Evolutionary Sociology is Way Ahead of You


Evolutionary psychology is all the rage among right-wingers and reactionaries. It enables them to use scientific language to naturalize and justify an oppressive status-quo and regressions to antiquated social forms and stereotypes. From wanting women back in the kitchen to building their entire identities around ‘alpha wolf’ dogmas, it’s a curse that keeps on giving. It also just maps well to patriarchy, hyper-individualism, and a desire for simplistic (even if overly scientific) explanations for complex phenomena. 

Leftists often see evo-psych as one big naturalistic fallacy and redundant field, but that may have more to do with how it is applied in the public sphere than the science behind it. Bunch’s recent defense of Evolutionary Psychology implies this, while perhaps adding an unnecessary attack on Judith Butler. The reality is that evolution is a valid meta-theory, theme, discourse, and framework across all the sciences. But focusing on evo-psych is the wrong debate. We need to actively learn and deploy evolutionary sociology as a counter balance.

Marek Kohn called for an ‘evolutionary left’ all the way back in 2001, although – again – it was focused on evo-psych, with no mention of (evolutionary) sociology. So this is truly nothing new, but its eternal recurrence is a sign of the stagnation of the left. I am inclined to agree with Bunch’s defence, but only on the grounds that leftists, academics, and sociologists specifically should be contextualizing and disempowering evo-psych to strip it of its pseudo-scientific and anti-political effects, as well as its hegemony in public discourse around social issues. The way to do that is not just through critique, but through building up the profile of evolutionary sociology. 

I have followed evolutionary sociology and the related subfield of evolutionary globalization for a long time, so naturally I keep an eye out for its mentions in public discourse. It is virtually non-existent. In keeping with that, not only does Bunch not mention evolutionary sociology, the word sociology does not even appear. The same goes for Roseman, whom Bunch cites. Perhaps they could be forgiven since the Stanford encyclopedia entry on evo-psych commits the same oversight, but this neglect of sociology is a much, much bigger blind spot than the left’s rejection of evo-psych, in my opinion. At this point, sociology should be a necessary addition to almost any discussion, but particularly in its neighbouring crisis-ridden field of psychology. 

If we are to embrace evolutionary psychology, we must also accept evolutionary sociology – an already well-established subfield (perhaps more so that it realises). This equality should be obvious, but if it’s not explicit, not enough people think and act on it. Doing evolutionary sociology could enable us to lead the discourse, rather than react to the right-wing reaction. Furthermore, this is also not to say evolutionary sociology cannot be critiqued – indeed, given leftists naivety about it, an auto-critique up front is necessary to avoid Social Darwinist ideas creeping in. All of the literature I’ve surveyed anticipates and integrates these auto-critiques.

Despite the promise of evolutionary sociology, it is observed by Károly Takács that many sociology textbooks discount evolutionary explanations (2018). This is backed up by citation mapping that shows a prominent gap between sociological and biological sciences and explanations. Five reasons are given. The first reason is the nature vs. nurture debate, in which sociologists necessarily lean to the latter. The second reason is to avoid the naturalization fallacy and because evolutionary explanations may rub against sociological normativity. Thirdly, related to the previous point, Social Darwinism and Nazi appropriation show the abuse of such approaches. Fourth, evolutionary theory is established but still has missing links, so does not lend easily to explaining human sociality. Lastly, the general validity of functionalist explanations is questioned. 

As Turner and Machalek (2018) note in their epilogue of The New Evolutionary Sociology, evolution has had its ups and downs within sociology, but it’s been there since the beginning. Due to racism and eugenics, it was virtually abandoned from the 1920s ’til the 1960s, when it picked up again. It has not exactly been smooth sailing since then, but they affirm that the case today is stronger than ever and even enthusiastically encourage sociologists to engage their neighbours, including evo-psych. 

To be sure, evo-psych and evo-sociology are fundamentally different in their subject matter and methods. But I stress this because it is apparent that leftists seem to know too much about the former and not nearly enough about the latter. And yet they are similar enough to be conflated sometimes. Case in point: A blog post (2009) from the academic publisher Wiley, suggests that perhaps evopsych is just sociology in disguise. Critiquing a book on the biological foundations of creativity by Philosopher Dennis Dutton, the post argues that the book misses how power is often arbitrarily distributed socially amongst sociological categories like race, gender, and geography, such that creativity thereby has more sociological than ‘evolutionary’ explanations. 

Similarly, a reddit post (2019) asks if evopsych and sociology are basically the same, or at least share the same degree of being scientific. This overlap and conflation suggests not only redundancy in the social sciences, but perhaps territoriality and competition skewing the playing field. This reflects the need for transdisciplinary approaches and perhaps already existing consilience (unity) across the social sciences.  

Rosemary L. Hopcroft outlines some challenges to evolutionary sociology and calls it a ‘new frontier’, that some sociologists even resist still. Her discussion ultimately squanders its focus on encouraging sociologists to embrace more biology, when the real challenges are how to deploy evo-sociology publicly. Nevertheless, the advocacy for evolutionary sociology reflects more than just the evolution of yet another frame of social science, but rather the evolutionary convergence of transdisciplinarity itself. We need both specialists and generalists to do the work, and to work together. And of course, biologists, geneticists, doctors, nutrition experts, public health officials, and psychologists should be very informed by sociology.

A fundamental fact underpinning evolutionary sociology is that humans are “more similar than different”. Not only is this scientifically sound, but morally necessary, and upheld by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Hopcroft argues. Evolutionary psychologists take the opposite approach, preferring to highlight the differences rather than similarities – and then extrapolate self-serving and naturalistic conclusions.

A fundamental fact underpinning evolutionary sociology is that humans are “more similar than different”. Not only is this scientifically sound, but morally necessary, and upheld by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Hopcroft argues. Evolutionary psychologists take the opposite approach, preferring to highlight the differences rather than similarities – and then extrapolate self-serving and naturalistic conclusions. Charles Murray’s race-IQ fiasco is a classic example, which despite being thoroughly debunked, remains a steadfast talking point of the New Right and Intellectual Dark Web types. Part of Murray’s thesis is that the data reflects an inherent – biological, natural – inferiority of black people, rather than the product of slavery, Jim Crow, and generally negative social conditioning. While Murray’s point is highly selective and reductive, even if anti-racism was somehow his intention, the right then uses this pseudoscience to justify their crypto-racists beliefs and policies. 

It’s worth noting that this right-wing fetishization of psychology is part and parcel with its general rejection of sociology. It is no coincidence that the reactionary evo-psych nerds show virtually no understanding of sociology – and reject many basic tenets or definitions. Indeed, their reactionary read of evo-psych entirely depends on their vacuous reading of social theory and social issues in the first place. It is no coincidence that, as Bunch might affirm, not only can Jordan Peterson not read Marx or Marxism, he is dishonest about it and promotes right-wing conspiracies about it. Bunch’s article mentions Gad Saad as well, another reactionary of the Intellectual Dark Web with no sociological sensibility at all, but let’s not forget some other of evo-psych’s other biggest weirdo promotors like Geoffrey Miller and Bret Weinstein. They are far more well known and influential than any given sociologist, and this is a major problem.

Similarly, philosopher Matt Segall quote tweeted Trump cheerleader Scott Adams ranting about how racism and political schism do not exist, but rather the real problem is lack of mating strategies (you cannot make this shit up). Segall called Scott’s tweet a “[f]antastic example of evolutionary psychology”, which at first I feared was an endorsement, but Segall followed it up with a context tweet: “PS- of course, evolutionary psychology is almost all pseudo-scientific just-so storytelling that functions to justify current social hierarchies”. Indeed, this is what it is via the reactionary mind. Perhaps evo-psych is inherently compromised or prone to self-serving narratives, a scientific field too narrow for its own good, a product of postmodern conservatism; yet another new discourse in service of the right to smoke out the compelling intellectual tide of the left.

Zooming out, any given field and subfield are like lenses and focal lengths. They should be understood as such and used accordingly. This not only means that the layperson drawing insights from different scientific fields should be broadly literate, but scientists and scholars themselves must have strong instincts and methods of transdisciplinarity, of being engaged in a common humanitarian project, studying a common reality, with normative common sense. 

With this in mind, the more vital question to pare down here is not even what is the relationship between “evolutionary” strands of psychology and sociology, although that is the more advanced issue. The necessary question is how do psychology and sociology themselves inform each other. One is effectively centring the “individual”, the other “society”. They combine in fields like social psychology and cognitive sociology, but this is still a far cry from helping people understand political and social issues and everyone’s role in it. The fact that social psychology is publicly represented by obtuse modernist academics like Jonathan Haidt does a disservice to society. He has helped feed the reactionary problem for years through his both-sidesism and “business ethics” branding. 

The fact we have so much political division and disagreement so often on very fallacious and fascist grounds in the first place is a cause of the crisis, not merely a symptom. Fake debates on reproduction rights instead of simply granting them? Fake debates on gun rights instead of broadly seeking abolition? Fake debates on free speech while gutting education and banning books, instead of enhancing public sphere through open knowledge? Fake debates on biology instead of just affirming the distinction between sex and gender, and the right to free expression and identity? Fake debates about healthcare instead of just mandating single-payer and universality at the point-of-service? How much more of this bullshit and gaslighting do we have to take?

In my article on evolutionary globalization, I note how memes and memetics are very tangible evidence of social evolution taking place in real time, particularly as a form of replication and proliferation of ideas, knowledge, and culture. In fact, because of how they sometimes also share in patterns akin to epidemiology and the spread of ‘mind-viruses’, I argue for sociological intervention in memetics similar to our advancements and interventions in genetics. Where we have the genome in biology, we also have the memeplex in sociology. Via evolutionary sociology, there is a lot of work to do in answering the above questions, of how we are failing to foster collective intelligence, organize collective action, and evolve socio-politically. The answers and policies are overwhelmingly sociological rather than psychological or biological.

Alexander Wendt is an important figure with respect to evolutionary sociology, even though it may not use the term. Within his field of International Relations, he writes of teleology and the inevitability of a world state, especially via macro-evolutionary trends and the normative need for effective global governance (and peace). Many of his colleagues critiqued his thesis, thinking teleology ‘denies agency’ and locks us in to a potentially undesirable determinism. Wendt clarifies in his response to Vaughn Shannon that teleology does not foreclose these possibilities in his view. In fact, the oppose is true, that it is empowering, to know that we collectively define the world state, based on things like “universal recognition”, and we have to step up and own that agency. What Wendt really should say is not teleology but ‘teleonomy’, which more emergent and less intention-driven, while still retaining some sense of destiny and desirable functional end-state. 

Teleology is as old as antiquity, while teleonomy is relatively new though perhaps still older than people realize. It was apparently coined in 1958, by Pittendrigh. In 1974, Ernst Mayr gave discussion of how it is the obvious replacement term to overcome the misgivings about teleology. Hennig (2011) discusses and advocates teleonomy, though he is also limiting his discussion to biology, and argues it was actually coined 20 years prior, by Floyd Allport. Much more recently, Dreslow and Love  (2023) further emphasize the utility of teleonomy and advocate for teleonomy. They are writing the journal Biological Theory, to be sure, but their discussion is almost entirely semantic and the concept appears to solve the broader debate.

In thinking in terms of evolutionary sociology and teleonomy, we are not only necessary goal directed in our political action and planning, but there are also macro-evolutionary forces that emerge from social being both with and without intention. Moreover, rather than trying to fulfil a specific blueprint for global governance and world peace, we can have broad open-ended goals, that are clear and well-defined but approachable in a variety of ways. Further still, we should also be wary of too much pluralism to the point of political paralysis.  

The push for a ‘quantum social science’ led by Wendt and others is also mirrored by evolutionary sociology, insofar as the both introduce some sort of agency, intention, or observer-effect in our experiments and normative projects. The world state is a holographic projection (of the hivemind, so to speak), but the people also constitute a kind of social (super)organism. Wendt actually does argue both, though he may not make the connection explicit. It may not be a perfect analogy, but at least the integration of evolutionary sociology may provide some more concrete, testable, theories and praxis than the quantum. The basic idea of teleonomy is “evolution on purpose” (Corning et al) and is part of the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES), where we reflexively influence our own biological evolution (as well as that of other species, one could say). Agency and destiny both matter in consciously shaping the next stage, steady-state, or punctuated equilibrium, of our collective social evolution.

Returning to Judith Butler, she could be interpreted in a fairer light of evolutionary sociology. It appears to me that Lain’s video misrepresents Butler, which then Bunch doubles down on. What Butler was saying with regards to “ethics beyond calculation” was pointing to the very real limits of individual rationality (particularly under capitalist ideology), as well as the necessary ontological conditions of collective action, specifically to be resilient through climate change and Cornel West explicitly agreed. Perhaps it is ‘beyond calculation’ because she is speaking on the horizon of utopian necessary possibilities, and of teleonomic guide-rails to get us through climate change, or put more simply, the precautionary principle. Bunch asks “can humans create a leftist utopia?” but does not really answer the question, whereas I am already arguing we need to, and we are (actively striving for a relative utopia or protopia).

Macro-sociology should not be on the fringes of discourse, especially among leftist/ socialists, it should be at the centre, contextualizing questions and issues of the micro. Questions and answers for a World State, imbued with a pragmatic sense of social evolution, were put forward by H.G. Wells almost a century ago, as Duncan Bell (2018) explains and defends. A world state in this regard means world peace, not world war or global tyranny. Sociologists are particularly well positioned to see possible futures of society and prescribe normative processes and outcomes. In order to do this in any scalable fashion, we need to see the big picture, which includes civilization itself working out evolutionary adaptive pathways. 

And while our attention is hijacked by evolutionary psychology, perhaps we should also be wary of evolutionary economics and whether or not it can prove its utility in remediating extreme income and wealth inequality, while also prioritizing renewable and sustainable forms of economics. If it’s not doing those things, which economics generally does not do, then what the hell is it doing? In closing, I ask, what the hell are we all doing, if not trying to understand and solve all problems?

In a discursive battlefield that is already too cluttered, evolutionary sociology is a necessary baseline because it reorients some of the major questions of individuals and societies in terms of evolutionary steps and major paradigm shifts. It helps us understand entirely external (and in many cases imaginary) forces that shape our biological, mental, and social evolution. Epigenetics must be studied equally from psychology and sociology, not asymmetrically. Evolution is already affirmed in a metamodern sociology, whether as defined by myself or Daniel Gortz/ Hanzi Freinacht, and it would be nice to see the left catch up to this standard.