Social Evolution

Social Evolution

Social evolution is regarded as a particular form of general evolutionary process that occurred in communities of the genus Homo (or, more nar­rowly, in communities of anatomically modern humans). It implies changes over time of different forms of relationships among human beings (indi­viduals and their group) that are inwardly con­nected and interdependent and have given rise to new social forms and connections.

Chronologically, the concept of social evolution applies to the process of origin and change in social organizations and social complexity, which is associated with structural changes in human society. It is difficult, however, to distinguish prop­erly the social form of evolution from political, cultural, and other forms of nonbiological evolu­tionary processes, just as it is practically impossible to distinguish between social evolution and social development.

Social Evolution in 19th- and Early 20th-Century Anthropological Thought

Early ideas about social evolution were expressed in the works of ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus and Aristotle; such ideas were dissemi­nated more widely in the early medieval period on the basis of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s Christian concept of sacral history. The Enlightenment brought new insight into social evolution, with multidimensional analyses of social changes framed in terms of the natural evolution of the world. In such a context, social evolution was identified with progress, which was understood as the gradual perfection of society, realized on the basis of humankind’s spiritual emancipation. In the mod­ern era, social evolution has been interpreted by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, and followers as a process determined by its primordial essence. The closest analogy to such an under­standing of society’s changes in time may be found in the life of a plant, which grows from a particular seed. Sometimes it takes a final form implying the preexistence of a certain final stage of evolution (as in different forms of utopias). Nevertheless, in terms of a teleological understanding of social evo­lution, the problem of the origin of new forms of social life remained unattended.

The tendency to conceptualize human history in a framework of gradual development that implies improvement of an already existing substance or the origin of new ones has occupied the attention of scientists and the public since the 1870s when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. The concept of social evolution as directional and irreversible linear change became an integral part of the scientific discussions of that time, and it is not surprising that in seeking to explain its driving forces, anthropologists refer to mechanisms in biology.

The earliest application of evolutionary ideas to the study of human society, and the origin of the organic school in sociology, is traditionally ascribed to the work of Herbert Spencer, who managed to synthesize the embryology of Karl Ernst Ritter von Baer, the geological theories of Charles Lyell, the physical law of conservation of energy, and the ideas of Charles Darwin. According to Spencer, social evolution is a permanent redistribution of elements in their movements toward integration and disintegration, thereby creating some kind of equilibrium. Social dynamics was understood by Spencer as the progressive transition of a society from homogeneity to heterogeneity, or its differen­tiation. He distinguished four evolutionary types of human society (simple, compound, doubly com­pound, and trebly compound), which could range from politically nondifferentiated (egalitarian) primitive societies to complex civilizations. Survival of the most adapted industrial societies based on positive knowledge he considered the basic law of social development. Spencer’s views created a back­ground for social Darwinism, an ideological trend in social thought, widespread at the turn of the 20th century, that advocated for a reform of human social development according to laws of biological evolution. Competition, natural selection, the strug­gle for existence, and survival of the most adaptive individuals were recognized by social Darwinists as the basic determinants of social life.

Nevertheless, most early evolutionists did not share the view that different stereotypes of social behavior reflect different stages of historical devel­opment, and in frames of their peculiar field of study tried to illustrate social progress with the help of pertinent cultural phenomena. McLennan, Maine, Robertson Smith, and others studying common law, marriage, and kinship systems helped to promote the Stadialist hypothesis about social development by stages. In their understanding, these stages are universal, and the diversity of social institutions is the outcome of specific contin­gencies in the life history of certain groups.

For the first time, such ideas were shaped into strict schemes of human history periodization by Lewis Henry Morgan in his Ancient Society (1877). According to Morgan, human history could be subdivided into two global phases: The first one—societas—was characterized by social organization based on kinship, fraternity, and tribes and demonstrates egalitarianism, whereas the second—civitas—was represented by political organization based on different attitudes of humans to territory and property and was characterized by social and economic inequalities.

A different approach to social evolution was elaborated at the end of 19th century by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose basic point was the concept of the evolution of modes of production, understood as a concatenation of productive forces (often identified with technology) and relations that are practiced in the course of production (in most aspects determined by the ownership of productive forces). Against this background they distinguished four stages of societal development: primitive, slav­ery, feuDalí, and capitalist (German Ideology, 1847). Later, Engels, in his Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), based on detailed studies of Morgan’s Ancient Society, worked out in detail the periodization of human history and inter­rogated the final period of prehistory (later called the “war democracy stage”) when private property, classes, and the state arose. He demonstrated that the origin of the state, characterized by such traits as authorities estranged from the wider public, the taxation system, and so on, is the result of society’s internal subdivision into classes.

Under the influence of Marx and Engels, the “stadialistic” scheme of social evolution, based on economic determinism, became widespread in Soviet academic life. During the period 1929 to 1934 on the basis of Engels’s work, a general understanding of historical process as the dialectic replacement of one form of economy by another, more progressive one resulted in the elaboration of a five-component scheme of social and economic structures (Marx’s four plus communism, grounded by Vladimir Ilich Lenin), which was proclaimed the only officially approved explanation of social evolution.

A gradual decrease in the popularity and reliabil­ity of evolutionism as the universal foundation of cognitive and interpretative methodology, and a tendency after World War II to replace it by func­tional and structural analysis and by historical, geographic, psychological, and sociological com- parativistics, have led to a partial revision and shaping of neo-evolutionism as a self-sufficient method­ological approach. Its proponents (V. Gordon Childe, Leslie A. White, Julian Steward, Marshal Sahlins, and others) had serious doubts about the possibility of global unilinear progress in culture and technology, arguing for plurality of historical process and its driving forces.

Stages of Social Evolution: Neo-Evolutionistic Approach

The stadial scheme band—tribe—chiefdom— state, outlined in brief by Marshal Sahlins in 1960, worked out in detail by Elman Service in 1962-1971, and further elaborated by Joseph Marino, is in a sense a restitution of the unilinear evolutionary scheme. In proposed consequence every stage could be described by a set of social, economic, and political parameters that demon­strate correlations with a certain chronological span. At the same time, Service implied that new social and political forms are strictly functional ones, and their evolution fits new needs of evolv­ing communities. In such a context, social com­plexity could be viewed as an adaptive response to challenges to human survival. In contrast to Steward’s and Service’s adaptationist understand­ing of social evolution, proponents of the so-called political approach to detection of the driving forces of leadership shaping argue that central power results from expanding domination and necessity to control rather than the management of the economy for the benefit of an elite. This view is connected with the further development of Marxist ideas and is reflected in the particular view of social complexity formation elaborated by Robert Carneiro.

Band societies, or the family level of social orga­nization, traditionally exemplified by leaderless egalitarian communities of prehistoric and con­temporary hunter-gatherers, represent the simplest level of social complexity. The only principle of community leader choice is his or her personal qualities and abilities (primitive form of so-called meritocracy principle); in the case of nonsufficient management, administration, or both, the leader could be replaced immediately. Recent studies indi­cate that the gender attribution of the leader is not a decisive factor in leader choice and function delineation. At the same time, some hunter-gather­ers (e.g., Australian aborigines) practice a form of nonegalitarian community with a tendency to con­centrate power in a close group of elders who are organized hierarchically.

Tribal (or segmentary) society stage, or “local group” form of social complexity, usually is ascribed to the community with signs of so-called prestigious economy, which implies the presence of surplus product based on hunter-gatherers as well as productive economy. These social structures are characterized mainly by high territoriality and fragmentariness insofar as their main units—vil- lages—tend to be self-sufficient economically but at the same time tending toward political, social, and ritual agglomeration.

Chiefdom and its conceptualization is one of the most widely discussed issues in contemporary social and political anthropology. Usually it is defined as a social organism consisting of group of villages (communities) organized hierarchically and subordinated to the central, biggest among them, where the chief (ruler) is living. The func­tions of the chief include organization of the economy, including procurement and redistribu­tion; regulation of judicial and mediatory pro­cesses; and supervision of the social unit’s religious and cultural life. In exercising power the chief could rely on rudimentary bodies represented in all territorial segments of the chiefdom. According to R. Carneiro, chiefdom structure is the first experi­ence of political hierarchy introduced into local communities’ networks and entailing loss of auton­omy. At the same time, the endogamous elite of society had no monopoly over the application of force in the case of weakening of their control over the group. Usually the supreme power is sacralized or even theocratized, and chiefdom as a whole is characterized by common ideology and rituals. A. Johnson and T. Earle distinguish between simple chiefdoms, which include perhaps a thousand people with modest social differentiation, and complex chiefdoms, which engage tens of thou­sands of hierarchically organized people. The earli­est signs of chiefdoms in Europe usually are traced back to the transition from Neolithic to Eneolithic period (about 5000 BCE) when primitive forms of town (protected settlements) spring up alongside ordinary settlements; origin of megalithic con­structions, stratified burials, separation of special ceremonial places usually are connected with that time. During the Bronze Age these phenomena gradually became common for the whole ecumene.

The state phase of social complexity formation is characterized by internal differentiation by class, tightly connected with the origin of private prop­erty and exploitation; by high centralization main­tained with the help of military, religious, and bureaucratic administration; and by the origin of ethnicity. Among other important traits of the state, record keeping, highly developed transporta­tion and communication means, and the use of written language for civil and criminal law codification are usually mentioned. The most recent trend in the conceptualization of state origins is connected with the distinction of the so- called early state phase, characterized by nonstable relations and transferable status of classes, and by an ill-defined position of administration owing to a nonfixed legislation system, which is in the process of transition from common law to codified written form. Traditionally the earliest states are found in theNearEasternzone(famouscitiesofMesopotamia) and Ancient Egypt. Attribution of the ancient Greek polis to that phase remains disputable.

This stadial scheme, in spite of its imposing restrictions on the cultural and economic variabil­ity of human societies in time and space, had by the mid-20th century contributed greatly to the systematization of an impressive database col­lected by archaeologists and ethnographers. In the late 1980s it was brought into correspondence with a new database by A. Johnson and T. Earle and, since that time, has remained one of the most widespread in Western and former Soviet Union anthropology schemes dealing with issues of the origins of social complexity. Currently it is com­peting well in distinguishing among egalitarian, rank, and stratified society as the main evolution­ary stages of social complexity evolution in prehis­tory, proposed in 1967 by M. H. Fried and based on the dynamics of social inequality.

Multilinear Social Evolution: Contemporary Theories and Hypotheses

Traditionally, the origin of the multilineal version of cultural evolution is associated with Steward, who in the context of rapid development of neo­evolutionism in the mid-20th century had pro­posed the concept of multilinear evolution, with special emphasis on plurality of social develop­ment (Theory of Culture Change, 1955). An important cornerstone in this context also was proposed by Sahlins and his distinction between general and specific evolution (1960), which opened wider perspectives for a pluralistic inter­pretation of the global history of humankind and human culture.

Nevertheless, the roots of multilineal under­standing of social evolution could be traced back to 1857-1861, when Marx distinguished three social and economic forms preceding capitalism— Asian, Antique, German—each of which could be interpreted as independent versions of the transi­tion to state organization. Later, Engels (1878) suggested two forms of state origin (Eastern and Antique). Engels understood pluralistically not only lines of evolution but also the background of the process itself. Engels’s “enigma” is widely dis­cussed in the context of neo-Marxism, along with the well-known private property-based class the­ory of state origin, explained in detail in Origin of Family, State and Private Property (1884). In other works (e.g., Anti-Dühring, 1876-1877), Engels used a functional version of the explanation of state formation consonant with that of Marx.

These multilineal ideas, maintained since the very beginning by representatives of so-called intellectual Marxism (e.g., K. Vittfogel, N. Plekhanov), were later creatively developed by representatives of Soviet science and Western neo­evolutionism. In this context, Soviet science empha­sis was shifted toward detection of differences between “eastern” (or state property-based) and “western” (or private property-based) lines of social development (Yu. Pavlenko, G. Kiselev, K. Morrison, A. Southall).

Some researchers interpret Asian and Antique lines of state formation as dead-end versions of social development, with the Antique going no farther than a slave-owning system; only the German line managed to give birth to a feuDalí economy and, later, the capitalist society of the modern era. The final third of 20th century brought to light a “Slavonic” line of state forma­tion and further social development connected with impetuous administration and bureaucracy development and a “nomadic” version of social, political, and cultural evolution characterized not only by unique forms of economy and livelihood but also by a relatively high level of aggression.

In the 1970s, a shift toward environmentalism in anthropological thought brought into research­ers’ view the ecological situation, which could stimulate or impede social transformations. This idea, based mainly on Steward’s assumption about the adaptive abilities of economic systems, was later developed in a series of models that included such variables as climatic risk and resource base diversity. Certain fundamental ideas were proposed by Marvin Harris (1977, 1979), who believed that social evolution is provoked by an inherent human tendency to suffer eventual depletions in living standards that, in their turn, result from population pressure and environmental degradation.

The subject of social evolution remained a focus during the entire 20th century. In contrast to most of the aforementioned theories of social evolution, Max Weber suggested that the subject could not be identified with society itself—rather, it is a mere abstraction, arising from individuals who are evolving in the context of a certain value system. His idea has become a background for the elabora­tion of typological, psychological, and culturally anthropological approaches to social evolution conceptualized through interaction of cultural and social systems, in which individual motivation is conditioned by values (patterns) of particular cul­tures, and each social system determines the real­ization of motives. In this context the principal source of social evolution could be found in world models elaborated by human beings; such world models determine ways in which individuals real­ize their interests in the course of social evolution, trying to find problem solutions (i.e., world rescue) through the introduction of innovations in all spheres of human life, sometimes creating new problems and threats.

Olena V. Smyntyna

See also Darwin, Charles; Engels, Friedrich; Evolution, Cultural; Harris, Marvin; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Language, Evolution of; Lenin, Vladimir Ilich; Marx, Karl; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Spencer, Herbert; Tylor, Edward Burnett; White, Leslie A.

Further Readings

Earle, T. (2005). Political domination and social evolution. In T. Ingold (Ed.), Companion encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. 940-961). London: Routledge.

Flannery, K. V., & Coe, M. D. (1968). Social and economic systems in formative Mesoamerica. In

L. Binford (Ed.), New perspectives in archaeology (pp. 267-286). Chicago: Aldine.

Fried, M. H. (1967). The evolution of political society: An essay of political economy. New York: Random House.

Glassmann, R. (1986). Democracy and despotism in primitive societies: A neo-Weberian approach to political theory. New York: Associated Faculty Press.

Johnson, A., & Earle, T. (1987). The evolution of human societies: From foraging group to agrarian state. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.

Lenski, G. F. (1966). Power and privilege: A theory of social stratification. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mann, M. (1986). Sources of social power: Vol. 1. A history of power from the beginning to A.D. 1760. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sahlins, V. (1960). Evolution: Specific and general. In

M. D. Sahlins & R. E. Service (Eds.), Evolution and culture (pp. 298-308). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sanders, W., & Webster, D. (1978). Unilinealism, multilinealism and the evolution of complex societies. In C. L. Redman, et al. (Eds.), Social archaeology: Beyond subsistence and dating (pp. 249-302). New York: Academic Press.

Sanderson, S. K. (1990). Social evolutionism: A critical history. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Wiltshire, D. (1978). Social and political thought of Herbert Spencer. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Existentialism Organic Evolution
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