evolutionary universals

evolutionary universals

as defined by PARSONS (1964a), those developmental steps in social change which ‘increase the adaptive capacity’ of human societies, and without which ‘further major developmental steps would be blocked’. According to Parsons, evolutionary universals are ‘organizational developments’ that are ‘hit upon more than once’, comparable, say, with the development of vision in the organic world. By ‘adaptation’, Parsons means not only ‘adjustment to an environment’, but also the ability to cope with an increasingly wide range of environmental factors, including ‘adaptive advantage’ over other less developed societies. Once the symbol replaces the gene as the main agency of human development, four basic areas of social provision are important:
  1. RELIGION, performing Durkheimian functions;
  2. COMMUNICATION, especially language;
  4. TECHNOLOGY, the primary adaptive relation with the environment.

    As the result of these initial changes, bringing economic and organizational ‘functional advantage’, the next pair of advantages seen as important by Parsons in breaking out from the ‘primitive stage’, are:

  5. SOCIAL STRATIFICATION, social prestige and economic advantages attaching to some groups, lineages, etc;
  6. a differentiated structure providing political and cultural legitimation.

    As Parsons puts it, the differentiation of advantage for some groups tends to ‘converge with the functional need for centralization of responsibility’. Stratification releases and centralizes resources for further development, breaking with traditionalism. LITERACY, at first the monopoly of only a minority, accentuates stratification and a tendency to primacy of cultural differentiation at this stage. In turn, stratification of all types is itself a source of 'S train’ requiring new cultural legitimation.

    Five further evolutionary universals, built on the previous ones, follow:

  7. BUREAUCRACY, i.e. the Weberian separation of administrative office from kinship and traditionalism;
  8. MONEY and markets, in which money as ‘the symbolic medium for resources’, increases the mobility of resources, ‘emancipating these for ascriptive bonds’ (see also PATTERN VARIABLES);
  9. a universalistic legal system;
  10. the invention of the ‘democratic association’, especially its application to large-scale societies from the 18th-century onwards, though with its origins in Greece and Rome, and the early Christian church;
  11. SCIENCE. Criticisms of Parsons’ conception of evolutionary universals are in many ways the usual criticisms of EVOLUTIONARY THEORY in sociology: for example, the lack of any great precision in the use of terms such as ‘adaptation’, and the absence of direct parallels with evolutionary conceptions in biology It is notable how often in describing his evolutionary universals, Parsons uses such phrases as ‘probably decisive’, ‘by and large’ and ‘very difficult to pin down’. For all this, the general steps identified by Parsons as important in human development are not markedly different from those that were identified by WEBER or by MARX. In other words, what is most at issue is whether there is anything new in Parsons’ formulation, and whether such developmental steps are best formulated within a specifically ‘evolutionary’ frame of reference. See also NEOEVOLUTIONISM, EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY, SOCIOCULTURAL EVOLUTION.