Sociocultural Evolution: Universal Human Concerns

When I first began writing about institutional evolution (Abrutyn 2009), I was continually confronted with the same problem functionalists had – e.g., why does every society have a “polity” or a “kinship” system? That is, there is something seemingly biological to the fact that a certain set of institutional spheres are mandatory for social organization. Institutional spheres are, in essence, macro-structural and cultural units that organize feeling, thinking, and doing for a significant portion of the population, in part, be carving up physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space in ways that impose and reinforce a particular set of values, beliefs, and norms. They are, in many ways, survivor machines as they are one of the primary replicators of a collective’s ethos across generations. To be sure, culture is not genetic material, and thus replication is not one-to-one in any sense of the word. But, institutions are the rare social unit capable of transmitting and transposing as coherent a culture as possible to the largest number of people. The question, then, is why are people’s everywhere and at every time carving out the same types of institutional spheres? We find, for instance, in preliterate and literate societies alike, kinship, polity, economy, religion, law, and, generally speaking, education. How discrete or autonomous these spheres are is a matter of empirical question, and really a conversation best left for another essay. Nonetheless, every society we have data on has moments in which action you or I would recognize as “legal” occurs, even if these moments are far rarer in those societies than in ours and the lines between law and, say, kinship blurrier (Hoebel 2006; Pospisil 1978). Likewise, despite the fact that full-time practitioners, preisthoods, and a recurring cult are absent in most cases, all societies have emotions, attitudes, and actions contemporary humans would deem “religious” (Radin 1937; Lowie 1970).

Thus, the question is why do these institutions seem necessary for the existence of human societies? The old answers were insufficient evolutionary explanations, as they were teleological and, often, tautological sets of needs or requisites. These lists plagued the early functionalists because they were arbitrary lists and dead-ends for linking the biological/neurological foundations of Homo sapien to her social organization. Herbert Spencer, for instance, explained all institutional spheres in terms of three needs: operative (in more familiar terms, productive), distributive, and regulative. Society’s, presumably, needed to solve these three problems to create some semblance of equilibria. I am oversimplifying, of course, but this logic soon found its way in Parsons’ (1951) [in]famous AGIL scheme, which saw institutions as serving one of the four needs (adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latent pattern maintenance) and then sub-systems differentiating inside of the institutional sphere to meet one of these four needs at the internal level.

There were two obvious problems. First, these needs were thought of as imperatives instead of, as Jonathan Turner (1995) calls them, selection pressures. Obviously human societies or whatever social unit one cares to study needs to produce and distribute resources in some patterned manner if it is to ensure its own cultural reproduction and its member’s biological reproduction. But,  there are no guarantees that solutions will be adaptive for some or every member, nor is there any guarantee of the short- or long-term viability of a solution. Second, I would argue that they mistook selection pressures (like integration or regulation) for the types of meanings that seem universal to all human societies, and which institutional spheres – as they evolve more autonomously – come to be organized by and around (Abrutyn 2014; 2016).

Universal Concerns
When I say universal, there requires some caveats to prevent falling into the classic functionalist traps. First, they are universal in so far as the average, normal human is capable of experiencing the concern as salient. This first caveat expresses the fact that in, say, a foraging society the concerns related to law are not often felt by most members. Kinship dominates the structure, culture, and phenomenology of society’s members, and thus the need for third-party conflict resolution or justice is simply rarer  than in a larger society. Moreover, in the US or Canada, while any given member may not feel legal concerns as pressing, the size, scale, and depersonalized nature of the society – and its various smaller social units – means there are these concerns are always salient for one or more members (hence the need for full-time legal actors).

Second, these concerns are not at the societal-level, though they may become salient become of social forces related to population pressures (size and/or density), production, reproduction, distribution, and power. They exist at the individual level, but become forces of evolution when some segment of the population believes most or all people feel they are salient; even if, objectively, they aren’t salient. Once some people feel the concern salient, efforts to resolve the concern – aimed at those feeling it or, more ambitiously, to all members – can begin in earnest [more on this in another blog entry].

Third, concerns are not always naturally made salient. All humans are subject to manipulation, both purposive and unintentional. Concerns can be made salient when, in fact, they aren’t.

Fourth, just because I say a concern is universal does not mean (a) a “good” solution to it will be found, (b) people will perceive it as concerning and, therefore, work to resolve it, or (c) “good” solutions will be available or accessible.

In short, all that matters is there are concerns that are ubiquitous to the human experience. In a sense, then, they are a bit in the spirit of Maslow’s hierarchy of (intrapersonal) needs, but not necessarily ranked and are interpersonal – that is, they are purely concerns stemming from social relationships. Of course, they also have deep biological roots, as many are shared with our closest primate relatives and even many other mammals. Below, I have provided a table of concerns that I believe are the most common and matched them with the institutional sphere or spheres most commonly involved in dealing with them (it is neither authoritative nor definitive and I welcome additions!).

Universal Concerns Institutional Sphere Associated w/ Solutions
Biological Reproduction Kinship, Polity, Economy
Cultural Reproduction Kinship, Polity, Religion, Education
Love/Loyalty Kinship, Polity
External Security Polity, Kinship
Ontological Security Religion, Kinship
Cognitive Knowledge Kinship, Economy, Education
Aesthetic Knowledge Religion, Art, Economy
Suffering/Evil Religion, Science
Morality – Piety Religion, Kinship
Morality – Justice Polity, Law, Kinship
Conflict Resolution Polity, Law, Economy, Kinship
Comm w/ Supernatural Religion, Polity
Health/Morality Kinship, Religion, Science, Medicine
Distinction/Status Polity, Economy, Education, Sport
Power Polity, Religion, Economy, Law
Reputation All

Some Initial Thoughts

First, note that kinship cross-cuts many of these. This reflects both the obvious fact that most humans know their kin/family reality better than most. Their objective power and status are likely derived from kin relations more than political or economic. But, this also reflects the fact that for the first 200,000+ years of human life, kinship dominated the structural, cultural, and phenomenological landscape.

Second, most human concerns are dealt with in more than one institution. I intentionally tried to order the list either by chronological order (which institutional sphere emerged autonomously first to deal with a given concern) and/or which institution it is primarily dealt with. Of course, this is not always possible. In a complex society, like the US or Canada, where we spend compartmentalized moments in one sphere or another, concerns like distinction or ontological security can be foreground or background in more than one.

Third, that concerns are cross-cutting also underscores tensions between institutional spheres. At the elite level, these tensions are struggles over who has the legitimate right to produce, distribute, exchange, and consume the solutions to a concern. At the “mass” level, these tensions emerge in where actors feel their concerns are resolved most satisfactorily or efficaciously vis-a-vis institutional spheres they feel they have little access. For example, the US (and, in fact, all throughout the world), the vast majority of people are alienated from economic and political spheres beyond their coercive appropriation of human and material resources, but find strength, purpose, status, and  power in the two most local institutional spheres: kinship and religion. The marriage between religious and kinship values is not inherent or mandatory. It is a particular configuration of industrial/post-industrial societies where economic and political resources are further ensconced in physically and cognitively distant spaces, while the everyday experience is buttressed by the belief in the family as the defense against these “distant” maladaptive forces and religion as its natural extension (e.g., the megachurch becomes the extended family of horticultural times, with common religious worship substituting for fictive and real ties built on marriage alliances).

Fourth, as I noted above, many of these have biological roots, hence their universality. What makes humans different from our animal friends are the institutionalization of solutions into the structural and cultural fabric of society. The solutions, of course, vary based on historical, ecological, political, economic, and cultural context, but the general solutions are always these institutions. Importantly, any society can come to resolve any solution or set of solutions in a atypical institution, but there is likely consequences. Case in point: the former Soviet Union was a good example of what happens when every concern is secondary to power and loyalty. The polity came to dominate every other sphere and every other concern. Justice or piety, for instance, were both subjected to power and loyalty (to party), and subverted by them as well. I know many readers likely believe that courts in the US are political, and justice is either a product of money and/or power, and they wouldn’t be totally wrong. But, law is relatively autonomous in the US and the vast majority of cases, on a day-to-day basis, are decided based on legal principles, norms, criteria. We may not like lawyers or the general lack of substantive justice, but the courts in the US operate far differently from those in the former USSR.

In the next set of essays on evolution and institutions, I intend on tackling some of the questions – both implicit and explicit – left unanswered in this essay. For instance, (1) Why does institutional evolution, as conceptualized herein, provide a more dynamic foundation for a theory of sociocultural evolution? (2) How does general and specific evolution work in terms of institutions? (3) What is institutional autonomy and what are its consequences? (4) How do real actors factor into this equation, and what is being “selected” upon (hint: it’s not the meme)? More to come…





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Does Sociology Have Laws? (Spoiler Alert, Yes it Does!)

Yesterday, I was sitting in a faculty retreat and we were discussing whether we needed to restructure the department given the continuous growth of faculty and the increasing number and complexity of exigencies the Head must deal with; exigencies which delimit his ability to do other things necessary for the department to not just grow in quantity, but also quality. The conversation was great, collegiate, and…completely predictable. It is rare that I would argue sociology can make predictions, but here I could have predicted this would happen. Why?

First Laws
It is definitely risque and unpopular to say sociology has laws. The idea that human behavior and social organization has any regularities at the level of a law runs against the grain of several corners of sociology and humanism. But, and I say this cautiously, there are several laws that work across levels of social reality (that is, we have laws that work as well at the dyadic level as the inter-societal level). To be sure, most of our theoretical knowledge is not law-like, and probably never will be. Furthermore, axiomatic theory does not preclude other types of theorizing, such as interpretivism or descriptive/classificatory. But, the existence of these do not preclude sociology from being able to clearly explain and, in some cases, predict with the same certitude as a biologist predicting when a leaf will fall off of a tree or better than a seismologist predicting an earthquake. Below, I will talk through one of the laws – what I would call the first law of sociology, and leave other laws for future discussions. But, first, a brief aside on formal sociological theory.

Scientific Law (What it is, and is not)
Scientific laws are built on repeated observation of two or more phenomena and their apparent relationship. They rest on higher levels of abstraction than other lower order components of formal theory. Facts and hypotheses, for instance, refer to specific relationships between objects (the sky is blue because of molecular refraction), while laws, presumably, capture a wider range of phenomena subsumed within each concept. To be sure, every law is delimited by explicit sets of conditions: Newton’s law of gravitation, for example, only applies to relatively weak gravitational fields. Finally, laws predict outcomes or new observations. As such, laws are not iron-clad as the connotation of the term itself indicates; they are falsifiable—or, more often, failed predictions provide new scope conditions—and, therefore, mutable.

It follows, then, that laws do not explain social behavior. Hence, the positing of a law is not the end of theory or social science, but rather the statement of a social fact that reflects the accumulation of knowledge, the maturity of the social science, a collective effort by disparate scholars devoted to understanding and explaining the social world, and a foundational block for how we teach, present, and apply our ideas to sociologists and non-sociologists alike. Positing laws does not strip theorists or empirically-minded sociologists of the creativity that C. Wright Mills termed the “sociological imagination.” It heightens it; it demands it; it guides it. The most creative aspect of theory-building is the why and how questions surrounding a law, not the law itself; and, thus, it is correct to say that finding laws, as sociology’s eponymous founder Auguste Comte proposed, is not the primary reason for research, but an outcome of the collective project and, once discovered, the impetus for creative, novel, and replicating forms of research. It is also not incorrect to say, then, that laws are a necessary fixture for creating common ground for all sociologists, regardless of their research interests; it provides a place in which debates and arguments and empirical testing can productively advance social science rather than spin its wheels in debating whether there is anything foundational; and, it celebrates just how far we’ve come as a discipline.

Differentiation as Law
Herbert Spencer famously wrote extensively about society as an organism, or supra-organism as he was fond of referring to it (see this post for a bit more on this). He posited that growth in size generated pressure for the differentiation of structure and function to deal with exigencies arising from this growth. So, put in more common language: as the size of a group increases, so does the level of differentiation. Unlike some laws, this first law works at every level of social reality. When two parents have or adopt a child, the new roles and status positions differentiate (parent-child); when an informal group of friends grows beyond 20-25 members, pressure to differentiate leadership roles and authority give way to formal rules, practices, standards, etc. As groups grow in size, divisions of labor differentiate as new tasks and responsibilities arise to both handle the complexity and because of the complexity. As villages grow in size, and personal relationships become increasingly difficult, occupational, socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural differentiation inevitably occur (particularly because of the incest prohibition and rules of endogamy leading to the circulation of “new” people w/ new traditions, practices, and so forth). Indeed, at every turn, collectives that grow in size face a fork in the road: either fission into smaller groups or differentiate new structural and cultural formations that can address the myriad problems that stem from bigger populations and denser arrangements.

There are three fundamental problems facing a group that grows in size arithmetically or geometrically. (1) Resource scarcity becomes increasingly salient, even when adding a third person to a dyad. Scarcity =/= total collapse! It just means there are fewer resources necessary for biological and social reproduction and either new resource bases must be created or existing ones expanded, otherwise the group must devise new strategies of distribution (which, as we shall see in a future post on the Second Law of Sociology, may create new exigencies based on real or perceived inequities). The simplest example: two parents add a child. Not only are there practical questions revolving around food, clothing, childcare, and so forth, but the love – which is obviously not quantifiable and not really zero-sum like, say, a pizza – also becomes more “scarce,” so to speak.

As an aside, nowhere does it say we need to intensify or improve production; nor are there any ironclad guarantees that (a) differentiation will resolve scarcity or that (b) scarcity will be perceived as problematic and, therefore, motivating. It is just a fact that there are always X number of resources for Y number of people, and even in resource rich spaces, there are subjective quantities people feel they deserve or earn. The point here is that for a significant proportion of human history, fission or the segmentation into smaller units was the norm in the face of scarcity, because the usual solution involved some sort of vertical differentiation – that is, the emergence of more clearly defined governance roles that can resolve the second exigency

(2) The second problem is related to control and coordination. More members of a group means more conscious beings whose opinions, goals, decisions, and attitudes may not be aligned at all times. A child transforms the parent’s simple horizontal partner roles by adding a superordinate-subrodinate role. Parents, regardless of how much they want to or how good they are at it, must coordinate their new behaviors, their child’s behaviors, and, often times, their partner’s. Consider the problems that arise when you add a second, or a third, or fourth, or even more kids to the mix. Resources become increasingly scarce (ask any second or third-born whether they feel love was unfairly distributed in their family, and I am sure you will get as many, if not more, “yeses” than nos). But, just as importantly, control and coordination become even more problematic as more people have to be mobilized to do things that were much more easily to achieve when it was two or three people’s consensus necessary to make events or affairs or outings run smoothly. 

So, consider a group of five best friends. Choosing their Friday night activities is likely a deomcratic process with one or two of the informal leaders or outspoken people mobilizing preference. But, what happens when they add five spouses to the mix? Coordinating the lives of five relatively independent family units is extraordinarily complex. Indeed, there are reasons sororities/fraternities and other organizations that are relatively large and impossible to coordinate through informal means differentiate formal systems of authority: coordination, and of course, control. Someone must be authorized to sanction violations of the group’s standards and practices.

The final exigency is competition/conflict; a problem Durkheim was keen on. As groups get larger, it becomes untenable for all members to do the same thing. Hunter-gatherer societies are composed of several nuclear families that comprise a band that has upward limits of about 50 members. Beyond that, a supra-band level (tribe/moiety/clan) system of organization must be differentiated. Bigger groups need bigger pieces of land which means bigger and more fixed settlements, property that ties them to those settlements (and must also be protected against threats), and demands for other types of productivity besides hunting-gatherering. It also increases the likelihood that some members will either not be suited to hunting/gatherering or not be oriented towards that line of work. Competition over who does what can result in a natural or forced division of labor that differentiates a population into classes of people distinct in occupation, lifestyle, status, and so forth. Not surprisingly, and which will be a central element to a follow up post of the Secoond Law, differentiation in the form of heterogeneity has serious consequences driving more evolution. These are, in essence, the exigencies that arise because of initial solutions to the initial exigencies.

So What?
To circle back, when the idea of an assistant Head was raised, any sociologist could have predicted this was the case. We’ve been growing as a department and intend to for the foreseeable future. Of course, the conversation soon veered into issues better predicted by the Second Law (again, coming soon). But, we do not teach or talk about the laws of sociology for two reasons, in my estimation.

First, sociology’s resistance to and understanding of science (like most people’s) is rather limited or distorted. Laws are not immutable, but rather highly generalized relationships/patterns between two things. I would argue that finding exceptions are harder than finding events that fit with this law. Any time you add more people or more groups to a larger social unit, differentiation is inevitable; even against the best efforts to resist this process. Communes, for instance, typically come and go because they try hard to mobilize an ethos that simply runs counter to what is possible. In the short run, differentiation can be stymied, but in the long run? Not so much.

Second, there are significantly larger issues surrounding the question of what is sociological “theory,” how should we teach it, and how does it inform research. I am by no means orthodox in my theoretical orientation, but I believe there is a place for positing the laws we have, for positing the clear theoretical explanations we have, and for continuing to allow for creativity, interpretivist sociology, critical social philosophy, philosophy of science, and so forth. But, in the end, the question is which amplifies the contributions the discipline may lend to the wider world? To this question, I will leave an answer to another day. But, for now I will say one thing: having students trained in what we actually do know seems a powerful way to have them go off in the private and public sector, applying ideas without running up against social facts that are costly and, perhaps even, impossible to alter.








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The Nuts and Bolts of Evolution, III: Sociology’s Greatest Sin, the Stage Model

If you asked a biologist, “are there stages of hominid evolution?”, they’d look at you like you were crazy. Of course, biological evolution is, from a teleological standpoint, directionless. So, why has sociology been so preoccupied with classificatory stage models? Indeed, the biggest black eye the social science has when it comes to evolution is the stage models…And, worse, they remain pedagogical tools for easy classical theory lessons, which means they are unconsciously reproduced as both factual theoretical frameworks and reasons for rejecting evolutionary principles in the social sciences.

First, some context. In the nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory was in its infancy, but its implications were immediately understood as explosive. It is not shocking that sociologists and anthropologists quickly adopted some of the language. The modern synthesis between Darwinism and Mendel’s genetics, however, was half a century or more away, and thus, it is also not shocking that these earliest efforts were failures in many regards. What masqueraded as scientific analysis of social evolution was, often, in fact veiled racism, colonialism, ethnocentrism, and white supremacy. Not always, but in, say, one of the more simple and common stage models (savages > barbarians > civilized), it was difficult to interpret any other way (Morgan 1877; Veblen 1899). But, how and why these models returned in the 1960s (Parsons 1964; Bellah 1970) is much less understandable.

In what follows, I review some of the more common modeling techniques or models and use them as examples for what is wrong with modeling, why we need to stop teaching it even if it keeps our lessons true to the theorist’s own work, and, finally, what sociology can do to build multi-linearity into its evolutionary theories.

The Two-Stagers

Every sociologist has learned, at some point, that there are two types of societies: Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft; mechanical and organic; primary and secondary. That there are communal and associative types of relationships and collectives, and that pre-industrial societies tended to be dominated by the former and not the latter is a fact. But, what is less clear is whether the premodern/modern, or traditional/modern dichotomy so ingrained in contemporary US sociological ideology is real. To be sure, there are major differences, in size, scale, and complexity, between foraging societies and the US or Canada; there are differences worth highlighting between agrarian polities 5000 years ago and the western-style democracy; and, there are differences between religious, legal, educational elements of medieval Prussia, Sung China, and medieval Islam and today. But, are they dramatic enough to posit a two-stage model in which we (so-called moderns) are different from premoderns?

In a previous post, I remarked on the fact that human anatomy and cognition has not evolved dramatically over the last 50,000 years meaning we are, in essence, the same animal today as before. I do not want to overstate this fact, as it is obvious that fossil fuel technologies have changed the human condition. It is also obvious that humans this hardware humans carry was not evolved for large, depersonal urban societies (Maryanski and Turner 1992). However, and perhaps ironically, the types of social relationships modern urban humans have (a few strong ties and many weak ones) is actually more in line with the earliest human societies (Turner and Maryanski 2015; Maryanski 2018). A point that actual grinds against conventional wisdom that humans are “bowling alone” and society has totally broken down (Putnam 2001; McPherson et al. 2008).

If we step back and see these two-stages as Charles Cooley did, then they are useful. They denote, formally, two types of social relationships. But, the harm has been done if you were to ask me. Critical accounts of modernity, ranging from the more critical ones like Marcuse’s one-dimensional man to those less intense like Bourdieu’s simply assume there is a premodern and a modern time. And while the former explicitly romanticizes the “old days,” most sociologists rarely bother to read ethnographies or history such that they actually know what the old days were like.

The Unfolding “Have-Tos”

The worst offenders are the models that assume, explicitly or not, that society has evolved in some linear set of stages. Karl Marx’s model is the classic example (Primitive communism > slave > feudalism > capitalism > socialism > communism). There are many fundamental problems with this model beyond its teleological bent and its strange materialist Hegelian bent (humans fell from Eden and are working to return to a heaven on Earth). First, the data available to Marx was not great, but his idea about primitive communism is a bit of an embarrassment. Second, the first stage evidently encompasses 250000 BP to 5000 years ago. It covers a tremendous amount of variation beginning 10000-12000 BP when humans began settling down en masse. The slave period then lasts 2500 years until the medieval period in Europe. To compensate for its blatant eurocentric perspective, Marx adds an Asian pathway; whatever that is. It does far more to obscure evolution than provide clarity and rigor.

Perhaps its worst offense is the idea that evolution is linear. This idea rests in most classical evolutionism, predicated on some sense of progressivism (societies are getting better – e.g., more civil, more moral, smarter, etc.) and/or the idea that evolution always proceeds from simple to complex in a straight line. The first position is colonialist at worst, and misplaced idealism at best. This is not to say Weberian pessimism is the better mode, but Marx’s belief in a final Utopian stage lacks complete understanding of past human societies, human nature, or even other animal societies. More generally, however, convergent evolution (or independent cases that converge on structural and cultural similarities) is more rare than divergent evolution (cases with the same conditions going in different directions). This historical tendency was echoed in Israeli sociologist, Shmuel Eisenstadt’s (1964, 2000) work on multiple modernities. 

The second position is also poorly conceived, as it fails to recognize that some epoch-making moments have been about simplification. Protestantism, and almost every form of mysticism has been about dedifferentiation in organizational and symbolic content. The former, regardless of one’s stance on the famous Weberian Protestant ethic thesis, represented a huge change in western society.

The Exceptional Cases

Marx’s Asian pathway alludes to a third weakness: the exceptional case models. Robert Bellah’s (1970) religious evolution model represents this perfectly (Primitive > Archaic > Historic > Early Modern > Modern). Besides the poor choice in labels, the Early Modern stage represents a single case: European Protestantism in the 17th century. The logic here is confusing: how can a single case become a whole stage? Particularly when no other religion has met that criteria and most skip to modern from either archaic or historic?

Bellah’s model is, admittedly, partially a Weberian historical ideal type, and thus not, like Marx, an serious belief in compulsory stages. But, the model itself raises so many more questions that it usefully answers. For instance, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are “Historic” religions both in terms of when they evolved and in terms of the purest literal sense of the word. But, how can a religion be fixed in a stage when it currently exists in modernity?

These questions underscore the ambiguity stage models present for units of evolution: is it religion(s)? Society? Religious symbols? Organization? In part, sociologists in both the classical and many in the more recent 50 years have failed to specify what it is that is evolving; at least until recently.

Lenski and Service

Not all stage models are bad in their entirety. When social scientists classify societies for comparative analysis and in Weberian fashion, there is some utility. Elman Service’s (1971) famous political sovereignty model (Band, Tribe, Chiefdom, State) and Gerhard Lenski’s (1970) subsistence technology model (hunter-gatherer; horticultural; pastoral; agrarian; intensive agricultural; industrial; post-industrial) are instructive. The former groups societies into classes that share similar political mechanisms of organization, while the latter emphasizes the primary mode of subsistence. Both have considerable impact on other institutional spheres (e.g., agrarian societies tend to have priesthoods and palace-economies whereas horticulturalist do not have the surplus for status markets as well as enough food to support urban life).

The strength, here, is built into the comparative lens. Like a biologist seeking to create taxonomies that are intentionally un-hierarchical, these models provide a common language from which scholars can refer to clusters of similar, but not identical societies. Moreover, they do not presume a single causal explanation, nor linearity. Chiefdoms are, as both the archaeological and ethnographic record indicate, often evolutionary “dead ends” (Abrutyn and Lawrence 2010). And, more than a fair share of tribe-level societies have “skipped” the chiefdom stage and leapt right into state-like societies. Likewise, Lenski’s model integrates diffusion as one mechanism typically missing from stage-models. Clearly, a pastoral or simple agrarian societies can bring “foreign” technology into its economic system, either by colonization or through trade, adaptation, and so forth. There is no reason to believe a society can transform, over one generation, from one type of subsistence economy to another. The former Soviet Union attempted to jump from agrarian to industrial, with varying degrees of success.

What’s Missing?

There are several angles one could take in positing what is missing from stage modeling. But, I would rather focus on what is both most and least obvious: the general lack of anything beyond the most macro-level sociology. To be sure, I am an ardent proponent of general models that emphasize highly generic processes, which is best specified at the very macro in terms of temporality and complexity (Lenski 1988; Turner 1995). Sociologists would be fooling themselves if they did not think population pressures, resource scarcity, heterogeneity (broadly defined), and natural/social exigencies were not powerful (if not invisible) forces across time and space. The current climate change issue is primarily about these.

But, these generic processes often obscure the ways sociology, dropped down a few levels, can contribute to understanding how and why sociocultural evolution happens the way it does. In a little cited text (in sociology at least), Richerson and Boyd (1992) make a case for focusing on the “micro” or specific evolutionary processes by which much of history is made. By micro, they are referring to smaller snippets of time and more meso-level events, like epochal social movements. Here, as I have done previously, they make a case for Lamarckian evolution at the cultural level – that is, purposive, sometimes quite rapid evolution.

How I interpret their argument is as such: sociology has a massive set of theoretical and methodological tools for studying how collective behavior can reshape societies towards reform and, in rarer but no less important cases, revolution. At the meso-level, we can discern in far greater details the mechanisms, contextual factors, and other relevant bits and pieces for thinking more generally about how and why structure and cultural evolves. Too often, the stage-models which are simply a symptom of a much larger malaise of thinking too macro and general all of the time, stand in for good explanation. In doing so, they commit the same errors – albeit much less egregiously and with far more nuance and empiricism – that Marx did in reproducing Hegel’s own dialectic: history appears to unfold, inevitably, with little human intervention. And, if there is human intervention, it is driven by history itself. But, historical-comparative sociology teaches us, if anything, that whilst the great man theory is bunk, the great group theory is far more useful in understanding both successful evolution (that is, actual change) and failures (e.g., bad decisions that led to societal collapse or disintegration).

Thus, in my final post on this subject, for now, I will hone in on general v. specific evolution, to highlight the importance of both for evolutionary sociology.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Evolution, II: The Limits of Darwinian Explanations

Having discussed some of the basic aspects of Darwinian (biological) evolution, I want to talk about why Darwinian processes do not work in explaining sociocultural evolution; at least not the vast majority of evolution today. Undoubtedly, human societies and numerous propensities like a tendency towards reciprocity and a strong sense of fairness and empathy, evolved through natural selection (Turner and Maryanski 2009; Bowles and Gintis 2013). And, undoubtedly, we are who we are, where we are, and what we are by way of natural selection. But, it is fair to ask whether individual-level evolution (gene frequencies) is more important for social science than the evolution of structural and cultural formations; and, whether or not the latter evolve by way of Darwinian or neo-Darwinian processes, as many social scientists and biologists contend (Runciman; also, Blute 2010)?

As a future blog will discuss, the central issues to discern is what is evolving and what does the social selection look like? To this effect, Turner and Maryanski (2008) criticize the argument that evolution works solely on, particularly in modernity, the genetic or individual-level (see also Turner and Abrutyn 2017; Turner et al. 2018; Abrutyn 2016). This critique is directed at two ideas. First, that all social evolution has to be, somehow, Darwinian otherwise it is “less” scientific. And, second, that social formations that could be units of evolution do not have emergent aspects that make them unique from individual-level phenomena. In many ways, this critique is predicated on the near-total rejection of the organismic analogy posited by early functionalists, and the rise of methodological individualism.

What makes this critique important is that this line of thinking rejects (a) the reduction of all social phenomena to some innate desire to biological reproduce our genes, (b) the unsubstantiated idea that all of our institutional realities are founded on brain modules that evolved directly or by way of piggy-back and are just in need of discovery, (c) the absurd notion that group selection is an impossibility, and (d) the idea that memes are equivalent to genes. Though (a-c) are important criticisms, the latter is most relevant to sociologists. Any serious student of society(ies) knows culture does not reproduce itself in perfect copies. Individuals do not internalize the surrounding culture en toto. Our big brains lend themselves to re-interpreting culture, which further weakens the meme argument: the Hebrew Bible, for instance, meant something very different to its earliest writers, to the redactors in Babylonian diaspora, to the Hellenic Jews, and to the second Diasporic Jews. The words, or cultural package, is literally the same now as it was about 2000 years ago, but the meanings are completely different. While it is possible to establish, definitively, an individual’s genetic inheritance, it is a much more complex question to study the “inheritance” of cultural material when a corporation franchises itself, when a new Supreme Court justice interprets the Constitution, when a school or community makes mandatory the Pledge, or when a musician makes popular a traditional song.

If evolution does not simply work on organisms or their DNA, and if structure and culture evolve, the question this entry deals with is what limitations does Darwinian selection pose and why?

Spencerian Principles

Herbert Spencer famously outlined why society was like an organism…

  1. As organisms/supra-organisms increase in size, they become more complex and differentiated structurally
  2. Greater structural differentiation leads to greater functional differentiation
  3. Greater differentiation puts pressure on structures for integrative mechanisms
  4. Each differentiated part is a “system” unto itself, and thus any system cannot be helped being shaped by its constituent subsystems
  5. These subsystems can live on (for some time) even after the death of the organism

And, less famously, why it was not…

  1. The parts of a supraorganism are less frequently in contact and are far more dispersed
  2. Contact between parts relies on symbolic communication in supraorganisms
  3. While the polity may be akin to the central nervous system, unlike organisms, supraorganisms consist of myriad centers of consciousness

Thus, Spencer provides both the logic for thinking about society as an organism capable of evolving, but also draws sharp distinctions that are worth keeping in mind. From here, Spencer offered one of the most cogent defenses against pure Darwinism in the social sciences, derived in part, from his theory of political evolution.

Spencer famously coined the term “survival of the fittest,” as he pointed out history was the story of larger, better armed and organized societies conquering, absorbing, colonizing, and destroying smaller ones. No value passed; just stating a fact. From this more specific fact, he observed that social evolution was very often Lamarckian in that the growth in size, complexity, organization, and so forth was conscious, deliberate, purposeful. That is, hostile neighbors were one type of exogenous exigency that put pressure on a group to invent more “fit” solutions to the problem. For instance, as city-states grew, pastoral peoples were pushed to more marginal areas. These people’s were faced with extinction, but many chose to innovate militarily in ways that could not necessarily defeat the bigger army, but were faster and able to adapt quicker on the fly. They could survive by raiding and pillaging, and in some cases like the Akkadians or Mongols, conquering the bigger, better armed. But, other exigencies can be problematic too (e.g., natural disasters).

The beauty of Spencer’s theory was that it lacked linearity and inevitability. For him, society was always on the cusp of collapse. This was for two reasons. One, when structural differentiation occurs, new unforeseeable endogenous exigencies (resource scarcity; heterogeneity and conflict) put pressure on groups for new solutions to these new problems. Two, social organization was cyclical, tending towards greater centralization and consolidation of power and resources and, subsequently, pressures for decentralization. Both poles had their own pitfalls. Centralization could suck the marrow of the society dry, and leave it weakened to upstarts or competitors (the story of Rome’s fall) whereas decentralization pushed the individual’s success above and beyond the collective’s needs, leading to self-interest, greed, and corruption. There was no perfect equilibrium, but rather two forces opposed to each other driving societies to be in near-constant flux and always ready to collapse.

Durkheimian Principles

Durkheim, of all the early sociologists, came closest to adopting a Darwinian model. At the core of his ecological theory, was competition. But, Durkheim recognized human systems were radically different than biological ones, because of our ability to create. Thus, while Darwinism predicts that environmental changes intensify competition between units for resources and reproductivity that leads to some traits (and organisms) being favored vis-a-vis others, Durkheim argues competition does not have to lead to extinction.

As population ecologists have shown, societal carrying capacity can be increased by expanding the transportation and communication technologies available, and thus, the geographical footprint of a social unit (Hawley 1944). Furthermore, a wealth of data from organizational ecology (cf. Hannan and Freeman 1977), has shown that Durkheim’s theoretical acumen was solid. Competition can lead to a wide range of outcomes instead of extinction: diversification of social units to improve their competitive standing; specialization; the expansion of a resource niche and its carrying capacity; and, the construction of new niches.

The Sticky Subject of Agency

Though he explicitly rejected evolutionary sociology, Weber’s historical model for social change was predicated on carrier groups capable of “switching” the tracks of history, and the contingent nature of these efforts. Groups, in essence, innovated for various reasons and struggled against other groups for the control over the material and human resources necessary for reproducing themselves, for institutionalizing and routinizing their structural and cultural innovations, and for securing power, prestige, and wealth.

I have written extensively on what Israeli sociologist, S.N. Eisenstadt (1964) called institutional entrepreneurs, or a slightly modified and more explicitly evolutionary version of Weber’s carrier groups (cf. Abrutyn 20132014, 2015a2015b, 20162018Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015). In a nutshell, when we combine Spencerian selection pressures (external and/or internal exigencies) or Durkheimian selection pressures (competition due to scarcity of niche resources) with institutional entrepreneurship, we get an entirely new form of cultural evolution at the group level. Groups can purposefully innovate technologically, symbolically, normatively, and organizationally. They can struggle for supremacy against competitors. Existing elites or entrepreneurs can react to their efforts, co-opting, assimilating, or attempting to destroy their institutional projects. Cultural evolution is neither blind nor purposeless; and, while it is rarely linear, it moves in fits and starts in many cases.

That all said, what this line of argument creates are the necessary contingencies lacking in neo-Darwinian accounts. First, natural or social selection may occur in the sense that people do not always perceive exigencies or problems, or when they do, its either too late or their solutions are not effective. Jared Diamond has built a career on these “forks-in-the-road” moments and the very real potential for collapse. Second, though entrepreneurship is often motivated by Spencerian or Durkheimian pressures, humans are capable of misperceiving exigencies (that is, identifying problems that are not objectively problematic), mislabeling exigencies (and, therefore, innovating in strangely maladaptive ways), and, finally, inventing exigencies (e.g., articulating crises that are not real for manipulative purposes). Third, all of this gives new meaning to fitness. We can measure fitness in two ways: (1) how widespread an innovation becomes and (2) how successful the entrepreneur is in securing their own independence, leveraging this to carve out physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space so that they can reproduce their innovations; as well as develop them further. In both cases, the reproduction of collective ways of feeling, thinking, and acting are indicative of fitness. The former simply measures the diffusion effects of cultural evolution, while the latter captures the institutionalization effects of structural evolution.

Fourth, importantly, evolution is never a finished product. Initial entrepreneurship is sometimes unrecognizable with the compromises made along the way, and as Weber notes, the outcome of routinization. Moreover, as Spencer argued, even when successful, new exigencies previously unforeseen are very likely to rear their ugly heads. And fifth, because of Spencer’s three distinctions between organisms/supraorganisms, it is possible to argue adaptation is not necessarily adaptive for all social units in a supraorganism. Fitness does not need to be fit for everyone; culture is reproduced, very often, against the will of those who would benefit from different arrangements. This fact does not prevent us from thinking through the role groups play in qualitatively transforming those arrangements and the work that goes into sustaining their initial success(es).

Museums, Libraries, and Cultural Memory

One of the least explored areas of sociocultural evolution is cultural memory. Genetic drift refers to the tendency of some gene variants (or alleles) to randomly decline or grow in frequency, leading to super rare phenotypic expression or sudden ubiquity. Besides genetic drift, there are few biological processes that compare to the development of literacy and its storage (Goody 1986). To be sure, natural selection worked on preliterate humans and their genes for millennia, as noted in the example of Mt. Toba’s explosion 34000+ years ago and the genetic bottleneck it created (Fagan 2010). But, with writing, cultural variants, like the DNA of Wooly Mammoth frozen in glaciers, can be stored in museums and libraries and on-line repositories. Unlike the DNA of the mammoth, cultural variants can easily be retrieved and integrated into contemporary cultural goods. Indeed, this integrative process does not even have to be faithful to the original cultural code, as fads like the Paleo diet have only marginal scholarly connections to paleolithic peoples or movements like paganism can only imagine what the experience of pagans were 2000 years ago. Nevertheless, a new religious movement could begin tomorrow, borrowing heavily from Middle Kingdom Egyptian religion and syncretizing it with Taoist principles and narrative myths drawn from ancient Sumer.

Less fantastic, modern religions see syncretic or sectarian movements emerge frequently around different parts of scripture claimed or re-claimed to be more authentic than conventional ones. Old texts can be rediscovered, new passages deemed central to the group’s mission, and new texts, such as the invention of the Book of Mormon, can be invented and grafted on to existing traditions. There is not a single equivalent to these examples in the biotic world beyond humans selecting some traits in their canine friends or hybridizing their favorite cannabis strains. Yet, these examples continue to be governed by the replication of DNA.

The Bigger Picture

There is no question that biological evolution mattered and, within varying degrees, matters today. But, once humans erect massive institutional systems like religion or economy, our biological dispositions are useful in so far as they provide clear delimitations of what is possible and not likely possible and in giving deeper insight into what is universal about human nature, and therefore, societies (e.g., all humans tend towards reciprocity; pay super close attention to face and emotions). Beyond that, structural and cultural arrangements can harness or constrain our biology, and can do some extraordinarily creative things.

In the last two Nuts and Bolts posts, I’ll look at the problems of stage-modeling, progressivism, and linear thinking and the differences between general and specific evolution.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Evolution, I: Darwinian Processes

Some initial caveats: I am by no means an expert in biological evolution, nor would I claim to be (for an easy-to-approach expert work on the ABCs, see Mayr 2002). It is imperative that sociologists become familiar with the principles, evidence, and logic of evolution for two reasons. First, despite recurring resistance and rejections against biological reductionism in the social sciences, sociology risks continuing to narrow its relevance, shrink its potential audience, and weaken its importance. Second, from a purely pedagogical standpoint, evolution is one of the best evidenced theories in scientific history. What theory is (a post, believe me, for another day), how to test it rigorously, and how a discipline can emerge and coalesce around a theory are all on display.

One further point worth disclosing: I readily embrace, in Randall Collins’ words, the fact that we are hairless apes. Simultaneously, I emphasize that this position does not have to equate “to human nature causes human behavior”. It means recognizing that (a) humans are animals, specifically mammals, primates, and one of the four great apes alive today (along with Orangutans, Gorillas, Chimps/Bonobos). (b) As such, our anatomy and behavioral propensities evolved over many millions of years. Modern humans, anatomically speaking, are approximately 250,000 years old, and those with the same cognitive abilities as us, today, are about 70000-50000 years old (Klein 2009). (c) If we do not recognize and examine our cousins and closest relatives, sociology is notably going to be missing key elements of understanding and explanation. (d) A science of society does not get to pick and choose which societies serve as models for explanation, theory-building, or empirical generalization. And, thus, without further ado…

Natural Selection

In the simplest nutshell, biological evolution can be summarized as such: traits that allow an organism to survive and biologically reproduce in an environment or traits that reduce the organism’s chances are subject to natural selection. Though traits are often erroneously thought of as genes, it is actually the phenotype – or the expression of a gene – that is the trait selected for or against. Selection, in turn, modifies the distribution or frequency of expressed traits in a given population over successive generations; usually, several thousand, but some argue that evolution may sometimes be punctuated or more rapid than it is usually understood. The traits or phenotypes that matter, or that make one organism fitter or better adapted than another, have little to do with the types emphasized by Social Darwinists or eugenicists. Rather, strength or intelligence – however defined – may be fit in some environments, whereas other traits at other times may be more fit. To be sure, strength has and will probably always matter. Many predators are strong, including your favorite dog, whose jaw is extremely powerful.

However, the story of human evolution – or more accurately, the evolution and success of Homo sapiens (“wise humans”) – is about the selection for cognitive abilities like planning ahead, contemplating and expressing fine-grained affectual states, and morality predicated on our primate sense of fairness and an intensely enlarged emotion center that equipped us with empathy on steroids. Indeed, as evolution worked on these cognitive abilities, our natural defenses like strong jaws, agility, excellent auditory or olfactory senses, speed, and so forth atrophied. In short, any trait that improves the chances of reproducing one’s DNA as many times as possible and for those offspring to survive will be more likely to emerge.

One final point is worth noting: it does not take a PhD in entomology, for instance, to notice that there are a lot of insect species. If you were reading closely, you would have noticed, above, that humans are one of four great apes. We split from our closest living relatives about 6 million years ago, from gorillas 8 million years ago, and from Orangutans 15+ million years ago. And, the great apes split from Gibbons, which are classified as apes 20+ million years ago and from monkeys 31+ million years ago. In any case, four remaining species is truly an indictment of the fitness of apes. But, it also underscores just how evolved the cognitive abilities of apes vis-a-vis other orders and classes of animals are. Gorillas and, especially, Chimps/Bonobos are incredibly smart creatures. [Though, this is not to say other primates are not smart or that other mammals are not smart, the foundations upon which our grey matter evolved is discernible in many other animals (Lents 2016)].

Other Evolutionary Processes

Natural selection is not the only process in the modern synthesis. Most readers will recognize mutations or the errors that occur in replication of or when damage is done to DNA. Mutations are usually neutral in that selection rarely works on them. However, they may also be maladaptive and, in the rare case, adaptive. Gene flow, or what sociologists will recognize as the result of migration, occurs when genes are exchanged between populations (e.g., marriage alliances between two groups) or species (e.g., geneticists recently proved Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did, in fact, mate, though the amount of Neanderthal DNA is quite low). Genetic drift occurs when there is a natural change in the frequency of an extant gene variant (allele). In some cases, the allele frequency declines, making the allele extraordinarily rare, while in the most dramatic cases, a rare allele increases in frequency causing the gene pool to change drastically.

Human Intervention

Biological evolution is often described as blind, purposeless, directionless, and this is true to some degree. One of the most important forces driving natural selection for the first 240,000 years of Homo sapien existence was climactic change (Fagan 2008, 2010). For a people lacking scientific understanding of climactic change, it is a testament to our cognitive powers that we are even still alive. 73500 years ago, Mt. Toba in Sumatra erupted and was so explosively powerful, that geneticists estimate that 10000 or fewer Homo sapiens survived (Fagan 2010:93ff.). In turn, this event created a bottleneck – or significant reductions in the size of a population that contributes to the extinction of myriad genetic lineages – in which the entire 7 billion people alive today can trace their genetic heritage to 4000-10000 African women of reproductive age who survived (compared to a billion women of reproductive age in the world today). There is, ultimately, nothing about those climactic changes that was purposive, nor could Homo sapiens purposefully alter the change. What they could do, was use their extant material and ideational tool kits to survive, and those that were best at it, passed certain traits on that were revolutionary. By the time the climate returned to a warmer, wetter climate, the cognitive abilities we have today had evolved and human history began, in earnest, to write itself.

That being said, humans do in fact drive biological evolution purposefully. One need only look at their pet, if they have a dog, to see how much effort our ancestors put into selecting certain canids with certain traits; over several thousand years of selective breeding, we have a tame, loyal best friend. More recently, one need only look to Mesopotamia 5000-6000 years ago. There, farmers had begun to select some strands of barley because they were drought-resistant, easier to harvest and process, and produced more barley per plant (Postgate 1992). Again, several thousand years of selection modified the traits farmers preferred.

Individual-Level Selection

At the heart of Darwinism, then, is the idea that selection works on individual organisms. Though most folks are familiar with Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” argument, in which the position is that our genes demand we reproduce them, there are many debates about whether it is the gene, the individual organism, and, as noted in my previous post, the group that is selected upon. In any case, one of the primary dilemmas faced by evolutionary theorists is how to explain altruism and cooperation if one takes the position that humans are naturally self-interested. The nitty gritty of this discussion goes far beyond my expertise and far beyond the needs of this audience, but it is worth highlighting the basic points as it will inform the follow up to this essay on social evolution.

First, many biologists were confronted by the fact that organisms will often sacrifice themselves for close others; particularly blood relatives, but also fictive kin (e.g., you spouse). The act of sacrifice directly violates the principle of self-interest, as the organism risks its own ability to pass on its genetic code. The answer was kin selection or reciprocity. That is, in some cases, individuals will risk their own reproductivity to ensure their identifiable kin’s reproductivity. In humans, however, the problem of sacrifice is greater in magnitude and complexity. For one thing, humans will often work against their interests with non-kin, such as gift giving. Of course, the explanation can be reciprocal altruism: if I give to person A now, they will return the favor. Vampire bats, for instance, engage in this (Lents 2016). However, people donate organs and blood, give to charities, and sometimes help random strangers with no guarantee of reciprocation.

At risk of not providing a deeper discussion or unnecessarily wading into tumultuous waters, I leave the reader here pondering this puzzle. In part, this issue of competition v. cooperation is unintentionally central to one key debate in sociological theory – e.g., to over simplify, between functionalisms and conflict theories. But, more importantly, this issue begins to open the door to both the promises and problems of thinking evolutionarily in sociology. Besides rational-choice theorists – who many sociologists vehemently disagree with – sociologists, for the most part, explicitly or implicitly reject the idea that humans are self-interested. The Marxian strand of sociology has canonized the maxim that humans are naturally good, communal creatures and it is the existing social structure that makes us bad. Less recalled is Durkheim’s counter narrative in which humans are naturally self-interested creatures in need of social integration and moral regulation.

Ironically,  neither position is wrong, per se. Humans are, like all animals, self-interested. Given the right circumstances, many humans – though, importantly, not all – resort to cannibalism if it means survival; and, not just eating dead relatives, but in some cases, killing to survive. However, cultural maxims, like the Golden Rule, exist in all societies that we know of, which implies humans are inclined to help kin, fictive kin, close others, and, potentially, strangers. But, this inclination requires, particularly the further out we go in terms of closeness, some normative pressure and real/imagined sanctions. Our ability to self-regulate (e.g., shame) points towards evolution favoring altrusitic behavior (more on this in a future post), but we also need structural and cultural formations to support and amplify these propensities vis-a-vis our other inclinations.

Ultimately, the sociologist must deal not only with the thorny issues of self-interest v. altruism when thinking evolutionarily, but as we will see in the next post, with a whole host of issues regarding selection, variation, and fitness.

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Multi-Level Neo-Darwinism: The Good and Bad

I realized as I wrote this entry that a follow up that should have preceded this is in order. The follow up, or probably two-part entry, would need to provide for the uninitiated, first, the basics of biological evolution and then, second, the big issues in an evolutionary sociology that attempts to borrow biological principles. Yet, this entry was written and I feel good about sharing it as a warm up to the more general discussion. In part, because while there are a range of evolutionary sociologists and sociologies, there are good reasons to start with one that not only uses Darwinian ideas, but also attempts to modify them. So, I apologize ahead of time for not doing some of the front end work first, but promise it will come.


For social evolution, the principal question is what is selection working on? For biologists, it works on the gene or, in actuality, its expression in phenotypic form. G.W. Runciman’s (2009The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection argues that there are three levels of selection, not just one. In addition to selection working on genes (or their phenotypic expression as personality traits) that affect patterned behavior, there is also the meme ( expressed as attitudes [affectual-moral] and beliefs [cognitive/intellectual]) and institutionalized dyads (expressed as generalized role sets). In short, evolutionary sociology is interested in how some behavioral patterns come to be reproduced horizontally (diffuse across a community) or vertically (across generations), and it is not simply a product of genetic reproduction. It can also be a matter of social learning or imitation (at the cultural level) or imposed through authority, power, coercion, or taken for grantedness (at the social level). As a Weberian, it is clearly this latter that Runciman feels most excited about.

Selection, then, proceeds by lateral transmission (e.g., genetic drift, human migration), homology (replication), or convergence (same environmental conditions drive similar solutions). Each level, then, operates independently, but in interrelationship to the level “above” it. So, when environmental changes occur, some behavioral patterns become more adaptive to survival and reproduction, but these patterns are only “fit” in so far as they become meaningful forces at the cultural level where learning or imitation allow these new patterns to be acquired. Once diffuse, they can become institutionalized at the social level, which, in turn, means they are imposed on individuals or classes of individuals by way of power, authority, and sanctions. As such, co-evolution occurs through gene-meme interaction or through meme-dyad interaction. Fitness or adaptivity is measured by the propensity to reproduce, horizontally (across populations) and vertically (across generations), these new behavioral patterns. Gene/traits reproduce sexually; meme/attitudes-beliefs reproduce through diffusion; and, roles/dyads/systacts reproduce via institutions and other structured units.

The central point is that each level produces emergent processes irreducible to other levels. This basic point, and the scaffolding sketched above, allows us to think through the good of the theory.

  1. The multi-level model resolves one of the worst aspects of sociobiology and its close cousins: the reduction of all behavior to the innate desire to sexually reproduce genetic codes. This dubious claim has led to just-so explanations of nearly every phenomenon, even World War I and II (Gat 2008). Rather, evolution can happen at levels besides the genetic, which explains a wider range of behavior more satisfyingly. For instance, why would a religious sect like the Biblical Age Essenes or the Shakers, institutionalize a behavioral pattern such as celibacy if we could not defy our genetic drives? It seems to go directly against the logic of reproduction, yet both of these groups consciously chose this pattern and still reproduced their culture for several generations.
  2. Relatedly, this multi-level emphasis allows for another solution to a basic criticism. Critics of sociocultural evolution have long chaffed at the idea of fitness, arguing what is often fit for one segment of society is not for others. Indeed, this critique rests on a point still forgotten by many evolutionary sociologists: the one-to-one relationship between biological evolution and sociocultural evolution has always been one of metaphor more than perfect overlap. By adding that what may be “adaptive” or capable of reproducing one level (e.g., memes) may not be adaptive at another (e.g., genes). Moreover, when we add the structural level, we are able to see reproduction is less about the fitness of the total society, per se, and more so about who has the ability to impose whose patterns. And, of course, Runciman’s model, as Weberian, allows for and encourages even contingencies that shape the longevity of “fitness.” Paul Froese (2008), for instance, highlights the efforts by Stalin’s Soviet Union to eradicate religion, causing a “black market” so to speak of religion. The imposed behavioral patterns manifest in public and official environments, but in private places, subcultural memes proliferated – at their own great risk, of course.

These two bigger points align with several useful advantages – not confined, to be sure, to Runciman, but still worth pulling from him. The first is the total abandonment of the progressivism of older sociological theories of evolution; theories better characterized as developmentalist and not evolutionary. Some theories offer two-societal types (Gemeinschaft->GesellschaftMechanical->Organic), three-types (Savage->Barbarian->Civilized [Morgan/Veblen]), or multi-stage models (Marx’s historical materialism; Bellah’s religious evolution), yet all implicitly lack a serious engagement with biological evolution. In short, they end up assuming linearity and direction, typically are ill-aligned with empirical evidence, and, sometimes explicitly, western-centric. A multi-level selectionist model avoids the teleology of older sociological theories of evolution while also bringing their methodological utility closer to historical comparative research that emphasizes contingency, unpredictability, and mulit-linearity.

An additional advantage, one that I have argued for some time (Abrutyn and Lawrence 2010), is the recognition of differential tempos in evolution. Though still controversial in the biological sciences (cf. Mayr 2002), and even in the social sciences (Sanderson 2014), the idea that evolution can be punctuated or quite rapid is plausible; particularly at Runciman’s cultural level in which ideas and behaviors spread throughout a population in a classic S-curve: slow at first, and then quickly accelerating, and slowing only once it has saturated the population (Henrich 2001). Furthermore, both Durkheim and Spencer were aware of the potential for social extinction, which can be quite punctuated. When economic markets collapse fast, whole economic sectors may be selected against and disappear from the landscape. Likewise, wars and conquest – especially in the past – often wiped whole cultural and social assemblages away, either absorbing bits and pieces into the dominant culture or simply destroying the whole population and its variations. Of course, it is important to draw distinctions between biological and sociocultural extinction: the loss of a gene pool may never be recovered, yet museums and other modes of cultural storage can preserve variations that may be selected upon later (e.g., Mesopotamian religion is dead, for all intents and purposes, but any person with access to a library could draw partially from what we know to bring a new religious movement to foment).

Now, however, the bad. I am still unconvinced by the unit of selection at the cultural level. To be sure, Runciman adds necessary caveats that memes do not replicate like genes, and are subject to individual idiosyncracies and our ability to interpret, reinterpret, and misinterpret. Yet, what exactly a meme is, is hard to ascertain (and this subject itself deserves it own blog down the road). Runciman is fond of referring to them as “items and packages,” but what are they? Are they whole systems of ideas and practices a la Durkheim’s Elementary Forms? Are they smaller units of culture, like a tool or a basic idea? Can they be both? Likewise, what our biological dispositions are remain equally murky. I am comfortable with the argument that humans have some biological capacities delimiting what is possible socially, but without being more specified, gene-culture co-evolution becomes more “just-so” and less empirically grounded.

Two other criticisms are worth pointing out, as they will inform future blog entries. The first is Runciman’s Weberianism. I agree with him that there is an evolutionary selectionism in Weber, even if Weber would object. I also agree that carriers are central to the story. But, in Runciman’s own examples the carriers sort of fade into the background as deus ex machina, whereas I would (and do [Abrutyn 2014; Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015]) argue that they play a central role in understanding and explaining both cultural and social evolution. This point leads to the second criticism: while the move towards thinking through selection and selection pressures is essential to a more satisfactory theory of social evolution (cf. Turner 2003 for an argument), selection pressures are often a catch-all idea that receives less attention and serious thought than I think it deserves. If we are talking about mechanisms that select for or against different types of variation, we need to be precise and clear.

All of which leads to the more general criticism I have with neo-Darwinian sociology: it ignores or takes for granted the ways in which societies evolve that are not Darwinian. While there is no denying competition is a powerful factor in sociology, a not insignificant number of theories delve into the role cooperation plays in creating social power and, thus, the ability to transform societies in qualitatively distinct ways. Group selection – which is hotly debated (Wilson and Dugatkin 1999; Boehm 2012; Bowles and Gintis 2013) – appears to be a very real process, as the success of human societies and the general growth in size, scale, and complexity over just the last 12000 years demands more explanation than just pure brutish selfishness or reciprocal altruism. Like memes, this issue will deserve its own essay, but I will say a few words about sociological selection.

There are probably four types of selection that are distinct enough from Darwinian that they are worth mentioning; hree of which have already been discussed in detail elsewhere (Turner and Abrutyn 2018). Named after their founders, Durkheimian, Spencerian, Marxian, and I would add, Weberian selection are all processes that do not operate on blind, directionless selection processes driven by competition over scarce resources. The closest to Darwin’s model is Durkheim, but he not only recognized the purposeful efforts collectives made to reduce competition, he also recognized that specialization and differentiation were key solutions to the problem of scarcity; expand carrying capacity. Of course, so did Spencer, but Spencer’s model rests on selection pressures – either exogenous like hostile neighbors or endogenous like growing heterogeneity, stratification, and inequality – as affecting the whole society and efforts to innovate structurally or culturally reducing this pressure. Evolution, then, for Spencer is purposeful, at the group-level, and involves the creation of social mutations, so to speak. Marxian selection is also purposeful and while deprivation matters to his thinking, the bases of his form of selection rests on the fact that collectives sometimes mobilize against each other, and this conflict can result in the absorption of memes or genes, their extinction, or some strange amalgam. Finally, Weberian selection clarifies these other processes by focusing on the actual agents of cultural evolution: the carrier groups or what I have called institutional entrepreneurs and their role in all of these forms of selection, but also in ways unique to Weber’s own thoughts on carriers and historical change.

In the next entry, I will talk a bit about the nuts and bolts of biological evolution and will follow this entry up with a discussion of the nuts and bolts of social evolution, specifically these four types of selection, but also some of the underlying debates and issues that remain unresolved.

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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, sociological theory, and assorted topics. For now, the first slew of entries, I think, will be focused on the evolution and social change. 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 humbling 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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