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 (1966: 442). 

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): 

  • 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 purposeful. 
  • 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). 
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). 

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 Company.

Lenski, Gerhard and Jean Lenski.  1986.  Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Lenski, Gerhard and Jean Lenski and Patrick Nolan.  1991. Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

  ©Frank Elwell
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