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sociocultural evolution‘the process of change and development in human societies that results from cumulative change in their stores of cultural information available’ (Lenski and Lenski, 1970). For Lenski and Lenski, sociocultural evolution occurs on two levels:
- within individual societies;
- within the ‘world-system of societies’ in general as part of a process of intersocietal selection. Theorists such as Lenski and Lenski regard symbols as playing an analogous role (the transmission of information) within sociocultural systems and sociocultural evolution to that played by genes and NATURAL SELECTION in biological systems and biological evolution: in both processes continuity and change, variation and extinction, and innovation and selection, are evident – see also EVOLUTIONARY THEORY. Important differences between the two processes are recognized:
- while biological evolution is characterized by continuous differentiation and diversification (like the branching of a tree), it is characteristic of sociocultural evolution that societies merge or are eliminated, resulting in fewer rather than more societal types (differentiation, however, is an increasing feature within complex societies);
- in biological evolution simple species are not eliminated, but in sociocultural evolution they tend to be;
- in sociocultural evolution heritability involves transmission between generations which preserves useful learned behaviour, in biological evolution such acquired characteristics are not transmitted (see also LAMARCK); as a consequence, in comparison with biological evolution, sociocultural evolution is rapid and the potential exists for this to be brought under rational control.
The debate in sociology about evolutionary theory centres not so much on differences between social and biological evolution, since there is broad agreement on this. Rather debate centres on whether similarities or dissimilarities between biological and sociocultural change are regarded as uppermost. For sociocultural evolutionary theorists such as Lenski and Lenski, and some functionalist sociologists (e.g. see PARSONS, EVOLUTIONARY UNIVERSALS, NEOEVOLUTIONISM) similarities between the two mean that the term ‘evolution’ and evolutionary theory continue to have an important place in discussions of social change. For other sociologists, however, the differences between the two kinds of change are so great that continued talk of social evolution is not helpful and should be ended. see also EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY.