Evo devo sociology seeks to understand evolutionary and developmental interactions between biology and culture, in humans and all other intelligent animals. One working definition of social evolution can be any biocultural process that involves variation of inherited parameters, intelligent interaction, including competition and cooperation among newly diverse complex adaptive systems, and environmental selection for adaptation on those evolved forms. A working definition of social development can be any biocultural processes that appears to be tracing a statistically predictable life cycle. Life cycles in biology involve inheritance of metastable environmental and developmental parameters, and a set of predictable convergences on the path to future replication. 

These definitions can be summarized in the terms “Variation” (V) for evolutionary processes, “Convergence” (C) for developmental processes, and Replication, Inheritance, and Selection (RIS) for evo devo processes. Speaking generally, we can say that complex adaptive systems engage in a VCRIS (“vee-kriss”) life cycle, where the Variational component is evolutionary, contingent, adaptive, and often unpredictable, and the Convergence component is developmental, conservative, and potentially statistically predictable (Smart 2016, 2018).

In a world where we have few validated models of social change, seeking to understand evolutionary and developmental aspects of human and animal society is a speculative and tentative process today. Both our descriptive and computational skills often do not seem equal to the task. Unlike astrobiology, which is rapidly growing and aided by emerging observational capacities,  the field of astrosociology (Dick and Lupisella 2009), which would help us understand which aspects of culture and intelligence are developmental universals, and which aspects are evolutionary contingencies, is today quite small.

SusanBlackmoreMemeticsNevertheless, a vast variety of Earth’s species organize their existence in complex social systems, making sociology a promising interdisciplinary endeavor. Evo devo sociology includes anthropology, behavioral science, ethology, ecological psychology, psychological development, sociology, economics, and the emerging study of cultural evolution (words and ideas as replicators undergoing selection, Blackmore 2000). Both animal and human ideas can be usefully divided into those that are contingent, locally adaptive, and largely unpredictable, and others (like science, or democracy) that appear predictable and globally adaptive, even optimal for certain levels of environmental complexity.

Since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, ambitious scholars have tried to extend evolutionary thinking to include human culture and its higher features, including our values and spirituality. A recent overview of these “evolutionaries” (Phipps 2012) outlines twelve such schools, and some of their current and historical proponents:

   Evolution-Weighted Schools:

  1. The Neo-Darwinists (Dawkins, Gould, Dennett, E.O. Wilson)
  2. The Complexity Theorists (Goodwin, Kaufman, Laszlo)

   Development-Weighted Schools:

  1. The Collectivists (Bloom, Corning, Margulis, Sloan Wilson)
  2. The Directionalists (Conway Morris, Gardner, Wright)
  3. The Progressive Darwinists (Carroll, Jablonka, Lamb)
  4. The Transhumanists (Ettinger, Gibson, Kurzweil)

   Speculative Philosophy and Religious Schools:

  1. The Process Philosophers (Whitehead, Hartshorne, Griffin)
  2. The Conscious Evolutionists (Teilhard de Chardin, Dowd, Marx Hubbard)
  3. The Intelligent Designers (Behe, Dembski, Johnson)
  4. The Theistic Evolutionists (Miller, Peacocke, Polkinghorne)
  5. The Esoteric Evolutionists (Blavatsky, Steiner, C. Wilson, Tarnas)
  6. The Integralists (Aurobindo, Gebser, Wilber, Combs)
Jan Visser

Jan Visser

As EDU scholar Jan Visser notes, only the first six of these schools can today be considered scientific. The second six are typically either prescientific speculative philosophy or religion. Process philosophy occasionally offers testable scientific ideas, but is mostly prescientific. Conscious evolution might become scientific once we have accepted theories of consciousness, but today it is largely poor-quality speculative philosophy. We do not discuss intelligent design, theistic evolution, or esoteric evolution at EDU, as each are religiously motivated (or in the esoteric’s case, spiritually motivated), and none are accepted as science. The integral school, which is also required to address spiritual topics at a time when we have few to no scientific approaches to them, is also outside our community’s domain.

Again, as Visser says, scientific evo devo models of culture and technology span the first six schools above. They seek to reconcile neo-Darwinist and complexity theory views, which model biocultural change from a mostly contingent, evolutionary perspective, with the four development-weighted schools, collectivism (understanding emerging morality and social cooperation), directional features of evolution, progressive features (a stronger claim than directionalism) and the transhumanists, who seek to understand accelerating change and human-technology coevolution.

Evolutionary processes in human culture might include any that create new variety or contingency in imagination, association, relation, cause, trend or model, and any processes that increase combinatorials among ideas or algorithms. Developmental processes involve the discovery of hidden dependencies, constraints, laws, convergences, or optima. Better understanding of various forms of social development can help us see the boundaries of the more creative and unpredictable processes of social evolution.

Morris 2014

Developmental sociology might begin with biologically-based concepts like developmental genetics and developmental psychology, but it also includes social psychology and niche construction (stigmergy), and predictable features of adaptive economies and civilization (Elias 2000; Wright 2001; Pinker 2011; Bernstein 2010; Morris 2014).  It includes any examples of cultural convergent evolution, such as the the independent development of universal moral codes and forms of cooperativity (Corning 2005; Bowles and Gintis 2013), and structural or functional convergence within phylogenetically diverse organisms on earth, as in super-organisms like ants (Holldobler and Wilson 2008), termites, and human beings.  

As mentioned, evo devo sociology also allows for evidence-based philosophical speculations on the general nature of complex social systems in the universe at large (astrosociology). Science currently has no empirical understanding of non-Earth life, and scant empirical understanding of complex social processes in multicellular organisms, but that is precisely why a more evo devo philosophy of sociology can be of value. Useful speculations can include attempting to better understand the nature of language or symbolic activity as itself a constitutive developmental process of large-brained multicellular organisms (Deacon 2011), and large-scale evolutionary and developmental patterns of social interaction.  

On close analysis, oral and written language, human symbols, algorithms, and technology can be considered partly biological and partly “postbiological” (Dick and Lupisella 2009). Human tool use can be analyzed as a case of niche construction, but one that deserves separate treatment from other species uses of technology, like a spider’s web, a termite’s mound, or a beaver’s dam, due to its rapidly improving nature in human society. We consider that topic, evo devo technology, as the fourth theme of the EDU blog and community.

Selected References