TVOL’s series of articles on the theme “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism” goes beyond the stereotypic view that Darwin’s theory earned a thoroughly bad name for itself by unleashing a plague of “survival of the fittest” social policies. The real story is much more complex and interesting, as past articles in the series show.
One part of the story is that human-related disciplines such as sociology had their own reasons to distance themselves from biology, quite apart from failings on the part of biologists interested in human social behavior. Russell K. Schutt should know. He is Professor and, for a total of 12 years, was Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston campus and author of many highly regarded books, including texts on research methods (e.g., Understanding the Social World: Research Methods for the 21st Century), research monographs (e.g., Homelessness, Housing, and Mental Illness), and research collections (e.g., Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society, edited with Larry J. Seidman and Matcheri Keshavan). He is both a scholar of his discipline and an advocate for an approach to Sociology that is thoroughly integrated with evolutionary theory and the biological sciences.
David Sloan Wilson: Welcome, Russell, and thanks for sharing your expertise with us for our “Truth and Reconciliation” series.
Russell Schutt: I’m delighted to have the opportunity to bring the discipline of Sociology into this discussion. There is no better testament to the importance of doing so than the effectiveness of the linkages that your own books have made between new directions in evolutionary biology and the fundamental concerns of Sociology.
DSW: Thanks very much! Let’s begin at the beginning, with the birth of Sociology as a discipline. When did people start self-identifying as Sociologists and what was their attitude toward biology in general and Darwin’s theory of evolution in particular? Please take as long as you like.
RS: The French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the term “sociology” in 1838, but as the Google NGram in Figure 1 shows, it rarely appeared in books published in English (or other languages) before 1870. In that decade, English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology (1873) “attracted great attention and acclaim” (Carneiro, 1974, p. 546), J. K. Ingram, incoming president of the Economic Science and Statistics Section of the British Academy for the Advancement of Science proclaimed that “there is … no duty more incumbent in our day than that of recognizing the claims of Sociology” (Renwick 2012:19), and the first course in Sociology was taught by William Graham Sumner at Yale University (1875). However, it was not until 1892 that the first department of sociology was founded (University of Chicago); not until 1893 that a limited-membership international association began (Institut International de Sociologie); and not until 1905 that the American Sociological Society (A.S.S.) started (later renamed the American Sociological Association, or “ASA”). It can thus be said that people first began to self-identify as sociologists in the 1870s, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that the discipline was institutionalized and began to produce professionally trained social scientists.
Biology in general and Darwin’s theory of evolution in particular provided both a source of inspiration and a basis for disciplinary distinction during Sociology’s founding period. The early sociologists shared with their counterparts in the other emerging social sciences an enthusiasm for a scientific perspective and a recognition that scientific methods were needed to understand complex modern societies. Although Comte died shortly before the publication of The Origin of Species (1859), those writing and teaching about Sociology in the 1870s were profoundly influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory and his book on human evolution, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Both Herbert Spencer and his American acolyte, William Graham Sumner, believed that Sociology should explain social processes within the framework of Darwin’s evolutionary theory—as they understood it—and since, in the words of the A.S.S.’s eighth president, Charles Horton Cooley (1920, p. 129) “nearly all of us who took up sociology between 1870, say, and 1890 did so at the instigation of Spencer,” other early sociologists also had to consider the implications of evolutionary biology for sociology.
Their appraisals of those implications differed radically. Herbert Spencer, who had himself coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” that Darwin then adopted, grounded his theorizing in the belief that societies arise by evolution, not “by manufacture,” and that this evolutionary process involves elimination of the “good-for-nothings.” William Graham Sumner, the A.S.S.’s second president supported these views, while Edward A. Ross, the fifth president (1914-1915) endorsed a sterilization law in Wisconsin that was part of a larger eugenics program inspired by Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, and was backed by G. Archdall Reid in a 1906 American Journal of Sociology article, “The Biological Foundations of Sociology.”
DSW: The historical context that you have provided is very important. It has been said many times that “Social Darwinism” would better be called “Social Spencerism”. You have substantiated this claim for the origin of the field of sociology. Other than scholars, few people today appreciate the influence of Spencer during that period, or how Spencer’s ideas about evolution differed from Darwin. Also, it is remarkable to me how Spencer thought about society in individualistic terms, as if the best society can be created by selecting the “best” individuals and eliminating the “good for nothings”, as Spencer put it. A more systemic view of society, including the dynamics of cooperation and selfishness, appears to be entirely lacking. I cover this topic with the animal breeder William Muir in another article in the series titled “When the Strong Outbreed the Weak”. Please continue.
RS: In marked contrast, other early sociologists in both Europe and the United States rejected the social implications adduced by Spencer from Darwin’s evolutionary theory and therefore also abjured any disciplinary connection to biology. Their rejection stemmed most directly from their recognition that altruistic behavior is a feature of every human society and their acceptance of Spencer’s interpretation of Darwin’s theory as precluding anything but selfish behavior by individuals.
DSW: Despite the fact that Darwin, Huxley, and Kropotkin provided perfectly good narratives for the cooperative side of human nature!
RS: The French sociologist and disciplinary founder Émile Durkheim’s (1893) doctoral dissertation (and future classic), The Division of Labor in Society was in large measure a critique of Spencer and an attempt to provide an alternative foundation for Sociology. “Social facts,” Durkheim (1964:3) averred, “could not be confused with biological phenomena” and it was altruism, not egoism, that was “the point of departure for humanity.” (Durkheim 1984 :144-145). L. T. Hobhouse, appointed as the first British professor of sociology at the London School of Economics in 1907 rejected the sociological relevance of biological ideas (Renwick 2012: 171-172).
Most American sociologists also turned away from biology. Many early American sociologists supported ameliorative social policies, whether for religious or secular reasons, and would have been appalled to read an 1883 New York Times editorial inveighing against sociology as “the selfish sciences” after a talk by William Graham Sumner. By the 1890s, leading American sociologists seeking to define the new discipline were rejecting any need for analogies to, much less foundations in, the biological sciences (Cravens 1978). For some, altruism was a force to be reckoned with in both theory and practice and could not be understood from a biological perspective. For most, there seemed little to gain and much to lose by retaining a connection between sociology and biology.
DSW: This is very helpful indeed. I would like to add another dimension but it will require a preamble. The idea that individuals and societies are blank slates is much criticized, but evolutionary biologists have their own blank slate assumption called “Natural Selection thinking” or “The Adaptationist Program”. This involves predicting the properties of organisms under the assumption of heritable variation and a sufficiently long time for natural selection to act. Insofar as the genes and physical makeup of organisms provide heritable variation, then organisms become a kind of malleable clay that can be sculpted into any shape, or blank slate upon which anything can be written by environmental selection pressures. Evolutionists know that this isn’t strictly true, because heritable variation is constrained in various ways. Thus, they easily back away from their “blank slate” assumption but still rely upon it as a very useful heuristic that gets close to the right answer much of the time.
It seems to me that Durkheim and others were making the same point for human societies, which is why they declared a kind of independence from psychology in addition to biology. The more we develop a mature theory of human cultural evolution, the better we can see the legitimacy of this position, just like the legitimacy of the Adaptationist Program in evolutionary biology. Cultures vary phenotypically and their properties are transmitted across generations. Insofar as genes and psychological mechanisms deliver heritable variation, that is the extent to which they can be ignored in predicting the properties of societies on the basis of environmental forces. This is only a heuristic, but one that is extremely valuable in predicting the properties of “social facts” without reducing them to proximate psychological and genetic mechanisms. Notice that this rationale for a “declaration of independence” is different than wanting to distance sociology from biology because of “Social Spencerism” and all that. What do you think of this analysis?
RS: You are quite right that Durkheim’s “declaration of independence” of sociology from biology was more than a rejection of the conceptual baggage connoted by the perspective you have aptly termed “Social Spencerism.” In his The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim (1893) argued that people “free themselves increasingly from the dominance of the organism”—and especially so in larger and more complex societies—and are “dependent on social causes,” unlike [other] animals whose “biological makeup predetermines its existence.” In light of modern evolutionary biology, we can now appreciate this argument as a prescient statement of the role of culture in human evolution; in light of modern neuroscience, we can discern here an anticipation of the recognition of the distinctive, enlarged human neocortex and the executive control it allows. Durkheim’s determination to focus sociological explanation only on the “social facts” thus left the analytic glass both half full and half empty.
Durkheim’s “declaration” also helped insulate much of sociology from the eugenic and racist distortions that grew out of “Social Spencerism” and it encouraged an intense focus on describing and explaining the ways in which human groups and societies have developed social structures and cultures in different environments. Ironically, though, this declaration now diminishes many sociologists’ understanding of the biological foundations of human sociality and their appreciation of the reciprocal relations between biological and social factors in the course of human development and interaction. It is because Homo sapiens evolved in social groups over tens of thousands of years that our brains and bodies are expectant of and attuned to social connection; it is because of such resultant biological processes as neuroplasticity and epigenetics that the cultures we create can affect the daily functioning of our bodies and the intergenerational development of our species (Schutt, Seidman, Keshavan, 2015).
DSW: Exactly. That should be Sociology for the 21st Century. Now I’d like to explore the tradition of functionalism, which endows whole societies with organism-like properties. Today we are able to affirm this claim, at least to a degree, because group selection is a strong force in human cultural evolution. But the current theoretical foundation for group-level functionalism didn’t exist during the development of the concept within the field of sociology, which began with Durkheim and reached its peak during the mid-twentieth century with figures such as Talcott Parsons, if I understand the history of your field correctly. When I was writing Darwin’s Cathedral, I learned that sociologists of religion such as Rodney Stark had relegated Durkheim and the tradition of functionalism to the dustbin of history. Please share your insider’s view on the tradition of functionalism.
RS: First let me try to strike a somewhat different balance between what are simultaneously conflicting and multifaceted viewpoints. No matter the historical variation in sociologists’ acceptance of functionalism, Émile Durkheim continues to be regarded as one of the discipline’s most illustrious founders who developed scholarship that still motivates many in the discipline. I am myself more an admirer of Durkheim for his attention to the importance of social connection than a critic of his determination to divorce sociology from biology. And no matter our own theoretical positions, I know we agree that ambitious and systematic sociological research like that of Stark and Bainbridge on religion contributes a great deal to understanding the social world—as you note many times in Darwin’s Cathedral.
You are right to describe sociological interest in functionalism as having peaked in the mid-twentieth century in the work of Talcott Parsons (who was indisputably much more than even primus inter pares, although there were others), but there is more to the history of functionalism in my discipline than that. Parsons himself revived functionalism after a period of its desuetude following Durkheim’s death (Turner, 2014). Contemporary sociological theorist Randall Collins (2005) explains that in post-World War I France, young scholars deemed Durkheim’s legacy and his former students—some of whom had joined the French establishment—as too conservative due to its emphasis on the preeminence of the group, respect for collective institutions, and patriotism. It was instead British social anthropologists who developed the functionalist tradition and it was at the London School of Economics in 1932-1933—in a seminar led by Bronislaw Malinowski—that Parsons was inspired by Durkheim’s functionalist approach.
Like Durkheim, Parsons (1937, p. 768) believed that self-interested action by individuals did not provide a sufficient basis for social cooperation in society, so he focused attention on how actors become “mutually oriented to each other’s actions” through what he termed “common-value integration.” Parsons (1954, pp. 216-219) analogized social systems to organisms and sought the “functional significance” of processes and conditions in reference to their contribution to “the system as a whole.”
While Parsons’s theorizing was lauded for its explanations of such social phenomena as the cohesive (and other) functions of religion (Alpert 1938) and other early American sociologists including W. Lloyd Warner (1949) and Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd developed functionalist explanations of community social status and social order (Grimes, 1988), the functionalist tradition in general and Parsons’s version in particular came under sustained attack in the 1960s. As in France after Durkheim, the primary charge was that functionalism (now its Parsonsian version) was too conservative (Collins, 2005). But there were many other criticisms: Overlooking Durkheim’s recognition of the individual and the social as having opposing interests (Pope, 1973); naively accepting an “over-socialized” conception of people (Wrong, 1961); discounting change, structurally generated conflict, and external interactions of social systems while overemphasizing value consensus and system self-sufficiency (Dahrendorf, 1958); limiting the bases of occupational prestige to their functional importance (Tausky, 1965); using teleological and tautological reasoning and classifying rather than explaining social phenomena (Turner 2014, pp. 25-27). For evolutionary biologists, one telling criticism was Parsons’s use of Emerson’s (1956) outmoded holistic model of group selection (Haines, 1987). And I have slighted other perhaps even more telling criticisms of Parsons’s writing style, his inattention to the work of earlier prominent American sociologists (Faris, 1953), and his mischaracterization of such other classic European sociologists as Max Weber (Cohen et al., 1973).
In spite of this rather dramatic reversal of fortunes for the sociologist once lauded as the greatest theorist of his era, interest in the work of Talcott Parsons was renewed in the 1980s and ‘90s by Jeffrey Alexander (1984) and others, while interest in functionalism more generally is now being revived by leading sociological theorist Jonathan Turner (2014). So while it may be said that functionalism has been relegated by some sociologists to the dustbin, over the long term we can see its roller coaster ride continuing.
DSW: You have provided an invaluable service with this historical overview, much of which is new to me. Now let’s fast forward to the present. Our conversation so far might not seem very complimentary to the field of Sociology, but in fact there is much to admire, such as the work of the Harvard sociologists Robert Sampson and Robert Putnam, which I personally admire a great deal. At least some branches of sociology are methodologically very sophisticated, as you know better than almost anyone else. In your opinion, what is the best of modern sociology?
RS: I believe that modern sociological scholarship has produced impressive insights about society and social relations, with some research now attending to biological foundations or evolutionary processes. The two examples you cite are among the best. Rob Sampson’s work has been distinguished by keen attention to the interplay between the social environment and human functioning, both over the life course and in urban environments. Although Putnam’s work has been in political science, his focus on the importance of social ties has stimulated a great deal of sociological research—some by his Harvard colleagues in sociology, Peter Marsden and Mario Small. The development by Marsden and other sociologists of social network analysis has been particularly fruitful, with leading examples in the area of health and mental health being the work of Nicholas Christakis and Bernice Pescosolido, respectively. David Williams has made major contributions to our understanding of how the social environment and experiences in social interaction affect health. Alejandro Portes and Doug Massey have both developed impressive research programs focused on the role of social connections in understanding immigration and adaptation. I would also cite my book, with Stephen Goldfinger, Homelessness, Housing, and Mental Illness as an example of how sociologists have used sophisticated methods and integrative theory to identify the importance of community and social ties.
Sociologists have also begun to develop major new research programs focused directly on the implications of biology and of evolutionary theory for social life. Jonathan H. Turner is both a leading sociological theorist (cited above) and a major contributor to a new perspective in sociology that is grounded in evolutionary theory. Together with David Franks and Warren TenHouten, he has helped to create the new field of “neurosociology”—work that is also reflected in my edited book with Larry Seidman and Matcheri Keshavan, Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society. Guang Guo has been at the forefront of sociological research that identifies interactive effects between genes and the social environment.
Many other sociologists are currently enriching our understanding of the importance and patterning of social ties in ways that do not involve explicit connections to biology, including Sherry Turkle’s research on the impact of the internet on social relations, Elijah Anderson’s urban ethnographies, and William Julius Wilson’s research on urban inequality.
DSW: Again, you have provided an invaluable service with this overview. Despite these virtues, I would say that the field of sociology lacks a unified theoretical perspective, which is what modern evolutionary theory (along with complexity theory; go here for more) can provide. I know from our previous conversations that we largely agree on this point—although please feel free to disagree—but your insider’s view can be more persuasive than my outsider’s view. What is the “added value” of placing the field of sociology on a modern evolutionary foundation?
RS: As I answer this question (September 6, 2016), The New York Times has just published an article about programs developed to mitigate loneliness among residents in many English cities and towns. The programs respond to overwhelming evidence of the prevalence of loneliness and its detrimental impact on physical and mental health, cognitive functioning, levels of stress hormones, and rates of mortality, particularly among the elderly. Why is it that people are so sensitive to the presence of social relations and so adversely affected by their absence? Why is it that workgroups, from airline crews to healthcare teams function so much more effectively when they maintain cohesive and egalitarian social relations? Such questions have been at the center of sociological inquiry since our discipline emerged in the midst of concerns about the loss of “community” as societies urbanized and industrialized in the nineteenth century.
Modern evolutionary theory and the cognate discipline of social neuroscience allow us to ground sociology’s answers to these key questions in the understanding that “human beings evolved in the company of others and flourish in proportion to their positive social ties.” Failure to recognize that social connection is a basic evolved human need can lead to damaging policies that diminish supportive human contact as well as to overlooked opportunities to improve human functioning by enhancing social ties. For example, research by Michael Behen and Harry Chugani identifies the extraordinary harm caused by the Ceauςescu regime’s loveless orphanages in Romania, while research by Matcheri Keshavan and Shaun Eack has affirmed the ability of socially oriented treatment to improve community functioning among persons diagnosed with schizophrenia. We can—and should—theorize about the importance of socialization and the process of making rational choices, but if we fail to take account of evolved human sociality and the requisites for effective group functioning, our explanations will be inadequate and our policy recommendations misguided.
In a prescient note in The Structure of Social Action, Talcott Parsons (1937, p. 84) questioned the assumption “that all biological elements in human behavior must necessarily be individualistic.” More than half a century later, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, and many psychologists and other social scientists have also rejected that assumption. It is time to turn away from the false antinomies that have divided sociology from biology in the past and instead help lead transdisciplinary investigations of the relation between individuals and their social environments. As Jonathan Turner (2014, p. 262) puts it in the conclusion to his most recent book on sociological theory, “rather than reject biologically oriented theorizing, sociologists should bend it to our purposes … and not make the same mistake as [we] did at the beginning of the twentieth century by throwing ‘the body out with the bathwater’.”
DSW: You have a lot of experience trying to communicate your vision to your colleagues; in addresses, review articles, and the formation of a new center at U. Mass-Boston, where I visited at your request as a consultant. Based on your experience, how successful have you been and what are some of the challenges that you have encountered?
RS: There is great interest among many sociologists in these new developments in evolutionary biology and related disciplines, particularly among those who study health and mental health, but still much resistance of the sort Jonathan Turner alluded to (above). The interdisciplinary seminar, Connecting the Social Brain to the Social World that Larry Seidman, PhD (neuropsychologist), Matcheri Keshavan, MD (psychiatrist), and I organized with funding from Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute was a great step forward in interdisciplinary collaboration that in turn led to our edited book on social neuroscience. I like to think that the National Institute of Mental Health recognized the importance of investigating the social environment when it funded the randomized trial of group and independent living for homeless persons with mental illness in which I participated as a co-investigator, and that in turn and in part led to the randomized trial of peer support for homeless veterans in which I am participating with Veterans Health Administration funding—although other efforts to extend this work have yet to bear funded fruit. My talks in recent years about the relevance of evolutionary biology for sociology on panels at American Sociological Association and International Sociological Association meetings seemed to be well received, but the audiences have been small and self-selected. Your own talk about evolutionary biology to my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Boston inspired many and helped to lay the foundation for an interdisciplinary program we anticipate in this area. The interdisciplinary faculty group that is working to develop a social and behavioral sciences research institute on our campus also includes key supporters of this direction. There remains much work to be done, but I am inspired by increasing recognition among sociologists with whom I speak that we cannot afford to remain outside of the conversation.
DSW: Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom. The insights that you have provided are important on their own and even more so as part of TVOL’s “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism” series.
RS: Thank you again for the opportunity to reflect on these issues and to advance this agenda.
Articles in this series:
Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism by David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson
The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words by David Sloan Wilson
Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality by Paul Crook
Social Darwinism: A Case of Designed Ventriloquism by Adriana Novoa
When the Strong Outbreed the Weak: An Interview with William Muir by David Sloan Wilson
Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No! by Robert J. Richards and David Sloan Wilson
Was Dewey a Darwinian? Yes! Yes! Yes! An interview with Trevor Pearce by David Sloan Wilson
Toward a New Social Darwinism by David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson
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