A Note on Evolutionary
Theory in Sociology
By Frank Elwell
Rogers State University
Macro-perspectives have largely fallen into disuse in sociology since
the 19th century-- trotted out in the opening chapter of our introductory
texts perhaps, but then largely ignored (except, perhaps, as an afterthought
at the end of key chapters). In an effort to attract students the
field has concentrated more on social-psychology; in an effort to attract
research dollars, the field has focussed on the "middle-range," simple
relationships between social phenomenon and human behavior rather than
the all-encompassing systems of the founders. Sociological theory
in general has become the arcane specialty of a few, with its own vocabulary,
limited readership, and even more limited applications.
Against this trend in sociology Gerhard Lenski and his co-authors (Jean
Lenski and Patrick Nolan) have stood almost alone. Since the mid-sixties
Lenski has been developing an ecological-evolutionary theory that is both
broad in scope and capable of synthesizing many of the insights and findings
of the discipline into a coherent framework; capable of furthering our
understanding of sociocultural systems as a whole. Through his work
Lenski presents an ecological-evolutionary theory as an integrating device,
synthesizing both the classical works of sociologists and anthropologists
and contemporary social theory and substantive findings.
The theory really begins with T. Robert Malthus, an economist and demographer
of the early 19th century. The foundation of Lenski's ecological-
evolutionary theory is the observation that human societies are part of
the world of nature. Human societies are subject to natural law.
Sociocultural systems can only be fully understood as being responsive
to the interactions of populations to their environments (1987: 55).
At the base of Lenski's perspective lies the relationship between population
and production. Like all life forms humans have a reproductive capacity
that substantially exceeds the necessary subsistence resources in the environment.
Thus, Lenski concludes, human populations tend to grow until they come
up against the limits of food production, and then they are checked (1987:
32). The checks, of course, consist of both the positive and preventive
checks that Malthus first explored in 1798. The capacity for population
growth, Lenski asserts, has been a “profoundly destabilizing force throughout
human history and may well be the ultimate source of most social and cultural
change” (1987: 32). Lenski posits that the relationships among population,
production, and environment drive the evolution of sociocultural systems.
The influence of Malthus is also clearly apparent when Lenski discusses
the nature of social inequality. Like Malthus, he asserts that we
are social animals obliged to cooperate with one another in producing a
living (1966: 24). Also like Malthus, he claims that human beings
are strongly motivated by self-interests. Lenski states: “when men
are confronted with important decisions where they are obliged to choose
between their own, or their group’s, interests and the interests of others,
they nearly always choose the former—though often seeking to hide this
fact from themselves and others” (emphasis in the original, 1966: 30).
Since most necessary resources are in short supply, he continues, a
struggle for rewards will be present in every human society. Individuals
are born with a range of innate abilities and circumstances. Thus
the root of social inequality is in our nature. Some minimal distribution
of wealth is necessary to ensure the survival of “others whose actions
are necessary” to themselves, but any surplus (goods and services over
and above the minimum required to keep necessary workers alive and productive)
will be distributed unequally (1966: 44-45).
In the earlier stages of sociocultural evolution the distribution of
resources is allocated on the basis of personal characteristics—hunting
skills or plant gathering productivity. With the development of a
more complex division of labor these inequalities become institutionalized
in class, caste, race, sex, and ethnic systems. Thus, like Malthus
before him, Lenski concludes that inequality is inevitable in any complex
sociocultural system (complex as measured by a division of labor)--though
the degree of inequality is variable across societies and through time
While it begins with Malthus, Lenski’s perspective is an integrating
device as well. By his own report, his other major theoretical influences
have been Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Thorstein
Veblen. More contemporary influences include C. Wright Mills, Leslie
White, and Marvin Harris (1991, p. xviii).
One can see the influence of Weber in Lenski’s discussion of power and
the multidimensional nature of stratification; the influence of Veblen
as Lenski writes on the importance of status and status striving; the influence
of Mills as Lenski discusses power, authority and manipulation; and the
influence of White on Lenski's discussion of the importance of technological
change. Finally, you can certainly see the influence of Harris in
Lenski’s growing focus in later editions of Human Societies on the
centrality of environmental, technological, and population variables, as
well as the importance of feedback from social structures and cultural
superstructures in determining the direction of sociocultural change.
Like evolutionary theory in biology,
Lenski puts forward ecological-evolutionary
social theory as an all-encompassing paradigm for sociology that can serve
as a viable framework to bring order and research focus to the discipline.
But should the social sciences even be using the term evolution?
Stephen J. Gould was a professor of zoology and geology and one of the
most vigorous defenders and popular teachers of natural evolution in the
last half of the 20th century. For most of his professional life
he struggled against the idea of “progress” in natural evolution, both
in the popular mind as well as among some of his professional colleagues
(see especially Full House, 1996). In several of his essays Gould
(1992 & 1996) decries the use of the term “cultural evolution” because
the process is so very different from natural selection in nature.
Gould (1992) identifies three major differences between natural evolution
and social evolution (what Gould prefers to call simply social change):
In 1996 Gould adds “Natural evolution includes no principle of predictable
progress or movement to greater complexity. But cultural change is
potentially progressive or self-complexifying because Lamarckian inheritance
[learned adaptation] accumulates favorable innovations by direct transmission,
and amalgamation of traditions [cultural contact in various forms] allows
any culture to choose and join the most useful inventions of several separate
societies” (1996, p 222).
First, cultural evolution does not rely on inherited characteristics, rather
its chief mechanism of descent is learning. Successful innovations
can be directly taught to the next generation.
Second, genetic change takes place over generations, sociocultural change
can occur within a matter of months or even days. Biological evolution
is indirect, relying upon fortuitous genetic variation that will enable
the organism to adapt to a changing environment; sociocultural adaptation
to changing natural and social environments is far more direct and potentially
Finally, and most distressing to Gould, biological evolution is a system
of divergence. Once a species becomes separate, it cannot recombine,
it is separate for ever. Yet in sociocultural evolution “transmission
across lineages” (cultural transmission) is probably the chief avenue of
change (1992, p. 65).
Because of the different mechanisms of change (learning, cultural contact,
and sheer speed of change) in sociocultural systems and the apparent directionality
to sociocultural change (increasing complexity), Gould expresses the wish
that social scientists would just use the more neutral term “cultural change”
and stop confusing people.
Yet, as Gould knew full well, biology and the social sciences have always
had a symbiotic relationship in terms of evolution. Both Darwin and Wallace
(a cofounder of natural evolutionary theory) credited Malthus as a critical
influence on the development of the natural theory. The term “evolution”
itself was actually popularized by another social scientist and contemporary
of Darwin’s, Herbert Spencer. Darwin did not even use the term in
the first edition of Origin of Species, he preferred “descent with modifications”
(Gould, 1996, p. 137).
Lenski (1991, pp. 66-68) writes of the same basic differences between
natural and social evolution as those noted by Gould. It is important
to keep in mind the differences as well as the parallels between natrual
and social evolution, for practitioners within biology as well as those
in the social sciences. While drawing false parallels between growing
complexity (sometimes simply labeled “progress”) in sociocultural systems
with natural systems, many biologists misled themselves and the general
public into believing that life naturally progresses toward complexity.
At the same time, social observers have been misled by faulty analogies
between social and biological evolution as well. The misapplication
of biological evolution by the “Social Darwinists,” 19th century social
scientists who characterized nature’s struggle as bloody and brutish and
used this faulty biological model to justify the inequality around them,
still haunts social evolutionary theory today.
But if used with some precision, social evolutionary theory, particularly
social evolution grounded in ecology (there are other varieties), has great
potential. For unlike Gould’s neutral term of “cultural change,”
the term social evolution does encompass a theory that is truly useful
in understanding sociocultural stability and change, of providing a comprehensive
view of human societies.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1991. “The Panda’s Thumb of Technology,”
in Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 59-75.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. Full House: The Spread of Excellence
from Plato to Darwin. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Lenski, Gerhard Emmanuel. 1966. Power and Privilege:
A Theory of Social Stratification. New York: McGraw-Hill Book
Lenski, Gerhard and Jean Lenski. 1986. Human Societies:
An Introduction to Macrosociology. New York: McGraw-Hill Book
Lenski, Gerhard and Jean Lenski and Patrick Nolan. 1991. Human
Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology. New York: McGraw-Hill
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