Philosophy of Evolution: Society

The State of the Question



Regarding social evolution continuing today, the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome has a philosophy faculty that currently does not directly consider this issue. Calcagno, in 1952, treated the issue indirectly in a footnote, where he rejected the evolution of civil society ("societates civiles evolvuntur...strictam et rigorosam... Nego").1 However, all indications are clear that the continuing social evolution of man, strictly speaking, would not be an acceptable point of view for a number of reasons.

First, La Vecchia views the process of hominisation to be "definitively completed" with the infusion of the soul immediately created by God.2 Therefore, there will be no more process of hominisation in terms of biological evolution. Future cultural transformation appears to be outside the scope of the book of La Vecchia and it not treated.

Second, La Vecchia endorses "free will" in her presentation, which would seem to exclude any continuing evolutionary sociology.3 Man is now free to chose his own way, instead of evolving by chance through natural selection. In fact, man is so free that he can not only know his mistakes, but he can correct them.4

Third, La Vecchia emphasizes that the complex phenomenon of language is especially significant because language illustrates the undeniable difference between man and all the other animals.5 With language man can plan for the future and culturally determine his world, not be determined by his environment.6

Social biology, or sociobiology, is the understanding of social behavior, especially human social behavior, from a biological perspective. It is often connected with political philosophy of social Darwinism. Sociobiologists attempt to explain patterns of interaction in group-living organisms ranging from ants to human beings within the categories established by Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the more modern mathematical theory of genetics. The particular object of study includes behavior involved in herding, co-operation, aggression, altruism, and mate selection.7

Historically, sociobiology was preceded by Social Darwinism. This was a diverse collection of doctrines in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that interpreted various social phenomena in the light of what was assumed to be Darwinian evolutionary theory. Actually, this doctrine owed more to Herbert Spencer than to Charles Darwin. One very influential form viewed society and the economy as a competitive arena in which the fittest would rise to the top.8

Charles Darwin, in Origin of Species, had shown the significance of social behavior in organic evolution. Then William Hamilton, an English biologist, in 1964, showed how such behavior could evolve. Hamilton maintained that "kin selection" was an aid to the biological well-being of relatives. Since then, other models of explanation have extended the theory to non-relatives. One theory is the self-describing "reciprocal altruism." In 1975, Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology: A New Synthesis in which he suggested that Western social systems are biologically innate.9 He concluded that in some respects males are stronger, more aggressive, and more naturally promiscuous than females. Subsequently, Wilson was accused of sexism and racism.10 Evolution began to have implications for the function of the mind itself, in that evolution does not care about truth, but rather success. Karl Popper, following Konrad Lorenz, argues from the biological world to the cultural world that ideas have to struggle for survival.11 H. V. Quine argues that human thought is molded by evolutionary selection, so that causes and prediction have no other justification but survival.

Social Darwinism was concerned that social reform to help the least well-off in society would lessen the effect of natural selection.12 This would promote the degeneration of the species. This was a concern of Sir Julian Huxley at the CIBC Foundation 1963 International Conference at the house of the Foundation, Portland Place, London. Sir Julian Huxley wrote, "The improvement of human genetic quality by eugenic methods would take a great load of suffering and frustration of the shoulders of evolving humanity, and would much increase both enjoyment and efficiency."13

Sociobiology is often criticized on the grounds that its explanatory hypotheses are not easily verified, or that these hypotheses contain assumptions that are conventional, unexamined or impossible. For example, some assumptions are just the natural patterns of behavior of human beings.14

Another criticism of Sociobiology arises from the inclination of social scientists to offer functional explanations of social phenomena. A functional explanation of a social feature is defined as some factor that explains the presence and persistence of the feature in terms of the beneficial consequences the feature has for the ongoing working of the social system as a whole. This type of explanation is one that is based on an analogy between biology and sociology. Biologists explain species traits in terms of reproductive fitness. Social scientists are at times inclined to explain social traits in terms of "social" fitness. However, the analogy is misleading because the biological mechanism is not present at all in the social realm. By natural selection, the species obtains traits that are locally optimal. There is no analogous mechanism at work in the social realm. Many working-class people who might otherwise be social activists go to taverns, but taverns should not be explained in terms of social stability. Therefore, functional explanations of social phenomena must be buttressed by the specific causes behind postulated relationships.15

Author:  John Edward Mulvihill, S.T.D., D.Min., Ph.D.
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