue there is something truly unique about their group. To be sure, all experiences are shaped by biography and history, yet sociologists – despite Marx’s staunch call for historical consciousness – rarely can see beyond their own life span. If a sociologist studies anything beyond their immediate experience, it maybe extends to the 1960s or 1940s. But, a science of societies cannot be a science of just one [American] society. We have a wealth of comparative data for societies. And leveraging them would improve what we actually do know about contemporary societies and what we know about the general condition called humanity.

In short, though this blog will sometimes be about my temporally-delimited research question – suicide, for now it is about evolution. It is about the amazing amount of things we know about past human societies. What we share, and where we have diverged.

I’ll leave the reader with some thoughts I think are tantalizing. First, significant consensus among scholars posits that human anatomy and cognition stopped evolving, seriously, about 50000 years before the present (BP) (Klein 2009). We are, basically, like our foraging ancestors in body and mind. We have far more extensive systems of cultural storage that have changed how we can think about thinking, how much we can remember, and how we can more precisely expand, analyze, and reinterpret what others thought centuries before us, but we are still the same human. Second, had it not been for significant climate change and the disappearance of mega-fauna (e.g., mammoths) about 15000 BP, humans may have continued to forage and live in small bands of 25-40 people (Fagan 2004). Third, while many sociologists – like Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel – saw modernity as counter to our “natural” social organization, the ethnographic and paleoarchaeological record suggests nucleated families, fewer strong ties and more weak ties, less intrusive religious commitments, and greater local jurisdictional authority squares more closely with the societies that the earliest proto-humans and Homo sapiens evolved into (Turner and Maryanski 2009).

My next post will be a close look at a book by British sociologist, G.W. Runciman (2009), The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection. The choice is arbitrary, based more on my reading habits than anything else. But, it will offer a nice entry into the good and bad of current theories of sociocultural evolution, and offer some foundations for which this conversation can move forward. My hope is to bring evolutionary sociology closer to a wider audience, not necessarily to convert anyone, but to make it accessible and exciting. It is also a way for me to jot my own ideas down and make sense of them for future work.


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One Sociologist’s View

Having guest blogged on an incredibly exciting blog filled with many colleagues Culture, Cognition, and Action, writing entries on the the sociology of emotions, why the sociology of suicide has to change, and how it should change, I’ve decided to take the leap and build a blog of my own. At this point, the blog will vacillate between the work I think that many are more familiar with, medical sociology, mental health, and suicide, and the work that is as much a passion of mine as anything else I do: evolutionary sociology. For now, the first slew of entries, I think, will be focused on the latter. Why?

In another lifetime, one spent figuring out what I wanted to do in terms of earning a PhD and in terms of getting a job, I was a macro-historical evolutionary sociologist consumed with playing in the sandboxes of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and historical sociologists. Sociology was (and still is) the science of societies to me. Recently, after several major changes, the underlying interest in sociocultural evolution bubbled back up. Reading a former professor’s life’s work on Durkheim and his Elementary Forms thesis (Alexandra Maryanski) sparked a renewed interest that had waned for practical reasons (I formed a great friendship and working relationship with Anna, and consumed with theoretical, methodological, and humanistic issues surrounding the sociology of suicide) and personal reasons (moving to another city and country for a new job is far more complicated than one might imagine, even if it is Canada and not a nation far more distant socially, culturally, politically, and economically than the US). Thus, evolutionary sociology it is (though, I will also speak on the subject of suicide too!).

In short, evolutionary theory holds so much potential for the social sciences. Practically, it offers a discipline which prides itself on theory’s centrality to its research agenda, a clear example of what scientific theory is and how it works. This is meaningful given the variety of uses of “theory,” including critique. Because biological evolution is one of the best supported theories in human history, it also provides a window into the variety of innovative ways scientists have gone about testing it. As future posts will illustrate, it also shows both the promise of synthesizing other disciplines, like biology but also archaeology, into sociology as well as the limits that remind us why sociology is a distinct discipline with distinct contributions. Further, it offers a framework for thinking about historical-comparative sociology in new ways. To be sure, it is not the only or most important way of studying historical or cultural or structural change, but it should be a fundamental tool in all of our toolboxes. Finally, there is nothing more humbly than reading about the behavioral propensities we share with Chimps and Bonobos, as well as gorillas. There is solid evidence of who our ancestors were, where we came from, and what has or has not changed. We have the type of data Durkheim, Spencer, Marx, and others could only dream of, and we are also far beyond the simplistic developmentalism that nineteenth century sociology paraded as evolution.


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