Theories of Social Evolution in the Founders of Sociology

Theories of Social Evolution in the Founders of Sociology


Evolutionism is pervasive in macrosociology.
While there is a widespread belief among biologists and social scientists that evolutionary theory
in the social sciences was borrowed from biology, the truth is far more complex. Darwin and
other biologists borrowed from the ideas of Malthus and Spencer, just as Spencer was influenced
by Darwin and other biologists. In fact, the term “evolution” itself was popularized
by Darwin’s contemporary, Herbert Spencer, who was writing about social evolution years
before Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin did not use the term evolution in the first
edition of Origin, preferring instead “descent with modifications” (Gould 1996, 137). But there is more than simple analogy involved
in biological and social evolution; sociocultural evolution is but a specific case of the general
evolutionary process. Human populations are subject to environmental and biological influences
just as animal populations are. Evolution is a process by which populations are formed
and transformed in response to changes in the environment; in organic evolution, what
is being formed and transformed are inheritable biological characteristics; in sociocultural
evolution, it is cultural information. The distinguishing characteristic of evolution
is cumulative change, a process by which continuity of the organism–organic or social–is paramount
while some elements of this organism are transformed or replaced to more successfully adapt to
the environment. Cumulative change is a distinctive kind of change associated with systems composed
of multiple, interrelated parts. Within these systems, some parts change while others remain
unchanged. Thus, cumulative change is a process that
combines elements of continuity with elements of change; many parts of the system are preserved
for extended periods while new parts are added and other parts are either replaced or transformed.
Earlier adaptations are “absorbed and incorporated” into newer biological or social systems, thus
greatly influencing later adaptations–foreclosing many possible evolutionary paths, or opening
up new ones. Just as an animal’s past evolutionary history
as well as its relation to the present environment is important in understanding that animal’s
adaptation to that environment, so too, a society’s history is extremely important in
understanding its present structure and its relation to its environment. Finally, it should be noted that the process
of evolution itself–inorganic, organic, social–is itself cumulative and evolving. Thus, just
as there are differences between inorganic and organic evolution, there are differences
between organic and sociocultural evolution. In organic evolution it is inheritable genetic
characteristics that are the chief mechanism of descent through the generations; in sociocultural
evolution the chief mechanism is learning that is preserved through cultural institutions,
oral traditions, graphic depiction, and more recently written, electronic, and photographic
means. Rather than relying upon the chance transmutation
of genetic material, sociocultural evolution relies upon directly teaching the next generation
successful innovations. Because of this the speed of sociocultural evolution is potentially
many times faster than organic evolution and, because of the nature of human beings it is
potentially subject to purposeful direction. Though it should be noted that this speed
and potential purposefulness itself is evolving, being incredibly slow and subject to little
purposeful human action through much of the prehistoric and into the historic record (this
change in purposefulness, of course, can be characterized as the rationalization process). Change in human’s earliest social forms, hunting
and gathering societies, took place, if at all, over many generations; the first great
transition, the Neolithic revolution in which hunting and gathering societies began to domesticate
plants and animals took place within single sociocultural systems over thousands of years.
While even this is far faster than organic evolution, the ever quickening pace of change
since is testimony to the cumulative and evolving character of the evolutionary process itself. Perhaps a more serious difference in organic
and social evolution involves divergence. In biological evolution once a species becomes
distinct from others, it cannot recombine; it becomes separate forever. In sociocultural evolution one of the chief
mechanisms for acquiring adaptive strategies is contact with other sociocultural systems.
Because of this there is the potential–many social evolutionists would say the long-term
likelihood–that favorable adaptations will be adopted across sociocultural systems, leading
to the long-term convergence of technologies, institutions, ideologies, and beliefs. It is notable that the vast majority of societies
have experienced little change over the course of their histories. But within the global
system as a whole, societies have become larger, developed more sophisticated technologies,
and more complex social structures. Sociocultural evolution exists on two distinct
levels, one in terms of individual societies which follow a divergent evolutionary path,
and the other in terms of the global system of societies which follows a convergent path. At the societal level, individuals within
societies respond to changes in their natural and social environments. Changes in the natural
environment include changes in soil fertility, forestation, and available animal and plant
species to exploit; all these changes are often induced by human activities as well as natural
environmental change. Changes in social environments include all
sorts of contact with other sociocultural systems, including economic, military, and
social. It is these changes in natural and social environments which, bounded by a society’s
distinct history as well as its storehouse of cultural and technical knowledge, cause
individuals to initiate adaptations within sociocultural systems. The global system of societies evolves through
a process of “inter-societal selection” that has dramatically reduced the number of sociocultural
systems over the last 10,000 years. As some societies have grown in size, technology,
complexity, as well as economic and military power, it has allowed them to prevail in conflict
over territory and resources with societies that have maintained more traditional sociocultural
patterns. Successful adaptations are spread among societies
through social contact, military conquest, and economic exploitation. The number and
nature of these contacts depend upon geographic location and barriers (deserts, mountain ranges,
oceans) as well as technological levels (particularly transportation and communication technologies)
of the societies involved. Societies that were environmentally positioned
(in terms of the natural and social environment) to adapt innovations that led to increases
in productivity, population, structural complexity, and economic and military power are those
that have survived to transmit their culture and institutional patterns to others. Human
societies are of a single species; successful adaptations undertaken by individual societies
in response to changes in their natural or social environments are passed on through
the inter-societal selection process. The third chapter of Sociocultural Systems:
Principles of Structure and Change is entitled “Evolutionism in the Work of the Founders”
and outlines the social evolutionary theories of Marx, Durkheim, Spencer, and Weber. If you are interested in the big picture you
should take a look at Macro Social Theory, a book that reviews the theories of classical
macro social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim as well as the
work of many who extended their theories to better reflect modern times such as Immanuel
Wallerstein, Gerhard Lenski, and George Ritzer. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles
of Structure and Change to learn how these insights contribute to a fuller understanding
of modern societies. These books can be purchased at most online
bookstores or at Athabasca University Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca also offers
a free pdf version of the work. A significant portion of the royalties I receive
for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation in support of students in the Liberal
Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.

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