Sociology Of Social Evolution Research Paper

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The term social evolution describes sociological theories that study the changes and development of societies as a whole, by adopting a long-term perspective. These theories have alternately emphasized: (a) the characteristics of successive social orders; (b) the mechanisms and laws that articulate this succession; (c) the direction of this evolution; and (d) its progressive character. Although explicit references to social evolution were certainly not lacking in the reflections of philosophers who dealt with the whole history of human evolution (Plato, Vico, Bossuet), actual theories on social evolution were only established in the eighteenth century (Mandeville, Hume, Ferguson, Smith, Savigny), and nineteenth century (Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, Spencer, Menger, Durkheim, Tonnies). Even though they are radically different, these theories all identify a tendency to progress from relatively simple and uniform social organizations characterized by a small or even nonexistent division of labor, to social organizations that are marked by a growing division of labor and a considerable increase of population.

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In spite of their shared minimalist presuppositions, two currents of sociological theories have been established, each interpreting social evolution in a radically different way: (a) theories that try to understand society’s inevitable laws of Evolution; and (b) theories that interpret social evolution as an unintended process generated by the spontaneous combination of individual actions.

1. Social Evolution As An Ineluctable Development

Many philosophers, sociologists and economists have tried to single out the laws that clearly explain the succession of different social phases. They have tried to identify Evolutionary criteria that would allow them to look back at changes that have already taken place, and foresee future changes. According to Saint-Simon, a law of progress supports the process of evolution and this progress is not linear, since ‘organic periods’ of progress necessarily alternate with ‘critical periods’ of temporary and partial regression. However, the industrial revolution and scientific progress inevitably lead to a more evolved organic period that was organized according to the principles of ‘positive science’ which puts power in the hands of scientists. According to Comte (Comte 1875), ‘the development of civilization follows a necessary law’, which individuals ‘are subject to by invariable necessity’: the ‘law of the three phases’. This law establishes that every society goes through ‘theological, metaphysical and positive phases’ which follow a fixed and predetermined scheme. The positive phase characterizes the most advanced stage of social progress, dominated by a new and higher form of science, ‘social physics’, that permits the organization and management of society as a whole. Marx considers ‘dialectic materialism’ the progressive law of all society, marking the inevitable evolution from ‘primitive communism’ to the ‘feudal’ phase that leads to the ‘capitalistic’ phase, which in turn leads to the inevitable success of ‘communism.’

These theories, based on a holistic view of society that considers social evolution a teleocratic process, have been subjected to a great deal of methodological criticisms. The impossibility of foreseeing how human knowledge will develop and the inevitable emergence of unintended consequences are sufficient criticism to the determinism of these theories. There is also a fundamental epistemological objection to the claim these theories have of giving a scientific explanation to the entire social process: in order to explain a social phenomenon scientifically, universal laws are necessary, i.e., laws that are not empirically assessed only on the phenomenon itself. Where social evolution is

 concerned this is not possible, because it is a historically unique process. Consequently, there are no scientific ‘laws of evolution’ to be discovered, but only ‘tendencies’ that can and must be explained by laws (Popper 1957). In a more general sense, these evolutionary theories view society as a closed system where it is possible to determined the evolutionary dynamics. Marx, on the basis of a situational analysis, considered social evolution an emerging effect, and attributed a necessary and universal quality to mere tendencies, simply because he did not allow for the fact that a social system is necessarily opened by, and to, new information from the outside.

2. Social Evolution As A Spontaneous Order

Individualistic theories on social evolution are formulated in a completely different way. They do not seek laws of Evolution, but try to define a principle of Evolution that is determined as the spontaneous combination of subjectively rational, individual actions. Social order and its evolution are conceived mostly as the unintended result of the interaction between individuals with limited knowledge, pursuing their private interests through an ultimately positive exchange with others.

  1. De Mandeville and Scottish economists and philosophers of the eighteenth century (Hume, Ferguson, Millar, Smith) are among the first supporters of this theory. They proposed an invisible hand explanation for the origin and development of the most important social institutions. Even before, Smith, Mandeville explained the affirmation of the division of labor as a spontaneous result generated by the necessity of satisfying the needs of the individual in an increasingly efficient way. The division of labor, like other social institutions is therefore, according to Ferguson’s famous definition, the ‘result of human action but not of human planning.’ Among the Scottish philosophers, Adam Smith particularly drew his conclusions at a more completely macro-sociological level, identifying trade as the mechanism behind social order, since it spontaneously combines single actions. Smith believed that in the exchange with others, individuals are driven ‘by an invisible hand to support objectives that were not part of their original intentions. [-] By pursuing their own interests, they advance society’s interests more efficiently than was deliberately intended.’

Owing to Burke’s influence on the German historical school (Savigny, Neibuhr), the evolutionary approach was established in linguistics (Humboldt) and law in the early nineteenth century. It was thus adopted first of all in the human and social sciences, and only later in the natural sciences (for example, with Lyell in geology and Darwin in biology). In fact, Hayek had defined these theories of evolutionism as ‘Darwinian prior to Darwin.’ As the evolutionary theory was increasingly accepted in biology, theories on social evolution were given new impetus. This was also thanks to Spencer, who should be considered one of the most significant theoreticians of social evolutionism based on individualism, which was later developed by the economists of the Austrian school. Spencer considered social evolution as a process generated by a combination of individual actions, which tend to organize spontaneously, establishing rules and social organizations that are selected on the basis of their fitness to perform the basic functions of human society (survival of the species, production of riches). The ‘obligatory co-operation’ at the base of ‘military society’ and the ‘spontaneous co-operation’ at the base of ‘industrial society’ are the two most important ‘types’ of social orders that have selectively evolved. Spencer believed that societies where spontaneous cooperation was established had an Evolutionary ad antage because they maximised the problem solving capacity by safeguarding individual liberty and allowing the greatest possible safeguarding individual liberty and allowing the greatest possible number of compatible individual plans to be accomplished. For this reason, Spencer gives ‘spontaneous co-operation’ an ethical value because it is the best solution to reproduction of the species and communal welfare, which he considers the two most important issues of humanity.

The Austrian Economic School is probably the strongest current of theorists of social evolution with an individualistic foundation. It spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with Menger, BohmBawerk, Mises and Hayek and the neo Austrian Americans (Rothbard, Kirzner, Stigler). By emphasizing the primacy of the theory in the social sciences and suggesting that they be refounded on an individualistic basis, Menger harshly criticises the ‘pragmatist’ theories that consider the genesis and evolution of social order as effects of intentional plans. In his opinion, ‘law, language, the State, currency, trade [-], in their various expressions and incessant changes, are largely the spontaneous result of social evolution.’ Mises developed a momentous theory of rationality (praxeology), providing an epistemological defence of social order as produced by market, and demonstrating the impossibility of making an ‘economic calculus’ in a planned economy.

But, it was above all F. A. von Hayek who suggested the strong link between methodological individualism and social evolution. Hayek harshly criticised the reification of the Kollekti ebegriffe starting from the ‘social system’, and based his methodological individualism on an ontological individualism. He stated that there are only individuals whose intentional actions (and their unintentional consequences) tend to combine spontaneously, giving rise to a ‘spontaneous order’ meaning open systems that are self-generated and self-regulated. In Hayek’s view, the great ‘misunderstanding’ of evolutionists is confusing the study of social evolution with the impossible search for the ‘laws of evolution’ on one hand, and on the other, with studying the selection process between single individuals (social Darwinism). Social evolution is actually the result of ‘group selection’, meaning the competition between groups organized according to different rules, that are selected on the basis of their functional adaptation. Hayek, like Spencer, demonstrates the Evolutionary superiority of the ‘spontaneous order’ (Cosmos) by distinguishing it from ‘contrived order’ (Taxis). This superiority is generated by the fact that the spontaneous order allows each individual to use the generalized knowledge of others to reach their goals. Competition between different types of organizations and individual plans is therefore the means of propagation and retention of evolutionary selection results. It is the method for exploring the unknown and as such, is the driving force of social evolution.

These individualistic theories of social evolution are based on a fallibilistic view of knowledge, and as such they harshly criticise the rationalistic and ‘constructionist’ claims of scholars who try to discover the inevitable laws of social evolution and then, on the basis of this discovery, plan social order or at least a significant part of it. Social order should be seen instead as the unintended result of the spontaneous combination of rational, subjective actions that relate to situations in an adaptive way. This nomocratic order is an autopoietic system that incorporates the principle of its own evolution: a spontaneous cooperation between free individuals. As such, it is teleonomic, since it has a tendency to self-organization, and is not teleological, because it is not guided by any previously determined, predictable, and inevitable goal.

3. The Evolution Of Social Systems

Several other important theories of social evolution exist beside these two currents of thought. Although they do not attempt to define the inevitable laws of development, they study the characteristics and sequential succession of cultural structures, systems and social phases, considering them separate and above the order of the single individuals of which they are composed. Durkheim and Parsons are the most significant exponents of these theories.

Even though Durkheim’s works do contain interesting examples of the invisible hand explanation (such as the explanation of the genesis of the family in De la division du travail social), he also harshly criticises Smith and the ‘economists’ who interpreted social evolution as a result of the interaction between single individuals pursuing their private interests. Society cannot be ‘deduced’ from individual behavior because ‘the agents in exchanges remain mutually estranged’, since a subjective interest is ‘the least constant thing in the world.’ Durkheim considers society a ‘sui generis’ reality, and therefore ‘collective life is not the result of individual life; on the contrary, the latter is the result of the former.’ Society exercises ‘moral authority’ over individuals and has a ‘collective conscience.’ In archaic societies, which are characterized by a ‘mechanical solidarity’, the collective conscience entirely replaces individual conscience. In more advanced societies characterized by an ‘organic solidarity’, a progressive individualization occurs that is not however sufficient to free the individual from collective tutorship. Evolution that leads to modern society is produced by the division of labor, which in turn, according to Durkheim (influenced by Spencer in this case), ‘varies in direct proportion to the volume and density’ of society. Having given up trying to define a law of Development, Durkheim finally explained the division of labor in a way that is similar to the invisible hand explanation. He writes in fact that ‘the economic services which the division of labor can provide are insignificant compared to the moral effect it produces, and its true function is to achieve solidarity between two or more individuals.’

Parsons’ ‘neo-evolutionism’ has a culturalistic imprint. After the Second World War, he clearly revised the views he expressed in The Structure of Social Action. Parsons defines three ‘levels’ of social evolution: ‘primitive society’ (centered on family relations), ‘intermediate society’ (regulated by religious institutions), and ‘modern society’ (established by the industrial revolution). The passage from one social stage to another can be explained by the laws of general Evolution and the law of cybernetic hierarchy. The general laws of evolution (for which Parsons is much indebted to Spencer), explains how societies evolve through the ‘increase of adaptive capacity’ namely through their capacity to ‘transform the environment in order to satisfy their needs (Parsons 1971).’ Successive social phases, under the pressure of functional adaptation, are therefore characterized by a progressive ‘differentiation’ (of roles, functions and sub-systems) and by their ‘integration.’ The law of cybernetic hierarchy explains that the ‘social system’, works and evolves by the restraints placed by ‘cultural structures’ (i.e., systems of rules and values) on the ‘social system’ and on individual actions, which Parsons places on the lower levels of the cybernetic scale. Parsons describes society as a ‘sui generis reality’ explicitly following Durkheim’s theories. Social evolution is therefore the result of the ‘evolutionary change’ of cultural variables. These variables have the ‘function’ of ‘legitimizing the rules of a society’, providing a view of society in its ‘totality.’

4. Evolution And Social Progress

A dogma of theories on social evolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, based on the Enlightenment and positivism, was that evolution coincided with progress. Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx and Condorcet before them, all believed that the laws of Evolution coincided with the laws of progress, meaning that social evolution occurs in a predictable way that is equated with a necessary human progress. This attempt to make historic Development and human progress coincide is invalidated by ‘ Hume’s law’, which states that it is not logically possible to derive prescriptions from descriptions. The idea of progress cannot therefore be rationally founded. This does not prevent social evolution from being defined as positive or progressive, or being either optimistic (Spencer, Hobhouse, Childe, Withe, Parsons) or pessimistic (Malthus, Speigler), for these are evaluations based on subjective value choices. As such, they can be debated and critically discussed, but they cannot be considered as describing a necessity.

It is possible to avoid the naturalistic fallacy of confusing goodness with Evolution by following Hume’s law.’ In order to assess the results of evolutionary adaptation, it is necessary to move from a historical-sociological plane to an ethical one. Individualistic evolutionists, like Spencer and Hayek, separated evolution from progress and—fearing that social evolution might alter the nature of the spontaneous order—gave progress a moral value by turning it into an ideal to be defended and developed should certain value choices be accepted (individual liberty, the increase of wealth and knowledge, etc.). The purpose of evolutionary ethics is precisely to demonstrate that spontaneous cooperation based on free individual actions is the best means to achieve these values.

5. Adaptation And Innovation

The variation selection mechanism is the hard core of both biological and social evolution. As neo-darwinian models were increasingly accepted in biology and theories of self-organized complex systems were increasingly accepted in physics, social sciences also began to study this evolution-generating mechanism. However, the dynamics of this mechanism can be interpreted in different ways that once again oppose individualism to collectivism. It is possible to have a ‘structural’ view of innovation, by seeing it as a deterministic product of Environmental instruction according to Lamarck’s theories. Variations would then be the manifestation of functional needs that arise from, and are selected by, the need to guarantee the social system’s equilibrium. Social changes would therefore be essentially conceived as ‘endogenous’, i.e., part of the social structure and necessary to its reproduction. Individualistic evolutionists, like Weber and Schumpter proposed a completely different view of social innovation. They emphasized the individual, unpredictable and strategic character of innovation by focusing respectively on the innovative role of the charismatic elites and of entrepreneurs. Innovation does not answer a question posed by the environment, it is the result of individual strategies, and strategies between individuals, who both condition and are conditioned by the environment in which they develop. Variations cannot be explained by strict Lamarkian theories, because the social organism’s ingrained environmental needs and tendencies do not deterministically generate them. On the other hand, they also cannot be interpreted using an orthodox darwinian model, since they are not random or random-like.

These two pure types of innovation correlate to two pure kinds of adaptation. Parsons reduces adaptation almost exclusively to its functional dimension, defining it as a process that allows society as a whole (as well as its subsystems) to respond to some essential, functional needs. Another view of adaptation considers it closely linked to a biological model (especially Spencer and Hayek). Adaptation is seen as an endless order generating process that reduces the variety of configurations produced by variations through a rule and group selection. This selection essentially refers to groups that spontaneously adopt different rules and organizations. Among these groups, only those which are better equipped to address the most important social needs will survive.

On another level, a similar and complimentary process of selection through competition takes place between individuals belonging to the same group, and this process determines the subjective actions and projects that are most adaptable to environmental circumstances and particularly to the rules of the group itself. However, the fact that emphasis is placed on group selection does not mean that this evolutionary prospect denies methodological individualism (as stated by D T Campbell 1995). Organized groups are the spontaneous result of the fact that individuals follow specific rules of conduct that are conveyed and spread by learning through imitation. Following these guidelines, one eventually considers tradition as a necessary element of evolution since it characterizes the process of retention of kinds of actions and dispositions.

6. Social Evolution And Evolutionary Epistemology

D T Campbell has used the expression ‘evolutionary epistemology’ to describe epistemological theories (from Poincare and Mach to Popper) that saw the evolution of human knowledge as a process that progresses by trial and error-elimination, creating new hypotheses and selectively eliminating false ones. Evolutionary epistemology also helps to better understand the social evolution process, which is also a discovery procedure that lato sensu has a cognitive nature. Social innovations are nothing more than attempts to resolve problems (intentionally proposed or occurring spontaneously), that are selected on the basis of their capacity to deal with problematic situations. Comparing the two evolutionary processes, it can be said that: (a) fitness is nothing more than the elimination of errors; (b) the transmission of selected solutions (in social and cognitive contexts) means learning by error; and (c) the increase of complexity in social systems is simply an increase of background knowledge. Like the evolution of knowledge, social evolution will never reach a state of equilibrium because new instructions will result in an environmental change that will be the background of new variations. Finally, an important distinction should be made between social evolution and the evolution of the knowledge. Even though the former cannot be reduced to a Lamarckian model, its Environmental instruction is more significant while the evolution of knowledge (if one excludes the collectivistic theories of some contemporary science sociologists such as Bloor, Barnes and others), is articulated by creative inventions that, unlike social innovation, are much less affected by external selection.


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