CHAPTER 3:  EVOLUTION OF HUMAN SOCIETIES

Ten thousand years is an enormous amount of time for the perspective of a single human life span, but it is a very short time by evolutionary standards. What has caused such rapid and far reaching change?

The Great Paradox

Despite the changes that have occurred in human life during the last 10,000 years, the majority of societies changed very little during their entire existence.  Rapid social and cultural change has been the exception rather than the rule until recently.  In most societies, life changed very little from one generation to the next, or even from one century to the next (53).

The parts that fail to change, however, are eliminated from the system.  A process of selection has been at work in the world system of societies, favoring larger, more powerful societies at the expense of small, less powerful ones (54).

Continuity & Change in Individual Societies

Human societies are essentially adaptive mechanisms the means of which human populations strive to satisfy their varied needs and desires.  Sometimes this is accomplished by preserving traditional ways of doing things, and sometimes by adopting new and innovative ways.  In human societies we find ample evidence of both continuity and change (55).

Social & Cultural Continuity

Change in a society is largely a cumulative process.  This is why sociocultural systems have grown so much more complex over the course of history.

There are a number of reasons for the persistence of social and cultural elements in society.

1.      One major reason is that in the absence of a clearly better alternative, people will continue to do what works (55).

2.      Cultural elements are also preserved if they are perceived by enough people as useful in answering their individual or personal needs (56).

3.      Sometimes elements of culture are preserved not because they are superior solutions to problems but simply because they ensure standardized behavioral responses in situations where these are essential.

4.      Another cause of continuity is the cost involved in changing.

5.      The socialization process is also a force for continuity within societies.  Through this process the members of a society acquire the belief that their culture is a precious resource and worth preserving.

6.      The effort to pass culture on to the next generation is reinforced by ideologies that preserve valued insights of the past (56).

7.      The systemic nature of human societies is a major force for continuity (57).

Social & Cultural Change

In spite of the forces promoting continuity, change occurs in society.  Social and cultural change is of 2 basic types.  (1) (Innovation) sometimes it involves the addition of new elements to the existing system and (2) (extinction)  sometimes it involves the elimination of older elements.

Forms of Innovation

Innovation take various forms.  Often it takes the form of borrowing from other societies a process known as diffusion and sometimes it is produced independently with society.  Alterations are the least important independently produced innovations.  These are innovations whose adaptive value is no greater than that of which they replace.  Discoveries and inventions are more important types of innovations.  Discoveries provide the members of a society with new information that has adaptive value, while inventions are new combinations of already existing information (58).

Causes of Innovation

Hunger and need.

Chance.

Existing store of relevant information.

Changes in biophysical or social environments.

Human fecundity.

Because of culture, human needs and desires seem limitless.  Each problem that is solved and each need that is satisfied seem to generate new needs and new desires as people take things for granted.  This is the basis of the "revolution of rising expectations” (60).

Variations in the Rate of Innovation

Societies produce innovations at different rates.  There are a number of reasons for such variations.

One of the most important is the amount of information a society already possesses.  The addition of each new unit more than doubles the number of possible combinations (61).

Population size.

Stability and character of social environment.

Extent of contact with other societies.

Fundamental innovations(65).

A society’s attitude towards innovation (64).

It is important to note a that technological innovation occurs at an accelerating pace (64).

Social & Cultural Extinction

Because of social and cultural innovations, societies are often faced with choices between competing alternatives, and this leads to a process of selection (64).  Although it is the members who make the choice which shape their society, everyone does not have an equal choice.  Who decides depends on the kind of decision involved and the nature of the power structure involved (65).

Societal Growth & Development

Most societies changed little during the course of their existence.  Moreover, most changes were insignificant.  Occasionally, however, more significant changes have occurred.  These are divided into two groups:  (1) Changes in subsistence technology and (2) the role of ideology in societal growth and development.

Subsistence Technology’s Role in Societal Growth and Development

Subsistence technology refers to those elements of society’s store of information that enable it to obtain the energy its members require and provides the key to understanding societal growth and development.  Advances in subsistence technology are a necessary precondition for any significant increase in either the size or complexity of any society. In short, technology defines the limits of what is possible for a society (67).

Technology also affects the choices that are made by influencing the costs of various alternatives (68).

Where technological advances have occurred, they have enabled the members of societies to act as if they had acquired a new and improved genetic heritage.  Technological advances are functionally equivalent to the important kinds of changes that occur in the course of biological evolution (68).

Advances in subsistence technology stimulate advances in other technologies and lead to growth in the size and complexity of a society (69).

2.         Ideology’s Role in Societal Growth & Development

Whenever its technology presents it with a range of options, a society’s beliefs an values always come into play.  These often have little effect on societal growth and development.  When the beliefs and values involved are felt to be sufficiently important, however, a society may reject the most economic solution to its needs in favor of a solution that is ideologically preferable (69).

Since one of the consequences of technological advances is that it increases the range of options available to societies and their members, such advance leads to a greater scope for the exercise of beliefs and values.  Advanced societies have more choices available to them than societies of the past and they are freer to apply diverse ideologies in making their decisions (70).

Change in the World System of Societies

In the latter part of the 20th century we are witnessing what appears to be the emergence of a single global culture, as societies around the world increasingly adopt similar culture, values, and language (70).

1.         Societal Variation and Intersocietal Selection

The key to the major changes that have occurred in the world system of societies in the last 10,000 years is the process of intersocietal selection that has drastically reduced the number of societies.

Not all differences that have developed among societies have been equally important from the standpoint of intersocietal selection.  Differences that influenced societal growth and development have been especially important, because societies that have grown in size and developed in complexity and military power have been much more likely to survive and transmit their cultures and institutional patters than societies that have preserved traditional social and cultural patterns and minimized innovation (71).

Intersocietal selection is not always a violent process.  Sometimes societies collapse simply because of insufficient support from their members.  This is especially likely to occur when a less developed society comes into that is more highly developed (70=71).

2.         A Model of Evolution of the World System of Societies

Building on what we have learned about the process of intersocietal selection, we can now construct a model of the evolutionary process that explains the trends in the world system of societies in recent millennia (72).

Because technologically advanced societies have had the advantage, their characteristics have increasingly come to be characteristics of the world system as a whole.

Sociocultural Evolution Defined

Sociocultural evolution is the process of change and development in human societies that results from cumulative growth in their stores of cultural information.  Although sociocultural evolution is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, it is easier to understand the process if we recognize the following:

it includes both continuity and change;

it operates on 2 societal levels:  individual and world system

The consequences of sociocultural evolution have been very different for different human societies:  when we look at them individually, we see a variety of patterns of development.  When we look at the world system, we see it has produced one dominant pattern for at least 10,000 years.

Excursus:  A Comparison of Biological and Sociocultural Evolution

Similarities

During the recent decades, our understanding of biological evolution and sociocultural evolution has advanced dramatically.  It is now clear for the first time that both types of evolution are transmitted from generation to generation in the form of coded systems of information.  In the case of biological evolution, the record of experience is preserved and transmitted by means of the genetic code.  In the case of sociocultural evolution, the record is preserved and transmitted by means of the genetic code.  In the case of sociocultural evolution, the record is preserved and transmitted by means of symbol systems.  Both the genetic alphabet and symbol systems provide population with the means of acquiring, storing, transmitting, and using enormous amounts of information on which their welfare and, ultimately, their survival depend.  Thus, symbol systems are functional equivalents of the genetic alphabet.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there is a fundamental similarity in the way the two evolutionary processes operate.  Both processes involve random variation and selective retention (75).

Differences

1.         Because different species cannot interbreed, they cannot share genetic information with one another.  Thus, biological evolution is characterized by continued differentiation and diversification, a process much like the branching of a tree or shrub.  Cultural information, by contrast, is easily exchanged between the members of different societies.  Not only between the members of different societies.  Not only can human societies exchange information, but 2 or more can merge into a single system—equivalent, were it possible, of the merging of separate species in biological evolution.  Thus, sociocultural evolution is likely to eventuate in even fewer and less dissimilar societies than exist today.

2.         This is related to a second important difference.  In biological evolution, the emergence of more complex species has not had the effect of eliminating, or reducing the number of simpler species.  The reverse has occurred in sociocultural evolution.  The emergence of new and more complex kinds of societies has usually led to the extinction of older, simpler one.

3.         A third basic difference involves a population’s ability to incorporate into heritable form from the useful information its members have acquired through the process of individual learning.  In sociocultural systems, this is easily done.  There is no counterpart, however, in biological evolution (76).

4.         Springing from the easy flow of cultural information among societies, and the ease with which it is incorporated into heritable form is yet another way in which sociocultural evolution differs from biological:  it has the capacity for much higher rates of change in a species that has long generation span and relatively few offspring.  But cultural information, relative to genetic, can be rapidly acquired, exchanged, recombined, and accumulated, with the result that substantial alterations in a society’s culture may occur with a single generation.

5.         Finally, sociocultural evolution may have a greater potential than biological evolution for being brought under rational human control (77).