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Neoevolutionism is a social theory that tried to explain the evolution of societies by drawing on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and discarding some dogmas of the previous social evolutionism. Neoevolutionism is concerned with long-term, directional, evolutionary social change and with the regular patterns of development that may be seen in unrelated, widely separated cultures.
Neoevolutionism emerged in the 1930s, extensively developed in the period after the Second World War, and incorporated into anthropology as well as sociology in 1960s. It bases its theories on the empirical evidence from fields such as archeology, paleontology and historiography and tries to eliminate any references to a system of values, be it moral or cultural, instead trying to remain objective and simply descriptive.
While the 19th century evolutionism explained how culture develops by giving general principles of its evolutionary process, it was dismissed by the Historical Particularists as unscientific in the early 20th century. It was the neoevolutionary thinkers who brought back evolutionary thought and developed it to be acceptable to contemporary anthropology.
The neoevolutionism discards many ideas of classical social evolutionism, namely that of social progress, so dominant in previous sociology evolution-related theories. Then neoevolutionism discards the determinism argument and introduces probability, arguing that accidents and free will have much impact on the process of social evolution. It also supports the counterfactual history - asking 'what if' and considering different possible paths that social evolution may (or might have) taken, and thus allows for the fact that various cultures may develop in different ways, some skipping entire stages others have passed through. The neoevolutionism stresses the importance of empirical evidence. While 19th century evolutionism used value judgment and assumptions for interpreting data, the neoevolutionism relied on measurable information for analyzing the process of cultural evolution.
Neoevolutionism important thinkers include:
- Ferdinand Tönnies. While not strictly a neoevolutionist himself, Tönnies' work is often viewed as the foundation of neo-evolutionism. He was one of the first sociologists to claim that the evolution of society is not necessarily going in the right direction, that the social progress is not perfect, it can even be called a regress as the newer, more evolved societies are obtained only after paying a high costs, resulting in decreasing satisfaction of individuals making up that society.
- Leslie A. White (1900-1975), author of The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome (1959). Publication of this book rekindled interest in the evolutionism among sociologists and anthropologists. White attempted to create a theory explaining the entire history of humanity. The most important factor in his theory is technology: Social systems are determined by technological systems, wrote White in his book, echoing the earlier theory of Lewis Henry Morgan. As a measure of society advancement he proposed the measure energy consumption of given society (thus his theory is known as the energy theory of cultural evolution). He differentiates between five stages of human development. In the first, people use energy of their own muscles. In the second, they use energy of domesticated animals. In the third, they use the energy of plants (so White refers to agricultural revolution here). In the fourth, they learn to use the energy of natural resources: coal, oil, gas. In the fifth, they harness the nuclear energy. White introduced a formula P=E*T, where E is a measure of energy consumed, and T is the measure of efficiency of technical factors utilising the energy. This theory is similar to the later theory of Kardashev scale of Russian astronom, Nikolai Kardashev.
- Julian Steward, author of Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution (1955, reprinted 1979), created the theory of "multilinear" evolution which examined the way in which societies adapted to their environment. This approach was more nuanced than White's theory of "unilinear evolution." He questioned the possibility of creation of a social theory encompassing the entire evolution of humanity, however he argued that anthropologists are not limited to descriptions of specific, existing cultures. He believed it is possible to create theories analysing typical, common culture, representative of specific eras or regions. As the decisive factors determining the development of given culture he pointed to technology and economics, and noted there are secondary factors, like political systems, ideologies and religion. All those factors push the evolution of a given society in several directions at the same time, thus this is the multilinearity of his theory of evolution.
- Marshall Sahlins, author of Evolution and Culture (1960). He divided the evolution of societies into 'general' and 'specific'. General evolution is the tendency of cultural and social systems to increase in complexity, organisation and adaptiveness to their environment. However, as the various cultures are not isolated, there is interaction and a diffusion of their qualities. This leads cultures to deviate from the general evolution and develop in their specific, unique ways (specific evolution).
- Gerhard Lenski. In his Power and Prestige (1966) and Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology (1974) he expands on the works of Leslie White and Lewis Henry Morgan. He views the technological progress as the most basic factor in the evolution of societies and cultures. Unlike White, who defined technology as the ability to create and utilise energy, Lenski focuses on information - it's amount and uses. The more information and knowledge (especially allowing the shaping of natural environment) given society has, the more advanced it is. He distinguished four stages of human development, based on the advances in the history of communication. In the first stage, information is passed by genes. In the second, when humans gain sentience, they can learn and pass information through by experience. In the third, the humans start using signs and develop logic. In the fourth, they can create symbols, develop language and writing. Advancements in the technology of communication translate into advancements in the economic system and political system, distribution of goods, social inequality and other spheres of social life. He also differentiates societies based on their level of technology, communication and economy: 1) hunters and gatherers, 2) simple agricultural, 3) advanced agricultural, 4) industrial 5) special (like fishing societies).
- Talcott Parsons, author of Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966) and The System of Modern Societies (1971) divided evolution into four subprocesses: 1) division, which creates functional subsystems from the main system. 2) adaptation, where those systems evolve into more efficient versions, 3) inclusion of elements previously excluded from the given systems and 4) generalization of values, increasing the legitimization of the ever more complex system. He shows those processes on 3 stages of evolution: 1) primitive, 2) archaic and 3) modern. Archaic societies have the knowledge of writing, while modern have the knowledge of law. Parsons viewed the Western civilisation as the pinnacle of modern societies, and out of all western cultures he declared the United States as the most dynamic developed.
- Thomas G. Harding
- Elman R. Service
- W.F. Wertheim
- Patrick Nolan
- S.N. Eisenstadt
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