Nine Postulates of Ecological-Evolutionary Theory


The evolutionary perspective has largely fallen
into disuse in sociology since Spencer and the social Darwinists. Gerhard Lenski was
one of the first to go against this trend. Since the mid-1960s Lenski has been developing
an ecological-evolutionary theory that is broad is scope. Lenski’s theory is capable
of synthesizing the insights and findings of the discipline into a coherent framework;
capable of furthering our understanding of sociocultural systems as a whole. According to Lenski, Human societies are subject
to natural laws. Sociocultural systems can only be fully understood as being responsive
to the interactions of populations to their environments. Like Malthus’s theory, at the
base of ecological-evolutionary theory lies the relationship between population and production. Like all life forms humans have a reproductive
capacity that substantially exceeds the necessary subsistence resources in the environment.
Thus, Lenski concludes, human populations tend to grow until they come up against the
limits of food production, and then they are checked. The checks, of course, consist of both the
positive and preventive checks that Malthus first explored in 1798. The capacity for population
growth has been a “profoundly destabilizing force throughout human history and may well
be the ultimate source of most social and cultural change.” Lenski posits that the relationships among
population, production, and environment drive the evolution of sociocultural systems. He
says that human populations are subject to environmental and biological influences just
as animal populations are. One of the distinguishing characteristics
of both biological and social evolution is the cumulative nature of change. Earlier adaptations
are “absorbed and incorporated” into newer biological or social systems, thus greatly
influencing later adaptations. Just as an animal’s past evolutionary history
as well as its relation to the present environment is important in understanding that animal’s
adaptation to that environment, so too, a society’s history or heritage is extremely
important in understanding societal stability and change. Lenski’s Nine Postulates: Social life–cooperation with others–is necessary
for both the survival of the species and for the “maximum satisfaction of human needs and
desires.” Human needs and desires include basic physical needs across all human societies,
such as the need for food, drink, sex, play, and personal survival. These physical needs
are rooted in our genetic heritage. Humans seek to maximize pleasure and to minimize
pain. Since we are by nature social beings, the
society into which we are born has a strong effect on shaping many of these basic needs
and desires as well as creating secondary needs and desires. In this list Lenski includes
such drives as the need for love and affection, respect and prestige from our fellows, and
for some type of meaning and order in life. Of all human needs and desires, Lenski notes,
survival is given the highest priority by the vast majority of human beings. This fact
means that the threat of physical violence is a powerful deterrent in human affairs.
It also means that resources important for survival (food and water and the resources
needed to procure them) are highly valued. Other widespread goals are health, prestige
or social honor, salvation, physical comfort, and love and affection. Still other goals
are sought, Lenski posits, because they help us attain these goals, things such as money,
office or position within an organization, or education and training. These lead to the
“antagonistic” character of social life, for these two constants give humans strong motivation
for putting their own needs and desires ahead of others, and are primarily responsible for
the conflict and tension so characteristic in human societies. Lenski also asserts that humans appear to
have an insatiable appetite for goods and services. “This is true chiefly because the
goods and services have a status value as well as a utilitarian value.” As a secondary
or derivative goal, however, what goods and services bring social honor vary across societies
and through time. What social actions are accorded high prestige and social honor also
vary. Granting social honor (or scorn) is one of several ways society shapes the individual
to societal needs. It is inevitable then that many will die in
premature deaths, and others will live close to the edge of starvation. Population level
and growth, along with subsistence technology, become prime causal agents in Lenski’s general
ecological-evolutionary theory. A society’s environment has a profound influence
on its social structure and culture. Lenski goes so far as to claim that all of a society’s
characteristics are ultimately due to just three things: the influence of the environment
(both biophysical and sociocultural), the influence of our species’ genetic heritage,
and the influence of prior sociocultural experience itself. A society’s social environment consists of
communications and contact with other sociocultural systems. Adaptations to biophysical and sociocultural
environments, Lenski asserts, are critical. The welfare of societal members as well as
their very survival depends on how well their society adapts to these environments. These
adaptations to changing biological, physical, and social environments is the very essence
of social evolution. Societies have two basic goals: 1) The maintenance
of the political status quo within the society; 2) The maximization of production. By maintenance of the political status quo
Lenski means that societies strive to minimize political change through laws and the machinery
of state, police, military, and other agencies of control. Societies also maintain themselves
through fostering political ideologies that justify and celebrate the state. The maximization of production is achieved
through promoting technological change or through wars of conquest. Taking his cue from Weber, Lenski defines
power as the ability of a person or group to achieve their goals even when opposed by
others. Also consistent with Weber, Lenski asserts that stratification is a “multi-dimensional
phenomenon,” that is, populations are ranked along various dimensions such as occupation,
education, property, racial-ethnic status, age, and gender. An individual’s position in each of the relevant
class system (and these vary by society) determines their overall social class, and this will
affect their access to goods and services as well as the prestige accorded to them by
others. These are the two basic laws of distribution,
and while they are, on the surface at least, somewhat contradictory, both are consistent
with Lenski’s postulates on the nature of man and society. According to Lenski, humans
are social animals and need to live in cooperation with others to achieve their needs. “Enlightened
self-interest,” Lenski posits, will lead humans to “share the product of their labors to the
extent required to ensure the survival and continued productivity of those others whose
actions are necessary or beneficial to themselves.” However, Lenski adds, human beings are primarily
motivated by self-interest. The existence of self-interest leads Lenski to posit that
any goods over and above the minimum needed to keep the majority of producers alive and
productive will be distributed on the basis of power. This has enormous consequences for
the degree of inequality within societies. Force is a very inefficient and expensive
way to maintain order. Thus, those who seize power will soon move to “legitimize” their
rule and transform force into authority. Power is legitimated through three major institutions.
First, of course, is the rule of law. The second strategy employed by elites is
through shaping public opinion through institutions such as educational institutions, religious
institutions, and the media. Many of those who work in these institutions are beholden
to elite owners or donors; if not directly dependent on elites, many working in these
institutions are open to threats or blandishments. Over time there is a shift in the personality
and character of the elite from those comfortable with the use of force to those more comfortable
with “cunning, manipulation, and diplomacy.” One of the major reasons for the stability
of many social and cultural elements in many societies appears to be their adaptive value
to their natural and social environments. Another reason is that human beings are creatures
of habit, very reluctant to change. One impediment to sociocultural change is
the need for some standardization. This is due to the fact that most sociocultural change
is built upon or added to existing structures and institutions. While newer innovations
may offer many advantages, past adaptations of the society may prohibit the widespread
adaptation of these innovations. An example of this is driving on the right side of the
road for example; or American’s resistance to the metric system. Another reason for sociocultural
stability over time is the systemic character of the society itself. Most of the elements
of a sociocultural system are linked to others. Change in one element often causes change
in many others. When confronted with innovation the individual
performs a cost/benefit analysis to reveal if the costs of adapting the innovation are
worth the anticipated benefits. Cost is conceived as a primary factor in the individual decision
making process of adaptation. Lenski places the individual members of the society as the
prime actors in adaptation, cost-benefit is the calculus they use in making their decisions. We will examine this 9th point in some detail
in the next presentation. If you are interested in the big picture you
should take a look at Macro Social Theory, a book that reviews the theories of classical
macro social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim as well as the
work of many who extended their theories to better reflect modern times such as Immanuel
Wallerstein, Gerhard Lenski, and George Ritzer. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles
of Structure and Change to learn how these insights contribute to a fuller understanding
of modern societies. These books can be purchased at most online
bookstores or at Athabasca University Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca also offers
a free pdf version of the work. You should know that a significant portion
of the royalties I receive for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation
in support of students in the Liberal Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.