Evolutionary Science and Sociology

A Series of Conversations


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.

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.

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Discussion Articles


Nothing in Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution

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.

Session 1: January 19

Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic

The rapid spread of a virus on a global scale appears to be one of Thomas Malthus’ “Four Horsemen” riding through societies and overwhelming the human immune system. From a sociological view, this attack on the biological immune system is only one selection process. As has become so clearly evident, there is another level of selection operating in the social universe: selection on the social structures and cultures of each society being invaded by a small strip of RNA. Read Dr. Turner’s responses from the Q&A here.

Session 1: January 19

The Epidemic and the Epistemic: An Exercise in Evolutionary Sociology

The present pandemic is a stark reminder that humans are, first and foremost, biological beings – as vulnerable to environmental and evolved threats as is any other organism. Humans – like the virus itself – are products of an evolutionary process that has profoundly shaped not only our morphology, but also our behavior via the imperatives, capacities, and dispositions it has bequeathed to us. Although unwelcome in many quarters of Sociology, this reality is in fact the discipline’s saving grace. Read Dr. Marshall’s responses from the Q&A here.

Session 2: February 2

Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior

At their core, humans are emotional creatures. However, both the biological and social sciences have only recently begun to take emotions seriously, having been constrained by the old Cartesian separation of brain and body, rationality and sensation. Despite the erosion of the sharp distinctions between thinking and feeling and the explosion of interest, disciplinary divides have constrained fruitful dialogue between neurobiology and sociology.

Session 2: February 2

Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The brain modules supporting human social communication and interaction are the product of millions of years of evolutionary forces acting on Homo sapiens and their ancestors in face-to-face contexts. Looking at the big picture, we simply aren’t used to anything but face-to-face interaction. Over the last 20 years, though—less than a blink in evolutionary time—we have gone from none of us having smartphones and relatively few of us being online to many of us having smartphones and almost all of us being online.

Session 3: February 16

Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory

We endorse calls for interdisciplinary collaborations to anticipate zoonotic spillover — and we believe the social sciences can make valuable contributions. The concept of normal accidents reminds us that even rare events are likely to occur with repeated trials over a range of contexts. Treadmill theory points to human organizations and processes that generate repeated exposure to novel viruses and heighten the risk of these exposures.

Session 4: March 2

The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States

The coronavirus pandemic will inevitably strike a blow to U.S. economic growth. However, it is important to remember that over the last 150 years, the U.S. economy has suffered a long series of recessions and depressions of greater and lesser magnitude; but the economy has always bounced back, and remarkably, it always has returned to the same long-term average of just under 2% growth per capita per year.

Session 4: March 2

Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19

Since the 1980s, it has been increasingly recognized that culture and social organization, not just genes, evolve by descent with modification. Sociocultural evolution is based on social learning by observation or linguistically encoded instructions, variation, and sociocultural selection. Moreover, genes and culture coevolve in interaction with each other, whether gene-culture or culture-gene coevolution, and whether within one or between species.

Session 5: March 16

For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus?

The success (or failure) that societies have had in the wake of COVID-19 offers a simple reminder that the success of Homo sapiens has been essentially a cooperative enterprise, not unlike the sciences, and not unlike religions. The connection between COVID and religion is appropriate given that I argue, a) that religion evolved; b) that it is cognitively natural; and c) that it spreads like a virus.

Session 5: March 16

From the Middle: Sites of Culture, Cooperation, and Trust in Risk Society

COVID-19 is a harrowing test of societies’ abilities to cope with twenty-first-century global risk. Beginning with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, human decisions increasingly produced novel global hazards, the long-term consequences of which are themselves dramatically shaped by human responses to these hazards. Viruses mutate and attack, but their spread is determined largely by human decisions. Global and state institutions coordinate efforts, but their effectiveness is shaped at a smaller scale—within local organizational and cultural contexts.

Session 6: March 30

How Covid-19 Reminds Us We Are More Alike Than Different

More than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our shared humanity. Everyone, rich and poor, old and young, from the developed world or the less developed world, of whatever color or creed, can get the virus. All over the world, the most vulnerable to dying from the virus are the elderly, as well as males in all age groups. This is a pattern common at all times and in all societies – the elderly are more likely to succumb to any disease, and the excess mortality of males in all age groups is well known to demographers.

Session Six: March 30

Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic

Sociological social psychology in general, and particularly the study of morality, suggest caveats for the relevance of evolutionary processes to motivate modern research programs. Certainly, evolution has set the boundaries for social processes, but the prominent questions involve what happens within those biological and neurological boundaries.

Session Seven: April 13

The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective

COVID-19 has touched every corner of the earth resulting in catered economies, mounting mortality rates, and personal traumas. How can we break the grip of this wily foe? With a vaccine many months away, it is time to reach beyond medicalized wisdom by tapping into multiple spheres of scientific knowledge. One fertile source is evolutionary sociology because preventing the further spread of the disease requires a public effort, which is a demographic process and not an individual one.

Session Seven: April 13

Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es)

Sociological approaches to understanding the COVID crisis are anchored to the relationship between social structures and epidemiological patterns, or Social Epidemiology. Although we sociologists have a tendency to distance ourselves from evolutionary explanations, evolutionary approaches in social epidemiology would likely explore the social structural conditions within which microbiological “accidents,” like a novel coronavirus, become epidemiological phenomena, and why they occur in varying ways depending on social structures.

Nearly anyone with an interest in positive change will benefit from reading and listening to these episodes.

Join the Evolutionary Science and Sociology Discussion Group!

Want to dive deeper? Sign-up for the Evolutionary Science and Sociology Discussion Group where you can join David Sloan Wilson, series authors, and other TVOL readers for bi-weekly virtual conversations about each installment in the series.