evolutionary theory

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evolutionary theory

  1. the explanation of the origin, development and diversity of biological species proposed by Charles DARWIN and by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913).
  2. the explanation of SOCIAL CHANGE in terms of Darwinian principles.
Darwin's work influenced many 19th-century social theorists, including MORGAN, HOBHOUSE, TYLOR, WARD and SPENCER (although the latter also introduced evolutionary conceptions of his own prior to Darwin's theory – see SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST). The international ascendancy of Britain's economy and polity during the Victorian age had created a social atmosphere and an intellectual climate that was particularly receptive to ideas of progress and advancement. Darwin's theory, which seemed to establish these trends as features of biological development, was, in this sense, waiting to be heard. The imperial strength of Britain and the dominance of Western culture could, rather crudely, be read as nothing more than the outcome of a natural law which always assured the ascendancy of ‘the best’.

Evolutionary theory, then, in the social sphere, saw the newly industrialized countries of the 19th century as representing the most advanced stage of a longterm process of development which had begun with very much simpler kinds of society Contemporary pre-industrial, or peasant, or simple hunting and gathering societies could be conceived as living examples of earlier stages of development which the industrial world had left far behind. Evolutionary theory, therefore, typically combined two propositions: first, that evolutionary advancement involved the development of complex forms of social organization from simple ones, via the increasing differentiation of social structure (see SOCIAL DIFFERENTIATION) and specialization of function; second, that these structural changes involved a parallel process of continuing moral, intellectual and aesthetic development. Darwins theory, applied to social development, thus resulted in a distinction between CIVILIZATION and BARBARISM which was especially convenient in an age of IMPERIALISM.

The impact of Darwins ideas on social theory in the 19th century was immense. The politics of social evolutionism could appeal as much to those interested in legitimating the status quo as to those (like MARX) interested in changing it. Yet the receptivity of social theorists to such ideas should have been tempered with caution. Darwin had developed his account of change primarily to explain diversity and adaptation among species in which consciousness, reflexivity and creativity (or CULTURE) could be ignored as a significant variable. But it was precisely these facts which made human society possible. Ironically, there was an evolutionary paradigm available which could take the cultural variable on board. It was not, however, the one elaborated by Darwin, but by his rival theorist, Jean Baptiste LAMARCK, who had argued for the inheritance ofacquired characteristics in the evolutionary process. Darwin had rejected this, relying instead on the principles of random variation and NATURAL SELECTION. Yet it is precisely the capacity of individuals and societies to learn from each other – to acquire culture or copy crucial cultural developments (such as writing and measuring) – which is distinctive to human social life. Strangely, in pinning its flag to what was destined to be the most successful version of the evolutionary paradigm – Darwinism -social theory largely ignored the thesis which arguably had more to offer, that of Lamarck.

By the early decades of the 20th century evolutionism was falling into disfavour among social scientists. A precipitating cause may have been the catastrophic slaughter and barbarism of the 1914-18 war, which was hardly an advertisement for a supposedly enlightened Europe which had undergone a civilizing process. More fundamentally, three main difficulties with 19th-century theories of social evolution had by then become increasingly apparent. First, the assumption of unilinearity (see UNILINEAR) – that there was one path of development through which all societies would pass; second, an inability to say much about the stages of development intermediate between simple and complex societies, and the processes which produced change; and third, the value-laden proposition that social development involved moral enlightenment, ethnocentrically conceived in European terms.

The second half of the 20th century saw a revival of interest in problems of development as Third World issues began to force themselves onto political agendas. This produced new versions of evolutionary theory (see NEOEVOLUTIONISM, SOCIOCULTURAL EVOLUTION, EVOLUTIONARY UNIVERSALS), and eventually a reopening of critical debate, especially by the UNDERDEVELOPMENT school. See also SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT, EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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