Multi-Level Neo-Darwinism: The Good and Bad

I realized as I wrote this entry that a follow up that should have preceded this is in order. The follow up, or probably two-part entry, would need to provide for the uninitiated, first, the basics of biological evolution and then, second, the big issues in an evolutionary sociology that attempts to borrow biological principles. Yet, this entry was written and I feel good about sharing it as a warm up to the more general discussion. In part, because while there are a range of evolutionary sociologists and sociologies, there are good reasons to start with one that not only uses Darwinian ideas, but also attempts to modify them. So, I apologize ahead of time for not doing some of the front end work first, but promise it will come.


For social evolution, the principal question is what is selection working on? For biologists, it works on the gene or, in actuality, its expression in phenotypic form. G.W. Runciman’s (2009The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection argues that there are three levels of selection, not just one. In addition to selection working on genes (or their phenotypic expression as personality traits) that affect patterned behavior, there is also the meme ( expressed as attitudes [affectual-moral] and beliefs [cognitive/intellectual]) and institutionalized dyads (expressed as generalized role sets). In short, evolutionary sociology is interested in how some behavioral patterns come to be reproduced horizontally (diffuse across a community) or vertically (across generations), and it is not simply a product of genetic reproduction. It can also be a matter of social learning or imitation (at the cultural level) or imposed through authority, power, coercion, or taken for grantedness (at the social level). As a Weberian, it is clearly this latter that Runciman feels most excited about.

Selection, then, proceeds by lateral transmission (e.g., genetic drift, human migration), homology (replication), or convergence (same environmental conditions drive similar solutions). Each level, then, operates independently, but in interrelationship to the level “above” it. So, when environmental changes occur, some behavioral patterns become more adaptive to survival and reproduction, but these patterns are only “fit” in so far as they become meaningful forces at the cultural level where learning or imitation allow these new patterns to be acquired. Once diffuse, they can become institutionalized at the social level, which, in turn, means they are imposed on individuals or classes of individuals by way of power, authority, and sanctions. As such, co-evolution occurs through gene-meme interaction or through meme-dyad interaction. Fitness or adaptivity is measured by the propensity to reproduce, horizontally (across populations) and vertically (across generations), these new behavioral patterns. Gene/traits reproduce sexually; meme/attitudes-beliefs reproduce through diffusion; and, roles/dyads/systacts reproduce via institutions and other structured units.

The central point is that each level produces emergent processes irreducible to other levels. This basic point, and the scaffolding sketched above, allows us to think through the good of the theory.

  1. The multi-level model resolves one of the worst aspects of sociobiology and its close cousins: the reduction of all behavior to the innate desire to sexually reproduce genetic codes. This dubious claim has led to just-so explanations of nearly every phenomenon, even World War I and II (Gat 2008). Rather, evolution can happen at levels besides the genetic, which explains a wider range of behavior more satisfyingly. For instance, why would a religious sect like the Biblical Age Essenes or the Shakers, institutionalize a behavioral pattern such as celibacy if we could not defy our genetic drives? It seems to go directly against the logic of reproduction, yet both of these groups consciously chose this pattern and still reproduced their culture for several generations.
  2. Relatedly, this multi-level emphasis allows for another solution to a basic criticism. Critics of sociocultural evolution have long chaffed at the idea of fitness, arguing what is often fit for one segment of society is not for others. Indeed, this critique rests on a point still forgotten by many evolutionary sociologists: the one-to-one relationship between biological evolution and sociocultural evolution has always been one of metaphor more than perfect overlap. By adding that what may be “adaptive” or capable of reproducing one level (e.g., memes) may not be adaptive at another (e.g., genes). Moreover, when we add the structural level, we are able to see reproduction is less about the fitness of the total society, per se, and more so about who has the ability to impose whose patterns. And, of course, Runciman’s model, as Weberian, allows for and encourages even contingencies that shape the longevity of “fitness.” Paul Froese (2008), for instance, highlights the efforts by Stalin’s Soviet Union to eradicate religion, causing a “black market” so to speak of religion. The imposed behavioral patterns manifest in public and official environments, but in private places, subcultural memes proliferated – at their own great risk, of course.

These two bigger points align with several useful advantages – not confined, to be sure, to Runciman, but still worth pulling from him. The first is the total abandonment of the progressivism of older sociological theories of evolution; theories better characterized as developmentalist and not evolutionary. Some theories offer two-societal types (Gemeinschaft->GesellschaftMechanical->Organic), three-types (Savage->Barbarian->Civilized [Morgan/Veblen]), or multi-stage models (Marx’s historical materialism; Bellah’s religious evolution), yet all implicitly lack a serious engagement with biological evolution. In short, they end up assuming linearity and direction, typically are ill-aligned with empirical evidence, and, sometimes explicitly, western-centric. A multi-level selectionist model avoids the teleology of older sociological theories of evolution while also bringing their methodological utility closer to historical comparative research that emphasizes contingency, unpredictability, and mulit-linearity.

An additional advantage, one that I have argued for some time (Abrutyn and Lawrence 2010), is the recognition of differential tempos in evolution. Though still controversial in the biological sciences (cf. Mayr 2002), and even in the social sciences (Sanderson 2014), the idea that evolution can be punctuated or quite rapid is plausible; particularly at Runciman’s cultural level in which ideas and behaviors spread throughout a population in a classic S-curve: slow at first, and then quickly accelerating, and slowing only once it has saturated the population (Henrich 2001). Furthermore, both Durkheim and Spencer were aware of the potential for social extinction, which can be quite punctuated. When economic markets collapse fast, whole economic sectors may be selected against and disappear from the landscape. Likewise, wars and conquest – especially in the past – often wiped whole cultural and social assemblages away, either absorbing bits and pieces into the dominant culture or simply destroying the whole population and its variations. Of course, it is important to draw distinctions between biological and sociocultural extinction: the loss of a gene pool may never be recovered, yet museums and other modes of cultural storage can preserve variations that may be selected upon later (e.g., Mesopotamian religion is dead, for all intents and purposes, but any person with access to a library could draw partially from what we know to bring a new religious movement to foment).

Now, however, the bad. I am still unconvinced by the unit of selection at the cultural level. To be sure, Runciman adds necessary caveats that memes do not replicate like genes, and are subject to individual idiosyncracies and our ability to interpret, reinterpret, and misinterpret. Yet, what exactly a meme is, is hard to ascertain (and this subject itself deserves it own blog down the road). Runciman is fond of referring to them as “items and packages,” but what are they? Are they whole systems of ideas and practices a la Durkheim’s Elementary Forms? Are they smaller units of culture, like a tool or a basic idea? Can they be both? Likewise, what our biological dispositions are remain equally murky. I am comfortable with the argument that humans have some biological capacities delimiting what is possible socially, but without being more specified, gene-culture co-evolution becomes more “just-so” and less empirically grounded.

Two other criticisms are worth pointing out, as they will inform future blog entries. The first is Runciman’s Weberianism. I agree with him that there is an evolutionary selectionism in Weber, even if Weber would object. I also agree that carriers are central to the story. But, in Runciman’s own examples the carriers sort of fade into the background as deus ex machina, whereas I would (and do [Abrutyn 2014; Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015]) argue that they play a central role in understanding and explaining both cultural and social evolution. This point leads to the second criticism: while the move towards thinking through selection and selection pressures is essential to a more satisfactory theory of social evolution (cf. Turner 2003 for an argument), selection pressures are often a catch-all idea that receives less attention and serious thought than I think it deserves. If we are talking about mechanisms that select for or against different types of variation, we need to be precise and clear.

All of which leads to the more general criticism I have with neo-Darwinian sociology: it ignores or takes for granted the ways in which societies evolve that are not Darwinian. While there is no denying competition is a powerful factor in sociology, a not insignificant number of theories delve into the role cooperation plays in creating social power and, thus, the ability to transform societies in qualitatively distinct ways. Group selection – which is hotly debated (Wilson and Dugatkin 1999; Boehm 2012; Bowles and Gintis 2013) – appears to be a very real process, as the success of human societies and the general growth in size, scale, and complexity over just the last 12000 years demands more explanation than just pure brutish selfishness or reciprocal altruism. Like memes, this issue will deserve its own essay, but I will say a few words about sociological selection.

There are probably four types of selection that are distinct enough from Darwinian that they are worth mentioning; hree of which have already been discussed in detail elsewhere (Turner and Abrutyn 2018). Named after their founders, Durkheimian, Spencerian, Marxian, and I would add, Weberian selection are all processes that do not operate on blind, directionless selection processes driven by competition over scarce resources. The closest to Darwin’s model is Durkheim, but he not only recognized the purposeful efforts collectives made to reduce competition, he also recognized that specialization and differentiation were key solutions to the problem of scarcity; expand carrying capacity. Of course, so did Spencer, but Spencer’s model rests on selection pressures – either exogenous like hostile neighbors or endogenous like growing heterogeneity, stratification, and inequality – as affecting the whole society and efforts to innovate structurally or culturally reducing this pressure. Evolution, then, for Spencer is purposeful, at the group-level, and involves the creation of social mutations, so to speak. Marxian selection is also purposeful and while deprivation matters to his thinking, the bases of his form of selection rests on the fact that collectives sometimes mobilize against each other, and this conflict can result in the absorption of memes or genes, their extinction, or some strange amalgam. Finally, Weberian selection clarifies these other processes by focusing on the actual agents of cultural evolution: the carrier groups or what I have called institutional entrepreneurs and their role in all of these forms of selection, but also in ways unique to Weber’s own thoughts on carriers and historical change.

In the next entry, I will talk a bit about the nuts and bolts of biological evolution and will follow this entry up with a discussion of the nuts and bolts of social evolution, specifically these four types of selection, but also some of the underlying debates and issues that remain unresolved.

About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
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1 Response to Multi-Level Neo-Darwinism: The Good and Bad

  1. Pingback: On Institutional Entrepreneurship | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

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