Stephen K. Sanderson: On Evolutionary Materialism

Cultural materialism (CM), Sanderson claims,
is well suited to explaining sociocultural conditions and changes in pre-modern societies
such as the domestication of plants and animals, the development of chiefdoms and the state,
social inequality, and the rise of stratification. But CM does not do well when dealing with
advanced agrarian societies, the transition to modernity, or with modern capitalist-industrial
societies themselves (1999, 1). Harris’s CM, according to Sanderson, has not
developed concepts or posited relationships that allow for a full examination of inequality
within and between modern nation-states, and has not adequately developed a vocabulary
or strategy for dealing with such phenomena as corporate capitalism, modern war, or the
influence of mass media on political behavior. Starting from a foundation of Harris’s cultural
materialism, Sanderson’s intent is to develop a theory that is more capable of dealing with
the origin, maintenance, and evolution of the entire range of human societies—from
hunting and gathering through horticultural, agrarian, and modern industrial societies. As the name implies, evolutionary materialism
is primarily focused on the process of social evolution. Rather than view history (or pre-history)
as a series of unique and non-recurrent events, social evolutionists see “general and repeatable
patterns” of social evolution. These patterns are produced by the cumulated
interactions of the sociocultural system with its natural and social environments; these
interactions cause societies to change in broadly similar ways. Thus the domestication of plants and animals
occurred in several isolated societies around the globe without the benefit of cultural
contact with one another. Cultural contact, however, is part of the social environment
of almost all societies, and such contact is often the stimulus in causing evolutionary
change. The vast majority of societies domesticated plants and animals because of contact with
those who had already gone through the process. It is not the case, Sanderson reminds us,
that all elements of sociocultural systems are in constant state of change. Social stability
(or “stasis”) is also very much a part of social evolution. Social stability refers
to the long-term preservation or maintenance of social institutions, behavioral patterns,
and belief systems. Many sociocultural systems are remarkable for their unchanging nature
(1999, 133). The ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and
Indus peoples, for example, created extremely stable civilizations that lasted for thousands
of years. But one does not have to look to pre-history alone for examples of social stability.
In general, pre-modern societies also have elements that remained unchanging for centuries.
Horticulture, for example, was the primary means of subsistence for thousands of years
with little innovation over the generations (McNeill1993, 27-55). The same may be said
for various agrarian civilizations throughout the world. Extinction is the elimination or collapse
of a social system. This can occur in a number of ways. War, disease, natural disaster, or
ecological change can sometimes lead to the death of all the members of a social system
or to such disruption that the social system collapses. Should society collapse, surviving members
are often absorbed into other social systems or they adapt earlier (and simpler) social
forms to survive, a process known as “devolution” or “regression” (Sanderson & Alderson, 2005,
27). It is also possible, Sanderson maintains,
that the growing complexity of society may well lead to collapse. Like his mentors Harris and Lenski (and thus
consistent with Malthus), Sanderson insists that adaptations are made by individuals,
not by the sociocultural systems themselves (1999, 384; 2005, 29). Individuals are strongly motivated to satisfy
their own needs and wants because humans are strongly egoistic. We seek to maximize the
benefits of our actions and minimize the costs. Acting as individuals seeking to satisfy our
own needs, we enter into relationships and form social structures, institutions and systems
that “are the sum total and product of these socially oriented actions” (1999, 12-13). Changes in the natural or social world (or
both) cause some individuals to make adaptation in their social patterns to more effectively
meet their biological and psychological needs and desires. Specific adaptations on the part
of individuals can be the result of discovery or invention (innovation) on the part of individuals
involved, or borrowing from other individuals or societies who have already made the innovation
(diffusion). While these adaptations may allow the individual to better meet her needs or
desires, large numbers of people making the adaptation may well have negative consequences
for other individuals (1999, 10). “In a complex society, particularly in those
with high degrees of inequality between groups, adaptations are likely to positively or negatively
affect more people in some groups than in others—say by race, class, religious group,
or sex. Therefore, adaptations on the part of individuals lead to changes in the social
environment itself, making further adaptations on the part of others probable” (1999, 10;
2005, 29). Rather, social evolution is driven by individuals
entering into and changing social arrangements and institutions to further their own interests.
But, because there are many individuals with different interests and unequal power involved,
the social structures that are continually being recreated are not the result of conscious
human design but rather are unintended phenomenon which often have unforeseen consequences (1999,
13). Social structure is therefore a product “of
human intention but it is not an intended project” (1999, 399). The continuously recreated
social system and structures constitute “new sets of constraints within which individually
purposive action must operate” (1999, 13). Social evolution is therefore the cumulative
change of social systems and structures as the result of individuals acting to the best
of their abilities and foresight in their own self-interests. Also like his mentors, Sanderson identifies
the “principle causal factors in social evolution” as the “material conditions of human existence.” Sanderson’s ideas of what constitutes these
material conditions are consistent with Harris and Lenski in that he includes ecological,
technological, and demographic factors. These three factors are focused on the infrastructural-environmental
interactions of population, production technology, and the environment as it concerns the availability
of vital resources to sustain population levels with the current form of production (1999,
pp. 8-9). However, Sanderson differs from Harris and
Lenski in that he also incorporates economic factors within these material conditions.
For Sanderson, “economic factors relate to the modes of social organization whereby people
produce, distribute, and exchange goods and services; an especially important dimension
of economics is the nature of the ownership of the basic means of production” (1999, 8-9). In addition to incorporating economic factors
into the infrastructure, Sanderson also differs from Harris and Lenski in that he posits that
different material conditions (environment, demography, technology, economy) have different
causal priority and strength at different stages in the evolutionary process and in
different historical periods (1999, 9). “The driving engines of social evolution differ
from one social-systemic type (historical epoch, evolutionary stage) to another” (1999,
9). Specifically, Sanderson asserts that ecology and demography are dominant infrastructural
characteristics in explaining hunter and gatherer, horticultural, and pastoral societies in prehistory.
He posits that ecology and demography as well as technology and economy are all important
for agrarian societies in the historical era before 1500. And, that the economy is the
most important infrastructural variable in explaining the modern world after 1500, both
in terms of a society’s internal structure and in its effects upon relations with other
sociocultural systems. Sanderson & Alderson 2005, 275). Going further, Sanderson asserts that the
ceaseless accumulation of capital is the “driving engine” of social evolution today, an engine
that is ever accelerating and may well lead us to environmental crisis (1999, 361-366
& 392). Sanderson thus combines Marx with his Malthusian-Evolutionary
base: he performs a slightly modified cultural materialist analysis through 1500 and then
with the transition to capitalism, he shifts gears to a Marxian-economic analysis. Sanderson, like Harris and Lenski before him,
also claims that the pace of social evolution varies through history, and goes on to posit
that it appears to be speeding up in modern times. He also agrees that the preferred method
of the evolutionary analyst is the historical comparative method (1999, 15). That is, examining
specific sociocultural systems through the use of anthropological, historical, and sociological
data as well as comparing and contrasting systems within evolutionary stages and historical
epochs. And it is in performing comparative historical
analysis that Sanderson truly shines: he marshals an incredible amount and variety of social
science data to test the power of evolutionary materialism in explaining sociocultural stability
and change. If you are interested in the big picture you
should take a look at Macro Social Theory, a book that reviews the theories of classical
macro social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim as well as the
work of many who extended their theories to better reflect modern times such as Norbert
Elias, Gerhard Lenski, and John Bellamy Foster. This book can be found exclusively at
at a reasonable price. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles
of Structure and Change to learn how these insights contribute to a fuller understanding
of modern societies. Sociocultural Systems can be purchased at
most online bookstores or at Athabasca University Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca
also offers a free pdf version of the work. A significant portion of the royalties I receive
for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation in support of students in the Liberal
Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.

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