Evolutionary Sociology Critiques and the Relational Antidote
Critiquing Evolutionary Approaches
As noted, Turner, along with Maryanski and Abrutyn, has made great advances in developing evolutionary theory in sociology. Abrutyn identifies three approaches this return to evolution has taken: “(1) the search for neurological architecture. . . (2) the effort to explain sociocultural phenomena. . . (3) the construction of general theories of macro-level evolution” (2016b: 325). The first has received the most resistance, but it could be argued that it has made the most progress recently (Franks 2010; Franks and Turner 2013; Tuner 2000, 2018). The second is burgeoning (Abrutyn 2015, 2016b; Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015; Turner 2003). The third and oldest tradition continues (Chase-Dunn 2018; Sanderson 2001; Turner and Machalek 2018; Turner, Machalek, and Maryanski 2015; Turner and Maryanski 2008). In this chapter, when I refer to this recent work on evolution, 1 am primarily referring to their work on the evolution of sociocultural phenomena.
All three approaches to evolution are still recovering from evolutions dubious history in sociology. The biological aspect still has to address and correct so ci obi о logy’s history of reproducing the hegemonic order in numerous ways, and the social evolution traditions have to overcome historical associations with functionalism, classism, and racism.
As Turner and Machalek note:
Within sociology stage modeling of societal evolution in sociology suddenly came to an end by the end of the second decade of the 20th Century, for several reasons. One was the ethnocentrism and, indeed, outright racism of many models that saw pre-literate societies as “primitive” when compared to the “civilized” world of European societies. Moreover, all societal evolution was viewed as moving toward the “civilized” state of European society, which is somewhat ironic given the ravages of World War I that were about to explode such myths. . . . Another was the emergence of Social Darwinism (really Social Spencerian-ism) and eugenics, which legitimated racism in the analysis of stage models but, even worse, the continued mistreatment of the disadvantaged in societies because they could be seen as “less fit” which captured the basic law of evolution in Spencers (1851) view of “the survival of the fittest.”
This disgraceful history is well remembered. Indeed, in 2001, people walked out of Massey s ASA presidential address that stressed the role of evolution in our emotionally driven human species. Massey stated that sociology' would neglect evolution at its peril. Time and the prominence of cognitive brain science have made this sentiment less controversial, but these have not managed to make evolutionary takes on social life central to the discipline.
Theories of evolution also suffered from assuming of increasing complexity (Turner 2012), when it is now clear that assumptions about ever-increasing complexity are a “holdover from naive realist positions of modernism in the middle of the past century” (Allen and Starr 1982: 614—622). Another factor undermining evolutionary theory has been that the macro approach’s focus on stages of development has been tightly tied to historical specifics, focusing attention on the long linear stories of societal evolution. These most macro of timelines make it difficult to cull useful insights for other sizes and speeds of social organizing.
Neo-evolutionary approaches began addressing these issues and developing a more complex understanding of evolution. Abrutyn notes, “Evolution, at some levels then, is purposive, multidirectional (because of the reactions of other strata to entrepreneurs), and multilinear (because of historical and sociocultural contingencies). Moreover, it rarely unfolds as a unified, coherent project” (2016b: 348). More specifically, Abrutyn lays out the following updates from neo-evolutionary theory (2014: 112). 1: There are no set stages of evolution; 2: there are many levels, not just a macro societal level; 3: there is an allowance for reflexivity and purposeful these theories have a Lamarckian character to them.1 Note that all three of these new assumptions suggest that evolution is less predictable than older functionalist theories might have suggested. There can be no lockstep developmental trajectories when active learning, creativity, and intersecting pressures shape processes.
While Turner and Abrutyn began developing meso and macro approaches specific to particular contexts (2017), their work leaves the door open for theorizing about how evolution transpires in highly contingent ways. Turner and Abrutyn moved in this direction2 by exchanging functionalisms focus on system “needs” for a focus on “forces” with which systems must contend. One of the ways that Turner and Abrutyn advance beyond unidirectional developmentalist approaches is by allowing for failure and dissolution.
We can go further in developing a general yet contingent model of evolution by ceasing to use the Darwinian terms of “adaptation,” “selection,” and “fitness.” Doing so would enable us to account even more accurately for the unpredictable elements of social organizational evolution. Turner began this work by problematizing the term “adaptation” (2003: 285). Turner and Abrutyn similarly modify the concept of fitness: “We can think of the capacity to stave off entropy as fitness,” or as Turner describes, fitness is: “the capacity for a sociocultural formation to survive over time in an environment” (Turner and Abrutyn 2017: 533). This more useful updated approach to fitness still misses how a pattern that is adaptive from a particular point in time will begin to look maladaptive at a different point in time. I suggest that “durability” is a more useful and specific concept than “fitness.” From a durability perspective, it is clear that a pattern is only “fit” from a particular vantage point. Switching this language frees us from the notion that somehow what persists is optimal.
Turner and Abrutyn talk about selection pressures—a term taken from biological evolution that suggests competition results in the selection of particularly adaptive genes. However, selection pressures imply a winnowing down from what is already there. This is not the case with many social adjustments, as people can see from their own experiences and others. Turner and Abrutyn similarly note: “the pressure is not so much to select among existing variants of sociocultural formations, but to create some new variants of structures and cultures” (2017: 536). Thus, 1 suggest that “selection pressures” may not be the most useful term for sociology. Mostly because social evolution is not selecting on the species but more fluid micro cultures and congealed institutional ones.
Rather than selection pressures, which imply adaptation, I am going to use “adjustment pressures,” which implies simply pressures to adjust. A benefit of thinking in terms of adjustment pressures is that this refraining further distances us from the aspects of biological evolution that do not sit easily with social evolution. A focus on adjustment is significantly different from adaptation and survival of the fittest. Rather than adaptation to maximize fitness, social actors are adjusting—not adapting— based on motivations that organize different parts of the spiraling evolution (see subsequently). Adjustment is direct and makes sense within its environmental context. In evolving, the content is never the same, because history is always accumulating, or not accumulating if there is a total collapse. The history of an entity’s or institution’s adjustment is the memory of organizing that such entities drag across time. We can know, with some certainty, adjustments do not perfectly fit the emerging moment because adjusting is primarily informed by history rather than the emerging moment. In the following, I argue that emphasizing the role of adjustment, as opposed to adaptation, is what sets relational evolution apart by stressing the importance of history, the capacity to learn, and the capacity to anticipate and thus the role of culture. Although Turner and Abrutyn use the language of adaptation, they allow for contingencies, maladaptation, and failure, so shifting to “adjustment” is in line with the work they started. Indeed, Abrutyn notes, “To be sure, institutions do not have ‘adaptive’ functions, per se; biological evolution does have its limitations (Turner and Maryanski 2008)” (2016: 330-331).
Changing these terms is a move to dislodge the notion of evolution from functionalism and macro historical specifics. When we look at societies on the most macro level, as much of social evolutionary theory has done, we tend to see long trajectories that can only be abstracted through comparison with other similarly long trajectories. Turner argues, “The goal is . . . to theorize about the common dynamics of all societies, from their very beginning to the present day” (2012: 435). There has been a move away from functionalist leanings with the increasing work on the collapse of societies (Diamond 2005; Yoffee and Cowgill 1991; Tainter 1988). However, as Turner argues, we still need to dislodge evolution from the specifics of history to be able to draw on and engage with other social theory.
Abrutyn’s recent work on evolution and institutional autonomy has begun to do this work of dislodging evolutionary theory from the specifics of history (Abrutyn 2015, 2016b) so that we can use the theoretical insights for different speeds and durations of social dynamics. Taking further steps towards abstraction. Turner and Abrutyn have developed the concept of corporate units. This concept of corporate units captures the interpenetrating nature of organization and encourages us to think about evolution as a general process that shapes the development of social action across all scales of social organization (2017: 531, 534). Simply put, a “corporate unit" is the bounded dynamic that evolves over time. The concept of “corporate units” enables us to think outside of essentialist individual-based theory. The use of more abstract concepts also facilitates the integration of evolutionary dynamics with other theoretical approaches, namely relational approaches. For example, when we talk about “corporate units,” we are talking about entities that have coherence as entities vis a vis other actors that occupy social positions. This is to say the category of a corporate unit only makes sense when we conceive of it in relation to other corporate units.
Augmenting Evolutionary Theories With a Relational Perspective
Relational sociology holds the potential for developing a sociology that is not tied to particular places, content, or temporal scales—thus, taking up a relational approach enables me to continue the work of Turner and Abrutyn in further dislodging evolutionary theory from the particulars of societal- level evolution.
A central relational strategy is focusing on context. We cannot understand the evolution of any dynamic without understanding the histories of struggles within contexts (Turner 2012: 380). As Turner notes, “At all levels of reality, from subatomic physics to the analysis of world systems on earth or the formation of galaxies in the universe, phenomena are analyzed not in isolation but in terms of their connections to a larger system” (2012: 380; see also Allen and Starr 1982: 614—622; Aminzade 1992: 468, 476; Turner 2016b). And Dupre and Nicholson argue, “[A|s a consequence of ecological interdependence, no organism can function, or even persist, independently of the entangled web of interrelations it maintains with other organisms” (2018: 31). Relational approaches help us to think more specifically about the nature of context.
Adding relational perspectives to evolution also helps to upend the assumption that there are essential levels (see Turner and Maryanski 2008: 11 for a critique of levels thinking). Discrete levels need to be recognized as convenience, not truth (Allen and Starr 1982: 626-629). Indeed, “although [levels] may be both conceptually and pedagogically helpful, the implicit discontinuities between levels that appear singularly real and discrete are significantly arbitrary” (Allen and Starr 1982: 711—712).3 Specifically, Turner details how corporate units interpenetrate along a number of axis (2016b). We can imagine a baseball field to get a sense for how this works:
[A| baseball field is a constituent of a baseball league, but because baseball leagues coordinate their use of the ballpark, the baseball field can be drawn up into multiple leagues at once. Similarly, a human body is a constituent of a baseball fan, but the ways in which the different activities of a fan use the body as a space make it possible for a fan to watch every batter and also participate in the wave. Social organization is generally far more complex than coordinating several baseball teams to use the same field or coordinating the watching of batters while doing the wave.
(Summers-Effler 2010: 193-194)
A relational evolutionary perspective gives us theoretical leverage to understand interpenetrating social organizing at various spatial and temporal scales at various angles and tempos (Turner 2016b).4