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Nine Principles of Ecological-Evolutionary Theory
By Frank W. Elwell
Since the mid-1960s Lenski has been developing an ecological-evolutionary theory that is broad is scope. The evolutionary perspective has largely fallen into disuse in sociology since Spencer and the social Darwinists. Gerhard Lenski was one of the first to go against this trend. Lenski’s theory is capable of synthesizing the insights and findings of the discipline into a coherent framework; capable of furthering our understanding of sociocultural systems as a whole. Through successive editions of a major text, he attempts to explain the origin, stability, and evolution of societies through time.
The deductive part of the theory begins from the insights of T. Robert Malthus, an economist and demographer of the early nineteenth century. From Malthus Lenski borrows the observation that human societies are part of the world of nature. Human societies are subject to natural laws. Sociocultural systems can only be fully understood as being responsive to the interactions of populations to their environments. Like Malthus’s theory, at the base of ecological-evolutionary theory 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. The checks, of course, consist of both the positive and preventive checks that Malthus first explored in 1798. The capacity for population growth has been a “profoundly destabilizing force throughout human history and may well be the ultimate source of most social and cultural change. Lenski posits that the relationships among population, production, and environment drive the evolution of sociocultural systems.
Earlier adaptations are “absorbed and incorporated” into newer biological or social systems, thus greatly influencing later adaptations. 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 or heritage is extremely important in understanding societal stability and change. True to its subject matter and method of development, Lenski’s theory itself has evolved over the years as he examined more evidence and read more widely in the historical, anthropological, and sociological literature. My summary here will focus on the project as it stands today. In this paper we will examine the nine basic principles undergirding Lenski’s theory.
1) Humans are by nature, social animals who engage in “antagonistic cooperation” in order to maximize their need satisfaction.
Social life—cooperation with others—is necessary for both the survival of the species and for the “maximum satisfaction of human needs and desires.” Human needs and desires include common basic physical needs across all human societies, such as the need for food, drink, sex, play, and personal survival. These basic physical needs are rooted in our genetic heritage. Humans seek to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. Since we are by nature social beings, the society into which we are born has a strong effect on shaping many of these basic needs and desires as well as creating secondary needs and desires. In this list Lenski includes such drives as the need for love and affection, respect and prestige from our fellows, and for some type of meaning and order in life.
Since societies differ radically, the “nature and intensity” of these needs vary across societies. Since individual experience within a particular society differ radically, the “nature and intensity” of these needs vary among individuals within the same society as well. In addition to human needs and desires, Lenski adds, human beings have a highly developed consciousness and a sense of individual self; and we are often ruled by powerful emotions and appetites. Of all human needs and desires, Lenski notes, survival is given the highest priority by the vast majority of human beings. This fact means that the threat of physical violence is a powerful deterrent in human affairs. It also means that resources important for survival (food and water and the resources needed to procure them) are highly valued. Other widespread goals are health, prestige or social honor, salvation, physical comfort, and love and affection. Still other goals are sought, Lenski posits, because they help us attain these goals, things such as money, office or position within an organization, or education and training. These lead to the “antagonistic” character of social life, for these two constants give humans strong motivation for putting their own needs and desires ahead of others, and are primarily responsible for the conflict and tension so characteristic in human societies.
2) Like Malthus before him, Lenski notes that our reproductive capacity exceeds our productive capacity.
This is a normal feature of nature, which scatters the seeds of life widely, but is comparatively miserly in providing food and resources for this life. It is inevitable then, both men remark, that many will die in premature deaths, and others will live close to the edge of starvation. Population level and growth, along with subsistence technology, become prime causal agents in Lenski’s general ecological-evolutionary theory. Lenski also asserts that humans appear to have an insatiable appetite for goods and services. “This is true chiefly because the goods and services have a status value as well as a utilitarian value.” Prestige or social honor, you will recall, is one of the chief needs or goals that Lenski identifies as universal. As a secondary or derivative goal, however, what goods and services bring social honor vary across societies and through time.
What social actions are accorded high prestige and social honor also vary. Granting social honor (or scorn) is one of several ways society shapes the individual to the societal needs. The struggle for resources within a society is not necessarily violent. The struggle is often carried out within a system of economic and political rules. But even in the absence of violence, the struggle is serious for the men and women involved. Human beings are unequally endowed with physical abilities to compete in this struggle; though this is not the chief reason for the inequalities we see throughout history, it is a factor worthy of note.
3) Human societies are part of the global ecosystem and cannot be understood unless this factor is taken fully into account.
Human societies are rooted in the environment, part of the world of nature. As such, a society’s environment has a profound influence on its social structure and culture. Lenski goes so far as to claim that all of a society’s characteristics are ultimately due to just three things: the influence of the environment (both biophysical and sociocultural), the influence of our species’ genetic heritage, and the influence of prior sociocultural experience itself. Sociocultural systems are the primary ways in which human beings adapt to their biological, physical, and social environments. A society’s sociocultural environment consists of communications and contact with other sociocultural systems. Adaptations to biophysical and sociocultural environments, Lenski asserts, are critical. The welfare of societal members as well as their very survival depends on how well their society adapts to these environments. These adaptations to changing biological, physical, and social environments are the very essence of social evolution.
4) Like most sociologists Lenski asserts that society is a system; however, he continues, it is an imperfect system at best.
Analogies between societies and biological organisms or mechanical systems can be misleading, for such an analogy calls to mind perfect coordination and integration of the various parts of the system. This is not the case with sociocultural systems, in which the parts have varying degrees of autonomy and independence from the overall system. Lenski asserts that societies have two basic goals: 1) The maintenance of the political status quo within the society; and 2) The maximization of production. By maintenance of the political status quo Lenski means that societies strive to minimize political change through laws and the machinery of state, police, military, and other agencies of control. Societies also maintain themselves through fostering political ideologies that justify and celebrate the state. The maximization of production is achieved through promoting technological change or through wars of conquest. Highly stratified societies with powerful elites, Lenski posits, tend to emphasize political stability, those less stratified favor maximizing production.
5) Economic goods and services are not distributed equally to all members of society —some always get more than others.
Lenski believes that the distribution of goods and services (as well as prestige) is largely determined by power. Taking his cue from Weber, Lenski defines power as the ability of a person or group to achieve their goals even when opposed by others. Also consistent with Weber, Lenski asserts that stratification is a “multi-dimensional phenomenon,” that is, populations are ranked along various dimensions such as occupation, education, property, racial-ethnic status, age, and gender.
6) Goods and services within societies are distributed on the basis of need (subsistence goods) and power (surplus goods).
These are the two basic laws of distribution, and while they are, on the surface at least, somewhat contradictory, both are consistent with Lenski’s postulates on the nature of man and society. As you recall, according to Lenski human beings are social animals and need to live in cooperation with others to most efficiently achieve their needs. “Enlightened self-interest,” Lenski posits, will lead humans to “share the product of their labors to the extent required to ensure the survival and continued productivity of those others whose actions are necessary or beneficial to themselves.” However, Lenski adds, human beings are primarily motivated by self-interest. The existence of self-interest leads Lenski to posit that any goods over and above the minimum needed to keep the majority of producers alive and productive will be distributed on the basis of power. This has enormous consequences for the degree of inequality within societies.
7) Elites rule through a variety of means, but force undergirds all power and authority.
Force is a very inefficient and expensive way to maintain order. “Though it is the most effective instrument for seizing power in a society, and though it always remains the foundation of any system of inequality, it is not the most effective instrument for retaining and exploiting a position of power and deriving the maximum benefit from it.” Thus, those who seize power will soon move to “legitimize” their rule and transform force into authority. Power is legitimated through three major institutions. First, of course, is the rule of law. The second strategy employed by elites is through shaping public opinion through institutions such as educational institutions, religious institutions, and the media. Many of those who work in these institutions are beholden to elite owners or donors; if not directly dependent on elites, many working in these institutions are open to threats or blandishments. Consensus and coercion, Lenski points out, are far more closely related than many appreciate. “Coercive power can often be used to create a new consensus.” The process of legitimation is facilitated by the press of daily events on the lives of the vast majority of people.
8) Societies are remarkably stable systems that tend to resist change.
One of the major reasons for the stability of many social and cultural elements in many societies appears to be their adaptive value to the sociocultural system itself. Another reason is that human beings are creatures of habit, very reluctant to change. Another impediment to sociocultural change is the need for some standardization. This is due to the fact that most sociocultural change is built upon or added to existing structures and institutions. While newer innovations may offer many advantages, past adaptations of the society may prohibit the widespread adaptation of these innovations. QWERTY and driving on the right side of the road for example.
Another reason for sociocultural stability over time is the systemic character of the society itself. Most of the elements of a sociocultural system are linked to others. Change in one element often causes change in many others. When confronted with innovation the individual performs a cost/benefit analysis to reveal if the costs of adapting the innovation are worth the anticipated benefits. Cost is conceived as a primary factor in the individual decision making process of adaptation. Lenski places the individual members of the society as the prime actors in adaptation, cost-benefit is the calculus they use in making their decisions.
9) Societies evolve in response to changes in their natural and social environments.
We will examine this 9th point in some detail in the next presentation on the evolutionary part of Lenski’s theory.
For a more extensive discussion of Lenski’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
Elwell, F. (2009) Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Lenski, G. (2005). Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications. Colorado: Paradigm.
Lenski, G., & Lenski, J. (1987). Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology (5th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Lenski, G., Lenski, J., & Nolan, P. (1991). Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology (7th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Lenski, G. (1966). Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. New York: Random House.
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Ecological-Evolutionary Theory you should use the following format:
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