Re: Social Evolution

Tracy Brown (tbrown@ACPUB.DUKE.EDU)
Sat, 14 May 1994 12:54:22 -0400

Jim Allison wrote that Bob Graber wrote:

> ...where ten thousand years ago all humans lived in small, politically
> autonomous communities, today we all live in populous states. There is an
> obvious, overwhelming, physically identifiabletrend in social evolution
> from small societies to large ones. To deny this, or to deny that it is
> central to understanding many of the transformations in human culture, is
> politically-correct, self-inflicted ignorance.
> While I would quibble with the assertion that all humans now live in populous
> states (as a previous poster already did), I agree that there is a trend over
> the last ten thousand years in the average size of polities (I am not sure that
> I want to call the large and often extremely heterogeneous groups of people
> that are integrated in modern states either 'societies' or 'cultures'). I do
> not think anyone disagrees that this trend has occurred, although in most
> places it has been more wave like than linear (i.e., large polities form, then
> disintegrate into small polities, then large ones reform. Through time the
> size of the groups integrated during periods of relatively great political
> integration have often enough been larger than those integrated in earlier
> periods that the average size of polities has increased). But this is another
> minor quibble.
> The real issue is whether the trend toward larger polities, and the many
> other cultural and societal changes observable in human history and prehistory,
> are best understood by analogy to biological evolution.

I agree wholeheartedly with Allison's point about the so-called growth of
polities over time. I do not, however, think that his points are "minor
quibbles." First, if history has been comprised of a series, or wave,
of formation and disintegration of states, how can it be argued that there has
been social evolution? Can't the current state of affairs simply be one
more "wave" in history? I seriously doubt that the size of political
entities that people live in can be taken as a criteria of social
evolution. It seems to me that it is taken as a criteria by western
theoreticians because *they* live in large, populous states.

At any rate, I find the whole idea of social evolution questionable at
best, especially if by evolution we mean progress. I doubt
that I have to review here the sorts of critiques that have been made by
anthropologists and others of this idea. Why is it that people want to
argue for social evolution -- especially Western academics and politicians?
This, for me at least, is the most important question to ask, not whether
or not biological evolution is a good metaphor for social evolution.

> Further, I am very, very tired of hearing ideas characterized as
> 'politically-correct'. How does making this charge advance the discusion or
> clarify the issues? What political interests are involved and who is enforcing
> the supposedly 'politically-correct' ideas? To merely make the charge that
> someone else's ideas are 'politically-correct' is an intellectually dishonest
> and/or intellectually lazy attempt to avoid considering whether the ideas
> actually are correct or not.

I couldn't agree more.
Tracy Brown