Social Evolution Research Paper

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1. Concepts And Their Definitions

Social Evolution: a process or set of processes of directional social change.

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Unilinear Evolution: the movement of societies along a single path of change.

Universal Evolution: Steward’s name for the revival of unilinear evolutionism by Childe and White.

Multilinear Evolution: Steward’s name for the movement of societies along many different paths of change.

General Evolution: Sahlins’s name for the overall movement of society and culture along a major path.

Specific Evolution: Sahlins’s name for the divergent evolutionary paths taken by different societies and cultures.

Progress: an improvement in the overall functional efficiency of society and the quality of life of the members of a society.

Evolutionary theory: any theory that attempts to describe and explain a sequence or sequences of directional social change.

Evolutionary transformations: see social evolution.

Survivals: structures or processes that have been carried by the force of custom or habit beyond the stage of society in which they originated.

Neolithic Revolution: the first great social trans- formation in human history associated with the domestication of plants and animals and the emergence of settled village life.

Urban Revolution: the name given by Childe to the second great social transformation in human history. It was characterized by the emergence of cities and states.

Environmental circumscription: blockage of the movement of peoples out of a geographic region by such natural barriers as mountain ranges or large bodies of water.

Social stratification: the existence within a society of distinct social strata, or groups distinguished by unequal levels of power, privilege, and prestige.

Economic surplus: a quantity of goods above and beyond what is needed by individuals for survival.

Adaptation: the process whereby individuals adjust themselves to their physical and social environments and solve the basic problems of human living.

Environmental depletion: the diminution of resources within an environment to a point whereby the standard of living is lowered.

Evolutionary materialism: the name given by Sanderson to the general theoretical framework developed by him on the basis of Harris’s evolutionary theory.

Evolutionary universal: the name given by Parsons to any new social structure or process that allows a society to achieve a higher level of adaptation or functional efficiency.

Evolutionary typology: a set of stages through which a society or one of its sectors is said to pass.

Differentiation: the emergence of increasing complexity within a society or one of its subsystems.

Militant society: Spencer’s name for a society that is highly specialized for warfare.

Industrial society: (a) a type of society characterized by urban life, the factory system, and the mass production of goods; (b) Spencer’s name for a type of society specialized for economic activity rather than warfare.

Savagery: Morgan’s name for the earliest and most primitive type of human society, one based on hunting and gathering, and a rudimentary technology.

Barbarism: Morgan’s name for an intermediate type of society organized around simple forms of agriculture.

Civilization: (a) a type of society characterized by elaborate social stratification, urbanism and city life, occupational differentiation and craft specialization, trade and markets, monumental architecture, writing and record keeping, and the presence of a state; (b) Morgan’s name for the highest stage of social evolution, one characterized by the phonetic alphabet and writing.

Societas: a stage of social evolution identified by Morgan that is organized on the basis of kinship and that is normally highly egalitarian and democratic.

Civitas: a stage of social evolution identified by Morgan that is organized along the lines of property and territory rather than kinship.

Mode of production: in Marxian theory, the economic base of society consisting of the level of technological development and the social relationships through which people carry on economic activity.

Primitive communism: in Marxian theory, the first stage of human society characterized by a rudimentary technology and common ownership of the resources of nature.

Slavery: in Marxian theory, the second stage of human society characterized by social and economic relations between a large class of slaves and a small class of slave owners.

Ancient mode of production: see Slavery (above).

Feudalism: in Marxian theory, the third stage of human society characterized by social and economic relations between a large class of peasants or serfs and a small class of landlords.

Capitalism: in Marxian theory, the fourth stage of human society characterized by social and economic relations between a large working class and a small class of capitalists. Capitalism is based on the production of goods for sale in a market for profit and the accumulation of capital over time.

Hunting and gathering: the simplest stage of social evolution characterized by an economy based on the hunting of wild animals and the collection of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other plant materials.

Simple horticulture: a stage of social evolution characterized by societies in which people cultivate gardens through the use of digging sticks.

Advanced horticulture: a stage of social evolution characterized by societies in which people cultivate gardens through the use of metal hoes.

Agrarianism: a stage of social evolution characterized by societies in which people cultivate the land with plows and draft animals.

Simple agrarian society: a society that cultivates the land with plows and draft animals but that lacks iron tools and weapons.

Advanced agrarian society: a society that cultivates the land with plows and draft animals and that possesses iron tools and weapons.

Industrialism: see Industrial Society Post-industrial Society: History of the Concept.

Industrial Revolution: a technological and economic transformation, beginning in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, characterized by the development of the factory system and the substitution of machinery for hand power.

Band: a residential association of nuclear families, usually numbering less than 100 individuals, who govern themselves by purely informal mechanisms.

Tribe: a population, numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands, sharing a common culture and language and living in politically autonomous and economically self-sufficient villages of a hundred to several hundred people.

Chiefdom: a hierarchical sociopolitical structure consisting of a chief and various subchiefs who administer an integrated set of villages.

State: a form of political organization characterized by a monopoly over the use of force within a society.

Capitalist world-economy: the name given by Wallerstein to the large-scale intersocietal system that began to develop in Europe in the sixteenth century. The capitalist world-economy was associated with production of goods for the market and high levels of economic and geographical specialization.

Social evolution is a term that has been used in a number of different ways, but most often it refers to a form of social change that exhibits some sort of directional sequence, a passage from less of something to more of something, or from one type of social arrangement to another type. Usually the term connotes slow and gradual change, and most often it carries with it the notion that the change in question is progressive, i.e., that it leads to some sort of improvement or enhancement. However, social evolution can be fast and even sudden, and it need not lead to improvement or enhancement.

Erik Olin Wright (1983) has offered a precise set of criteria for identifying an evolutionary theory of human society. According to him, a theory is evolutionary if it has four characteristics: (a) it proposes a typology of social forms with potential directionality; (b) the order or arrangement of the social forms is based on the assumption that the probability of remaining at the same stage exceeds the probability of regressing; (c) it asserts a probability of transition, even if only weak, from one stage to another; and (d) it proposes a mechanism or set of mechanisms that will explain movement from one stage to another. One of the benefits of Wright’s characterization is that it makes no assumption that social evolution is some sort of automatic or inevitable process. Regression is permitted (although unlikely), and much of the time societies may be undergoing little or no change. Nor need it be assumed that social evolution always proceeds through some sort of rigid sequence.

2. Historical Development Of Theories Of Social Evolution

Theories of social evolution go back to the very beginnings of the social sciences and even earlier. The second half of the nineteenth century was a sort of ‘golden age’ of evolutionary thinking in sociology and anthropology, the fields that have contributed by far the most to the study of social evolution. There were many well-known evolutionary theorists during this time, but the three greatest were Herbert Spencer (1972, Peel 1971), Lewis Henry Morgan (1974), and Edmund Burnett Tylor (1871). Spencer was a British social theorist who contributed to philosophy, psychology, biology, and sociology. He saw evolution as a process that occurred in the entirety of the natural and social world. All phenomena, he said, had an inherent tendency to change from a state of ‘incoherent homogeneity’ to a state of ‘coherent heterogeneity.’ In simpler terms and with respect to human societies, they grew and expanded over time, their structures and functions became increasingly differentiated, and these increasingly differentiated wholes achieved higher levels of unification or integration. Morgan, an American anthropologist, saw social evolution as rooted in technological change, and in his great work Ancient Society (1974) he focused mainly on the evolution of government, property, and the family. In terms of the institutions of property and government, Morgan traced out a process whereby highly democratic and egalitarian societies were gradually replaced by societies marked by differential property ownership, social inequality, and the domination of the many by the few. Tylor was a British anthropologist who was much less concerned with the evolution of technology, economy, and political life and much more interested in what anthropologists regard as ideational and symbolic culture, i.e., with myth, language, customs, rituals, and, in particular, religion. Tylor is famous for his use of the concept of survivals, which are features of culture that have been carried by the force of custom or habit into types of societies beyond the one in which they initially appeared. For Tylor, survivals were excellent evidence of a process of social evolution. Completely outside of the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1964) developed their own evolutionary model of society. This model focused on the economic evolution of societies over thousands of years and made use of a revised version of the Hegelian dialectic as the mechanism of evolution. Within the economic infrastructures of societies, contradictions or tensions built up that eventually led to explosive situations and the transition to a new stage of society. Engels developed his own highly abstract theory of social evolution in his book Anti-Duhring (1939). He also formulated a much less abstract theory in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1970), a book that depended heavily on the ideas of Morgan.

After about 1890 the golden age of social evolutionary thought came to an end and was succeeded by what has been called ‘the antievolutionary reaction’ (Harris 1968, Sanderson 1990). Under the leadership of Franz Boas (1940), anthropologists in large numbers turned against the evolutionary theories of Spencer, Tylor, and Morgan. Evolutionary thought was kept alive to some extent through the work of such thinkers as L. T. Hobhouse (Hobhouse et al. 1965) and the celebrated sociologist William Graham Sumner (Sumner and Keller 1927). However, the intellectual atmosphere was for the most part unfriendly to it. But by the 1930s this atmosphere began to change and evolutionism revived. Three thinkers were most responsible for the revival. In 1936 V. Gordon Childe, an Australian archaeologist who taught in Scotland, wrote a famous book entitled Man Makes Himself. In this book Childe identified two great evolutionary transformations in human history. The first he called the Neolithic Revolution, which was associated with the domestication of plants and animals and led to larger and more settled societies. The second evolutionary transformation Childe called the Urban Revolution, which was made possible by the invention of the plow. The Urban Revolution was marked by the emergence of the city, the development of sharp class divisions, and of the form of political organization known as the state.

Following closely on the heels of Childe was the American anthropologist Leslie White. Throughout the 1940s White wrote a series of articles in which he attacked Boas and other antievolutionists for what he saw as their distortions of the claims of the nineteenth century evolutionists. White (1943, 1959) also developed his own conception of the evolution of culture, which he expressed in terms of a law of evolution. This law stated that culture developed in direct proportion to the amount of energy per capita that societies had harnessed. Societies harnessed energy as they moved from one technological stage to another or as they made their existing technology more efficient, and thus for White technological change was what was driving the evolutionary process. The third major figure in the evolutionary revival was Julian Steward (1955). Steward introduced the concept of multilinear evolution, which he opposed to unilinear and universal evolution. According to him, the nineteenth-century evolutionists had all been guilty of seeing societies as moving through a fixed series of stages (unilinear evolution), and thus greatly oversimplified and distorted the process of evolutionary change. The resurrection of this idea by Childe and White Steward called universal evolution, and it was even more problematic than unilinear evolution. For Steward, evolution was largely multilinear, i.e., it moved along a series of paths rather than one grand path.

By 1960 the evolutionary revival had proceeded to the point of putting evolutionary thinking back into a dominant position, at least in anthropology. After 1960 a new generation of anthropologists (and at least one sociologist) built on this revival and solidified it (Sanderson 1990). Marshall Sahlins (1960) developed an important distinction between general and specific evolution. This paralleled the distinction Steward had made between unilinear or universal evolution and multilinear evolution, except that Sahlins saw both general (unilinear, universal) and specific (multilinear) evolution as real social processes that anthropologists should be studying. Despite being unique, specific evolutionary changes also involved an overall movement of social and cultural life from one stage of evolutionary development to another.

Robert Carneiro (1970), like Sahlins a student of Leslie White, developed a theory of the evolution of the state that would become one of the most famous theories of this phenomenon. The critical factors in Carneiro’s theory were population growth, warfare, and what Carneiro called environmental circumscription. Circumscribed environments are those in which areas of fertile land are surrounded by natural barriers that prevent or impede the movement of people out of the area. These barriers include such things as mountain ranges or large bodies of water. Warfare is the result of population growth and resource scarcity, and when land is plentiful people respond to war by simply moving away to new land. But in circumscribed environments this process can only be taken so far. Land is eventually filled up, and the solution to more population pressure and resource scarcity becomes political conquest, a process that eventually results in the type of political society known as the state.

About the same time Gerhard Lenski (1966), a sociologist, was using the ideas of Childe and White to develop a theory of the evolution of social stratification. For Lenski the key to the rise of stratification was technological advancement and increasing economic productivity. As societies advance technologically, their economic productivity rises to the point where they can begin to produce an economic surplus, or a quantity of economic goods above and beyond what people need to survive. When economic surpluses arise competition and conflict over their control emerge, and as these surpluses grow larger the struggles between individuals and groups intensify and stratification systems become more elaborate and polarized.

One of the most important theories of social evolution of this period was that of Marvin Harris (1977). He broke ranks with such theorists as Childe, White, Sahlins, and Lenski on a critical point. These other theorists saw social evolution as a generally adaptive and progressive process that was driven by technological change. When new technologies became available, people readily adopted them because they saw their potential for improving the quality of life. According to Harris, technological change came about for a very different reason: the tendency of societies to deplete their environments as the result of population growth. When populations grew, pressure on resources intensified and standards of living dropped. At some point people had no choice but to advance their technologies so as to make their economies more productive. Thus farming replaced hunting and gathering, and farming with the use of the plow replaced farming with the use of simple hand tools. But technological change itself leads to further population growth and greater environmental depletion, and so a new wave of technological change will soon become necessary.

For Harris, social evolution, at least in preindustrial societies, is a process in which people have been running as hard as they can just to avoid falling farther and farther behind. Sanderson (1994a, 1994b, 1995) has built on the evolutionary ideas of Harris. He has formalized, extended, and to some extent modified them by developing a comprehensive theory that he calls evolutionary materialism. He uses evolutionary materialism as a general framework within which to understand three great evolutionary transformations: the Neolithic Revolution, the rise of the state and civilization, and the emergence of the modern capitalist world-economy. Like Harris’s, Sanderson’s view of social evolution is nonprogressivist and in some respects even antiprogressivist.

About this same time a very different kind of evolutionary theory was developed by the sociologist Talcott Parsons (1966, 1971). Parsons concentrated not on the evolution of technology and other features of material life but on the evolution of ideas and social institutions. Parsons formulated the concept of the evolutionary universal, which is a new kind of social structure or process that allows a society to achieve a new stage of evolutionary adaptation and thereby improve its level of functional efficiency. An early evolutionary universal was social stratification, which allowed a more efficient form of societal leadership to emerge. Later such evolutionary universals as administrative bureaucracy and money and markets emerged. An important evolutionary universal in more recent times, Parsons claimed, was the democratic association, which gave the use of power a broad societal consensus.

3. Typologies Of Evolutionary Stages

Most theories of social evolution have involved the delineation of evolutionary stages. This was no less true in the nineteenth century than it is today. Spencer used two different evolutionary typologies. One of these was based explicitly on Spencer’s notion of evolution as increasing differentiation: simple, compound, doubly-compound, and trebly-compound societies. At one end of the scale of differentiation we have simple societies, which are politically headless or have only rudimentary forms of headship. At the other end, that of trebly-compound societies, we have civilizations such as the Egyptian empire, ancient Mexico, the Roman empire, or the contemporary United States. Spencer’s other typology distinguished between what he called militant and industrial societies. Military societies are those in which individuals are subordinated to the will of society and forced to obey its dictates. They are produced by the needs associated with warfare and the preparation for it. Industrial societies, on the other hand, are characterized by an emphasis on economic activities rather than warfare, and are notable for their much greater individualism and overall freedom. Although Spencer did not work out in any precise way just how these two typologies corresponded to each other, just as he saw evolution as a process of increasing differentiation he also saw it as a generalized movement from militant to industrial societies. For Spencer the epitome of industrial societies was his own nineteenth-century Britain.

Morgan divided societies into three major stages, which he called ‘ethnical periods’: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The first two of these are divided into lower, middle, and upper substages. Societies in the stage of savagery are the oldest and most primitive. They survive by hunting and gathering and use rudimentary tools, such as spears or bows and arrows. Societies have reached the stage of barbarism when they have begun to domesticate plants and animals and live by agriculture rather than by hunting and collecting. Civilization is achieved with the invention of the phonetic alphabet and writing. Tylor made use of a very similar typology, as did other nineteenthcentury thinkers. However, Morgan also employed another typology, which involved the distinction between societas and civitas. Societies at the stage of societas were organized on the basis of kinship and had relatively egalitarian and democratic social and political arrangements. Societies having reached the stage of civitas, by contrast, rested on property and territory as organizational devices. Kinship declined greatly in importance and was replaced by the state as the integrator of society. Economic inequalities became prominent, and the democratic arrangements of earlier times gave way to one or another form of despotism.

Marx and Engels introduced a typology of stages that was to become one of the most famous of all time. For them a society rested upon one of four possible modes of production: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, or capitalism. The earliest human societies were at the stage of primitive communism. Here technology was very primitive, and people subsisted by hunting and gathering, by simple forms of agriculture, or by animal herding. Private property had not yet emerged, nor had class divisions. People lived in harmony and equality. Slavery, sometimes called the ancient mode of production, was characteristic of such earlier civilizations as Egypt and Mesopotamia and ancient Greece and Rome. Technology had undergone major advances since the stage of primitive communism, but as a result private property and class divisions had emerged. A small class of slave-owning masters confronted a large class of slaves. Slavery was followed in due course by feudalism, which characterized Europe during the Middle Ages. Slavery had largely given way to serfdom, and the major class division in society was that between landlords and serfs. The transition to capitalism was associated with another major upheaval in social life. Landlords and peasants were replaced by capitalists and workers as societies industrialized and urbanized. In due time the capitalist mode of production would fill with internal contradictions and eventually burst asunder, giving way to a socialist society without class divisions.

In recent decades very useful typologies have been produced by Gerhard Lenski (1966, 1970) and Elman Service (1971). Lenski has distinguished five major stages based on the level of technological development: hunting and gathering, simple horticulture, advanced horticulture, agrarianism, and industrialism. Hunting and gathering societies are the simplest and oldest. Here people survive by living on what nature provides. Men hunt and women collect fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other plant matter. The transition to simple horticulture was made with the Neolithic Revolution that began in some parts of the world about 10,000 years ago. Simple horticulturalists subsist by a rudimentary form of agriculture that is based on the cultivation of gardens with the use of digging sticks. They often use a form of cultivation known as ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation. This involves cutting down a section of forest, burning off the accumulated debris, and then spreading the ashes over the garden area as a form of fertilization. Usually gardens can only be used for a few years because soil fertility is quickly lost, so they will be abandoned in favor of other areas, only to be returned to many years hence. Advanced horticulturalists use the same basic form of cultivation but till the land with metal hoes rather than digging sticks, which give them a technological advantage. Agrarian societies are based on the plow and the harnessing of animal energy for plowing. Fields are completely denuded of shrubs and trees and slash-and-burn is abandoned. Industrial societies began to emerge with the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century. They are based on industry, the factory system, and urban life.

Service’s typology is based on the form of sociopolitical organization rather than the mode of technology, and distinguishes four stages: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Bands and tribes are similar in that they lack any formal mechanisms of social control. Leaders exist, but they have no real power or authority to compel anyone to do anything. They lead by example and they advise and suggest, but their decisions have no binding force. A band is usually a residential association of nuclear families, with a population anywhere from about 25 persons to 100. A tribe may be thought of as a larger collection of bands. Often the term tribe is used to designate a population, numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands, that shares a common culture and language. This cultural and linguistic whole is composed of politically autonomous and economically self-sufficient villages, which may consist of anywhere from a hundred to several hundred persons. Chiefdoms develop when the villages of the tribe come to be subordinated to an administrative structure of the whole. This structure is hierarchical and is dominated by a chief and at least a few subchiefs, each of whom has the capacity to compel the actions of others. Chiefdoms rest on at least some degree of coercion, but by definition this coercion is not sufficient to prevail when there is a rebellion from below. When such a degree of coercion has been achieved, a state has emerged. States are thus large-scale, highly centralized political systems in which rulers have a monopoly over the use of force.

Other typologies exist, and all have their strengths and weaknesses. Morton Fried (1967) developed a typology based on the degree of social inequality: egalitarian, rank, and stratified societies. Eric Wolf (1982) formulated a Marxist typology of stages based on the mode of production: the kin-based mode, the tributary mode, and the capitalist mode. And Talcott Parsons (1966) formulated a typology based on three major stages, which he called primitive, intermediate, and modern societies. There is no one way to create a typology of evolutionary stages. What is important is that the typology describes a real directional sequence or process based upon a clearly identified mechanism of change. All of the typologies identified here do that to one extent or another.

4. Social Evolution: Its Main Outlines

The discussion now moves from typologies and theories of social evolution to the actual process of social evolution itself. There is considerable disagreement about what the most important dimensions and driving forces of this process are, but the following sketch probably would not produce too much controversy among social evolutionists (Sanderson 1995).

Virtually all social evolutionists would agree that the first great social transformation was the Neolithic Revolution, which introduced plant and animal domestication into the world. The most striking thing about the Neolithic from an evolutionary perspective is that it occurred in remarkably parallel form in several major regions of the world. Beginning about 10,000 years ago in southwest Asia, the transition to communities based on agriculture rather than hunting and gathering occurred at later times in other parts of the Old World—southeast Asia, China, Africa, and Europe—and three parts of the New World: Mesoamerica, South America, and North America. It is now generally understood that most if not all of these Neolithic transitions occurred independently of one another, a phenomenon that can only be explained in evolutionary terms. The effects in these various regions were much the same too. The transition to agriculture led to settled and more densely populated communities that for a while remained relatively egalitarian but eventually gave way to stratified societies organized into chiefdoms.

By around 5,000 years ago in several parts of the world societies that had evolved into chiefdoms were beginning to make the transition to a state level of political organization, or to what many scholars have called civilizations. This occurred first in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then later in China, the Indus valley in northern India, parts of Europe, and Mesoamerica and Peru in the New World. Civilizations are societies with highly centralized political institutions involving a monopoly over the use of force, elaborate social stratification, urbanism and city life, occupational differentiation and craft specialization, trade and markets, monumental architecture, and writing and record keeping. Most civilizations have been agrarian societies, thus cultivating the land with plows and draft animals and intensively fertilizing the soil. Like the Neolithic Revolution, the transition to civilization and the state was a process of independent parallel evolution in several parts of the world.

Social evolution occurred rapidly throughout the world between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, but once the stage of civilization had been reached there was a considerable slowing of the evolutionary process. Social change continued in that societies became bigger and more densely populated, technology advanced, trade and markets expanded, and empires grew larger and more powerful. However, there was no qualitative leap to a new mode of social organization in the sense that there had been with the transition from hunter–gatherer to agricultural communities or to civilization and the state. Lenski (1970) has distinguished between simple and advanced agrarian societies on the basis of the possession by the latter of iron tools and weapons. He has suggested that advanced agrarian societies were in many ways so different from simple agrarian societies that it is difficult to include them in the same category. Yet both types were based on the same technological and economic foundations and the differences between them were more quantitative than qualitative. It was to take another several thousand years before there was a shift to a qualitatively new mode of social organization.

What was this shift and when did it occur? This is where sociologists enter the picture. Most sociologists have taken the view that it was the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century that introduced a qualitatively new form of social life, industrial society. However, in recent years some sociologists, along with social scientists from other fields, have moved this qualitative transformation back in time to the sixteenth century (Wallerstein 1974). The qualitative shift is then considered to be the transition to a capitalist world economy. Capitalism—selling goods in a market in order to earn a profit—in some form or another had existed for thousands of years, but after the sixteenth century it began to get the upper hand and to replace earlier, precapitalist forms of social life. From this perspective, the Industrial Revolution was simply part of the logic inherent in the advance of capitalism. Most scholars have treated the rise of capitalism as a unique feature of European society and Europe’s decisive contribution to the world. However, at about the same point in history a society at the other end of the world, Japan, began to undergo a capitalist transition of its own, and it is possible to identify a number of striking similarities between Europe and Japan that may have facilitated their transition to the new economic system (Sanderson 1994b).

Once the transition to capitalism had been made and the Industrial Revolution had commenced, strikingly similar changes began to occur among rapidly industrializing societies. Today’s industrial capitalist societies all have very similar occupational structures, governments based on parliamentary democracy, systems of mass education that are closely linked to the work world, similar stratification systems with relatively high levels of mobility, and rationalization in the form of advanced science and technology. Some sociologists and most historians will protest that recognition of these similarities should not prevent us from seeing the many important differences among industrial capitalist societies. That is certainly true, but from the perspective of the evolutionist, it is the similarities that are more compelling.

5. Conclusions

It was noted above that evolutionary theories of society have ebbed and flowed in their popularity ever since they were introduced. They were extremely prominent between 1850 and 1890, fell to a low point between 1890 and 1930, and rose to prominence again around the middle of the twentieth century. But the bubble burst again, and beginning in the 1970s evolutionary theories fell from grace. They have been criticized on numerous grounds (Nisbet 1969, Sztompka 1993). Among other things, it has been charged:

(a) that they overestimate the amount of directionality in history;

(b) that they rely on teleological explanations, which are illegitimate;

(c) that they have a strong endogenous bias and ignore, or at least insufficiently attend to, the external relations among societies;

(d) that they employ a specious concept of adaptation; and

(e) that their progressivist view of history is much too optimistic.

All of these criticisms have been answered at length (Sanderson 1990, 1997). Precedent suggests that evolutionism will once again become prominent in sociology and anthropology. This type of theorizing has fared well in optimistic periods of history and poorly in more pessimistic periods. Western society and Western social science have long been in a pessimistic period, but this cannot last. With the eventual turn toward greater optimism, evolutionism will again assume its rightful place as a major perspective on social life and its historical changes.


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