Science in Christian Perspective
The Evolution of
Department of Sociology
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania
There is a tendency in American intellectual circles to identify evolutionary thought with biological evolution. What is ignored is the existence of social evolution as a distinct and equally significant problem area. The roots of social evolution predate the development of biological evolution and reach into our own day. In between, the impact made on intellectual thought was great indeed.
In fact, it is the curious phenomenon of a resurrected evolutionism in sociology today which is so startling. Earlier generations assumed the coffin lid was securely sealed, but we find the old evolutionary spirits alive and decked out in new attire. Perhaps it is nothing more than a fad which has kicked the old bones into life. Indeed, current sociological theory is so parched that even ancient wells provide some apparent refreshment. But the implications of biological determination on the social development of man is so strong that it deserves further study. Before raising the question, however, it is necessary to consider the earlier forms of social evolution and the problems they produced.The Roots of Social Evolution It was in the period of the French Enlightenment that social thinkers first became interested in the possibility that social change was directed by a lawful order. August Comte, in particular, not only sired sociology but also the idea that society developed from some simple to more complex forms. Progress was the key to such change, whether it was exhibited in reason, morals, or social organization.
In its more mature form, however, we must turn to the work of Herbert Spencer who expressed his views some years before 1859, that critical date usually associated with the theory of biological evolution. Indeed, for Spencer, sociology was the study of social evolution.' This is not to say that Spencer's work was sterile or myopic. On the contrary, his theoretical views touched down on so many principles that his legacy is rich in spite of the weaknesses of evolutionary thinking.
Simply stated, Spencer began with an analogy between the biological organism and human society. He concluded that what was true for biological phenomena is also true for sociological phenomena. From this, he concluded that the development of social life increased both quantitatively and qualitatively and in a fashion comparable to change in biological life. As an organism developed from an early single celled stage to increasingly complex and specialized forms, so society evolved from the tribal stage to the modem industrial state. In that stage, society would continue to flourish if left alone.
Spencer believed, as did Darwin, that processes of natural selection were at work; survival of the fittest was the obvious result. Unlike Darwin, however, he argued that such adaptation was not accidental. There was a purpose at work in natural law and once it was understood, society could then stabilize itself in the control of social change. Thus, early social evolution was both optimistic and desirous of regaining social order.2
What began to characterize evolutionary thinking was its inevitability. Unlike Darwin, Spencer claimed that adaptation was purposive. Through his three laws: the persistence of force, the indestructibility of matter, and the continuity of motion, Spencer attempted to describe the principles of evolution in physical terms. From these, he concluded that man was predestined to progress.3
societies do not evolve or progress at the same pace because of various
"disturbances" in their makeup. For instance, races varied in their
original endowments.4 Since western society, controlled by
Caucasians, is "superior" to African society in development, he
concluded that whites were superior to blacks. Thus, evolution moved from an
effort at objective science to subjective ideology.
The Flowering in Social Darwinism
The 19th century was characterized by rapidly changing social conditions that demanded explanation. What was needed was an emphasis on custom and regular social behavior that would stabilize society. Crises such as wars were deemed to be acts of natural selection whereby uniformity and unity would be produced in a nation. These processes were not only studied by social evolution but also justified by its doctrines. Thus, social evolution was not only a science in intent but also a conservative, belief system in effect. In short, it became an ideology.
This condition produced a profound dilemma. As Benjamin Kidd, an early evolutionist stated, man had to "control the tendency of his own reason to suspend and reverse the conditions which are producing this progress."5 Rationally, such an effort was unlikely to, be successful. It was only through the profound influence of religious sanction that man would be motivated to slow the process of his own progress. Religion, then, acquired purely utilitarian meaning in society.6
It was this conservative tendency to resist hasty social reform which came to be known as Social Darwinism. The view that nature was wiser than man and should be allowed to determine social progress was fundamental. Further, the doctrine had matured in its justification of "superior" groups. Moving from its earlier racist tendencies, Social Darwinism now embraced the natural superiority of upper- and business classes as a doctrine.
The most influential Social Darwinist in America was William Graham Sumner, a pioneer Sociologist.7 Success was the result of hard work that flourished in a competitive environment. The result was a selection process that formed the basis of civilization. Thus, the struggle for existence is the first fact of life and economic success was a natural by-product. Indeed military might, as well as millionaires, were deemed the result of natural law, and victory in the Spanish-American War carried an air of divine approval.
The popularity of Social Darwinism encouraged its use for the espousal of diverse national and social movements. For all of its advocates, however, the basic determinant of social change and all social conditions was biological in nature.8 Reliance on the natural sciences seemed to assure the scientific reputation of a maturing sociology. The validity of this approach was further confirmed by an obvious social progress. While optimism was in vogue, there appeared to be little reason for seeking new theories.The Turning of the Century's Leaf
With the beginning of the 20th century, however, the "old" evolutionism began to wane.9 For one thing, earlier evolutionism's misunderstanding of progress was enlightened by the havoc of World War I and other international crises. The optimism of the 19th century gave way to 20th century pessimism; old notions of inevitable progress had to be scrapped. Even early notions of moral progress were deemed questionable as new theories of cultural relativism came to the fore.
Once the doctrine of inevitable progress was questioned, the assumptions of biological determinism and racism were understood more clearly. Rather than seeing man's behavior as determined by inbom biological factors, the true importance of social and cultural factors was recognized. Of even greater importance was the recognition that social and cultural develop-
We now know that the claim that evolutionary development leads to progress is incorrect.
ments were not dependent on biological factors. This meant that society could be influenced by man, and traditionally conservative views were questioned. Hence, the stirring of the Social Gospel and its liberal views called forth new and challenging movements. Progress might be possible but it was not inevitable. It would be the result of working and not dreaming.
When the biological sciences were no longer the bases of the social sciences, new philosophical foundations were needed. These were quickly located in pragmatism in the States and in the studies in the unconscious on the continent. Both of these approaches provided a new direction; explanation of social phenomena was not to be gained by studying bow man lived in his physical environment but how he took his social environment into himself. Thus, social science begins to stand on its own feet and to look into its own backyard. In its maturity, sociology could shed the biological model and gain acceptance as a member of the cultural sciences.
While the attack on classic evolutionism came from several quarters, it was modem anthropology, especially in England, which probably won the day. Its criticism was that evolutionists didn't fully understand what society was. Without knowing how cultural phenomena are formed or what their functions might be, one could not predict what they would become. With this presupposition as a guideline, the functionalist school developed. The argument was that society with its component parts was a fundamentally different entity than anything found in the biological world. Claiming that change was a natural phenomenon, evolutionists made no attempt to determine why social units persist. Change was not to be taken for granted but explained in very explicit terms.10The Seeds of Synthesis
By the first third of the 20th century, classic evolutionary thought had beaten a stubborn and hard fought retreat. Indeed, William Ogburn, a prominent sociologist in pre-World War II America stated, "I claim that the problem of social evolution is solved and that I have played a considerable part in solving it."11 Whether one would want to accept Ogburn's assessment, there is little reason to doubt his further assertion that the question of social evolution bad been raised to a new level of study. Rather than dealing with physical and biological questions, evolution was now considered in social, cultural, and technological terms.
Another trend was a concern for individual and social control of social forces. Unlike Sumner who staunchly supported the Spencerian doctrine of a laissez faire policy in social matters, his contemporary, Lester F. Ward, advocated human control of society at the turn of the century. Ward's teaching is summarized in the view that
Social science, then, becomes an instrument by which man molds evolutionary principles into social and human ends.
There is little doubt that social evolution never really died. It was merely swept under a new rug. What did die were the old presuppositions and conclusions social evolution had been heir to (or had sired, depending on your understanding of the causal relationship). Indeed, functionalism itself was the new broom, sweeping away the dusty remains while probing into new comers.
As late as 1964, Talcott Parsons, possibly the most influential of American functionalists, published a paper intended "as a contribution to the revival and extension of evolutionary thinking in sociology."13 Referring to a 'new relativity' that relates its universals to an evolutionary framework, Parsons suggests there is a continuity of human ways with the sub-human.14 While this organic development exists, it is not sufficient to allow man to adjust to his environment. What are needed are certain cultural patterns which must exist before the society can progress. These, he suggests, are religion, language, social organizations, and technology. All are social developments which exist at the earliest human levels.
A decade prior to Parsons' paper, some of his followers provided a more rudimentary statement.15 Here the attempt was to spell out "the generalized conditions necessary for the maintenance of the system concerned."16 The evolutionary overtones are clear and begin with the first prerequisite which is "provision for adequate relationship to the environment and for sexual recruitment".17 Even the charge of conservatism laid to early evolutionary thought (and to functionalism by its critics) is implicit in the final prerequisite which requires "the effective control of disruptive forms of behavior."18 Thus, this effort at spelling out why social units persist, in explicit terms, not only fulfills the objectives of functionalism but also carries the evolutionary banner, if not as gloriously as in the past.
Contemporary social thought becomes too complex to allow for adequate treatment of this problem of synthesis here. The apparent merger of two major schools in sociology does leave us with several problems, though we need not delve further into the nature or extent of the synthesis. First, we might ask whether social evolution is a valid concept. Does it, in fact, refer to and describe a segment of social reality? A highly esteemed sociologist with functionalist leanings, Robert MacIver, refers to evolution as "a principle of internal growth."19 It is a process whereby the true nature of a social system emerges as it becomes what it should be. Yet, in an adjoining section, he refers to evolution as a "clue (which) enables us to set a multitude of facts in significant order."20 Apparently, the principle only has meaning if the system is approached by asking the appropriate questions. Further, in such an approach there are only some aspects of social change which can be explained by the evolutionary process.21
Second, it could be asked whether current evolutionists are not attacking a straw man composed of the hay of functionalism and the stubble of classical evolutionism .22 Not only does the nature of evolutionary theory remain vague but its merger with fimetionalist models obscures the nature of the real world even more. To attack such a nebulous foundation without recognizing it as such suggests that one may become heir to similar building blocks. Put more simply, modern evolutionists need to clarify the nature of the problem they are attacking before they can honestly build their own house. Surely every discipline is a victim of such paradoxes which become the basis for raising new theoretical models. Nevertheless, intellectual honesty requires the recognition of such problems before new progress can be made.The 'Fruit" of the New Evolutionism
Turning to the writings of some current evolutionists, the water is increasingly muddied. With the publication of his introductory text, Gerhard Lenski became a leading spirit of what he terms the "new evolutionism." Introducing his book, he argues that the structural-functional approach has declined because it did not provide for an adequate understanding of social change and conflict.23 Continuing, he states that the new evolutionism may best be described as the ecological-evolutionary approach because of its links with the biological sciences. Nevertheless, he recognizes the
structural and functional relations within society . . . (which) are studied within the larger and more inclusive framework provided, by the ecological and evoIutionary perspectives. Thus we could label our approach structural-functional-ecological-evolutionary, since it incorporates all the essential elements of both. For the sake of convenience, however, it is usually referred to simply as the evolutionary approach.24
What seems to come into focus is an ideological question more than a scientific one. Evolution is being pushed to the edges of theoretical thought in that it requires an apparent bias for it to have meaning. Surely there is merit in criticizing functionalism for its limited perspective. Nevertheless, one's wound is no less severe by refusing to be impaled on the one horn of a dilemma in preference for the other. In either case, one may lose one's proper footing.
For example, a definition of sociology as "the study of human societies" is so broad as to lack value today.25 Also, to define evolution as "a process of change in a definite direction, particularly from a simpler to a more complex state" suggests that complete exorcism of the old evolutionary spirits never did occur.26 Referring to the existence of socio-cultural regression as a reversal of this evolutionary pattern, Lenski recognizes the weaknesses of the older model.27 He allows for change in the social system and suggests the possibility of "change in the operation of the evolutionary process itself."28 Thus, in his attempt to avoid determinism, Lenski appears to open the door for all forms of explanation.
Be that as it may, the new evolutionism is not involved merely in ideological and philosophical tilting. Real efforts have been made to demonstrate the value of this approach in a variety of studies. For instance, in a competent study of the family, interest in evolutionary theory was drawn by the fact that extended familism in Wisconsin and a Chicago suburb paralleled similar patterns in primitive societies.29 The fact that mechanisms operating on both contemporary upper middle class families and primitive societies were comparable suggested a possible evolutionary significance. The conclusion was "that a number of societies at low levels of subsistence technologv seemingly respond to abundance by elaborating the family."30 The evolutionary meaning of the study is linked to the concept of subsistence environment to which the family structure is responsive.
The basic evolutionary principle that society is sensitive to environmental changes, and changes accordingly, is present here. A form of technological determinism, however, replaces the earlier biological determinism. Also, the classic unilinear theory of evolutionary progress is replaced here by a curvilinear model; extended families exist in societies which are both relatively simple and complex but for a similar reason.
In a study of educational systems, the claim is made that evolutionary theory may appropriately be used to study change over a few decades instead of over a long period of time.31 Societies are compared "to provide a description of the stages or levels of evolutionary development."32 Social change is not viewed as an evolutionary process but is to be studied by comparative means to allow for a general theory of social change. Instead, evolution itself refers to the three processes of innovation, selection and retention.33
Focusing on the process of retention, which is considered critical for evolutionary theory as well as for systematic social change and modernization, the analysis largely confirmed this model.34 If retention is basic to social change in this case, however, we may ask what it explains and find that it refers to structuralfunctional questions. Thus, new information is retained once it is introduced into a society largely because it fits the needs of that society. The structure of a modern society is formed because the new information functions to support the rising industrial expectations.
In a final study dealing with status and social ranking, emphasis is placed on a comparison of human and non-human bebavior.35 Referring to basic principles of ranking established by earlier sociological studies, Mazur finds comparable principles exist in the pecking order of hens. He rightly concludes that analogies can always be made between two species, though they are not always meaningful. When two species are divergent, such as is the case with men and chickens, the analogy is hardly reliable. Thus, the need is to bring the analogy closer to man by establishing a primate series, from shrews through man, in order to trace the biological basis of status in small behavior groups.
Studying status in this primate series by reference to published studies in the field, Mazur finds that status characteristics "appear throughout the series, or they emerge as we move along the series toward man."36 He concludes that "not all but many important aspects of human status . . . are biologically-based characteristics of the higher primates, including man.37 Thus, status has a biological basis but this is not completely deterministic, for "biological tendencies mature and are modified through interaction with the socio-cultural environment."38
What the Christian does need is a careful study of the data, while providing a more accurate interpretation of them.
Despite the differences in the various approaches discussed, all seem to stress the comparative method of studying data, a stress which reverts back to classical evolutionary thought. As one authority claims, it was because of the association of the comparative method with evolutionism that the method was devalued.39 Further, he claims that the comparative method can be used by competing theories.40 Thus, one is left with the hard conclusion that these several studies may be tapping into diverse theoretical models and have in common only a method of study. Indeed, method and theory could very well be confused at this point.41
Certainly the Blumberg and Winch article on the family is strong on the comparative method, even though its conclusion is inconsistent with the broader claims of evolutionary thinking. This article also is concerned, not with the study of total societies but with one institution, the family, located in them. Yet, it is precisely this dividing of society into its component parts of which Lenski is so critical. Blaming the reductionists who reacted to earlier evolutionism, Lenski states that their opinion was that society could be studied only by breaking it down into its component parts.42 "In fact, if you want to be blunt about it, sociology became largely the study of American institutions".43 Thus, one is left with the possible interpretation that this article is a functional study of institutions which uses comparative methods and claims to follow evolutionary principles.
A curious fact of the Warren article is the previously noted emphasis on a theory of retention. By specifying the characteristics of nation-states that are important to be retained, she is following the same line of reasoning used by Parsons in the aforementioned article; she specifies what is needed by a -society to move to the next stage of development. Thus, the apparent link between evolutionary and structural-functional thought is strengthened or else the issues are merely nominal and representative of an ideological debate.
The Mazur article presents us with a return to classic evolutionary thought. The attempt is to provide a biological explanation for at least some, if not all, of human social status. Yet, with proper caution, he notes that social behavior which is found across species lines should be accepted as "given~' without further explanation. Further, it is suggested that human and cultural mecham*sms may operate in addition to cross-species mechanisms.44 He concludes with the view that "biological tendencies mature and are modified through interaction with the socio-cultural environment."45Mazur's work, like that of classic evolutionism, merely traces analogies between humans and lower of the new evolutionists hope, so much the better primate forms without providing causal relationships. While he doesn't clearly argue that these cross-species status conferring behaviors have "evolved" from nonhuman to human forms, he does claim that status interactions change as one moves along the primate series from the tree shrew to man.46 The curious fact is that he suggests there is no biological justification for explaining_possible large scale social stratification as a species characteristic by analogy. Yet, be uses the same forms of analogy for explaining the small group forms of status conferring he studies in the paper.47
Some Words for Christians
Evolutionary thought is a veritable ocean of complex principles. Certainly one cannot pull the plug without some good going down the drain. One's first inclination might be to throw out evolution as a body of thought. Nevertheless, caution rather than enthusiasm should probably be exercised. There is a need to perceive the broad implications of the evolutionary viewpoint while sifting through it for grains of truth.
For example, the claim has been made by Christians that "historical and cultural changes as such are unavoidable and good, for life keeps unfolding and developing. A change in the form or functions of the family, therefore, could not possibly be considered a cause in the breakdown of the family."500 (Emphasis supplied.) Such a statement clearly represents antiquated evolutionary thought and misrepresents the facts of family life today; change in family form and functions are causes for family breakdown. Lacking sensitivity to the issues involved, one is quite likely to provide erroneous interpretations, as seen in this case.
What the Christian does need is a careful study of the data, while providing a more accurate interpretation of them. This interpretation need not be on the same level as that offered by the non-Christian scientist. Thus, there may, in fact, be much agreement in the behavioral patterns of primates and non-primates, though the usual evolutionary explanation may not be accurate. The Christian needs to supply a more consistent explanation for the data that are apparent to all.
The point is that interpretation of data occurs at different levels. As Abraham Kuyper claimed, the unbeliever and the Christian can agree on the interpretation of technical data while being radically different in terms of the ultimate meaning of that interpretation.51 Thus, the Christian should not reject conclusions simply because they are labelled evolutionary. Nor should acceptance of them imply that approval is also given to evolutionary thought. It has been shown that evolution is often used merely as a cloak to cover skeletal data, thus giving them a more substantial appearance. What is needed is a more accurate interpretation of the nature of the social world.
Here is where social science with Christian presuppositions can go a long way to correct some errors. There is no question that the early efforts to find "natural laws" for the structure of society were erroneous. This is not to say, however, that there are not different principles which must be sought. As Bube has succinctly stated, "The Christian believes that there is an objective reality about the nature of personal relationships that is just as independent of the individual as are the physical laws of nature."52 Further, as he states, it is necessary to interpret the dynamic or changing nature of the structure which directs the personal relationships. In essence, this is the type of interpretation offered by social evolution.
There is no reason, then, to accept the poverty of current evolutionary thought. It is not a valid interpretation of dynamic aspects of social relationships. Nor is there reason to reject many of the findings claimed in the name of the new evolutionism. Most are more likely to be justified by the use of evolution than explained by other views and are not part of a specific arrangement of facts linked only to evolutionary thinking. In the final analysis, however, these questions are secondary to the prime task of understanding those principles established by God for the control of social relations. In social science, as in physical science, the critique of evolutionary thought, as necessary as it might be, should not divert us from more fundamental tasks.
1G. Duncan Mitchell, A Hundred Years at Sociology (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1968), p. 23.
21ndeed, Spencer and Comte reacted to the earlier Enlightenment thinkers who were more desirous of "change for change's sake." With moral and social responsibility in mind, they were more inclined to seek that equilibrium which would be of greatest benefit to the greatest number. See Kenneth E. Bock, "Evolution, Function, and Change," American Sociological Review, 28 (April, 1963), pp. 229-237.
3Nicholas S. Timasheff, Sociological Theory: Its Nature and Growth (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1955). pp. 32-33.41bid., p. 39.
5Benjamin Kidd, Social Evolution (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1895), p. 88.
6Floyd Nelson House, The Development of Sociology (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1936), p. 163.
7Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 51.8Timasheff, op. cit., p. 70.
9This distinction between the older forms of social evolution and its newer forms is basic. Even a major supporter of the new form, Gehard Lenski, notes these distinctions and refers to the reasons for the demise of early forms in an unpublished paper entitled, "The New Evolutionism."
10See Bock, op. cit. for a more complete discussion of this point. Bock argues, however, that functionalism is entrapped, as was evolutionism, by the effort to untangle the web of social change and develops the same weaknesses.
11Howard W. Odum, American Sociology (New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1969). p. 151.
12Howard Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, Social Thought from Lore to Science, second edition (Washington, D.C.: Harren Press, 1952), p. 972.
13Talcott Parsons, "Evolutionary Universals in Society", American Sociological Review, 29 (June, 1964), p. 339.141dem.
161bid., p. 100.
171bid., p. 104.
181bid., p. 110.
19Robert M. Maelver, On Community, Society and Power: Selected Writings, edited by Leon Bramson (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970), p. 121.201dem.
22For a clear statement of the nature of the attack, see Gerhard Lenski, "The New Evolutionism" (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in New YQrk, August, 1973) and Jack Goody, "Evolution and Communication: The Domestication of the Savage Mind", The British Journal of Sociology, 24 (March, 1973), pp. 1-12.
23Gerhard Lenski, Human Societies (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970), p. 24.241bid., p. 25.
2911ae Lesser Blumberg and Robert F. Winch, "The Rise and Fall of the Complex Family: Some Implications for an Evolutionary Theory of Societal Developments" (Abstract of a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York, August, 1973).30Idem.
31jJean Tittle Warren, "Evolutionary Theory Applied to Modernization: The Expansion of National Educational Systems" (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York, August, 1973).321bid., p. 3.
35AIlan Mazur, "A Cross-Species Comparison of Status in Established Small Groups" (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York, August, 1973).361bid., p. 21.
39Geoff Payne, "Comparative Sociology: Some Problems ot Theory and Method," The British Journal at Sociology, 24 (March, 1973), p. 15. Payne makes the further assertion that the comparative method was linked with functionalism.401dem.
41Payne explicitly states that a history of the comparative mbthod shows that social theories have, in the past, been confused with method.42"The New Evolutionism", op. cit., p. 7.
461bid., p. 23. This change is characterized by a transition from more overt power behavior to more subtle, normatively based deference behavior.471bid., p. 25.
48See, for example, Heinz Maus, A Short History at Sociology (New York; The Citadel Press, 1966), P. 5.49Lenski, "The New Evolutionism," op. cit., p. 6. In making this contrast, it is curious to note that Parsons, accepted by modern sociology as a functionalist, is referred to here as a "new evolutionist", p. 5.
50Arnold H. DeGraaff, etc. al., Hope For the Family (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1971), p. 5.
51Aaldert Mennega, "Seek First the Kingdom-In Science," The Outlook (September, 1974), p. 14. It should also be noted that the important sociologist Max Weber held to a very comparable position, though not stated in a Christian context.
52Richard H. Bube, "A Proper View of Science Corrects Extremist Attitudes", Universitas (Marca, 1973), p. 3, see also Journal ASA 28, 2, 5, 82 (1976)
The dangers of using social utility considerations in immediate life or death decisions is, equally real. . . . The ultimate fear is not just cynical decisions regarding the moribund patient, or active elimination of other unproductive beings, but a general undermining of societal concern for, and sensitivity to, beings suffering handicapped existences.
"Law and the Termination of an Incompetent Patient's Life-Preserving Care," in The Dilemmas of Euthanasia, J. A. Behnke and S. Bok, eds., Anchor/ Doubleday (1975), p. 95.