The Nuts and Bolts of Evolution, II: The Limits of Darwinian Explanations

Having discussed some of the basic aspects of Darwinian (biological) evolution, I want to talk about why Darwinian processes do not work in explaining sociocultural evolution; at least not the vast majority of evolution today. Undoubtedly, human societies and numerous propensities like a tendency towards reciprocity and a strong sense of fairness and empathy, evolved through natural selection (Turner and Maryanski 2009; Bowles and Gintis 2013). And, undoubtedly, we are who we are, where we are, and what we are by way of natural selection. But, it is fair to ask whether individual-level evolution (gene frequencies) is more important for social science than the evolution of structural and cultural formations; and, whether or not the latter evolve by way of Darwinian or neo-Darwinian processes, as many social scientists and biologists contend (Runciman; also, Blute 2010)?

As a future blog will discuss, the central issues to discern is what is evolving and what does the social selection look like? To this effect, Turner and Maryanski (2008) criticize the argument that evolution works solely on, particularly in modernity, the genetic or individual-level (see also Turner and Abrutyn 2017; Turner et al. 2018; Abrutyn 2016). This critique is directed at two ideas. First, that all social evolution has to be, somehow, Darwinian otherwise it is “less” scientific. And, second, that social formations that could be units of evolution do not have emergent aspects that make them unique from individual-level phenomena. In many ways, this critique is predicated on the near-total rejection of the organismic analogy posited by early functionalists, and the rise of methodological individualism.

What makes this critique important is that this line of thinking rejects (a) the reduction of all social phenomena to some innate desire to biological reproduce our genes, (b) the unsubstantiated idea that all of our institutional realities are founded on brain modules that evolved directly or by way of piggy-back and are just in need of discovery, (c) the absurd notion that group selection is an impossibility, and (d) the idea that memes are equivalent to genes. Though (a-c) are important criticisms, the latter is most relevant to sociologists. Any serious student of society(ies) knows culture does not reproduce itself in perfect copies. Individuals do not internalize the surrounding culture en toto. Our big brains lend themselves to re-interpreting culture, which further weakens the meme argument: the Hebrew Bible, for instance, meant something very different to its earliest writers, to the redactors in Babylonian diaspora, to the Hellenic Jews, and to the second Diasporic Jews. The words, or cultural package, is literally the same now as it was about 2000 years ago, but the meanings are completely different. While it is possible to establish, definitively, an individual’s genetic inheritance, it is a much more complex question to study the “inheritance” of cultural material when a corporation franchises itself, when a new Supreme Court justice interprets the Constitution, when a school or community makes mandatory the Pledge, or when a musician makes popular a traditional song.

If evolution does not simply work on organisms or their DNA, and if structure and culture evolve, the question this entry deals with is what limitations does Darwinian selection pose and why?

Spencerian Principles

Herbert Spencer famously outlined why society was like an organism…

  1. As organisms/supra-organisms increase in size, they become more complex and differentiated structurally
  2. Greater structural differentiation leads to greater functional differentiation
  3. Greater differentiation puts pressure on structures for integrative mechanisms
  4. Each differentiated part is a “system” unto itself, and thus any system cannot be helped being shaped by its constituent subsystems
  5. These subsystems can live on (for some time) even after the death of the organism

And, less famously, why it was not…

  1. The parts of a supraorganism are less frequently in contact and are far more dispersed
  2. Contact between parts relies on symbolic communication in supraorganisms
  3. While the polity may be akin to the central nervous system, unlike organisms, supraorganisms consist of myriad centers of consciousness

Thus, Spencer provides both the logic for thinking about society as an organism capable of evolving, but also draws sharp distinctions that are worth keeping in mind. From here, Spencer offered one of the most cogent defenses against pure Darwinism in the social sciences, derived in part, from his theory of political evolution.

Spencer famously coined the term “survival of the fittest,” as he pointed out history was the story of larger, better armed and organized societies conquering, absorbing, colonizing, and destroying smaller ones. No value passed; just stating a fact. From this more specific fact, he observed that social evolution was very often Lamarckian in that the growth in size, complexity, organization, and so forth was conscious, deliberate, purposeful. That is, hostile neighbors were one type of exogenous exigency that put pressure on a group to invent more “fit” solutions to the problem. For instance, as city-states grew, pastoral peoples were pushed to more marginal areas. These people’s were faced with extinction, but many chose to innovate militarily in ways that could not necessarily defeat the bigger army, but were faster and able to adapt quicker on the fly. They could survive by raiding and pillaging, and in some cases like the Akkadians or Mongols, conquering the bigger, better armed. But, other exigencies can be problematic too (e.g., natural disasters).

The beauty of Spencer’s theory was that it lacked linearity and inevitability. For him, society was always on the cusp of collapse. This was for two reasons. One, when structural differentiation occurs, new unforeseeable endogenous exigencies (resource scarcity; heterogeneity and conflict) put pressure on groups for new solutions to these new problems. Two, social organization was cyclical, tending towards greater centralization and consolidation of power and resources and, subsequently, pressures for decentralization. Both poles had their own pitfalls. Centralization could suck the marrow of the society dry, and leave it weakened to upstarts or competitors (the story of Rome’s fall) whereas decentralization pushed the individual’s success above and beyond the collective’s needs, leading to self-interest, greed, and corruption. There was no perfect equilibrium, but rather two forces opposed to each other driving societies to be in near-constant flux and always ready to collapse.

Durkheimian Principles

Durkheim, of all the early sociologists, came closest to adopting a Darwinian model. At the core of his ecological theory, was competition. But, Durkheim recognized human systems were radically different than biological ones, because of our ability to create. Thus, while Darwinism predicts that environmental changes intensify competition between units for resources and reproductivity that leads to some traits (and organisms) being favored vis-a-vis others, Durkheim argues competition does not have to lead to extinction.

As population ecologists have shown, societal carrying capacity can be increased by expanding the transportation and communication technologies available, and thus, the geographical footprint of a social unit (Hawley 1944). Furthermore, a wealth of data from organizational ecology (cf. Hannan and Freeman 1977), has shown that Durkheim’s theoretical acumen was solid. Competition can lead to a wide range of outcomes instead of extinction: diversification of social units to improve their competitive standing; specialization; the expansion of a resource niche and its carrying capacity; and, the construction of new niches.

The Sticky Subject of Agency

Though he explicitly rejected evolutionary sociology, Weber’s historical model for social change was predicated on carrier groups capable of “switching” the tracks of history, and the contingent nature of these efforts. Groups, in essence, innovated for various reasons and struggled against other groups for the control over the material and human resources necessary for reproducing themselves, for institutionalizing and routinizing their structural and cultural innovations, and for securing power, prestige, and wealth.

I have written extensively on what Israeli sociologist, S.N. Eisenstadt (1964) called institutional entrepreneurs, or a slightly modified and more explicitly evolutionary version of Weber’s carrier groups (cf. Abrutyn 20132014, 2015a2015b, 20162018Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015). In a nutshell, when we combine Spencerian selection pressures (external and/or internal exigencies) or Durkheimian selection pressures (competition due to scarcity of niche resources) with institutional entrepreneurship, we get an entirely new form of cultural evolution at the group level. Groups can purposefully innovate technologically, symbolically, normatively, and organizationally. They can struggle for supremacy against competitors. Existing elites or entrepreneurs can react to their efforts, co-opting, assimilating, or attempting to destroy their institutional projects. Cultural evolution is neither blind nor purposeless; and, while it is rarely linear, it moves in fits and starts in many cases.

That all said, what this line of argument creates are the necessary contingencies lacking in neo-Darwinian accounts. First, natural or social selection may occur in the sense that people do not always perceive exigencies or problems, or when they do, its either too late or their solutions are not effective. Jared Diamond has built a career on these “forks-in-the-road” moments and the very real potential for collapse. Second, though entrepreneurship is often motivated by Spencerian or Durkheimian pressures, humans are capable of misperceiving exigencies (that is, identifying problems that are not objectively problematic), mislabeling exigencies (and, therefore, innovating in strangely maladaptive ways), and, finally, inventing exigencies (e.g., articulating crises that are not real for manipulative purposes). Third, all of this gives new meaning to fitness. We can measure fitness in two ways: (1) how widespread an innovation becomes and (2) how successful the entrepreneur is in securing their own independence, leveraging this to carve out physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space so that they can reproduce their innovations; as well as develop them further. In both cases, the reproduction of collective ways of feeling, thinking, and acting are indicative of fitness. The former simply measures the diffusion effects of cultural evolution, while the latter captures the institutionalization effects of structural evolution.

Fourth, importantly, evolution is never a finished product. Initial entrepreneurship is sometimes unrecognizable with the compromises made along the way, and as Weber notes, the outcome of routinization. Moreover, as Spencer argued, even when successful, new exigencies previously unforeseen are very likely to rear their ugly heads. And fifth, because of Spencer’s three distinctions between organisms/supraorganisms, it is possible to argue adaptation is not necessarily adaptive for all social units in a supraorganism. Fitness does not need to be fit for everyone; culture is reproduced, very often, against the will of those who would benefit from different arrangements. This fact does not prevent us from thinking through the role groups play in qualitatively transforming those arrangements and the work that goes into sustaining their initial success(es).

Museums, Libraries, and Cultural Memory

One of the least explored areas of sociocultural evolution is cultural memory. Genetic drift refers to the tendency of some gene variants (or alleles) to randomly decline or grow in frequency, leading to super rare phenotypic expression or sudden ubiquity. Besides genetic drift, there are few biological processes that compare to the development of literacy and its storage (Goody 1986). To be sure, natural selection worked on preliterate humans and their genes for millennia, as noted in the example of Mt. Toba’s explosion 34000+ years ago and the genetic bottleneck it created (Fagan 2010). But, with writing, cultural variants, like the DNA of Wooly Mammoth frozen in glaciers, can be stored in museums and libraries and on-line repositories. Unlike the DNA of the mammoth, cultural variants can easily be retrieved and integrated into contemporary cultural goods. Indeed, this integrative process does not even have to be faithful to the original cultural code, as fads like the Paleo diet have only marginal scholarly connections to paleolithic peoples or movements like paganism can only imagine what the experience of pagans were 2000 years ago. Nevertheless, a new religious movement could begin tomorrow, borrowing heavily from Middle Kingdom Egyptian religion and syncretizing it with Taoist principles and narrative myths drawn from ancient Sumer.

Less fantastic, modern religions see syncretic or sectarian movements emerge frequently around different parts of scripture claimed or re-claimed to be more authentic than conventional ones. Old texts can be rediscovered, new passages deemed central to the group’s mission, and new texts, such as the invention of the Book of Mormon, can be invented and grafted on to existing traditions. There is not a single equivalent to these examples in the biotic world beyond humans selecting some traits in their canine friends or hybridizing their favorite cannabis strains. Yet, these examples continue to be governed by the replication of DNA.

The Bigger Picture

There is no question that biological evolution mattered and, within varying degrees, matters today. But, once humans erect massive institutional systems like religion or economy, our biological dispositions are useful in so far as they provide clear delimitations of what is possible and not likely possible and in giving deeper insight into what is universal about human nature, and therefore, societies (e.g., all humans tend towards reciprocity; pay super close attention to face and emotions). Beyond that, structural and cultural arrangements can harness or constrain our biology, and can do some extraordinarily creative things.

In the last two Nuts and Bolts posts, I’ll look at the problems of stage-modeling, progressivism, and linear thinking and the differences between general and specific evolution.

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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5 Responses to The Nuts and Bolts of Evolution, II: The Limits of Darwinian Explanations

  1. Sam Perry says:

    Fascinating. I’ll be interested in reading the next posts in this series.


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