Sociocultural Evolution: Universal Human Concerns

When I first began writing about institutional evolution (Abrutyn 2009), I was continually confronted with the same problem functionalists had – e.g., why does every society have a “polity” or a “kinship” system? That is, there is something seemingly biological to the fact that a certain set of institutional spheres are mandatory for social organization. Institutional spheres are, in essence, macro-structural and cultural units that organize feeling, thinking, and doing for a significant portion of the population, in part, be carving up physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space in ways that impose and reinforce a particular set of values, beliefs, and norms. They are, in many ways, survivor machines as they are one of the primary replicators of a collective’s ethos across generations. To be sure, culture is not genetic material, and thus replication is not one-to-one in any sense of the word. But, institutions are the rare social unit capable of transmitting and transposing as coherent a culture as possible to the largest number of people. The question, then, is why are people’s everywhere and at every time carving out the same types of institutional spheres? We find, for instance, in preliterate and literate societies alike, kinship, polity, economy, religion, law, and, generally speaking, education. How discrete or autonomous these spheres are is a matter of empirical question, and really a conversation best left for another essay. Nonetheless, every society we have data on has moments in which action you or I would recognize as “legal” occurs, even if these moments are far rarer in those societies than in ours and the lines between law and, say, kinship blurrier (Hoebel 2006; Pospisil 1978). Likewise, despite the fact that full-time practitioners, preisthoods, and a recurring cult are absent in most cases, all societies have emotions, attitudes, and actions contemporary humans would deem “religious” (Radin 1937; Lowie 1970).

Thus, the question is why do these institutions seem necessary for the existence of human societies? The old answers were insufficient evolutionary explanations, as they were teleological and, often, tautological sets of needs or requisites. These lists plagued the early functionalists because they were arbitrary lists and dead-ends for linking the biological/neurological foundations of Homo sapien to her social organization. Herbert Spencer, for instance, explained all institutional spheres in terms of three needs: operative (in more familiar terms, productive), distributive, and regulative. Society’s, presumably, needed to solve these three problems to create some semblance of equilibria. I am oversimplifying, of course, but this logic soon found its way in Parsons’ (1951) [in]famous AGIL scheme, which saw institutions as serving one of the four needs (adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latent pattern maintenance) and then sub-systems differentiating inside of the institutional sphere to meet one of these four needs at the internal level.

There were two obvious problems. First, these needs were thought of as imperatives instead of, as Jonathan Turner (1995) calls them, selection pressures. Obviously human societies or whatever social unit one cares to study needs to produce and distribute resources in some patterned manner if it is to ensure its own cultural reproduction and its member’s biological reproduction. But,  there are no guarantees that solutions will be adaptive for some or every member, nor is there any guarantee of the short- or long-term viability of a solution. Second, I would argue that they mistook selection pressures (like integration or regulation) for the types of meanings that seem universal to all human societies, and which institutional spheres – as they evolve more autonomously – come to be organized by and around (Abrutyn 2014; 2016).

Universal Concerns
When I say universal, there requires some caveats to prevent falling into the classic functionalist traps. First, they are universal in so far as the average, normal human is capable of experiencing the concern as salient. This first caveat expresses the fact that in, say, a foraging society the concerns related to law are not often felt by most members. Kinship dominates the structure, culture, and phenomenology of society’s members, and thus the need for third-party conflict resolution or justice is simply rarer  than in a larger society. Moreover, in the US or Canada, while any given member may not feel legal concerns as pressing, the size, scale, and depersonalized nature of the society – and its various smaller social units – means there are these concerns are always salient for one or more members (hence the need for full-time legal actors).

Second, these concerns are not at the societal-level, though they may become salient become of social forces related to population pressures (size and/or density), production, reproduction, distribution, and power. They exist at the individual level, but become forces of evolution when some segment of the population believes most or all people feel they are salient; even if, objectively, they aren’t salient. Once some people feel the concern salient, efforts to resolve the concern – aimed at those feeling it or, more ambitiously, to all members – can begin in earnest [more on this in another blog entry].

Third, concerns are not always naturally made salient. All humans are subject to manipulation, both purposive and unintentional. Concerns can be made salient when, in fact, they aren’t.

Fourth, just because I say a concern is universal does not mean (a) a “good” solution to it will be found, (b) people will perceive it as concerning and, therefore, work to resolve it, or (c) “good” solutions will be available or accessible.

In short, all that matters is there are concerns that are ubiquitous to the human experience. In a sense, then, they are a bit in the spirit of Maslow’s hierarchy of (intrapersonal) needs, but not necessarily ranked and are interpersonal – that is, they are purely concerns stemming from social relationships. Of course, they also have deep biological roots, as many are shared with our closest primate relatives and even many other mammals. Below, I have provided a table of concerns that I believe are the most common and matched them with the institutional sphere or spheres most commonly involved in dealing with them (it is neither authoritative nor definitive and I welcome additions!).

Universal Concerns Institutional Sphere Associated w/ Solutions
Biological Reproduction Kinship, Polity, Economy
Cultural Reproduction Kinship, Polity, Religion, Education
Love/Loyalty Kinship, Polity
External Security Polity, Kinship
Ontological Security Religion, Kinship
Cognitive Knowledge Kinship, Economy, Education
Aesthetic Knowledge Religion, Art, Economy
Suffering/Evil Religion, Science
Morality – Piety Religion, Kinship
Morality – Justice Polity, Law, Kinship
Conflict Resolution Polity, Law, Economy, Kinship
Comm w/ Supernatural Religion, Polity
Health/Morality Kinship, Religion, Science, Medicine
Distinction/Status Polity, Economy, Education, Sport
Power Polity, Religion, Economy, Law
Reputation All

Some Initial Thoughts

First, note that kinship cross-cuts many of these. This reflects both the obvious fact that most humans know their kin/family reality better than most. Their objective power and status are likely derived from kin relations more than political or economic. But, this also reflects the fact that for the first 200,000+ years of human life, kinship dominated the structural, cultural, and phenomenological landscape.

Second, most human concerns are dealt with in more than one institution. I intentionally tried to order the list either by chronological order (which institutional sphere emerged autonomously first to deal with a given concern) and/or which institution it is primarily dealt with. Of course, this is not always possible. In a complex society, like the US or Canada, where we spend compartmentalized moments in one sphere or another, concerns like distinction or ontological security can be foreground or background in more than one.

Third, that concerns are cross-cutting also underscores tensions between institutional spheres. At the elite level, these tensions are struggles over who has the legitimate right to produce, distribute, exchange, and consume the solutions to a concern. At the “mass” level, these tensions emerge in where actors feel their concerns are resolved most satisfactorily or efficaciously vis-a-vis institutional spheres they feel they have little access. For example, the US (and, in fact, all throughout the world), the vast majority of people are alienated from economic and political spheres beyond their coercive appropriation of human and material resources, but find strength, purpose, status, and  power in the two most local institutional spheres: kinship and religion. The marriage between religious and kinship values is not inherent or mandatory. It is a particular configuration of industrial/post-industrial societies where economic and political resources are further ensconced in physically and cognitively distant spaces, while the everyday experience is buttressed by the belief in the family as the defense against these “distant” maladaptive forces and religion as its natural extension (e.g., the megachurch becomes the extended family of horticultural times, with common religious worship substituting for fictive and real ties built on marriage alliances).

Fourth, as I noted above, many of these have biological roots, hence their universality. What makes humans different from our animal friends are the institutionalization of solutions into the structural and cultural fabric of society. The solutions, of course, vary based on historical, ecological, political, economic, and cultural context, but the general solutions are always these institutions. Importantly, any society can come to resolve any solution or set of solutions in a atypical institution, but there is likely consequences. Case in point: the former Soviet Union was a good example of what happens when every concern is secondary to power and loyalty. The polity came to dominate every other sphere and every other concern. Justice or piety, for instance, were both subjected to power and loyalty (to party), and subverted by them as well. I know many readers likely believe that courts in the US are political, and justice is either a product of money and/or power, and they wouldn’t be totally wrong. But, law is relatively autonomous in the US and the vast majority of cases, on a day-to-day basis, are decided based on legal principles, norms, criteria. We may not like lawyers or the general lack of substantive justice, but the courts in the US operate far differently from those in the former USSR.

In the next set of essays on evolution and institutions, I intend on tackling some of the questions – both implicit and explicit – left unanswered in this essay. For instance, (1) Why does institutional evolution, as conceptualized herein, provide a more dynamic foundation for a theory of sociocultural evolution? (2) How does general and specific evolution work in terms of institutions? (3) What is institutional autonomy and what are its consequences? (4) How do real actors factor into this equation, and what is being “selected” upon (hint: it’s not the meme)? More to come…





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 Sociocultural Evolution: Universal Human Concerns

  1. Pingback: Sociocultural Evolution: Institutions as Survivor Machines | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

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