Kevin McCaffree on Interdisciplinary Theorizing

Jonathan Turner

Kevin McCaffree makes a convincing case for sociology to be more interdisciplinary, particularly with disciplines that are embracing evolutionary biology. There is clearly a strong movement in this direction in economics, psychology, and business (schools); political science; and to some extent even sociology, while anthropology has always had a biological wing (which, sadly, the cultural wing of anthropology now tends to ignore). Each discipline has blinders which can, to a degree, be removed by other disciplines. This is fairly obvious for the social sciences, but this generalization applies to sociology and biology as well. Herbert Spencers Synthetic Philosophy, as he termed it, was interdisciplinary in an unusual sense, developing a model of evolutionary dynamics revolving around growth differentiation, derived from the physics of his time but applied to psychology, biolog)', and sociology (and even ethics, which was a bit of a reach). His very brief discussion in the first volume of The Principles of Sociology (1874-5) on “society as an organism” emphasized an important point: organic systems as they evolve encounter common design problems, as Richard Machalek (1992) would have said, or, as I say, selection pressures, and these common selection pressures revolve around production of resources to sustain the organic mass, whether a body or a society; distribution of these resources; reproduction of the differentiating structures and their interrelations; and regulation and coordination among differentiated structures—whether a system like a brain, a whole person as an organism, or a society as organization of persons. Later, general systems theory, particularly living systems theory (Miller 1978), sought to conceptualize the common isomorphisms of all systems. But, more importantly today, the effort is to use biolog)' to explain the behavior of humans, their psychology, and their organizational patterns (their sociology, as it were) using ideas about the forces of evolution within the Modern Synthesis in biology.

McCaffree makes a strong case along a number of fronts. First, humans are not the only animal that organizes itself into societies, and, as both Auguste Comte and Spencer suggested, comparative analysis with other types of societal formations in the animal world can be instructive (I would also suggest

Machalek’s [1992J pioneering piece on the design problems of macro societies). Spencer thought comparison with insect societies would be useful because they generate mass societies without big brains and culture. Kevin continues Machalek’s work by giving examples of how production and distribution dynamics are organized in insect societies. And Kevin echoes Spencer in seeing sociology as the study of natural phenomena related to societal organization; hence, biology and sociology are needed to make sense of these rather rare phenomena. And especially interesting is how insects vs. humans respond to similar selection pressures to make mass societies of millions, if not billions, of members.

As Kevin moves to a review of my work with Alexandra Maryanski, 1 am grateful for the kind words and very succinct but accurate summary of our use of cladistic analysis and comparative neuroanatomy. This is another kind of comparative and interdisciplinary approach that allows us to isolate out the behavioral and organization patters among present-day great apes with an eye to determining the behavioral and organizational propensities of the ancestors that humans shared with our very close relatives genetically, the great apes. Use of cladistic analysis on great ape behavioral and organizational patterns enables us to construct a picture of humans’ distant ancestors’ behavioral and organization patterns. Then, with comparative anatomy on great ape and human brains allowing us to determine what humans’ ancestral brain (much like that of great apes) must have been like, differences between great ape and human brains can be recorded, with these differences being the work of natural selection during hominin to human evolution in response to selection pressures associated with open country grassland, bushland, and eventually savanna habitats, which are the opposite of the forest niches high in the arboreal habitat where great apes originally evolved. These methods allow us to look back in time and see the work on natural selection in producing humans, and, as Kevin briefly summarizes, it has allowed me to feel confident in writing a book about human nature that is not just speculation but, rather, reasonable inferences from hard data. And once we have some sense for how humans evolved biologically, we can begin to ask, as Kevin illustrates, questions about what social formations are compatible with humans’ biological nature and which ones are potentially harmful. If sociology wants to be useful and relevant, this is about as useful and relevant as one can get.

All of this new orientation to sociology makes, as Kevin emphasizes, the “nature” vs. “culture” distinction rather tired and artificial. Humans, first of all, have culture by virtue of the human body and neurology, which evolved in response to selection pressures. Culture, in this sense, is a biological trait that evolved, and sociologists should know how and why it did if they are going to explain cultural dynamics adequately. In human societies, as Kevin discusses, there is a great amount of co-evolution in which culture and social structure affect human biolog)' and neurology, and vice versa, and by understanding these dynamics, we can know more, as sociologists, about the sociocultural universe.

The last part of the analysis in the McCaffree chapter is something 1 should take to heart: reach out to other disciplines, particularly sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I have for twenty years been so obsessed with establishing a front for evolutionary sociology' that I have used critiques of these approaches as a basis for creating a new subdiscipline in sociology. Kevin is right; it is time to have real engagement with evolutionary biologists and psychologists. I know that sociology can help them overcome certain biases and outright dogmatisms, and I must be more open to the reverse: my and sociology-in-general’s biases. The first two decades of the 21st century are very' much like those in the 19th century: a time for biology and evolutionary analysis (the 20th century was the century of physics). The parallel analyses of evolutionary' dynamics in economics, business, psy'chol- ogy, biological anthropology (I have given up on cultural anthropology), and even new sociology offer an incredible opportunity' for y'oung scholars to advance our knowledge about the biological basis of human societies. To run away from this challenge is the height of folly'.

I think that all sociologists should look for Kevin McCaffree’s new book, Fission-Fusion and Cultural Evolution (Routledge), coming out in 2021. What is perhaps most interesting of all to me is that Kevin, as one of my last PhD students, has come to these conclusions about interdisciplinary work, especially related to evolutionary dynamics, pretty much on his own, without much direct instruction from me. From the pieces of text that I have read, this book is engaging and about as relevant as can be in making sociology a stronger science that can produce knowledge that will be useful.


Machalek, Richard. 1992. “The Evolution of Macrosociety: Why Are Large Societies

Rare?” Advances in Human Ecology 1:33-64.

Miller, James Grier. 1978. Living Systems. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Evolution as a Key to Process Sociology

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