(Socio-)cultural evolution versus social/societal evolution

Anthropology and (to a lesser extent) sociology have been perhaps the only two fields of social sciences in which evolutionary thinking has continuously occupied a legitimate position since Darwin (1871);Tylor (1871); and Morgan (1877).10 Because both anthropology and sociology pay a great deal of attention to culture, it is not surprising that the most fashionable labels in these two fields have been “cultural evolution” and “sociocultural evolution.”The term “social evolution” has not gained much currency in these two fields.

Many scholars have used labels such as “superorganic evolution,” “societal evolution,” and “social evolution” interchangeably (e.g., Spencer 1876 [1898]; Keller 1915;Parsons 1964;Lenski 1966, ll;Carneiro 1973;Hallpike 1986;Lopreato 1990; Johnson and Earle 2000; Sanderson 2001)," but few have bothered to define these terms. William James (1880) and Ritchie (1896) were perhaps the first scholars to use the term “social evolution,” yet neither of them had bothered to define it. Mead (1934 [1956]) correctly grasped that social evolution, while superimposing upon, is nonetheless different from, biological evolution.Yet, Mead did not attempt to explicitly differentiate the two evolutions or define social evolution.12 Radcliffe-Brow (1947) was perhaps the first to draw a clear demarcation between social evolution and cultural evolution, but one is hard-pressed to find anything close to a definition of these two terms in his work.13 Both Gordon Childe (1951) and C. R. Hallpike (1986), who titled their books Social Evolution, failed to define social evolution rigorously. E. O. Wilson (1975 [2000]), who implicitly extrapolated lessons from ants and bees to human society, too deployed “social evolution” without defining it. Hodgson (2001) underscores some key differences between biological evolution and social evolution, yet still falls short of defining these two terms thoroughly. Finally, Habermas (1979) used “social evolution” to label his rework of historical materialism even though historical materialism is far from being evolutionary. The list can go on and on.14

As noted earlier, culture is “the patterns of value, idea, and other symbolic-meaningful systems” or “a historically transmitted pattern of meaning embodied in symbols” (Kroeber and Parsons 1958, 583; Geertz 1973, 89). Defined as such, only human beings can have culture (Geertz 1973; Durham 1991, 3-10; Premack and Hauser 2004). Culture, however, captures only part of the ideational part of human society (Durham 1990, 1991, 1992). Indeed, many works that bear the label of “cultural evolution” are really about an even more narrowly defined “cultural evolution,” such as the evolution of social norms (e. g., cooperation), taboos, and institutions. Prominent examples of this type of work include the evolution of social cooperation (Axelrod 1984; Boyd and Richerson 2005; Blute 2010, Chapter 4) and the evolution of the incest taboo (e.g., Durham 1991). Hayek’s (1967, 1973) “cultural evolution” also points to the evolution of social norms and rules, but little else. These works are thus mostly interested in how certain cultural traits originate and then evolve—they are not interested in the evolution of other aspects within the social system (see Chapter 5).

As noted earlier, many evolutionary biologists and ethologists, and some social scientists, have explicitly or implicitly labeled group behaviors or behavior patterns by non-human animals as “culture/cultural” or “social” (e.g., Hamilton 1964a, 1964b;Wilson 1975 [2000]; Laland and Galef 2009; Danchin et al. 2011,479-480). This has resulted in much confusion about cultural evolution and hence social evolution (for a more detailed critique of these misapplications, see Chapter 5).

Veblen (1899 [2007], 213) defined “social evolution” as “a process of selective adaptation of temperament and habits of thought under the stress of the circumstance of associated life.” Campbell (1975,169) defined “sociocultural evolution” as “a selective accumulation of skills, technologies, recipes, beliefs, customs, organizational structures, and the life, retained through purely social models of transmission rather than in the genes” (see also Campbell 1965 [1998], 1976). Blute (1987,1997, 2010,194-195) used “sociocultural evolution” to denote evolution based on social learning or memes. Rousseau (2006,1) equated sociocultural evolution with social evolution.

Yet, although cultural traits are important parts of a social system, culture is not the whole story of the human society: Culture is only one of the aspects within a social system (see Chapter 3 later). Social evolution subsumes ideational evolution, which in turn subsumes cultural evolution. As such, the notion of “cultural evolution” is simply too narrow for understanding social changes: Material evolution (which subsumes the biological evolution part) is certainly an integral part of the evolution of human society.1’ The labels by Veblen, Campbell, and Blute thus capture only part, not the whole, of social evolution (see Chapter 3). Using “sociocultural evolution” to describe “cultural evolution” is redundant, and equating “sociocultural evolution” with social evolution (e.g., Johnson and Earle 2000) is unhelpful.

Runciman (2001,2009) insists on separating cultural evolution from social evolution, starting with a different rationale: Cultural evolution operates without institutions and power, whereas social evolution does operate with them. His stand, however, is untenable: Culture has always been shaped by institutions and power (Elias 1939 11994|; Foucault 1980,1990 [1976]). Also, as Radcliffe-Brow (1947,82) noted long ago, although culture and society are ontologically different, culture can only be understood as part of a social system rather than an isolated entity (see Chapters 3 and 4).

At the same time, although many anthropologists used “cultural evolution” to label their works, they were really examining social evolution, which is more than the evolution of culture, because they were examining the evolution of the whole social system (for a similar take, see Durham 1991, 154nl; for details, see Chapter 3 of this work).16 The topics of their investigation have ranged from stages of civilizations to the coming of hierarchy, the coming of settled agriculture, and the formation of the state. They were studying social evolution rather than cultural evolution.

Finally, we come to “gene-culture co-evolution” or “dual inheritance” (e.g., Lumsden and Wilson 1981; Boyd and Richerson 1985, 2005; Durham 1991;Blute 2006, 2010; Richerson and Boyd 2005). For this literature, “gene-culture coevolution” is the most critical part of “cultural evolution.” Yet, as detailed in Chapter 5 of this book, “gene—culture co-evolution” merely captures a specific mechanism, thus only a component of social evolution.

To avoid confusion, I suggest the label “social evolution” to denote the evolution of human society, that is, evolution within and of human societies. Social evolution subsumes the co-evolution of gene, culture, institution, human beings as a species, and the physical environment. We thus shall use “cultural evolution” to denote the evolution of culture specifically, but not the evolution of human society as a whole because social evolution subsumes “cultural evolution.”17

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