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date: 20 October 2020

Introduction: Evolution, Biology, and Society

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an overview of The Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, and Society. Chapters in the first part of this book address the history of the use of method and theory from biology in the social sciences; the second part includes chapters on evolutionary approaches to social psychology; the third part includes chapters describing research on the interaction of genes (and other biochemicals such as hormones) and environmental contexts on a variety of outcomes of sociological interest; and the fourth part includes chapters that apply evolutionary theory to areas of traditional concern to sociologists—including the family, fertility, sex and gender, religion, crime, and race and ethnic relations. The last part of the book presents two chapters on cultural evolution.

Keywords: evolution, evolutionary sociology, biosociology, evolutionary social psychology, biosocial processes, sociology

What is evolution, biology, and society? First, it is a catch-all phrase encompassing any scholarly work that utilizes evolutionary theory and/or biological or behavioral genetic methods in the study of the human social group. Second, it is the name of a section of the American Sociological Association, formed in 2005, that is home to scholars who do this kind of work within sociology. The primary purpose of this volume is to showcase this body of work for sociologists who may be interested in the field but who may know little about it. The book contains an overview of the different types of research currently being done by sociologists and other social scientists in the area, as well as the methodologies employed by them. The book examines a wide variety of issues of interest to most sociologists, including the origins of social solidarity; religious beliefs; sex differences; gender inequality; the determinants of human happiness; the nature of social stratification and inequality and its effects; identity, status, and other group processes; race, ethnicity and race discrimination; fertility and family processes; crime and deviance; and cultural and social change. As an introduction to the field, it would also be of use to teaching upper level or graduate students in sociology or a related social science.

The scholars whose work is presented in this volume come from a variety of disciplines in addition to sociology and include psychologists, political scientists, and criminologists. In many ways, sociologists are late to the table in the business of using theory and methods from biology, the reasons for which are discussed in some of the chapters in this volume. Yet as the essays in this volume demonstrate, the potential of theory and methods from biology for illuminating social phenomena is apparent, and sociologists stand to gain from learning more about them and using them in their own work. The theory is of course the theory of evolution by natural selection, the primary paradigm of (p. 4) the biological sciences, whereas the methods include the statistical analyses with which sociologists are familiar, as well as other methods with which they may not be familiar, such as behavioral genetic methods, methods for including genetic factors in statistical analyses, gene-wide association studies, candidate gene studies, and methods for testing levels of hormones and other biochemicals in blood and saliva and including these factors in analyses.

The book is organized as follows. The first part discusses the history of the use of method and theory from biology in the social sciences and its often unfortunate results. In Chapter 2, Richard Machalek describes the different ways that sociologists and evolutionary biologists answer the following questions: Why do societies exist? And How do individuals become social? He particularly notes that sociologists rarely consider the fitness consequences of any behavior, whereas evolutionary biologists always do so. Sociologists focus on the proximate explanations for social behavior (the mechanism by which something happens) rather than the ultimate explanations (why a predisposition for a social behavior likely evolved). He further notes that sociologists do not consider that individuals are predisposed to any behaviors other than a few in-born reflexes but, rather, assume individuals are capable of learning an infinite range of behaviors. Evolutionary biologists consider rather that humans, like all species, have a set of species-specific evolved predispositions that bias learning in certain ways. Machalek also discusses whether evolutionary biology is on the verge of consilience with sociology. He discusses signs of the incorporation of methods and theories from evolutionary biology into sociology, and he notes how both disciplines can benefit from this cross-fertilization.

In Chapter 3, Douglas A. Marshall notes how the initial founders of the discipline of sociology, including Durkheim, were accepting of a role for a human nature based on a universal biology in the new discipline of sociology. However, the use of impoverished versions of “evolutionary” theory to fuel ideological causes—Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, and Hitler’s (and others’) subsequent adoption of these ideas—meant that the use of biology in sociology fell radically out of favor by the middle of the 20th century. Marshall notes that the distaste for any use of biology or biological theory within sociology continues to this day. Yet he argues that sociology will never be able to fully explain human social behavior and the social forces, institutions, and structures that shape it without understanding the evolved human organism with its biologically imposed capacities, limitations, and imperatives. He, as does Machalek, notes there are signs of a possible consilience between sociology and evolutionary biology.

With regard to the history of the use of biology in the social sciences, Stephen K. Sanderson’s essay on Edward Westermarck is the story of the road not taken by sociology. Unlike his better known contemporaries Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer, Westermarck utilized the idea of an evolved human actor in his examination of sociological topics, including marriage and the family and human morality. Yet for political and other reasons, including popular support for the ideas of Herbert Spencer, the work of this great Finnish sociologist is today largely unknown outside of Finland. As a result, (p. 5) except for the Westermarck hypothesis—the hypothesis that individuals who spend their early years together as children do not tend to find each other sexually attractive as adults—Westermarck’s contributions have largely been forgotten. Sanderson suggests that as new interest has emerged in evolutionary ideas and their application within the social sciences, Westermarck should be restored as one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Part II of this handbook examines work using evolutionary approaches to social psychology, the area of sociology that focuses on the individual and the small group. In Chapter 5, Jonathan H. Turner outlines his theory of how Homo sapiens evolved to become the most social of the great apes, a long-standing question in evolutionary biology. He notes that most apes are relatively solitary with the exception of mother–child pairs, and they are absent even a pair bond between males and females. He relies on cladistic analysis of primates to show that the last common ancestor of humans and apes was most likely a relatively solitary primate. So how did humans become social enough to create complex societies and cultures? Turner argues that in humans, unlike other apes, expansion of the emotion centers in the brain made possible greater in-group solidarity, increased group sizes, and greater intelligence, in turn making the development of large, complex, human societies possible.

In Chapter 6, Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner follow up from the previous chapter to give an evolutionary theory for the origin of religiosity and religious beliefs, which are universal across human societies. They suggest that early hominoids’ expanded emotional capacity, increased intelligence, and capacity for language were the cognitive basis on which religiosity could build. Religion is of course an important buttress of social solidarity in populations worldwide. They note that this argument cannot explain why or how religion became institutionalized in the first human societies, and a full story of human religion and religiosity requires an examination of the development of religion within specific sociocultural systems. In Chapter 7, Michael Hammond details how evolved characteristics of the human brain are not only the basis of religion but also can account for the human liking for transient novelty and the human attraction to status distinctions. He suggests that the transient novelty that modern capitalist societies can generate may have a much deeper and lasting appeal than postmodern critics suggest.

As Turner and Maryanski note, the evolution of human cognitive abilities was a major factor differentiating humans from all other primate species. Although human brains are all more alike than they are different, in Chapter 8 David D. Franks reviews sex differences in the brain that are likely a result of the different biological roles of males and females in the process at the heart of biological evolution: reproduction. Franks notes that there are consistent average sex differences in the brain that likely have implications for the social behavior of men and women. Debate rages about how much of these sex differences in the brain are due to socialization and how much to biology—although Franks notes that both socialization and biology play a role.

Since Durkheim’s landmark book, Suicide, sociologists have been interested in what helps account for differences in levels of human happiness and misery across and within (p. 6) human societies. In Chapter 9, Satoshi Kanazawa and Norman P. Li present the savanna theory of happiness. They theorize that if individuals have evolved psychological mechanisms that predispose them to certain preferences and behaviors, such as preferences for ethnically homogeneous settings, lower population densities, and social interactions with friends, circumstances in the contemporary world that help them meet those preferences and/or promote those behaviors are likely to make individuals happier. They further predict that more intelligent individuals, who are presumably better able to comprehend and deal with the evolutionary novel circumstances of modern societies, will be better able to deal with situations that do not correspond to those evolved preferences for ethnic homogeneity, low population density, and social interactions with friends and therefore will be made less unhappy by such situations compared to less intelligent people. They test their predictions using US data from the Add Health survey (in which the average age of respondents is 22 years) on the effects of the ethnic composition of environment, population density, and socializing with friends on individual life satisfaction. As predicted, the negative effects on happiness of ethnic heterogeneity, high population density, and less socializing with friends are weaker among more intelligent individuals than among less intelligent individuals.

The mechanisms by which small groups operate and the forces that keep them together and split them apart are studied by group processes researchers within sociology. In Chapter 10, Joseph M. Whitmeyer discusses how research in the areas of social exchange, identity, and status processes could benefit from incorporating insights about individuals from evolutionary theory. He notes that evolutionary psychological reasoning suggests that we likely have evolved predispositions that facilitate exchange processes in the small group and that help ensure that public goods are provided for the group because these things would have been beneficial for individuals and their genetic relatives in the evolutionary environment. In particular, Whitmeyer suggests we have evolved traits that promote reciprocal and general exchange in the small group, including emotional responses to being rewarded or punished, sensitivity to unfairness, and attention to reputation. He provides a list of predictions for research on exchange processes implied by this reasoning. He notes identity processes motivate behaviors that indicate to others that the person is a reliable exchange partner and are thus ways of facilitating exchange within the group. Given the advantages of exchange within the group for individuals over evolutionary time, he suggests we also have evolved predispositions regarding individual identity processes. Based on this reasoning he provides another list of predictions for research on identity processes. Last, he notes that we likely have predispositions regarding status processes and the awarding of status within the group. It is likely that we evolved the predisposition to grant status to individuals who solved nonrival public goods problems for our group because this helped ensure that those problems would be solved to our and our relatives’ benefit. This reasoning implies another list of predictions for research on status processes, including the prediction that the conferral of status is always accompanied by performance expectations.

The third part of the handbook examines research on the interaction of genes (and other biochemicals such as hormones) and environmental contexts on a variety of (p. 7) outcomes of sociological interest, including political behavior, status attainment, and individual responses to social stress. This area of research is often referred to as “biosociology.”

In introducing studies examining genetic influences on social behavior, in Chapter 11, Colter Mitchell gives an overview of the methods and measures used to find the genetic correlates of social behaviors in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and some of the findings of these GWAS with regard to health behaviors and social, economic, and political behaviors. Genetic correlates have been found that predict smoking behavior, alcohol use and dependence, risk-taking, impulsivity, aggression, educational attainment, intelligence, and political preferences. He also describes the limitations of this research and its promise for the future. In Chapter 12, Rose McDermott and Peter K. Hatemi explode the myth that biosocial explanations are somehow deterministic, and they use case studies of a variety of very different individuals to show how the same genetic endowment can result in very different consequences for different people depending on their social context and other environmental factors.

In Chapter 13, Kevin M. Beaver et al. review the research examining the genetic and genomic foundations of aggression, violence, and antisocial behavior. Again, the evidence indicates that genetic propensities interact with the environment of the individual to promote or inhibit antisocial behavior. They note the finding that antisocial behavior has a genetic component is not a cause for pessimism because findings on the interaction between genes and environment may be used to help design better interventions due to the fact that they demonstrate which environments promote prosocial behavior among individuals with genes for the opposite.

Chapter 14, by Adam Lockyer and Peter K. Hatemi, provides an overview of research on genetic influences on political behavior, including research using evolutionary theory, behavioral genetics research, GWAS, and candidate gene research. These authors note that this research can be grouped into answering why, what, and how questions about political behavior: Why do people have the political leanings they do? How much of the cause of political behavior is genetic? and What genes predispose individuals to what kinds of political behavior?

In Chapter 15, François Nielsen notes how there is evidence that genetic endowments influence status attainment outcomes such as educational and occupational attainment. For those who fear that any inheritance of traits such as cognitive ability will promote a rigidly stratified society, as the elite bequeaths its abilities to its offspring so those offspring in turn become the new elite, he notes that this does not necessarily follow. Genetic endowments differ from generation to generation, and on any trait there is typically regression to the mean from one generation to the next. This process prevents an elite from being formed and maintained across generations. He argues that incorporating individual genetic endowments into standard models of status attainment allows for better understanding and measurement of mobility and opportunity in a given society.

In Chapter 16, Olga Kornienko and Douglas A. Granger advocate investigating the relationship between social network characteristics and stress on individuals and its implications for physical and mental health. They note that most previous research has (p. 8) examined only ego-centered personal network data on individual stress responses and not how the entire network and its dynamics affect the individual. There are reasons to believe that the ego-centered approach may not always lead to a full understanding of the effects of social position on social stress, and an understanding of the characteristics of the entire social network in which an individual is embedded can better illuminate the causes of social stress.

In Chapter 17, Jeff Davis and Kristen Damron describe human and animal research on evolved stress responses in individuals and how environmental stresses can have long-term influences on the individual and affect that person’s behavior for years after the experiences are over. They present a model of stress hormone actions and how they fluctuate depending on the agent’s ability to maintain adaptive predictive control in his or her relationship with the environment.

In Chapter 18, Daniel E. Adkins, Kelli M. Rasmussen, and Anna R. Docherty further discuss the epigenetic mechanisms by which adversity “gets under the skin.” These mechanisms modify gene activity with long-term consequences for the individual’s health and behavior. They note how these mechanisms can help account for the long-term adverse effects of events such as prenatal deprivation, childhood trauma, and addiction. They argue that sociological theories and models of outcomes such as poor mental health and health disparities between groups should incorporate these findings and include biosocial factors to create complete explanations for these outcomes.

Small group researchers have long been interested in how status is allocated in the small group. In the last chapter in Part III on biosociology, Chapter 19, Allan Mazur describes the physiology of competition for status in the small group. He shows how individual hormone profiles change in response to competition and to winning and losing such competitions, and he discusses the consequences of these hormonal changes on consequent social interaction and status allocation processes.

Part IV of the handbook provides an overview of research that applies evolutionary theory to other traditional concerns of sociologists, including study of the family, fertility, sex and gender, religion, crime, and race and ethnic relations. Evolutionary theory is based on the concept of an evolved actor—that the individuals who make up sociological groups and societies are a product of evolution by natural selection and have evolved physical and psychological predispositions that interact with the totality of the individuals’ environment, including its culture, in shaping behavior. Evolved predispositions include predispositions toward behaviors highly relevant to sociology, including sexual behavior and partner preferences, behaviors that favor kin (especially close kin), and status-seeking behavior.

In Chapter 20, Timothy Crippen describes the essentials of the evolutionary approach and many of the misunderstandings sociologists have of evolutionary theory, including unwarranted fears of biological determinism and reductionism. Crippen notes that evolutionary theory is a theory of how individual organisms, not groups, evolve and thus has implications for individual behavior only. The dynamics of the group, and the interaction of the individual’s characteristics with the characteristics of (p. 9) the group, remain as the sociological domain of study. Crippen also highlights what he describes as the troubling resurrection of group selectionist ideas among evolutionists. Group selection is the idea in evolutionary biology that the unit of selection in the evolutionary process is not the gene or the individual but, rather, the entire group. That is, individuals have characteristics that were selected for over the course of evolution not because they helped each individual and his or her genes survive and reproduce but, rather, because they helped the group of which each individual is a member (e.g., the species) survive and reproduce. A common misunderstanding of evolutionary theory held by sociologists is that it necessarily implies group selectionism, and so individual traits are present because in the evolutionary past they helped the “species” or the “group” survive. Although the majority of biologists reject group selectionism as a major force in biological evolution, recently it has witnessed something of a revival. Crippen notes it was erroneous ideas of group selection—that some groups are successful because they have emerged from this process of group selection and are somehow fitter or better adapted than other groups—that was behind the abuses of biology in social Darwinism.

Evolutionary theory has as its heart differential reproduction and survival of individuals and their genes, and so it is not surprising that it is relevant to the study of the reproductive unit among humans—the family. In Chapter 21, Anna Rotkirch describes research in the field of evolutionary family sociology. She presents the evolutionary approach to the family, particularly how genetic relationship shapes the pattern of family ties. She notes that evolutionary approaches are complementary to traditional sociological approaches that do not refer to evolutionary theory at all. She then examines two broad areas of research within the area of evolutionary family sociology: (a) research on parenting, mating, and family systems; and (b) research focusing on grandparenting, particularly intergenerational transfers and proximity to offspring. Like many of the research areas described in this volume, this is an area in its infancy and many important questions have yet to be addressed.

In Chapter 22, Martin Fieder and Susanne Huber provide an overview of studies in the area of evolution and reproduction. They examine the relationship between sex, status, income, wealth, and fertility in contemporary societies; the relationship between genetic, educational, and religious homogamy and fertility; the relationship between father’s age and genetic mutations in offspring; and the role of early life factors and epigenetics in fertility. They note that evolutionary theory can explain many of these associations. They also raise the intriguing idea that many behaviors, such as educational and religious homogamy and the pursuit of status by men, likely continue to be adaptive in terms of increasing individual genetic fitness even in contemporary, modern environments.

Again, the different biological roles of males and females in reproduction, a process at the heart of evolution, have implications for sex differences in behaviors particularly with regard to reproduction and parenting. In Chapter 23, Lee Ellis reviews the considerable evidence of universal average cognitive and behavioral differences between the sexes. He examines evolutionary and sex role explanations for these differences, and he (p. 10) introduces a new theoretical explanation he calls evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory, which stipulates that androgens have evolved as the main biochemicals responsible for masculinizing/defeminizing the brain of an otherwise female mammal. Ellis notes that sex role explanations of sex differences have difficulty accounting for the fact that many cognitive and behavioral differences between men and women are wider in societies that are more gender equitable. He suggests this is also a conundrum for evolutionary theories, including his own, possibly because more egalitarian societies that give individuals more freedom to express themselves actually promote the expression of sex-typed behaviors. He also suggests the intriguing possibility that freedom in choosing marriage partners in more egalitarian societies may actually promote the expression of genes for particular sex-typed behaviors.

In Chapter 24, Anthony Walsh and Cody Jorgensen argue that evolutionary psychology or evolutionary theory applied to understanding psychology can organize the theories and findings of criminology and hence unify a fragmentary field. They note that evolutionary psychology can help explain why some people victimize others while simultaneously explaining why most of us do not. They also argue that it can therefore reconcile the tension between the two major criminological traditions whose assumptions about criminal behavior are radically at odds—social learning theory (which assumes that most people are law abiding until taught otherwise) and social control theory (which assumes the reverse). Evolutionary theory suggests that all individuals have the potential to commit crime to a greater or lesser extent, and therefore crime is likely when circumstances favorable to criminal activity, such as a breakdown in social cohesion and order, occur.

Frank Salter, in Chapter 25, reviews literature from ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and sociology on the biosocial study of ethnicity. He defines an “ethny” as a population with a collective proper name, a common myth of descent, a shared history, a distinctive shared culture, a connection to a known territory, and some degree of solidarity. He defines ethnicity as behavior contingent on membership of such a population. He notes that biology is a likely factor in any social phenomenon affected by descent, and he presents evolutionary explanations of ethnicity that rely on both individual and group selection arguments. He further notes that there are likely fitness benefits of pro-ethnic behavior because members of the same ethnic group likely share more genes than do members of different ethnic groups. Last, he argues that the full incorporation of insights from the biosocial literature would be advantageous for the study of race and ethnicity.

In Chapter 26, Kristin Liv Rauch and Rosemary L. Hopcroft present a sociosexual theory of racial discrimination, building on the subordinate male target hypothesis of Sidanius and co-authors. Sidanius and colleagues note that sexually selected predispositions for the targeting of out-group males (more so than out-group females) are likely to have evolved and continue to operate. This is because out-group males are competitors for mates, whereas out-group females are possible mates. However, Rauch and Hopcroft go beyond this work by noting that dominant group members often form coalitions to target out-group males and enlist support from cultural scripts and/or unconscious (p. 11) biases. The result of such targeting continues to have fitness consequences for dominant group males at the expense of subordinate group males in that it enhances mating opportunities for dominant group males and diminishes them for subordinate group males.

The last part of the book presents two chapters on cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is unlike biological evolution in that cultural evolution does not depend on the competition between living organisms for survival and reproduction because cultures and cultural products are not living organisms. Nevertheless, cultural evolution may be considered analogous to biological evolution in some respects (see Chapter 28, this volume). Furthermore, in sociology, comparative–historical cultural evolutionists such as Gerhard Lenski and Stephen K. Sanderson have long argued that it is necessary to have a conception of a universal evolved actor in the comparative study of societies, given that there are patterned universals across human societies and social factors that differ in predicable ways given different ecological and technological constraints.

In Chapter 27 on comparative–historical religious change, Stephen K. Sanderson presents a new theory for the rise of the religions of the “Axial age” from approximately 600 bce to 1 ce (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism). Sanderson reviews cognitive and evolutionary psychological theories of religiosity, which he groups into by-product theories (religiosity exists because it uses parts of the brain evolved for other purposes) and adaptationist theories (religiosity exists because it was adaptive in its own right). He takes an adaptationist view of religion—that is, he argues that religiosity is an evolved, universal human trait that likely evolved because of the adaptive advantages it gave to individuals. This meshes with his theory of the rise of the religions of the axial age because he argues that these new religions helped individuals deal with the insecurities and problems they were facing due to increases in urbanization and warfare at the time. He notes that the gods of these new religions, unlike the pagan gods, were transcendent or above the world and could help provide comfort to those who were suffering. This can account for the increasing abandonment of pagan religions and rise of the new Axial religions.

In Chapter 28, Marion Blute and Fiona M. Jordan provide an overview of scholarly work that uses phylogenetic methods from evolutionary biology to examine sociocultural evolution through history. They discuss evolutionary tree-building and phylogenetic comparative methods and how they can be used to answer a variety of questions about the evolution of languages, as well as the evolution of social, political, cultural, and economic organizations and artifacts. These methods can be used to answer questions such as the following: Where and when did a language originate? How fast is a language changing? What was the ancestral state of a particular sociocultural feature? How do sociocultural traits change together? and Is there a trend in the direction in which traits change?

The research discussed in this volume does not include all the ongoing research in the area of evolution, biology, and society nor all the topics covered by this research. It is hoped that the discussed research is enough to give a newcomer to the area an idea of (p. 12) what kinds of work is being done and to demonstrate the promise of this line of research for sociology. As many of these chapters argue, considering evolved, biological factors and including them in sociological theories and empirical research has the potential to both unify the discipline and help us create better explanations and achieve better understanding of social phenomena, a point I return to in Chapter 29.