1 Evolutionary Thought: Then and Now
It is a common practice to read Weber's work as one continuing debate with Marx. In a similar vein, I have read Parsons as one endless conversation with Weber. What I offer here is my interpretation, a selection in which lies its limitation. The focus of contention is Weber's (1917) paradox, that developmental history could end up in a thoroughly compartmentalized modern society where each sphere, whether economic, political, intellectual or whatever, is governed by its own laws, laws which defy any meaningful integration with each other. In this model of modernity, the more meaningful the part, the less meaningful the whole. Parsons' obsession with the problem of order which evolved into a four-fold version within the action realm – one problem of order each for society, culture, personality, and behavioral system – and ended with a reach for telic order „above“ and organic and inorganic Orders „below“ is his effort against Weber's paradox. Working at paradox reduction informed Parsons' view of evolution in action. His differentiation theory is its product.
Thus what, approximately, of evolutionary theory was available at the time, and how does his reasoning compare with subsequent developments in evolutionary theory? Parsons had what can be labeled „the modern synthesis“ (Plotkin 1993, pp. 36-37). This was a two-step process model where genes generated variant phenotypes, followed by heritability of the fit giving rise to more variants and causing speciation. So, considerable details concerning types of selections, the patterns of speciation, adaptations at the organismic and population levels, and the generation of variants at the molecular level with genetic structures of DNA coming along in 1953 were all present. Not available to Parsons were the consequences of the rejection of „beads-on-a-string genetics“ which regarded genes as passive information transfer tools. Genes are interactive with their carriers, and it is the interaction between gene and phenotype which alters structure and function of genes. Four of the consequences seem to be the most critical. And on all four, Parsons is not out of date which should suffice to justify the present effort. What are these four? First, whether one applies evolutionary thought to all observables including the inorganic realm (Gell-Mann 1994, p. 17) or insists that evolutionary theory is not physics (Plotkin 1993, pp. 38, 52), one conceptualizes all complex adaptive systems as learning systems. They acquire information about environments, about themselves, interact with environments, identify regularities in external and internal environments, build up schemas for interaction and act on environments and „self“ in terms of such schemas. This means that all adaptations are types of knowledge. Also, all behavior is Piagetian. The behavior of living phenomena that Parsons addressed is goal-directed adaptive action (Plotkin 1993, PP. 117, 105, 121). It does not matter whether the reference is to a bird told by its genes what to learn, viz. the local dialect of a song, or to a human infant „programmed“ to look at faces, make eye contact, and learn a language. Adaptation is always the dependent variable.(Plotkin 1993, p. 24). All of this is consistent with Parsons' process model of evolutionary change, one which guided his comparative morphology of societal evolution.
This process model of change is based on his four function paradigm (Johnson 1975, p. 368). Thus evolutionary change involves four interrelated processes: i. Differentiation of units in the Service of function specialization provides directionality, is its goal, and eventuates in complexity of organization (G); this in turn requires ii. normative integration of differentiated units and hence their inclusion in the system (I); iii. since function-specialized units cannot afford self-legitimation, there must be value-generalization (L) for the more complex whole; which in turn, iv., has only evolutionary character if it results in enhanced adaptive capacity (A) relative to the environments on which it depends. Evolutionary change is a GILA process, analogous to socialization process eventuating in personality structure with enhanced adaptive capacity for playing specialized roles in a modern society. Secondly, in his principal work on socio-cultural evolution, Parsons (1964, 1966, 1971) left us a comparative structural morphology of societies rather than a study of the processes of change. He justified his procedure in terms of the history of biology where structural analysis preceded process analysis (Parsons 1966, P. III). That aside, the issue here is Parsons' continued reliance on economics in theoretical reasoning since the 1950s (Parsons & Smelser 1956). Did this „dismal“ discipline play a similarly prominent role in biological evolutionary theory? It did, and on a core puzzle, no less. Given that instinct-steered behavior is less costly in energy of its organization as well as less prone to error, why was there evolution beyond the instinct level? Well, the answer having to do with coping with short-term stabilities that chance-generated „generation dead times“ pose cannot be given here. We must do with the consequence of the answer to the puzzle. It was the impact of cost-benefit analysis on biological theory which rendered the critical rule for adaptation: Only when the cost of energy used up in constructing and maintaining more complex life forms is outweighed by adaptive gain will the more complex form persist (Plotkin 1993, pp. 131-132).
This is also a convenient point to mention another match between Parsons' and Contemporary evolutionary reasoning. The match concerns two methodological remarks by Parsons. One, which raises a caution flag, was his insistence on a „crucial difference“ between organic and socio-cultural evolution in that only the latter with written language facilitates diffusion, „not only from generation to generation within a society, but also from society to society“, for example his seed bed cases of Israel and Greece (Parsons 1966, p. III). As we shall see further below, it was in the comparative structural analysis where written culture played a crucial role, and so it does today (Plotkin 1993, pp. 216, 220; Gell-Mann 1994, p. 229): Written culture and its diffusion can make „ideas born before their time“ significant for change „at their time“, i. e. when they have adaptive value. The caution flag here is not to overdo the distinction. After all, raising it to the level of a crucial crystal undercuts the rationale for concept formation in continuity with biology.
The other remark signals a fit with Contemporary evolutionary thought that is depressing. It concerns measurement. For Parsons (1966, p. 110), the question whether one type of society was more advanced than another, i. e. had attained more adaptive capacity, remained one that could only be settled by „evolutionary judgements“. One looks at greater complexity in organization and then infers that it could not be just the product of random walk or chance Variation. Rather, its survival must index adaptive gain. Differently put, one independent variable, observed complexity, directly serves as index of the crucial dependent one, adaptation, or with Parsons, gain in adaptive capacity. This Situation has not changed. And it is a very serious short-coming, indeed. It is not just a matter of operationalization. Concept formation at the core of evolutionary theory remains underdeveloped. Gell-Mann (1994, pp. 28-29) suggests that no single concept of complexity is likely to carry the weight of its implications. Additionally, nothing is simple when it comes to simplicity-complexity and its relation to the all-orienting concept adaptation. There seems to be agreement among ecologists that relatively simple temperate-climate mountain forests are more adapted than their much more complex and more fragile tropical brothers. Lastly, we still do not have a requisite classification of types of adaptation. And so it remains „something of a scandal that we cannot measure adaptations“, even when, acting on the belief that persistent complexity cannot be due to chance alone, we think we are certain when seeing them (Plotkin 1993, p. 56). Thirdly, Contemporary biology emphasizes autogenous change in genes (Plotkin 1993, pp. 41-42). There is a prodigious generation of variants, one that operates independently of any need of responsivity to environments. Such random-walk, need-neutral production of variants, whatever the remaining questions about their relative immunity from selection, must be thought of as constrained by the amount of complexity a system can bear without loss of its functional integrity. Here one finds the parallel in Parsons' (1975b) media theory, the function-specialized languages of society, money, power, influence, and value-commitments, all formulated in non-zero-sum terms. Concerning prolificacy here, let us merely recall that any competent Speaker has the potential to utter so huge a mass of meaningful sentences that he could but say a tiny fraction of all over a life course of 70 years, even if the Speaker could speak without interruption and speak without pausing for breath. Media, input-output analysis, entrepreneurial, i. e. innovative action in combining „the factors“ and distributing „the products“ of the function-specialized components of action were only developed for society, leaving the analogous general action media a torso (Baum 1976). Parsons' practice, his comparative morphology then, in effect, amounted to identifying historical events that constrained, permitted, or enhanced a society's growth in: i. wealth, ii. overall effectiveness in cooperation or power, iii. solidarity among diverse collectivities, and iv. believable legitimacy of the social order.
Fourth, and last but not least, Contemporary evolutionary theory postulates a double hierarchy. One is structural and here one scales units by size and strength of binding forces at each level of organization. The other is a control hierarchy with feedback mechanisms (Plotkin 1993, pp. 44-45, 206). This too has a direct correspondence in Parsons' (1966) hierarchies of control and conditions. The control hierarchy refers to normative ideas patterned in belief systems and scaled on a gradient of steering power on the meaningful organization of life. Stability of such beliefs over time is treated in analogy to genes, making Parsons into a forerunner of Dawkins' memes (Plotkin 1993, p. 215). The conditions, in turn, refer to resource factors requisite for organization at a given level of complexity such as population size or economic productivity. And it was only in attributing superior causal force to normative ideas in the long run that Parsons (1966, pp. 6,113) was a self-declared cultural determinist. He left the causes of the most critical of such normative beliefs, the monotheism of the world religions, all arising in a short time and a small place, in abeyance (Parsons 1966, p. 69). Could they be the product of some random-walk? My hunch is that similar to inferring adaptive capacity from observed complexity in organization, Parsons would have attributed their rise to selection. However dismal such inference mongering, no real progress has been made since Parsons wrote.
Given these four types of fit between his and Contemporary theory, the answers he gave about the events giving rise to complexity and therefore to enhanced power of society remain modest. One reason is that his principal work on evolution was sociologically conventional in that he accepted Weber's problem of explaining the singular origin of modernity in the West. Parsons (1966, pp. 111-112) merely recast the story, using evolutionary concepts with the intent of overcoming Weber's ad hoc idealtyping or „type atomism“ (Parsons 1966, pp. 111-112). However, neither he himself, nor, a rudimentary beginning aside (Baum 1977a, 1977b), any of his followers produced the required action-theoretical classification of institutions of authority, a set of rules about constituting authority relations analogous to contract law, the institution of property (Parsons 1960, pp. 187–190). As a result, the needed typology of authority relations is missing. And so, on the point of moment here, whether the democratic modern society has more power than its authoritarian Contemporary yet possibly underdeveloped other, one's reasoning remains stuck with inferences about greater complexity in organization. One makes inferences about the greater power of society as a collective actor flowing from the differentiations of secular and sacred authority, of regime and the government of the day, of the leadership of influentials and governmental authority, and of an originally function-fused community into societal community, fiduciary subsystem, polity, and economy, all relatively autonomous from, yet articulated with each other through mediated interchanges. A final reason for the modesty of answers lies in the fact that instead of ordering historical material in terms of the four-function paradigm and inferred binary fission process (Baum 1975), Parsons (1966, p. 26, fn #33) simply used a three-stage model of primitive, intermediate, and modern types, with some subtypes among the former two, but without rendering any justification of his choice. Nonetheless, the resulting evolutionary judgementalism is falsifiable with indirect evidence. That makes the enterprise here not wholly pointless, however provisional it remains.
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