Introduction to the Series

We are in the midst of a pandemic that has upended human societies across the globe. The COVID-19 coronavirus evolved to exploit a niche created by the very social connections and international exchanges that sustain our communities and magnify our productivity. We are simultaneously in the midst of a social movement against systemic racism that is global in its scope and yet deeply rooted in the United States’ sordid history of slavery. The cultural contradiction between prizing the freedom and dignity of individuals and denying the attainment of those goals on the basis of group membership can no longer be covered up. Both crises represent the collision of biological and sociological processes that magnify in intensity the more that this underlying reality is denied.

In other words, we believe that it is a propitious time for sociologists to engage in a deeper conversation with evolutionary scientists about human origins and human needs; about the biological underpinnings of social connection and group affiliation. Not because we seek to return to the racist distortions of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, but because we can understand better, together, the fallacy of those beliefs.  Not because we endorse the genetic determinism of the evolutionary biologists who popularized in the 1970s biological explanations for the social world, but to highlight the scientific foundation for the rejection of those beliefs by leading evolutionary biologists in the new millennium. Two of us began our academic careers in the 1970s, so we further explicate our argument by returning to evolutionary biology in that decade.

You didn’t have to be an evolutionary biologist in the 1970s to realize the discipline was expanding its explanatory reach. The previous decade’s best sellers included Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative (1966) and Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967), so the worldwide success of disciplinary experts E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,1 (1975) and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene2 (1976) was not the first indication of popular interest in evolutionary explanations of human behavior. Geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s (1973) short article in The American Biology Teacher “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”3 would have reached a much smaller audience, yet few would have questioned the application of its central argument to the behavior of Homo sapiens: Darwin’s theory of evolution provides a conceptual toolkit for exploring every aspect of every species.4   

But although it might have played well with some audiences (The Selfish Gene ultimately sold more than one million copies), this territorial assault on the explanatory power of the social sciences did not find a receptive audience among many in those disciplines. Many social scientists heard echoes of the earlier battle over Social Darwinism, a term that was seldom used until popularized by the historian Robert Hofstadter in his 1959 book Social Darwinism in American Thought.5 It did not help that the leading proponents of this new biological attempt at social explanation in the 70s framed their effort more as a takeover than as a synergistic merger.  Edward O. Wilson (1976) asserted that the advent of sociobiology would cause “the humanities and social sciences to shrink to specialized branches of biology.” Renowned evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers6 (1985:81) later claimed that “whole worlds of sociology, anthropology, and political science came crashing to the ground” as a result of theorizing in both Sociobiology and The Selfish Gene.7

Some eminent biologists, including Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould joined sociologists, anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins (The Use and Abuse of Biology),8 and other social scientists who objected to including humans in a theory of social behavior applied to all species.   If their critique could be boiled down to a single phrase, it would be genetic determinism. Behaviors might be (arguably) determined primarily by genes in other species, but humans were an exception to that rule. Humans are first and foremost a cultural species.

Fast forward to the present, and it will surprise some to learn that much of what has happened in evolutionary biology in the ensuing years affirms the critique of evolutionary biology in the 1970s as excessively gene-centric. Darwin and his associates knew nothing about genes and thought about evolution broadly in terms of variation, selection, and the replication of traits across generations (heritability) by any mechanism. With the advent of genetics in the early 20th century, however, the study of evolution became largely constricted to the study of genetic evolution, as if the only way that offspring resemble their parents is by sharing genes. Evolution was even defined in textbooks as a change in gene frequency and the very term evolutionary biology, as opposed to evolutionary science, signaled that the human-oriented disciplines were not to be placed on the same theoretical foundation as biology.

It is not that Darwin’s theory has been left behind.  Quite the contrary, as scientists across disciplines have gone back to basics by defining Darwinian evolution as any process that combines the three ingredients of variation, selection, and the replication of traits over time by any mechanism, including but not restricted to genes.  Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s landmark book, Evolution in Four Dimensions (2005) identified four mechanisms of inheritance: genetic, epigenetic (changes in gene expression rather than gene frequency), social learning (different forms found in many species), and distinctively human forms of symbolic thought. The term Dual Inheritance Theory acknowledges that two streams of inheritance exist in humans, one cultural and the other genetic, which have been co-evolving with each other throughout our history as a species. In many respects, the slow process of genetic evolution follows where the fast process of cultural evolution leads.

Many evolutionary scientists, biologists and others, have also returned to Darwin’s insight in the Descent of Man that Homo sapiens’ social behavior evolved in the context of intense group-based sociality that selected for an altruistic orientation, at least within culturally defined moral circles.  Recent books that bring these insights together include Joseph Henrich’s (2015) The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Kevin Laland’s (2017) Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, Robert Sapolsky’s (2017) Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, and Peter Turchin’s (2016) Ultrasociety: How Ten Thousand Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. To the dismay of early proponents of sociobiology, even Edward O. Wilson has reframed his perspective in books like The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies (2019) to emphasize the importance of group-based selection in human evolution and the social intelligence, larger brain, and enduring cultures that were its consequences. 

In short, the study of Homo sapiens from an evolutionary perspective can no longer be accused of genetic determinism.  It is possible to extend an evolutionary theory of social behavior to our species, once we define evolution in terms of all variation-selection-retention processes and recognize humans’ unique capacities for culture.  Moreover, it is possible to do so in a way that rejects racist and sexist fallacies, implicit and explicit, that some evolutionary thinkers, past and present, have shared with thinkers from many other perspectives and disciplines.

The discipline of sociology should be at the forefront of this updating. Unfortunately, while some sociologists have warmed to the possibility, many others have not. The American Sociological Association’s section titled Evolution, Biology, and Society remains the smallest of its 52 sections. We expect that a modified version of Dobzhansky’s 1973 statement, “Nothing About Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” would cause widespread disagreement.3  So, believing as we do that sociology has much to gain from, and contribute to, the new perspective in evolutionary biology, we decided to take a closer look.  We invited each section’s chair and/or chair-elect to comment on the status of evolutionary thinking in their topic area or to recommend another section member to take part.  We also extended the invitation to all members of the Evolution, Biology, and Society section. The essays in this series are the result of our invitation.

Here is the theme that we asked our authors to reflect upon:

A biologically evolved virus finds an environmental niche it can successfully exploit and upends human society.  Whether we celebrate or fear modern technology, whether we applaud or dismiss science, whether we view health as a personal or public concern, an invisible pathogen forces us to recognize our interdependence both with the natural world and with each other. 

Of course, sociology begins with the importance of social connection, highlights the social processes that shape human outcomes, and takes account of social groups and the cultures they create when explaining human behavior.  And we now know that these insights take us back to, not away from, our evolved biology:  that the environment influences genetic expression; that culture influences evolutionary change; that the need for group support and social connection are the evolved lodestone of our species and are reflected in the functioning of our brains.

The COVID -19 crisis provides an opportunity for sociologists to reflect upon the history of evolutionary thinking and current understandings in their area, and the potential benefits and costs of a more transdisciplinary vision. These reflections, representing the full diversity of sociological perspectives, will be valuable in their own right in addition to their relevance to the current moment. Hence, explicit connections to the COVID-19 crisis are encouraged but should not overshadow the theme of the past, present, and future of evolutionary thinking in the discipline.

We thank the authors of this series of essays for helping to construct a montage of where the field of Sociology stands with respect to evolutionary science at the 1/5th mark of the 21st Century.  You will find in the essays clear evidence of the value of connecting our disciplines in service of better understanding of the social world.  You will also see varying degrees of recognition of the new approaches in evolutionary biology that create such possibilities for synergy between the disciplines.  We hope the essays encourage more such transdisciplinary engagement.

Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:

  1. Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
  2. Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
  3. Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
  4. Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
  5. Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
  6. Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
  7. The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
  8. Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
  9. The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
  10. Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
  11. For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson

References:

[1] Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[2] Dawkins, Richard. 2016 [1976]). The Selfish Gene, 40th-anniversary edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[3] Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher, 35, 125–129.

[4] In 1973, Konrad Lorenz, Carl von Frisch, and Niko Tinbergen received the Nobel Prize for pioneering the field of ethology (the study of animal behavior) from an evolutionary perspective. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1973/summary/

[5] Hofstadter, R. (1959). Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. For an update, please consult the TVOL special issue titled Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism: https://evolution-institute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2Social-Darwinism_Publication.pdf

[6] Trivers, Robert. 1985. Social Evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.

[7] Trivers, Robert L. 2016 [1976]. Forward to First Edition, The Selfish Gene, 40th-anniversary edition, by Richard Dawkins, Richard. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[8] Sahlins, M. D. (1976). The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Published On: July 20, 2020

Russell Schutt

Russell Schutt

Russell K. Schutt, Ph.D. is 2019-2020 Chair of the American Sociological Association’s section on Evolution, Biology, and Society.  He is Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Lecturer (part-time) in Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, Clinical Research Scientist I at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Research Associate at the Veterans Health Administration (Edith Nourse Rogers Veterans Hospital).  His research and publications focus on the social environment and individual functioning, service preferences, and the organization and delivery of public programs, in relation to homelessness, mental illness, public health, and organizational and legal processes, with more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles, and books that include Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society (co-edited), Homelessness, Housing and Mental Illness (both Harvard University Press), and research methods texts with SAGE Publications that include Investigating the Social World: The Process and Practice of Research (now in its 9th edition).  His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Cancer Institute, the Veterans Health Administration, the Fetzer Institute, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Rengin Firat

Rengin Firat

Rengin B. Firat is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of California, Riverside. Her work cuts across sociology and neurosciences to investigate how the human mind organizes and motivates social behavior. She uses functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and large scale social surveys to study the moral and emotional micro-dynamics of ethno-racial inequalities and group polarizations. Her research has been published in journals like Social Science ResearchPerspectives on Psychological Science and Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, amongst others.

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

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