Evolutionary theory in sociology: An examination of current thinking

Abstract

After long neglect, evolutionary thinking is receiving new emphasis in the social sciences. Although evolutionary theories in biology are complex, changing, and often controversial, the basic concepts of variation, selection, and transmission potentially have powerful applications in sociology. In such uses, a crucial distinction must be made between developmental processes and evolutionary processes. Two main approaches characterize current evolutionary thinking in sociology: sociobiological explanations, and coevolutionary accounts of the interaction of genes and culture. Evolution through natural selection can occur with genes, cultural elements, and any other self-replicating codes. Although social learning is the cultural analogue of genetic transmission, cultural evolution does not necessarily maximize genetic fitness. Newly emerging sociological theories of evolution hold promise of integrating micro- and macroprocesses, providing explanations of complexity and diversity in social change, reconciling ideas of agency and structure, and linking sociology to biology without misleading reductionism.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Adams, Richard Newbold 1988 The Eighth Day: Social Evolution as the Self-Organization of Energy. Austin: University of Texas Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Axelrod, Robert 1984 The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Ayala, Francisco J. 1970 “Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology.” Philosophy of Science 37:12–15.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bandura, A. 1977 Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Becker, Gray 1976 “Altruism, egoism and genetic fitness: Economics and sociobiology.” Journal of Economic Literature 14:817–826.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bloch, Mare 1973 French Rural History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Booth, David 1985 “Marxism and development sociology: Interpreting the impasse.” World Development 13:7.

    Google Scholar 

  8. 1976 “A simple dual inheritance model of the conflict between social and biological evolution.” Zygon 11:254–262.

    Google Scholar 

  9. 1982 “Cultural transmission and the evolution of cooperative behavior.” Human Ecology 10:325–351.

    Google Scholar 

  10. 1983a “The cultural transmission of acquired variation: Effects on genetic fitness.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 100:567–596.

    Google Scholar 

  11. 1983b “Why is culture adaptive?” The Quarterly Review of Biology 58:209–214.

    Google Scholar 

  12. 1985 Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. 1988 “The evolution of ethnic markers.” Cultural Anthropology 2:65–79.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Braudel, Fernand 1973 The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vols. New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Burns, Tom R. and Thomas Dietz forthcoming Toward a Synthetic Theory of Socio-Cultural Evolution. Uppsala: Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences.

  16. Burns, Tom R. andHelena Flam 1987 The Shaping of Social Organization: Social Rule Systems Theory with Applications. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  17. 1960 “Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes.” The Psychological Record 67:380–400.

    Google Scholar 

  18. 1965 “Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution.” In H. R. Barringer, G. I. Blankstein, R. W. Mack (eds.), Social Change in Developing Areas: A Reinterpretation of Evolutionary Theory: 19–49. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.

    Google Scholar 

  19. 1975 “On the conflicts between biological and social evolution and between psychology and moral tradition.” American Psychologist 30:1103–1126.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. andMareus Feldman 1981 Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Charlsworth, B., R. Lande, andMarcus Slatkin 1982 “A neo-Darwinian commentary on macroevolution.” Evolution 36:474–498.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Clark, Norman andCalestous Juma 1987 Long-Run Economics: An Evolutionary Approach to Economic Growth. London: Pinter.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Cloninger, C. R., J. Rice, andT. Reich 1979 “Multifactorial inheritance with cultural transmission and assortive mating, III: Family structure and the analysis of separation experiments.” American Journal of Human Genetics 31:366–388.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Collins, Randall 1986 Weberian Social Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Eldredge, Niles 1985 Unfinished Synthesis: Biological Hierarchies and Modern Evolutionary Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Eldredge, Niles andStephen Jay Gould 1972 “Punctuated equilibria: An alternative to phyletic gradualism.” In T. J. M. Schopf (ed.), Models in Paleobiology: 82–115. San Francisco: Freeman.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Fausto-Sterling, Anne 1985 Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men and Women. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  28. 1977 Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. 1987 An Urchin in the Storm: Essays About Books and Ideas. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Gould, Stephen Jay andNiles Eldredge 1977 “Punctuated equilibria: The tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered.” Paleobiology 3:115–151.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Greenwood, Davydd J. 1984 The Taming of Evolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Habermas, Jurgen 1979 Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Hamilton, William D. 1964 “The genetical evolution of social behavior, I, II.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1–52.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Jensen, U. J. andR. Harre 1981 The Philosophy of Evolution. New York: St. Martin's.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Jones, E. L. 1987 The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia, 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Kitcher, Philip 1985 Vaulting Ambition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Lenski, Gerhard, William R. Catton, Jr., andFrederick H. Buttel 1986 “To what degree is a social system dependent on its resource base? In J. F. Short, Jr. (ed.), The Social Fabric: 165–186. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Levine, R. A. andDonald T. Campbell 1872 Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes and Group Behavior. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Lewontin, R. C., Steven Rose, andLeon J. Kamin 1984 Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Luhmann, Niklas 1982 The Differentiation of Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. 1980a “Translation of epigenetic rules of individual behavior into ethnographic patterns.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 77:4382–4386.

    Google Scholar 

  42. 1980b “Gene-culture translation in the avoidance of sibling incest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 77:6248–6250.

    Google Scholar 

  43. 1981 Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. 1983 Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Maynard Smith, John andN. Warren 1982 “Models of cultural and genetic change.” Evolution 36:620–627.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Mazur, Allan, Eugene A. Rosa, Mark Fraupel, Joshua Heller, Russel Leen, andBlake Thurman 1980 “Physiological aspects of communication via mutual gaze.” American Journal of Sociology 86:50–74.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Norgaard, Richard, N. 1985 “Environmental economics: An evolutionary critique and a plea for pluralism.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 12:382–393.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Pulliam, H. R. 1982 “A social learning model of conflict and cooperation in human societies.” Human Ecology 10:353–363.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Pulliam, H. R. andChristopher Dunford 1980 Programmed to Learn: An Essay on the Evolution of Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Ragin, Charles C. 1987 The Comparative Method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Rappaport, Roy A. 1968 Pigs for the Ancestors. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Richerson, Peter J. 1977 “Ecology and human ecology: A comparison of theories in the biological and social sciences.” American Ethnologist 4:1–26.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd forthcoming A Darwinian theory for the evolution of symbolic cultural traits.” In Morris Freilich (ed.), The Relevance of Culture. South Hadley, MA: Bergen and Garvey.

  54. Rosa, Eugene A 1979 “Sociobiology, biosociology, or vulgar biologizing.” Sociological Symposium 27:28–49.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Rosa, Eugene A. andAllan Mazur 1979 “Incipient status in small groups.” Social Forces 58:18–37.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Sanderson, Steven E., ed. 1985 The Americas in the New International Division of Labor. New York: Holmes & Meier.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Skocpol, Theda andMargaret Sommers 1980 “The uses of comparative history in macrosocial inquiry.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 22:174–197.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Taylor, P. J. 1987 “Historical versus selectionist explanations in evolutionary biology.” Cladistics 3:1–13.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Vandergeest, Peter, andFrederick H. Buttel 1988 “Marx, Weber, and development sociology: Beyond the impasse.” World Development 16: 683–695.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Van Parijs, Phillipe 1981 Evolutionary Explanation in the Social Sciences: An Emerging Paradigm. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Vayda, Andrew P. 1988 “Actions and consequences of objects as explanation in human ecology.” In R. J. Borden et al. (eds.), Human Ecology: 9–18. College Park, MD: Society for Human Ecology.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Vayda, Andrew P. andRoy A. Rappaport 1968 “Ecology, cultural and noncultural.” In J. A. Clifton (ed.), Introduction to Cultural Anthropology: 477–497. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Weber, Max 1968 Economy and Society. (1922) Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  64. West, Patrick C. 1985 “Max Weber's human ecology of historical societies.” In V. Murvar (ed.), Theory of Liberty, Legitimacy, and Power: New Directions in the Intellectual and Scientific Legacy of Max Weber: 216–234. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Wilkinson, Richard G. 1973 Poverty and Progress: An Ecological Perspective on Economic Development. New York: Praeger.

    Google Scholar 

  66. 1980 The Natural Selection of Populations and Communities. Menlo Park, Ca: Benjamin/Cummings.

    Google Scholar 

  67. 1983 “The group selection controversy: History and current status.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 14:159–188.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Wilson, Edmund O. 1975 Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Wynne-Edwards, V. C. 1962 Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Federick H. Buttel.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dietz, T., Burns, T.R. & Buttel, F.H. Evolutionary theory in sociology: An examination of current thinking. Sociol Forum 5, 155–171 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01112590

Download citation

Key words

  • evolutionary theory
  • sociobiology
  • coevolution
  • cultural transmission
  • altruism