Ecological-Evolutionary Social Theory
by Frank W. Elwell
Ecological-evolutionary theory begins with Malthus. It was Malthus who
insisted that human societies have
There is great need of a perspective to integrate the
diverse findings of the social sciences. This need certainly exists
among practitioners of the craft. Without theory we collect facts
and “middle range” theories without end, we lose focus and coherence. Theory
should guide research agendas, informing us what to look for (and where
to look); how to interpret the “facts”--which never really speak for themselves;
further our understanding of sociocultural systems, not simply add to the
confusion. The need for holistic theory is also present among our students
(whether they realize it or not), many of whom despair of understanding
the social world around them, though they sometimes come to sociology and
anthropology in hopes of achieving such a perspective (and only rarely
find it). We are doing a grave disservice to students when we simply
present them with factual relationships with no interpretive guidelines,
no overarching vision. Finally, the need for a social science perspective
exists in society at large --members of a democratic society must understand
sociocultural systems and the dynamics of these systems if democracy is
While there is a widespread recognition of this need for
vision on the part of sociologists and anthropologists, there is not much
agreement on what that vision should be. To be effective, a successful
perspective must be powerful, integrative, simple, and comprehensive in
scope. There are only a few contemporary perspectives in sociology
and anthropology today that even attempt to provide such a holistic perspective--try
to account for the origin, maintenance and change of sociocultural systems.
Increasingly our texts advocate “eclecticism,” explaining social relationships
with any middle-range theory at hand--a prescription for scientific disaster.
Macro-perspectives have largely fallen into disuse in
the social sciences since the 19th century--trotted out in our introductory
texts, and then largely ignored (except, perhaps, as an afterthought).
Ecological-evolutionary theory is different, however. It is capable
of providing both coherence and integration of the disciplines, it is capable
of furthering our understanding of sociocultural systems.
Gerhard and Jean Lenski present an evolutionary-ecological
theory as an integrating device, synthesizing both the classical works
of sociologists and anthropologists and contemporary social theory and
findings. In their acknowledgments in the preface to their 5th edition
of Human Societies, the Lenski’s acknowledge their intellectual debt to
many social scientists, Malthus being the first among them (1987: xv).
The Lenskis present an ecological- evolutionary theory of social organization
and change--and as they acknowledge, Malthus has profoundly influenced
The foundation of Lensi'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 their 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, they
conclude, human populations tend to grow unless they are checked (1987:
32). The checks, of course, consist of both the positive and preventive
checks that Malthus examined. The capacity for population growth,
the Lenski’s assert, has been a “profoundly destabilizing force throughout
human history and may well be the ultimate source of most social and cultural
change” (1987: 32). The Lenski’s posit that population-production-environment
relationships drive the evolution of sociocultural systems.
The influence of Malthus is also clearly apparent when
the Lenski’s discuss the nature of social inequality. They assert
that we are social animals obliged to cooperate with one another in producing
a living (1966: 24). But, like Malthus, they also claim that human
beings are strongly motivated by self-interests. The Lenskis state:
“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, they continue,
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 them, they conclude 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
Though population-production-ecological relationships
are at the base of the Lenski’s system, their theory tends to incorporate
numerous explanatory relationships within these broad confines. The Lenski’s
developed their general ecological-evolutionary theory as an integrating
device for the diverse insights of many classical theorists and contemporary
observers. A particular brand of ecological-evolutionary theory,
that of Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism, has been developed as an
alternative analytical system. Unlike the Lenski’s, who have been
significantly influenced by numerous classical theorists, Harris’ theory
is truly beholden to only two--Malthus and Marx.
The influence of Malthus is arguably the dominant source
of Harris’s cultural materialism. For Harris, like Malthus, it is self-interests
that motivate human beings (1979: 60-64). For Harris, again like
Malthus, self-interest encompasses more than simple cost/benefit economic
calculations. Harris defines four basic “bio-psychological needs”
of individuals that motivate human activity. Two of these needs,
the need to eat and the need for sex, are shared out-right with Malthus’
basic assumptions. A third motivating factor enumerated by Harris,
the need for love and affection, is implicit in Malthus’ analyses (as evidenced
by his concern for “happiness” and the importance he attributes to bonds
between husband and wife, and children). Finally, Harris's fourth
need, the desire to conserve human energy, is not directly present in the
Malthusian system. But Malthus does frequently state that without
the goad of necessity, human activity and striving to better one’s condition
will erode, thus implying that people will act to conserve their human
energy in important cost-benefit decisions.
According to Harris, It is through pursuing cost/benefit
options—adaptive changes in the activity and thought of individual human
beings in their attempts to meet their bio-psychological needs—that provide
the driving force of sociocultural change. Both Harris and Malthus are
in agreement that it is the perceived self-interests of individuals—particularly
as regarding children, work, and standard of living—that determine whether
or not measures are taken to prevent births.
It is not the “greatest” bio-psychological good for the
greatest number of people, however, that determines the evolution of sociocultural
systems. Harris posits the existence of elites in every society—elites
whose interests “weigh more heavily in the balance of advantages and disadvantages”
in adapting or rejecting social innovation (1979: 61). These elites
are based on class, sex, and ethinic hierarchies. The amount of power
the elite wield, however, varies across societies and through time (1979:
The foundation of Harris’ theory is that a society’s
mode of production (technology and work patterns, especially in regard
to food) and mode of reproduction (population level and growth) in interaction
with the natural environment has profound effects on sociocultural stability
and change. He notes that over the long haul increasing productivity
and population growth are linked (1979: 67). Early adoption of technology
was not used to increase the living standards of the bulk of the population—through
the 19th century people worked more hours and had a lower standard of living
(as measured by nutrition, health, and longevity) despite the adoption
of more efficient technology. Harris then asks why productivity and
population are linked, and provides a very Malthusian explanation.
Malthus, Harris reports, correctly perceived that population
has been checked throughout the pre-industrial era through positive checks.
Re-labeling these positive checks as “malign population regulating techniques,”
Harris writes that they involve such practices as infanticide, body-trauma
abortion, and nutritional neglect of infants. Harris also points
to some “benign techniques” (similar to Malthus’ “preventive checks”) available
to pre-industrial populations—such as homosexuality, coitus interruptus,
and delayed marriage. But, Harris asserts, the evidence of preventive
checks in pre-industrial populations cannot explain the “remarkably slow”
growth of population in the pre-industrial era. For hundreds of thousands
of years before agriculture the growth of human populations was .0007 percent--a
doubling time measured in thousands of years, rather than the inherent
capacity of healthy human populations to double every 25 years (the 25
year estimate of Malthus is consistent with modern day estimates). It is
apparent, Harris claims, that pre-industrial peoples kept their numbers
in line primarily through positive checks. Assuming that the amount of
food gathered and hunted by these societies was constant, Harris estimates
that fully 50 percent of all females born were prevented from reaching
reproductive age. “In other words, because prehistoric cultures kept
their numbers in line with what they could afford by killing or neglecting
their own children, they were vulnerable to the lure of innovations that
seemed likely to allow more children to live” (1979: 69).
The relationships between productivity and population—
both Malthusian preoccupations—form the heart of Harris’ cultural materialism
theory. The Malthusian costs of keeping population in line with what
technology-environmental relationships will sustain, can account for both
institutional structures and widespread cultural beliefs of pre-industrial
societies. Societies are systems, Harris asserts, and widespread
social practices and beliefs must be compatible with the infrastructure
of society (the modes of production and reproduction and their interaction
with the environment). The infrastructure represents the ways in
which a society regulates both the type and amount of resources needed
to sustain the society. A good deal of Harris’ work, therefore, is
concerned with explaining cultural systems (norms, ideologies, values,
beliefs) and widespread social institutions and practices through the use
of population, production, and ecological variables—an explicit functional
analysis of sociocultural systems that again mirrors Malthus (Harris, 1977,
1978, & 1981).
Harris apparently believes Malthus’ theory of poverty
underestimates structural inequality (exploitation due to the existence
of elites)—at least in terms of a theory of sufficient generality to encompass
all human societies. Harris claims that the amount of inequality
due to elite exploitation and the amount due to population growth—like
the extent of the power of elites themselves—probably depend upon a variety
of factors of the sociocultural system, and are therefore an empirical
question (1979: 74). But both men are in apparent agreement that
two of the major factors that contribute to inequality are elite dominance
and population growth (and both add structural elite interests that encourage
population growth in order to hold down the cost of labor and expand internal
markets). Of these two factors, Malthus puts the most weight on population
growth itself. While Malthus clearly recognizes the existence of
exploitative elites in society he never systematically incorporated this
insight into his general theory (p. 145 & p. 169). Harris, as
a Neo-Malthusian influenced by other social theorists (particularly Marx),
integrates both population and structural elites into his theory of cultural
One significant difference between Harris and Malthus
lies in their treatment of birth control in the modern era. While
Harris asserts that there are structural and ideological components to
preventive population control—such phenomenon as delayed marriage and abstinence—there
is also an increasing technological component. Unlike Malthus, Harris
explicitly and systematically explores the increasing availability of birth
control technology as a way for people to more efficiently control their
fertility. Harris claims that the development of the technology of
population control plays a central role in the evolution of cultures, perhaps
even greater than the technology of production itself (1979: 70).
The difference between productive and reproductive technology is that the
first is applied to increase production, the second applied to decrease
reproduction. Harris maintains that both are central in understanding
modern industrial societies.
Both productive and reproductive technologies are attempts
to regulate the flow and type of energy and raw materials from the environment.
Both technologies are included in Harris’s “infrastructure.” They
represent technologies and practices by which sociocultural systems adapt
to their environments. Because this activity is so crucial to the
survival of individuals and sociocultural systems, Harris maintains, the
adoption of these technologies will have tremendous impact on human institutions
and cultural values and beliefs. Harris fully explores the impact
of productive and reproductive factors (including technology) on social
institutions (such as the family, the workplace, etc.) and widespread ideals,
ideologies and beliefs (the double standard, feminism, eating taboos).
Malthus, a man of his times, failed to explore the implications
of the new reproductive technologies. Rather than examine the implications
of these technologies for the future of population growth, Malthus simply
asserts his belief that they would be harmful to marriage and family--and
then examines them no more. Malthus never developed either the logic
or the empirical evidence to back up this claim. In addition, he
failed to detail how the introduction of these new reproductive technologies
might affect the balance between positive and preventive checks.
This does not fulfill the modern social scientific ideal of value neutrality,
of keeping your moral-political bias out of your analysis as much as possible.
And for this Malthus can be rightly criticized.
But considering birth control technologies in the Malthusian
system is not very difficult, nor does it significantly alter his basic
theory. Birth control has been added to the mix, but it has not changed
fundamental relationships. The cost-benefit decisions of couples
are still determining factors. Birth control does not control population--either
people control it (sometimes using this technology), or nature does.
Regardless, the necessity and character of these checks have considerable
effects on the rest of the sociocultural system.
Finally, both Harris and Malthus agree on the permanence
of the population problem. Let us suppose that the current population
explosion is over. A combination of economic development and education
(thus leading to the preventive check of birth control), positive checks
(high mortality), and totalitarian decree (as in modern day China) stabilizes
the population on earth in the next century to the expected eleven billion--almost
double our present population level. With the stabilization of population
levels we are still not out of the Malthusian woods. Recall the Malthus’
theory is not one of a simple rise of population until it outstrips its
environment. Rather, it is a theory that centers on the relationships
of population, production and the environment over time. The need
to continually balance our environmental resources, reproduction and production
capabilities has grave consequences for the entire sociocultural system.
Because these consequences are those of sociocultural survival they necessarily
affect all other parts of the sociocultural system. And it must always
be so. Consistent with Malthus, Harris (1979: 282-283) points out
that in the contest of man versus nature there can be no final victory.
The race is never over, any technological advantage can only be temporary.
Population must be continually checked and this basic fact is as true in
today's hyper-industrial societies as it was in hunting and gathering societies.
Harris' framework is capable of integrating a diverse
range of theoretical insights and empirical observations within its scope.
In particular, Harris' concept of structure and superstructure can be further
developed to incorporate more diverse sociological and anthropological
theory (see Elwell, 1999). But Malthus' insistence that relationships
between population and production are at the base of all sociocultural
systems, and that this base must necessarily have a profound effect on
the rest of the system, are the core of all ecological-evolutionary theory.
Our introductory texts should at least mention the main contributions of
Malthus to social theory; our general theory texts should make this core
This essential core, it seems to me, allows a coherent
world-view that can be used by social science practitioners and students
to better interpret their world. Like evolution in Biology, the ecological-evolutionary
paradigm in the social sciences can provide the unifying themes and context
for research and the interpretation of that observation. It enables
the social scientist to focus on problems of theoretical relevance so that
the fields can systematically advance our understanding. Facts can
never speak for themselves, observation must be guided by some overarching
vision. If systematic observation were then to reveal that the paradigm
is inadequate in its explanation, then modification of the paradigm to
incorporate the new insight is necessary. Should the new insight
be resistant to integration with the reigning paradigm, then propose a
new paradigm with greater explanatory powers. This is the process
by which the social sciences can truly advance our understanding of the
But the vast majority of the students in the social sciences
today are not going to directly practice the craft. It is in our
interests, as well as in the interests of society as a whole, to teach
our children a world-view that is consistent with both logic and observation,
not continue to bombard them with facts, middle range theories, and partial
explanations that only add to their confusion. In accordance with
Mills (1959), "The educational and political role of social science in
a democracy is to help cultivate and sustain publics and individuals that
are able to develop, to live with, and to act upon adequate definitions
of personal and social realities" (p. 192). If we fail to do this
we all become far more susceptible to the ideological views of structural
elites and other self-interested organizations.
The existence of self-interest as a major factor in human
motivation means that some inequality is built into the sociocultural system.
Because of the necessity of population checks, a sociocultural utopia based
on science and technology, human reason, socialism, capitalism, or democracy
is not part of the evolutionary process. Nor is the current postindustrial
dream of new technologies producing equality and plenty for all (Elwell,
1999). Greater equality among all men and women, social justice,
freedom and dignity will only result from the efforts of human beings to
achieve these worthy goals--they will not evolve naturally (“progress”
is not a product of either social or natural evolution). The inherent imbalance
between our ability to have children and our ability to provide them with
sustenance will always limit sociocultural systems, but this imbalance
need not condemn us to a world without hope.
There is an identifiable sociocultural evolutionary process.
In this section I will summarize that process as identified by Marvin Harris
(1979) and Lenski, Nolan, and Lenski (1995). Marvin Harris has been one
of the strongest advocates of ecological- evolutionary theory in general,
and cultural materialism in particular, for decades. Gerhard Lenski, almost
alone among contemporary sociologists, has kept the ecological-evolutionary
perspective alive in sociology. The two bodies of work have much in common.
Both are strong advocates of the centrality of infrastructural environmental
relationships in determining sociocultural evolution. Lenski (and his coauthors)
tend to put more emphasis upon a society's social environment and on structural
and superstructural feedback in general, but this is only a matter of emphasis,
not really a difference in general theory (Harris's critics are simply
incorrect when they assert that he reduces all society to mere reflections
of infrastructure). The two perspectives are almost identical; both are
in fundamental agreement with the following:
Ecological-evolutionary theoretical discussions of structural
and superstructural feedback are limited to descriptions and broad statements
that "they matter." While the theory is highly developed in terms of general
concepts and theories stemming from infrastructural-environmental relationships,
it suffers from a lack of systematic development of general concepts and
theoretical principles of structures and superstructures. This can be remedied
with a synthesis with some of the concepts and theory of Max Weber.
There is no pre-established "direction" to the social evolutionary
process. Societies evolve in response to changes in their natural environment
or as the result of contact with other societies.
Sociocultural systems evolve through the adaptations of individual
behavior. "Just as a species does not 'struggle to survive' as a collective
entity, but survives or not as a consequence of the adaptive changes of
individual organisms, so too do sociocultural systems survive or not as
a consequence of the adaptive changes in the thought and activities of
individual men and women who respond opportunistically to cost-benefit
options" (Harris, 1979: 61).
Societies can be remarkably stable over time. Hunting and
gathering societies existed with little technological, population, and
structural change for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations that depended
upon river irrigation as their mode of production were also remarkably
stable. These stable societies can be characterized as successful attempts
at striking a balance between reproduction and the consumption of energy
from their finite environments.
However, there is a bio-psychological cost in maintaining
this balance for preindustrial people. Our ability to produce children
has always been greater than our ability to produce food for their survival.
In order to limit population size preindustrial societies have practiced
infanticide and other forms of population control.
The hold of tradition is particularly strong among preindustrial
peoples. It has been a great conservative force throughout (up to now at
least) social evolution.
The modes of production of human societies have usually intensified
(that is, over time they exhibit an increased use of technical knowledge,
skills, and increased use of non-human forms of energy) because they must
continually exploit less available, harder to reach sources of energy.
For example, in a coal environment, we exploit the coal on the surface
first. It is only after using up the readily available resources that we
begin to dig deeper. Thus, a depleting environment causes the mode of production
Similarly, if "absolute" environmental depletion is reached
and the society has accumulated the technical knowledge to shift to a new
mode of production, the shift is a move from a readily accessible source
(say, wood) to a less accessible source (coal, oil, or nuclear fission
in its turn). Each succeeding energy source is more difficult to exploit.
Each takes more general knowledge, capital, technology, and technical skill
The intensification of the modes of production have also
greatly increased productivity. While people must work harder to exploit
each succeeding resource base, each new resource base represents a richer
source of energy, allowing more food and other products to be produced.
Because preindustrial people kept their population in balance
with their environment mainly through infanticide, increased wealth is
often used to support a greater number of children. In addition, children
themselves can be used in preindustrial production, thus producing more
wealth for their families. Each succeeding mode of production has therefore
led to an increased size of the human population (thus putting further
pressure on both the environment and on expanding the existing mode of
With industrialization, the development of modern birth control
techniques and changes in structure and superstructure, the relationship
between the growth in the mode of production and population has been broken.
Infrastructures of societies, that is a society's mode of
production and its population, put very strong constraints on the range
of widespread social institutions, ideas and ideologies of sociocultural
Structural elites and their interests provide positive and
negative feedback to infrastructural change. This feedback can often be
decisive in determining whether infrastructural change is amplified and
propagated throughout the social system or whether it is extinguished.
Cultural superstructures also provide positive and negative
feedback for structural and infrastructural change. Superstructural feedback
can be critical. If a sociocultural system exploits its environment to
the point of "absolute" depletion (that is, the costs of necessary raw
materials becomes prohibitive), and that system does not have the cultural
knowledge base to switch to a new mode of production based upon a new resource
base, that sociocultural system will collapse.
Sociocultural adaptation and change is based on the alteration
of existing structures and behavior patterns. The force of historical experience
therefore plays a major role in shaping social institutions and thought.
Unlike biological evolution, social evolution is a Lamarkian
process, that is, successful adaptations can be learned. We do not depend
on genetic variability and environmental selection for the preservation
of successful adaptation. This is what makes social evolution so dynamic.
Successful adaptations are spread through social contact,
and military and economic conquest. While environmental necessity is the
key to understanding "pristine" change-- that is change that is done in
isolation from contact with other societies, the rapid adoption of most
technologies and social practices are done through cultural diffusion.
In addition to the general characteristics listed above,
Lenski, Nolan and Lenski (1995) take social evolution a step further and
posit a process of selection in the world system that favors larger, more
powerful societies at the expense of smaller, less powerful ones. There
has been a dramatic reduction in the number of societies in the world system
in the last 10,000 years due to a process of intersocietal selection. Societies
that have grown in size and technology have also grown in complexity and
military power; this has allowed them to prevail in conflict over territory
and other resources with societies that have maintained more traditional
From Max Weber:
The perspective of sociocultural materialism presented
in these essays represents a synthesis of ecological- evolutionary theory
with the sociology and insights of Max Weber. With his typology of human
action and his theory of increasing rationalization, Weber characterized
the sweep of human history. While Weber's is an evolutionary theory, he
did not root his theory of increasing rationalization and the growth of
bureaucracy in ecology. Doing so, however, is not a difficult task:
The intensification of the infrastructure (population, production)
leads to the growth of secondary organizations at the expense of primary
groups, a process known as bureaucratization. The greater the intensification
of the infrastructure, the more formal organization is needed to provide
the coordination and control for complex production processes and large
numbers of people.
This bureaucratization of structure changes the cultural
superstructure of the society--thus changing the character of the men and
women who make up the society. Weber classified these changes under the
rubric of "rationalization." Increasingly, according to Weber, human behavior
is guided by observation, experiment and reason to master the natural and
social environment to achieve a desired end. This growth of goal-oriented
behavior is at the expense of behavior guided by emotions, traditions or
ultimate human values. The hold of tradition over social life, in particular,
is being eroded by the rationalization process (point 5, above).
The rationalization of the superstructure provides positive
feedback for the continuing bureaucratization of structure. Bureaucratization
is the increasing application of logic, observation and reason to problems
posed by human organization. The relationship between rationalization and
bureaucratization is straight out of Weber, the direction of the relationship
is consistent with the ecological- evolutionary concept of feedback (point
The rationalization of the superstructure and bureaucratization
of structure provides strong positive feedback to the intensification process.
The intensification process itself can be interpreted as another particular
case of rationalization--the increasing application of observation, logic,
and reason and the decline of values, traditions, and emotions--within
the infrastructure. Weber's rationalization process can also characterize
the changing relationship between production and reproduction in industrial
societies (point 10, above). Again, the direction of the relationship is
consistent with cultural ecology's emphasis on feedback.
The growth of bureaucracy, and the increase in power and
authority this gives to elites, provides strong positive feedback to the
intensification of the mode of production. The relationship between bureaucracy
and intensification is consistent with Weber's definition of the efficiency
and power of these organizations in the attainment of their goals, the
nature of authority, as well as the ecologist's focus on the role of elite's
in determining stability and change in the sociocultural system (point
The more a sociocultural system has rationalized, the larger
the potential population size, the more technologically powerful that society
will be. In accordance with Lenski (point 17, above), such societies will
be "much more likely to survive and transmit their cultures and institutional
patterns than societies that have preserved traditional social and cultural
patterns and minimized innovations" (Lenski et al., 1995: 71).
Modes of production limit widespread social structures
(that is, family, economic, government) and superstructures (ideas, ideologies,
and even entire cultural world views). Structures and superstructural
ideas have influence on infrastructural intensification.
Referencing this Site
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Elwell, Frank, 2001, Ecological-Evolutionary Social Theory,
Retrieved June 1, 2002 (use actual date), http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Eco-Evo/Index
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