Having laid out some key aspects of evolution in previous posts (here, here, and here), I want to turn to the two strategies sociologists may follow that biological evolution takes: general and specific evolution. Specific evolution is phylogenetic, or the comparative study of the evolutionary history between species. That is, the history of when one species grows out of another, usually by way of Darwinian “descent with modification.” In less jargon-y terms, specific evolution focuses on how some structures of an organism become different in structure, function, and specialization in ways that make the species different from its last common ancestor. This process should be familiar to sociologists from Durkheim’s theory of the division of labor. General evolution is the study of “progressive” transformations. Progress is measured less in value-laden terms like “better” or more evolved, and instead in the temporal change in size, scale, and degree of a trait or set of traits like intelligence.
So, for instance, the specific evolution of primates examines how, when, and why monkeys speciated from prosimians, and hominids (the lesser and great apes) differentiated from monkeys. The general evolutionary story would, instead, arrange all of these primates in some terms of progressive development, be it brain size, social life, cultural complexity, and/or linguistic abilities. Thus, the study of specific evolution focuses on population-level gene frequencies, while general evolution shifts to classes of organisms and their characteristics vis-a-vis other organisms. Perhaps the parallels between biological and sociocultural evolution are obvious? But first, a key caveat:
It is possible to speak of evolution without using value-laden terms. It is also possible to take off one’s social science hat and critique the outcome of social evolution as it is not accidental in many cases, but brutally purposive. Conquest and colonization, for instance, can select against a group in ways we can call unjust and inhumane. Yet, this doesn’t take away from the process itself. Furthermore, we can build taxonomies like Lenski’s model of subsistence technologies without passing judgment as to whether society A is better than B or innovation X is superior to Y. Indeed, these judgments are always flawed. For instance, hunter-gatherer societies, on average, worked about 15 hours a week to subsist, having plenty of leisure time (but, of course, few of the leisure devices we have today) (Sahlins 1974). Agriculture tied people to the land, bolstered patriarchy in ways unimaginable, and created the first forms of slavery. More food meant more people, to be sure, but also meant more time and energy consumed, more inequality, and more conflict. Is the former “better” than the latter? This seems a moral question beyond the empirical world, and depends greatly on one’s own ideology and/or their own preferences. The same can be said about innovations: iron ore can be transformed into a more efficient and productive plow, or it can be turned into a more efficient and productive killing machine. Many innovations have these, pun intended, double-edged qualities. And, the tension between material comforts, aesthetics, intellectual pursuits, and “transcendental” experiences ensure that innovations will be judged by myriad criteria as to their betterment or degradation of society. So, we leave these questions aside for philosophers and humanists to debate, and ask what does evolve generally and specifically worth noting.
So, the question is how can we classify societies in such a way as to constrain nineteenth century evolutionism’s tendency towards supremacist progressivism? Sahlins and Service (1970) offer two possibilities: (1) the amount of energy a society captures/harnesses/consumes (see also Leslie White (1959) and (2) the amount of integration. The former makes sense in two ways that offer more substantive, concrete types of classification. The first was made most famous by Gerhard Lenski, whose typology combined economic materialism with anthropological data – something Marx failed miserably at doing. Lenski’s taxonomy is as such: hunter/gatherer/fishing societies; pastoral or horticultural; agrarian; intensive agrarian; industrial; post-industrial. At each step, it is not presumed one society is better or more advanced in some value-laden way, but rather they harness energy for production, distribution, and consumption in radically different ways. What this strategy does, however, is point towards another potential “classification” system – and I use that word loosely.
General Evolution and Institutional Autonomy
What Lenski had in mind was a comparative analysis of what was and was not common across each type. One unit of social organization that is common are institutional spheres or domains. Institutions are the basic building blocks around which social action occurs (Abrutyn 2016). By this I mean all human societies organize the four dimensions of social reality – physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space – around kinship, political, economic, religious, legal, and educational behavior. [Not surprisingly, these are also some of the most important substantive areas in every intro Sociology text and major sections in the American Sociological Association cross-cutting other concerns like stratification/inequality]. What makes these institutional spheres discernible from each other are the things they do: e.g., all polities are concerned with (1) collective binding decision-making about (2) the production and distribution of resources and (3) the use of these resources to achieve one or more goals. They vary, of course, in how effective they are in doing so, as well as how well they do in balancing the ruling elite’s goals with the needs of both the masses as a homogeneous whole and the various strata the masses are lumped into. But, by definition, a polity is a system that organizes who is authorized to make these decisions, how binding they are and how they are enforced, and so on. Even when we see politics occur in small groups like a fraternity or a sports team that are not polities in the macro-sense, we see the same processes.
So, what can we learn about general evolution? Well, one thing that differs across time and space in any given society is which institutional sphere or spheres has/have attained some degree of autonomy vis-a-vis the others. Any student of preliterate societies, for instance, knows kinship is the principle source of social organization (Fox 1984). Political or economic actions are inextricably linked to the basic logic of kinship (loyalty/love). And, a careful examination of the history of humanity will also see that autonomy is not random, but actually follows a general pattern. 5000 years ago, in what is now southern Iraq, northeastern Egypt, northern China, and the Indus Valley, political evolution towards autonomous polities occurred in a rare moment of parallel evolution (Abrutyn 2013). Similar selection pressures + similar environment (alluvial plains) = pressure for political organization. (The reasons for this are beyond our discussion, but you can see my work with Kirk Lawrence (2010) for a primer).
To be sure, autonomy is never total, and anyone familiar with Game of Thrones knows two things: local villages remained deeply tied to kinship logic of loyalty and love, while even the Palace itself was simply elite households, and that kinship mattered (particularly loyalty). But, the Palace was no longer just a household of conspecifics and, perhaps, a servant or slave or two; they were cities within cities, containing complex divisions of labor both horizontally and vertically. And, the political entrepreneurs in the polity were no longer interested only in, or even primarily in, kinship matters. They were suddenly pursuing distinct political goals such that political entrepreneurs and those observing them perceived these goals “as different from other types of goals or from goals of other spheres or other groups in society” in so far as their “formation, pursuit, and implementation became largely independent of other groups, and were governed mostly by political criteria and by consideration of political exigency” (Eisenstadt 1963:19). That is, all polities deal with some very basic generic (practical) problems: defense against (real or imagined) external threats; the production and distribution of resources; the reduction and suppression of conflicts between heterogeneous classes within a population; managing/centralizing risk (e.g., grain storage as a hedge against famines or floods) [Johnson and Earle 2000; Abrutyn 2013]. And, symbolically, the primary currency of political exchange, the force shaping political interaction (and calculation), and the discourse dominating political communication was power and less so loyalty and even less love (Luhmann 1982; Abrutyn 2015). Again, Game of Thrones is instructive: royal problems, though often rooted in romantic or fraternal/paternal/maternal love, are far more rooted in power relations and access to power.
In any case, the student of history can follow along and see that these epochal moments in which a different institutional sphere evolved autonomously for the first time somewhere or in several places are rare, but important. In the first millennia BCE, religious evolution took hold in China, Israel, Greece, and India (Abrutyn 2014, 2015). In the “long” twelfth century CE (c. 1075-1200), legal autonomy emerged out of the Gregorian reformation of the Catholic church and the explosion of legal entrepreneurs, law schools, and standardized western legal codes (Berman 1983; Abrutyn 2009). The Protestant Reformation Weber was so interested in was really the middle of an economic revolution that frightened Polanyi as he warned against too much economic autonomy. Finally, the enlightenment was an epoch in which first educational and then scientific autonomy emerged, followed not long after be medical autonomy.
Each epoch highlights, not necessarily an irreversible moment, but a qualitative transformation in macro structure and culture, meso-level social relationships, and the micro-level experience of social reality. It is not reversible because of continuous improvements to cultural storage. Once a polity, for instance, is autonomous, other political entrepreneurs in the same time period or in later centuries and even millennia can take ideas and practices from the initial founders of autonomy and use them wholesale or integrate new ideas and practices. That is, once autonomous an institution in any time or place can theoretically be made autonomous again. Autonomy also points to a second major advantage to thinking about general evolution as such. It throws into sharp relief the double-edged nature of evolution. On the one hand, more spheres of autonomy mean more routes to social mobility. Students of Game of Thrones knows that prestige, power, and wealth are only secured through kinship and political ties (besides the Iron Bank). In the modern US or Canada, one can pursue a legal or medical degree, as well as a career in sports or academics and make a living, secure prestige, and in terms of the former, even power. On the other hand, as Weber feared, where more autonomous systems of action emerge, the total amount of domination grows. We are increasingly subjected to new forms of power-dependence, as our daily lives are differentiated in terms of physical, temporal, social, and symbolic spaces devoted to economy, religion, law, and so forth. But, knowing that there are epochal moments of institutional evolution is not enough; we can turn towards specific evolution to examine how political or religious evolution, though the same in terms of its growth in autonomy and the consequences that often ensue, takes varied forms based on “local” historical, cultural, political, and economic contexts and unpredictable contingency.
Evolutionary Sociology’s Future
To date, social scientists rarely discuss general v. specific evolution. My guess is the reader is far more aware of the former and less so of the latter. The former, of course, has a rich history in various failed stage model theories, and in the most compelling, sweeping, imaginative, and (sometimes) insightful theories of human history and social evolution (e.g., Quigley 1979; Sanderson 1997; Turner and Maryanski 2009; Nolan and Lenski 2014). But, there is something about specific evolution that seems worth considering.
Herbert Spencer, for instance, offered one theory of specific evolution – or, a set of generic processes that shaped the trajectory of a given social unit as it differentiated, dedifferentiated, specialized, or split into smaller segmented social units (see Turner 1985). The theory, simply stated, posits that there are two countervailing forces in any social organization: centralization/consolidation of regulative functions (control/coordination of social units) and decentralization. Thus, following his general theory, exigencies in the environment (or within the collective) put pressure on the group for solutions, many of which require increased centralization of, say, decision-making and resource mobilization. Once centralized, new problems emerge either because of the initial solution; or because those with less independence and autonomy have more grievances; or in the most cynical moments, those with more power seek to protect, entrench, and expand it. In any case, centralization has its benefits – large populations can be mobilized quickly to harness their social power – and drawbacks -e.g.,inequality can be easily heightened and domination lead to exploitation – with the latter creating new pressures for decentralization. This tension is obvious across so many cases, it may not even seem insightful, but it is an example of the potential of a more serious sociology of specific evolution.
To return to the example of institutional autonomy above, we see several paths of theoretical and empirical development. If political autonomy was the key process of general evolution 5,000 years ago, a specific evolutionary study would be interested in how each case diverged from the ideal type. Likewise, the evolution of sects, “speciating” from a given religion fits a specific evolutionary model. Of course, what differs from current narratives of sectarian movements is the consideration of selection, variation, and other evolutionary concepts and processes. For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave a deeper dive into specific evolution for another post.
In the meantime, I will be returning to the theme of institutional evolution, as I see it as a fruitful path forward for evolutionary sociology, as it includes consideration of multiple levels of social reality, including our biological, neurological, and genetic makeup.
There is a huge area of biological evolution you are leaving out. It is applying evolutionary theory to understanding natural selection and adaptation. It is what many people that study evolution actually do. There are also other areas. By the way, one of the most famous evolutionary biologists is Richard Lenski, son of the famous sociologist. Richard is famous for taking a single cell of E. coli, a bacterium, and evolving 12 lines of it through decades of time and millions of generations to see how evolution works. He is at Michigan State University.
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